Expanded Canadian schedule possible, just not Vancouver

UPDATE IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard favors another race in Canada in addition to current events in Toronto and Edmonton. The open-wheel series wants to build on the growing popularity of Canadian driver James Hinchcliffe and expand its calendar from 15 to 19 stops, but Bernard stopped short of naming Vancouver as a suitable site for good reason.

Logistics far outweigh the longing to lure the circuit back to the Lower Mainland and cities with either permanent or temporary race facilities — like Montreal and Trois-Rivieres, Que., respectively — make more immediate sense.

“I’m never going to rule an extra race out in Canada because I know some people would like to see that Triple Crown again," said Bernard. “Those are things we’re taking into consideration."

As much as the Vancouver race had a successful 15-year run on the Concord Pacific grounds, massive residential housing expansion surrounding the temporary street course coupled with a failing Canadian dollar and wavering corporate support ended the event in 2004 and an annual influx of $26 million into the local economy.

Stu Ballantyne served as Molson Indy Vancouver general manager from 1997 to 2003 and knows the past allure of showcasing the downtown core has been replaced by the present-day reality of searching for another site if the race were to eventually return. In addition, an ongoing Green Initiative has made bicycle lanes here appear more imperative than pit lanes popping up during race week.

“A Green agenda and racing aren’t totally aligned, but if you want to make yourself a world-class city, you have to host things that people want to come and see," said Ballantyne, now CEO of the 2015 Canada Winter Games.

“The race fans are there. A lot of work would have to be done and a lot of politicians would have to line up to say they’d want it in their backyard. A lot of cities would like a race but who has an open attitude? And racing on the street just doesn’t happen, so when it does, people notice. It’s loud and obnoxious but it’s also fun and entertaining."

Vancouver city council member Geoff Meggs isn’t opposed to racing in the Vancouver region, but it has to be under the right circumstances in terms of site logistics and who will share the immense staging costs. And he doesn’t believe a city that has become more wary of the environment would stand in the way if all concerns were met.

“I don’t think so," he said. “I think people jump to conclusions about what’s going to be supported and accepted here. We found our way to an MMA [mixed martial arts] event and there were skeptics that wouldn’t happen.

“There’s an appetite for it, but the problems are more practical than they would be political."

The event is simply hard to house. The race views from downtown are spectacular but so are the challenges of trying to shoe-horn an event into a landscape that has exploded with housing.

“Within the city of Vancouver, it would be very difficult," added Ballantyne. “There just isn’t the raw space to host an event like that anymore. The downtown site wasn’t the biggest issue, but it would have become an issue. The reality was the Canadian dollar that hurt us the most because we collected in Canadian and paid in American. That doesn’t mean the Greater Vancouver area couldn’t host one, but to take it down to the waterfront again would be impossible for paddocks and grandstands. And not every resident is going to be agreeable to shutting down access to an apartment and now with the development on the waterfront — which looks beautiful — it’s tougher.

“You could do an airport circuit [like Edmonton] but that would be problematic. Or a featured piece that really showcases the Vancouver area in the suburbs, but it would have to be very Vancouver."

In January 1997, former Vancouver Indy general manager Phil Heard boldly suggested the Pacific National Exhibition site in East Vancouver would be a perfect race site, knowing that the annual event would eventually be squeezed out of the downtown core.

Amid rabid community opposition, the concept never gained traction yet ongoing improvements to the grounds and roadways makes Ballantyne wonder if it’s not worth a second look.

“The PNE would be one of the prime places," he said. “It’s what Phil Heard envisioned years ago and I don’t think he was wrong because the timing [downtown] was tight. But he needed to work that in with the neighborhood and they weren’t overly happy."

It’s hard to imagine that a consensus favoring grass over racing gas has changed. There’s more green space and park land at the PNE now and it would also take at least two years to get such an event into gear.

The entire infrastructure of the Vancouver race — concrete blocks, tire walls, fencing — was either recycled or sold and it would take quite the public-relations venture to convince area residents that Indy racing outweighs their relative peace.

That’s not the only concern. The Molson Indy Vancouver vanished because the planned 2010 Winter Olympics athletes’ village — now a vast expanse of residential housing — eliminated paddock areas at the south end of the circuit and major corporations had already committed major advertising dollars to the Olympics.

And even in the final years of the local race, the corporate stamp was noticeably less and so were the numbers of grandstands.

Everybody always said the right things about Vancouver, but in the end they couldn’t find the right circuit that would satisfy all parties. That hasn’t changed. Canada.com

07/08/12 Toronto Mayor Rob Ford praised Green Savoree Promotions and INDYCAR for another successful event at Exhibition Place. The race (in its 26th year) has an estimated $50 million economic impact for the city.

"It creates thousands of jobs. I'm a businessman, that's why I got into politics. We have 189 cranes in the air and we're turning the city around, and this is one of the best events we have every year."

Added Honda Indy Toronto vice president and general manager Charlie Johnstone: "We try to make this a community festival event and we couldn't do this without the support of the city. It's one of the best stops on the IndyCar circuit."

INDYCAR CEO Randy Bernard isn't ruling out another IZOD IndyCar Series event in Canada to complement Toronto and the Edmonton Indy on the City Centre Airport circuit (July 22).

"It's no secret we would like to have that third race (in Canada), (but) not at the expense of Toronto and Edmonton," Bernard said. "It needs to be a market that we can continue to grow INDYCAR. I know many people would like to see that Canadian triple crown again.

"This is the right time to build (the series) up here. When you have someone like James (Hinchcliffe) who is up there kicking butt, who has a great personality, a great sponsor and is with a great team, you want to build around him."

Bernard expects the 2013 schedule to be finalized by Sept. 1. He will meet with Phoenix International Raceway president Bryan Sperber this week about a race in the future, and he said Pocono Raceway president Brandon Igdalsky is "doing a complete analysis" about the prospects of an IZOD IndyCar Series race.

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