Los­ing its lus­tre?

T.O. Indy’s at­ten­dance is­sues hotly de­bated

Toronto Sun - - SPORTS - MIKE SHULMAN

It has been nearly 10 years since Paul God­frey bro­kered a deal to se­cure $2 mil­lion in pro­vin­cial and mu­nic­i­pal sub­si­dies to help bring the Toronto Indy back from the dead.

While it re­turned to the city af­ter a one-year hia­tus in 2009, there has been a luke­warm re­sponse from fans.

The race rou­tinely at­tracted more than 70,000 peo­ple and about 170,000 over the course of three days dur­ing the 1990s and early 2000s, but the turnout fig­ures to be far lower this week­end for the Honda Indy.

God­frey, pres­i­dent and CEO of the Post­media Net­work, feels the race has “some­what lost its charm” in the years since he and seven-time Toronto Indy cham­pion Michael An­dretti helped se­cure fund­ing to re­vive it af­ter it was given the axe be­cause of sched­ul­ing is­sues when the Indy Rac­ing League and Champ Car re­united in 2008.

“The buzz that was there a few years ago has not got­ten back to the same lev­els it’s been at in the past,” God­frey said in a phone in­ter­view.

“I know Honda (the main spon­sor) is try­ing their best to get that to hap­pen and hope­fully it will. Be­cause it’s a great sport and it’s a great event, and I’d love to see it get back to the ex­cite­ment of yes­ter­year.”

God­frey — who was the chair­man of the Indy’s board of trustees when it was spon­sored by Molson from 1986 to 2006 and for a year af­ter it dropped its sup­port — said he and his col­leagues would try to cre­ate an­tic­i­pa­tion nearly a year in ad­vance and would fo­cus on lo­cal char­ity events.

He said he doesn’t see the same strat­egy from cur­rent own­ers Green Sa­voree.

“I’m not be­ing crit­i­cal of them, I think they had their own char­ity, and that’s fine, but I think it did take away from some the ex­cite­ment that took place,” God­frey said.

“We got peo­ple who were in­volved who weren’t nec­es­sar­ily rac­ing fans, through want­ing to do a char­ity and be­cause of that, we got them in­volved in that and they be­came rac­ing fans.”

God­frey re­ferred to Molson as “out­stand­ing cor­po­rate cit­i­zens,” while de­scrib­ing Green Sa­voree as a “very bot­tom-line-ori­ented group.”

“They spent a lot of money on the race, but they also spent a lot of money as well on the events sur­round­ing the race that cre­ated sort of the fo­cus of at­ten­tion,” God­frey said of Molson.

“When Molson dropped out, I must say, the area of the ex­cite­ment of the race di­min­ished.”

Jeff Atkin­son, pres­i­dent of the Honda Indy Toronto, said the race has grown over the past two years since he took on the role, adding that he’s ex­pect­ing a three-day turnout of “well over” 125,000.

“We’ve been very pleased with where ticket sales are at,” he said in a phone in­ter­view.

“I think Toronto has very much em­braced the event.”

He added that un­der his watch the Indy has in­creased the types of charitable events that were seen dur­ing God­frey’s time, such as the do­na­tion of tick­ets, and a ramped up Fan Fri­day, which al­lows peo­ple to at­tend for free in ex­change for a vol­un­tary con­tri­bu­tion to the Make-A-Wish foun­da­tion. The pro­mo­tion raised a record sum of about $95,000 last year, said Atkin­son.

Atkin­son added that the Indy also is ex­pect­ing a boost be­cause of a good week­end weather fore­cast and three Cana­dian con­tenders — James Hinch­cliffe of Oakville Robert Wick­ens of Guelph and Zachary Cla­man De Melo of Mon­treal.

“I think the fans have a lot to cheer for,” he said.

The Honda Indy cer­tainly isn’t the only race with at­ten­dance con­cerns.

For­mer Cana­dian

IndyCar star Paul Tracy has a the­ory on fad­ing fan sup­port at races across the con­ti­nent. The two-time Toronto Indy win­ner said race own­ers don’t seem to pri­or­i­tize fan in­ter­est and are in­stead in­tent on get­ting cor­po­rate sup­port.

They don’t seem to be overly con­cerned about empty stands as long as they sell out the cor­po­rate suites.

Paul Tracy

“They don’t seem to be overly con­cerned about empty stands as long as they sell out the cor­po­rate suites,” he said in a phone in­ter­view ear­lier this week.

“If you sell out the cor­po­rate suites, (they’ve) ba­si­cally made their money, and the money gen­er­ated from that is far greater than sell­ing ... those $25 tick­ets, so sadly they’ve fo­cused more on cor­po­rate side rather than the fan side.”

The race, which has signed a three-year deal to stay at Ex­hi­bi­tion Place through 2020, gen­er­ates nearly $40 mil­lion in eco­nomic ac­tiv­ity in the Greater Toronto Area, ac­cord­ing to Green Sa­voree’s 2017 agree­ment with the city. That’s a drop from the $46.7-mil­lion fig­ure in its pre­vi­ous deal from 2014.

For­mer Cana­dian NASCAR driver Ron Fel­lows co-owns the Cana­dian Tire Motorsport Park, about an hour out­side Toronto in Bow­manville. He said the an­nual Mo­bil 1 SportsCar Grand Prix held the week­end prior to the Honda Indy has been grow­ing every year since he and his part­ners took over the venue in 2011, and typ­i­cally av­er­ages 70,000 at­ten­dees over the course of the event.

Fel­lows said Mosport of­fers a com­pletely dif­fer­ent at­mos­phere than the down­town Toronto street race.

“We’ve got a beau­ti­ful piece of prop­erty, al­most 900 acres, rolling hills in the Durham Re­gion,” he said.

“Camp­ing is a big, big part of our week­end ex­pe­ri­ence.”

Fel­lows said the eco­nomics of open-wheel rac­ing have changed since the de­par­ture of the big spon­sor­ships and driver salaries dur­ing the Champ Car days, but feels the Toronto Indy should be on the rise with suc­cess seen among the cur­rent crop of driv­ers from Canada.

“I think there’s prob­a­bly an ebb and flow in terms of in­ter­est level up here,” he said.

“It may be rel­e­vant to the Cana­dian con­tent and right now it’s kind of like the ’90s all over again. Cer­tainly, with James (Hinch­cliffe) and Robert (Wick­ens) it’s safe to say they’re hit­ting it out of the park, or head­ing in that di­rec­tion any­way.”

THE CANA­DIAN PRESS FILE

Honda Indy Toronto pres­i­dent Jeff Atkin­son says he is ex­pect­ing a three-day turnout of “well over” 125,000.

GOD­FREY ‘Buzz’ lack­ing

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