2017 marks 50th anniversary of IndyCar in Canada

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IndyCar racing, in its various forms, has long made a habit of visiting Canada, and this weekend’s Honda Indy Toronto (July 16, 3:00 p.m. ET, CNBC) marks the 50th anniversary of the first Indy car event held north of the border.

That race, conducted at what is now called Canadian Tire Motorsport Park (CTMP), featured a pair of 100-mile outings that saw Bobby Unser win both. Later that year, the series returned to Canada, at the Circuit Mont-Tremblant, a race won by Mario Andretti, and IndyCar’s treks north of the border were off and running.

Along with CTMP and Mont-Tremblant, Canadian rounds of the IndyCar championship have been held at Sanair Super Speedway (1984-1986), Circuit Gilles Villeneuve (2002-2006), Concord Pacific Place in Vancouver (1990-2004), Edmonton City Centre Airport (2005-2012), and Exhibition Place in Toronto (1986-present).

Although somewhat intermittent in the 1960s and 1970s, Canadian races began their rise to prominence during the 1980s. Toronto joined the picture in 1986, coincidentally the final year CART (the sanctioning body at the time) visited Sanair, and the 1990s saw Vancouver join the mix to make for a pair of popular Canadian venues.

They peaked in their presence between 2002 and 2004, with Montreal’s Circuit Gilles Villeneuve giving CART three races in Canada. Although Vancouver and Montreal dropped off the calendar in 2005, Edmonton was added that year and joined Toronto as mainstays on the calendar. Mont-Tremblant was added in 2007, again making for three Canadian rounds.

All three were again scheduled for 2008, but the IndyCar/Champ Car merger saw only Edmonton remain on the 2008 calendar. Toronto returned in 2009 to give the Verizon IndyCar Series two Canadian rounds before Edmonton dropped off after 2012.

Local hero James Hinchcliffe, who hails from the Toronto suburb of Oakville, highlighted Toronto as one of the most special venues of the year for him.

“As you’d expect, this is an event I look forward to every year,” he asserted. “It’s one of the busiest for me, but one of the most enjoyable, then to go home and race in front of the home crowd at the racetrack that I went to as a kid that really made me fall in love with IndyCar racing. Getting the chance to race there every year is exciting. The support that I felt from the city, and the entire country, has been overwhelming the last 100 starts of my career, and it’s going to be exciting to have number 101 there.”

Despite the prevalence of Canadian races, Canadian drivers have struggled to score victories in races on home soil. The last Canadian driver to win a race in Canada was NBCSN IndyCar analyst Paul Tracy, who last accomplished the feat in 2004, when he won at Vancouver.

TORONTO- JULY 11: Paul Tracy driving the Players Forsythe Racing Ford Lola during practice for the Molson Indy Toronto, round ten of the C.A.R.T (Championship Auto Racing Teams) ChampCar World Series on July 11, 2003 in Toronto, Canada. (Photo by Darrell Ingham/Getty Images)

Tracy is also the only Canadian driver to win at Toronto, doing so twice in his career (1993 and 2003).

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IndyCar drivers say Thermal Club could host race after successful opening day to test

IndyCar Thermal race
Andy Abeyta/The Desert Sun / USA TODAY Sports Images
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THERMAL, Calif. – The “motorsports country club” passed the first test (figuratively and literally) with NTT IndyCar Series drivers pleased enough to proclaim The Thermal Club as race-eligible after its debut.

Though there were a few minor incidents on the 17-turn, 3.067-mile permanent road course east of Palm Springs in Southern California’s Coachella Valley, there was no significant damage for the 27 full-time cars that turned 1,119 laps Thursday.

Perhaps more importantly, drivers seemed to enjoy the ride around the track, which is unlike anything on the current circuit.

“I would love to race here,” said Chip Ganassi Racing rookie Marcus Armstrong, who posted the 10th-quickest time (1 minute, 39.9077 seconds) in the No. 11 Dallara-Honda that he will race on street and road courses after coming from the F2 Series. “I think it’s awesome. Would have to do a lot of neck training prior to the race because it’s much like a European circuit, quite demanding on the neck, towards the end of the lap anyway.

