Most Torontonians know what it is like to be stuck in traffic on Lake Shore Boulevard.
Simon Pagenaud’s experience with the highway is a little different.
The French IndyCar driver won the last Honda Indy contested in Toronto back in 2019 and with the event making its return to the city this weekend following a two-year pandemic absence, he is eager to once again feel the “rush” of racing down Lake Shore Boulevard at speeds in excess of 200 miles an hour, hopefully with the traffic in his rear-view mirror.
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“Lake Shore is one of a kind. You know when you see the helicopter shot it really gives you an idea that you’re actually racing on the streets and most kids that want to be race car drivers dream of driving a race car on the street,” Pagenaud told CP24.com this week, as he discussed the 11-turn, 2.8 kilometre circuit around Exhibition Place. “I love this racetrack.”
The Honda Indy Toronto is the fourth oldest continuously running race on the IndyCar circuit, dating back to 1986.
But it was cancelled the last two summers due to the COVID-19 pandemic, along with dozens of other popular events and festivals. That, in turn, has created a unique situation for Pagenaud who will find himself as the defending champion on the starting grid three years after taking the checkered flag.
He has switched teams and cars since then and concedes that he had to “relearn a lot of things” since joining Meyer Shank Racing but he is excited to get back to a track and city that he has grown pretty familiar with over the years.
Toronto, he says, is simply one of a kind in the racing world due to its mix of pavement types, tight corners as well as the straightaway on Lakeshore Boulevard that provides one of the course’s only opportunities to breathe.
“The race is very physical. The cars are very physical to drive, there is no power steering. So it’s a place you can rest you your hands, your breathing comes down a little bit and you can reset for the next corner. So it’s definitely a high mark of the track,” he said. “It’s very technical (the track). You know, second gear, third gear on the corners. So it’s about the technique more than anything and being precise, inches, inches precise in terms of where you position the car.”
Six races to be held over the course of the weekend
Sunday’s Honda Indy will be the culmination of three days of racing along Toronto’s lakeshore, with cars competing on six different circuits lining up on the starting grid at various points.
The big race, which drew a crowd of more than 30,000 back in 2019, comes about halfway through the IndyCar schedule and will be pivotal for drivers like Pagenaud looking to move up the standings.
But for Honda Indy Toronto President Jeff Atkinson the return of the so-called “Roar on the Lake Shore” is about much more than checkered flags and fast cars.
He is excited to throw himself into what he calls the “immersive experience” of the event, whether that means the “sights, the sounds or the smells” of auto racing, which tend to permeate most of the west end neighbourhoods surrounding the track.
He also hopes to reconnect with many of the 600 volunteers that make the event possible.
“It means a lot. It’s a world class motorsport festival that we put on in the streets of Toronto and there’s a lot that goes into the event. So just to see all those (familiar) faces again that you haven’t seen for three years, whether it be the volunteers, the workers, the fans, I’m just excited to reconnect with everyone and I think I think the city is excited to reconnect with the Honda Indy Toronto,” Atkinson told CP24.com this week. “You know it is just going to be nice to put on this event again after taking that absence and too see those cars return to the streets of Toronto.”
The COVID-19 pandemic resulted in the cancellation of 10 races during the 2020 IndyCar season, including the Honda Indy.
But in 2021 plans were well underway for the return of the race, right up until a spring wave of the pandemic prompted the City of Toronto to once again cancel permits for summer events and festivals.
It ended up being the only event on the IndyCar schedule that was outright cancelled.
“2021 was tough. If you look at the timeline you’ll see in August that the Blue Jays were able to get back, the Rogers Cup got going and it was great for the city but there were earlier events like the RBC Canadian Open and the Honda Indy that couldn’t,” Atkinson said. “We were so close to being able to do it and we were ready if we could have. We worked up until the cancellation trying to put the 2021 event on for our city.”
Numerous major summer events returning to the streets
The Honda Indy is just the latest major event to return to Toronto streets this summer, coming on the heels of the first Pride parade since 2019 earlier this month.
The Caribbean Carnival is also returning with its Grand Parade set for the Exhibition Place grounds on July 30.
Speaking with CP24.com, Pagenaud said that he is excited to be back in Toronto and plans to “soak in this weekend” as much as possible, noting that the pandemic has taught him to “appreciate things a little better.”
He just won’t be taking in the scenery come Sunday afternoon.
“You better look forward because the next corner is coming up quick. I mean, it’s a rush this track, it really is. You’re constantly dancing with the car from corner to corner, braking so hard and accelerating as hard as you can right away,” he said. “It’s a bit like music. Driving is similar to music, it is about rhythm and for me the rhythm on a street course is very different and very exciting because you are 100 per cent all the time very close to the walls with no margin for error.”
In addition to the races this weekend, fans will also be able to check out a number of interactive exhibits along the festival grounds and grab a bite from a myriad of food trucks.
Sunday’s big race gets underway at 3:30 p.m.
There will be 25 cars on the starting grid, including ones driven by Canadian drivers Dalton Kellett and Devlin DeFrancesco.