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Honda Indy Toronto: Is failure to cancel a clash of cultures?

Written by Norris McDonald

Nobody wants the Honda Indy Toronto to happen more than me. In one way or another, I have been part of this race since 1986, the year it started.

In recent years, I have been an accredited reporter, covering the race as part of my automotive writing work at the Toronto Star. But in the early years of the race in Toronto, and then the Molson Indy Vancouver years and the Champ Car World Series races in Edmonton, I worked as part of the communications team with specific responsibility for accredited photographers.

We are in the midst of a coronavirus pandemic of almost Biblical proportions. The world has been brought to its knees by COVID-19. Much of civilization has been on lockdown – although people are starting to come up for air, which is a mistake in my books. One false move and the next lockdown will last until Christmas.

And that’s what’s got me worried: one false move.

Toronto is a beehive of activity in the summertime. The Gay Pride Festival, the Honda Indy, Caribbean Festival, Taste of the Danforth and the Canadian National Exhibition are the Big Five. There are dozens of others scattered here and there – the Beaches Jazz Festival, for instance – but those first five are the biggies.

Gay Pride, Caribbean Festival and the CNE opted to cancel their events unilaterally. Last week, the city cancelled everything else. But the Honda Indy insisted its event wasn’t cancelled, merely postponed, and announced it was working with IndyCar and the city to find another date later this year.

I don’t blame the race owners for not giving up. They are convinced – and I agree – that it’s imperative to hold a race, if it’s possible. Look to the Blue Jays for proof of that. From 1977 till 1994, whenever the Jays played, first at the CNE and then the Skydome, the games were always (or nearly) sold out. Then, when the players went on strike in ‘94, there was no World Series and after they finally settled the dispute, the Skydome has been half empty ever since (other than Opening Day and the playoffs). That’s because people found other things to do when they couldn’t go to a ball game.

The last time there wasn’t a race here in Toronto, in 2008, it damn near killed it. People say the low attendance was because the talent level was watered down because of the IndyCar civil war that was raging at the time but they forget that the talent pool had been watered down for years previously (remember Dan Clarke? Alex Figge?) and they still drew a good crowd on race day.

So a year without a race can be a disaster. On the other hand, to push on regardless when all others have thrown in the towel can prove to be negative because the efforts could be viewed as selfish. In short, people are sick and dying and everything else has been called off and the Honda Indy is still trying to hold a car race.

I think a cultural difference might be at play.

Canadians and Americans are similar in that most of us speak the same language, dress the same way, drink the same booze and frequent the same fast-food stores. We listen to the same type of music, watch the same movies and TV and drive the same cars and trucks.

But our DNA contains genetic information carried down for generations by descendants of the United Empire Loyalists, who came to Canada during the American Revolution. We are loyal to the Queen (well, many are), God (ditto) and good government and we do what we’re told. If the prime minister says to stay in, we stay in. Yes, there are Libertarians among us but they complain from inside the house, not outside it.

Americans, on the other hand, remember the Boston Tea Party, the guns of Lexington and Concord and the Declaration of Independence. They are individuals while we are a collective. Yes, most Americans will stay in when asked, or wear a mask, or practice social distancing, but when push comes to shove, they don’t like government telling them what to do and it’s in their DNA to push back.

All of those major summertime festivals I listed above are Canadian attractions operated by Canadians, except one: the Honda Indy, which is owned by Americans. The Canadians, very aware of what our health authorities and politicians are saying about going slow and easy, opted to cancel; the Americans – perhaps not aware, understandably, of the nuances that separate our two countries – have kept their foot firmly on the throttle.

If Honda Indy Toronto can find a date later in the summer or fall that’s suitable for IndyCar and the city of Toronto, and are willing to race without spectators – or very few (I guarantee the city will not open the floodgates for the Honda Indy) – then I will be as happy as every other fan of this iconic event.

But this is also Toronto. At some point, if it becomes obvious that to hold the race would be a losing proposition, I trust Green Savoree Racing Promotions, owners of the Honda Indy, will retreat gracefully. Be good corporate citizens. Talk about concern for health and that we’re all in this forever.

It’s better to live to fight another day rather than take a chance on pissing off the very people, who, once incensed because you don’t see the light in the same way they see it, might wind up trying to run you right out of town.