Q&A Toronto race boss Charlie Johnstone UPDATE A reader writes, Dear AR1, Not sure who your "source" regarding the Toronto marketing is, but he must be living under a rock! I have lived in Toronto all my life and have not seen this much marketing and activation in all the years that Molson was involved. Honda has had dealership promotions with show cars going on for at least three months and are running lots of Indy based television commercials. Their salespeople are even wearing Indy Car shirts in the dealerships. Budweiser had a huge display in The Beer Stores all during June. I even bought a case of Bud that had the Honda Indy logo on all the cans and a sweepstakes card inside to win tickets (I didn't win!). Even the majority of the bars around town have Budweiser Honda Indy signage on display. Schick even has a TV commercial featuring Hideki Mutoh's car.
As far as Andretti Green not promoting, why wouldn't they want to put in the effort and make money? I've never heard anything about them being guaranteed money from the government and think that is just an urban legend. By the way, I just came from a huge Honda Indy display at Yonge Dundas Square that was put on by Andretti Green. It far outclassed any street party Molson ever did. And there are street banners advertising the Indy all over Toronto. The Toronto Sun has been full of Honda Indy ads for the past two months.
Sounds like your "source" is full of Champ Car flavored sour grapes. I miss the Champ Cars as much as the next guy, but it's great to have the Indy back. Let's save our criticisms for after the race and see if it is really a success. Ross Davies, Toronto
Dear Ross: Source was a Toronto based journalist, but the person is known to have a NASCAR bias, so that could explain it. Mark C.
07/07/09 Charlie Johnstone has been a part of Indy-style racing in Canada since he toured Ontario in a van to promote the inaugural Molson Indy Toronto in 1986.
Johnstone has since worked with former race promoter Molstar Sports and Entertainment and served as driver Paul Tracy's manager/agent for six years. When the Champ Car World Series took over promotion of the Toronto event in 2007, Johnstone was tabbed as vice president and general manager, and he maintains that position in the run-up to the first race under Indy Racing League sanction.
Johnstone talked to indycar.com about the re-christened Honda Indy Toronto on July 12 on the temporary street circuit.
Q. How is the preparation for the inaugural Honda Indy Toronto coming along?
A. It's going very well. We kicked off ticket sales in January and have been very pleased with the response. We are also getting a lot of corporate interest, driven by having Honda on board as a strong and aggressive title partner. The fact this event has a lot of history behind it and was not starting up from year one worked strongly in our favor. Operationally, not much has changed. We have plenty of experience in setting up for the event and we will be ready to go in July.
Q. How did you keep the event in the public eye and maintain momentum since the last running of the race in July 2007?
A. Well, we didn't, to be honest. There was a long quiet period and when the unification between Champ Car and the IndyCar Series happened so quickly, our race could not be accommodated on the 2008 schedule. Things started building up again when we signed the letter of intent with Andretti Green Promotions for the acquisition of the assets of the race in May of 2008, and we got another big bump when Honda came on board as the title sponsor in September. Since then there has been a lot of buzz about the race and we can't wait to bring Indy-style racing back to Toronto.
Q. What were the challenges of adapting to different management over the last few years?
A. It has been turbulent for those of us involved with the event for a long time. But when Honda came on board it really took things to a new level. We were delighted with our 20-year association with Molson, and the partnership with Honda feels like it has the potential to go another 20 years. And you have to credit Kevin Kalkhoven and Gerry Forsythe for stepping in with Champ Car and believing that Toronto was a key market for this style of racing. The biggest thing is you can tell that running racing events is Andretti Green's core business; it's not just a satellite venture like it was for Molson. They are completely committed to making the Honda Indy Toronto a fantastic event. The track is the same as always but I think people will be surprised at some of the changes that are being made.
Q. Michael Andretti was very successful as a driver in the Toronto race. How much does he add in the role of race promoter?
A. I know he won this race seven times, but I was really surprised at just how big, how popular Michael is in Toronto. He has an amazing presence when he walks into a room, whether it's full of fans, sponsors or city officials. He really loves the city and this event and he is pouring his heart and soul into making sure it is successful.
Q. How big of a boost would it be to have Canadians such as Paul Tracy or Alex Tagliani in the field?
A. I'd love to have half a dozen Canadians in the field. Fans always love to cheer for the hometown favorites and Paul has always enjoyed a lot of support in Toronto. The IndyCar Series field has been very strong since the unification, and from our perspective, having at least one Canadian driver in the field would be a positive. IndyCar.com
[Editor's Note: Our sources tell us this race is not being promoted like it was in years gone by, and they speculate it is because the city gave Andretti Green Promotions $4M so they have a big chunk of their revenue stream so why should they try as hard as they could. They refer to little signage around the city letting people know the race is coming to town, which is very much different than when Molson sponsored the event and there were billboards and window ads everywhere.]