TORONTO – As James Hinchcliffe waited for the first practice session of the Honda Indy Toronto weekend to begin, it hit him: His home race was back.
“I remember sitting in the car in pit lane, looking up at the stands, and thinking, ‘Man, this is a Friday, this is really impressive,’” said the native of nearby Oakville, Ontario.
“We went through some kind of tough years there, but certainly with Honda Canada's support, we've done a great job of keeping it going and building momentum and getting stronger every year.”
Sunday's Verizon IndyCar Series race -- won by Team Penske's Josef Newgarden -- was no different, with fans packing Exhibition Place to watch the 33rd Indy car race on the urban street circuit and see their hometown favorite take home his second consecutive podium in Toronto.
There was little room to move just about everywhere on the grounds throughout the weekend, whether in the paddock, Thunder Alley or Honda World, and even less personal real estate on the starting grid prior to the race. On race day, finding an empty seat in the stands was a challenge.
“The parade lap before the race, I haven't seen the stands that packed since I've been behind the wheel and the energy was just incredible,” said Hinchcliffe, driver of the No. 5 Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda who began his Verizon IndyCar Series career in 2011 and finished third at Toronto for the second straight year on Sunday.
“Every group we went by were ready to go. They wanted to go racing and it was awesome to see.”
Lost in the excitement of the weekend was the extension of the race's sponsorship agreement with Honda Canada Inc. through 2020 that was announced on Sunday. The international auto maker's Canadian subsidiary has been a part of the Honda Indy Toronto since it returned in 2009, after missing a year in 2008 following the reunification of Indy car racing in North America.
Keeping Honda Canada in the family was big, said Kevin Savoree, president of Green Savoree Racing Promotions that operates the event.
“We are obviously thrilled that Honda Canada has renewed with us through 2020,” said Savoree.
“They were a founding partner when we brought the event back with INDYCAR and we just couldn't do it without them. We are just very proud to have a partner like that.”
Savoree, whose group also puts on the races on the streets of St. Petersburg, Florida, and at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, credited much of the recent success to race president Jeff Atkinson's leadership over the past few years and the team Atkinson has put together to guide the event.
The deal underlines the importance of the Honda Indy Toronto to the Verizon IndyCar Series and to the manufacturers involved in it. It also goes a long way to ensuring the future of the race that's constantly gaining momentum.
“It was music to my ears,” Hinchcliffe said. “To hear that we have three (more) years and to that the support from the city seems to be high — we had repaving (of a portion of the track) done for this year and I think there's more on the schedule for next year — it gives me confidence that this race will be around for a while.”
The other feature that will also be around for at least the next three years is the popular Fan Friday. This year marked the seventh consecutive Friday at the Honda Indy Toronto where fans enjoyed free admission to the event care of Ontario Honda Dealers, although all are asked to make a voluntary donation to the Make-A-Wish Canada charity. The donations are matched.
“I love that Make-A-Wish is the charity that Honda works with and I enjoy the work that we get to do together on that,” Hinchcliffe said.
“They've been such an incredible partner of the series, this race and of me personally and we can't thank them enough because we couldn't do it without them.”
With the deal in place, Honda Canada will begin preparing for its 10th Toronto race as title sponsor and making plans to mark the occasion next year.
Although Hinchcliffe remains impressed by the job that's been done over the past few years and wants to be a key player in building on the success, even he was surprised by the momentum the race showed in 2017.
“I think the last two years have been upward trending and I was expecting to see a little bump this year,” he said, “but it was way bigger than I was anticipating.”
“We just need to ride that, get the momentum going and get this race back to what it was in the mid-1990s.”