PRACTICE SPEEDS: First session l Second session l Combined

‘AN AMAZING PLACE’: IndyCar and its big plans for Thermal

“I think it’s cool. Very flowing, banked corners, banked high-speed corners. In terms of racing, it could be potentially not a lot of overtaking. You’d have to commit hard (in) maybe Turn 1. It wouldn’t be the easiest place to overtake. As a whole facility and circuit, it’s very enjoyable.”

Juncos Hollinger Racing No. 77 Chevrolet driver Callum Ilott, another F2 veteran who is entering his second year in IndyCar, was seventh fastest. Ilott said Thermal would “set a standard really of what we want to be doing with this series.

“It’s really, really high level, high tech,” said Ilott, whose rookie teammate Agustin Canapino went off course twice but incurred no major trouble. “As a circuit, yeah, it’s got a little bit different corners. I think the overtaking — we’ll find a way, we’re IndyCar — someone always sends it down the inside. I think if we can extend the straight and get some overtaking between Turn 6 and 7. It’s definitely a great circuit to drive and good fun and a bit different to the normal winter training we get in Florida. So I like the circuit.

“I think if we could, it would be good to race here once.”

Andretti Autosport’s Colton Herta, who turned the fastest lap (1:39.3721) in his No. 26, also was optimistic despite the passing challenges.

“I think it really comes down to tire deg, what people are showing with that,” Herta said. “It will be tough to pass, right? A lot of the good braking zones, you’re coming off of high-speed corners, so it will be hard to follow.

“But you never know. I would say some of the tracks we go to would be terrible for racing, and IndyCar still puts on a great show. You never know until it’s tested and proven right or wrong.”

The possibility of adding an IndyCar race at The Thermal Club has been floated, but there would be some challenges. It likely would be a made-for-TV event given it’s a private club (and filled with multimillion-dollar homes filled with vintage cars). The test is closed to the public and open only to members and VIPs.

There also are some areas that would need to be improved, namely the galvanized steel Armco barriers that ring the track and generally are considered antiquated in motorsports.

“I think the Armco might propose a little bit of an issue,” Ilott said. “Again, it depends on what angle you’re hitting them obviously. It’s a pretty straightforward process to make it a bit safer and a bit more cushiony. I’m not in charge of that stuff. I just drive and try not to hit those things.

“I think it’s a straightforward process. To be fair, everyone has had a little moment today, spun and carried on. That’s a good start. Obviously there are anomalies, these things happen. So far, so good.”

Said Herta: For sure. It probably needs a little bit of work. They’ve already done a lot for us to come here already. It seems like if they do want to have a race here, they’re willing to put the work in and money in to upgrade the facility to make it a little bit safer for us.”

Christian Lundgaard of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing was second fastest (1:39.3767), followed by Alex Palou (1:39.3970) and Romain Grosjean (1:39.4826). Will Power was the top Chevrolet driver in fifth (1:39.5690).

Though Andretti had two of the top four times, Herta downplayed the significance other than getting reacclimated to his team.

“Just a lot of knocking the rust off,” he said. “It’s quite a long offseason without being in the car. I don’t know how much we’re really going to learn from running here. It’s really good to get the team back into it, get all the boys working again. Yeah, just get everybody back into the flow of it.

“It could be a huge shake-up when we go to St. Pete and who’s up front and who’s at the back. It is too early to tell. It’s nice just to be back in the car and get lap times down, get everybody working again.

“The track surface is very strange, very different to anything I’ve really felt in IndyCar. It’s seven first-gear corners. We don’t really have that many anywhere we go on a street course. It is quite a bit slower than our natural terrain courses. But I don’t want to be in here and dig it the whole time. It’s a fun track to drive, especially the back section. It keeps you on your toes. It doesn’t really replicate anything else that we go (race).”

The test will continue with another six-hour session Friday.