Survivor: Toronto

TORONTO -- First run in 1986, the Honda Indy Toronto ranks second only to the Long Beach Grand Prix as the most enduring street course event on the Indy car circuit.

No fewer than 50 tracks have come and gone from the Indy car calendar since the Toronto event started out 28 years ago as the Molson Indy, including 17 temporary street layouts like the 1.755-mile, 11-turn course that winds through the Canadian National Exhibition grounds, just a couple miles from the city center.

In its heyday, the "Indy" attracted more than 170,000 spectators over the three-day weekend, making it Canada's second largest sporting event behind the country's Formula One Grand Prix in Montreal. Those numbers are down, but the Toronto stop is still a true survivor in the modern Verizon IndyCar Series.

"The fans really support the sport up in Canada, racing in general," said team owner Chip Ganassi. "This has always been a good venue for us -- the teams like coming here, the fans like coming here and those fans are very knowledgeable.

"Plus the venue is in town, yet we're not in town. It's nice to have everything so close."

The races at Toronto also follow the "Survivor" theme. The Exhibition Place course is tight, but it's plenty racy by street course standards, with at least two good passing zones.

But the passing isn't always clean. Drivers are understandably defensive about track position, and passes are often accompanied by contact. Paul Tracy, a local hero and a two-time Toronto winner, wasn't the only driver who brought his Chrome Horn to town when competing in the Indy.

Rough racing has been a way of life at Toronto over the years, from the time Emerson Fittipaldi and a charging Danny Sullivan clashed two corners from the finish of the 1987 race, with Fittipaldi surviving the impact to take the win.

In 2011, a wheel-banging match between Dario Franchitti and Will Power at Toronto's Turn 3 led to frosty relations between the pair as they fought for that year's IndyCar Series championship.

Power, a two-time Toronto winner (2007 and '10), believes that there is nothing a driver can do differently to avoid the kind of incidents the event has become famous for.

"When you stop racing for wins, why bother?" said the Australian, who is second in the 2014 IndyCar Series standings, nine points behind his Team Penske teammate Helio Castroneves.

"Any time you race at Toronto you need to have a bit of luck on your side," Power added. "Obviously a fast car helps tremendously, but it seems inevitable that you will have some contact during the race. You just hope it doesn't put you out. You have to race side-by-side into some of the corners -- especially after the long straight -- and sometimes both of you don't come out of it unscathed."

The fact that drivers like Castroneves and Juan Montoya are winless over their careers at Toronto speaks volumes about the difficulty of the Exhibition Place circuit.

Castroneves won an Indy Lights support race at the venue in 1997, but his best finishes in nine Indy car starts are a pair of sixths.

"Man, Toronto has never been very good to me, and I don't know why," Castroneves shrugged. "You know, it's just a very tough track, much like all of the temporary street courses in the Verizon IndyCar Series. A lot of unusual things usually happen at Toronto and it's very hard to stay out of trouble there."

Montoya fared even worse in his two visits to the circuit, failing to finish either of his starts in an era when he was dominating the CART-sanctioned Indy car series in 1999-2000.

"I sucked here! Why did you have to bring that up?" said the Colombian with a laugh.

"I just really struggled with this track, and it feels exactly the same as it did back in the day," he continued. "The concrete patches in the corners just have zero grip; it's like aquaplaning over a puddle every time you hit them. In '99 I was way off the pace, and in 2000, I drove way over my head to get a lap time out of the car and then got taken out.

"This track, it seems like the harder you drive, the slower you go."

This is the final street course doubleheader of the IndyCar season, and the 100 points on offer could have a significant impact on the championship.

At a 66-point deficit, Montoya is one of five drivers within 100 points of championship leader Castroneves. Aside from Power (-9), Ryan Hunter-Reay (-32) and Simon Pagenaud (-50) are in that group; even a driver like Scott Dixon, 140 points back in ninth place in the standings, could put himself back into title contention.

Dixon won both Toronto races in 2013 in his Target/Ganassi Honda, but the defending IndyCar Series champion is winless in 2014 with Chevrolet power.

"We weren't quick in every session [at Toronto in 2013] but we had one pole and two race wins," Dixon recalled.

"When you win the first one of a doubleheader you're obviously looking for big things for race two. To have it go the right way twice within a two-day spread with the competition you have is almost impossible."

INDYCAR again plans to utilize a standing start for the first race of the Toronto doubleheader, with a traditional rolling start set for Sunday's second contest. One change this week involves the increase of space between the cars on the starting grid from 55 to 75 feet.

The series' vice-president of competition Derrick Walker explained that the move is being made for safety reasons.

"We've had crashes at nearly every single standing start we've done, and it's the space we're putting them in.

"The FIA says the grid spacing needs to be 55 feet [the Formula One standard is actually 49.6 feet or 16 meters], but our cars are bigger, and we learned the hard way."

IndyCar's standing starts have been well-received by most of the drivers, but Walker says there is no guarantee they will continue in the future. The first Toronto race is the last in 2014 to use a standing start.

"We need to see what the fans say and see whether it's worth continuing," Walker said.

Firestone, the tire supplier for the IndyCar Series, will achieve its 250th race win since returning to the sport in 1995 in the second part of the Toronto doubleheader.

Scott Pruett scored the first race win for Firestone in the modern era after a 21-year absence at the CART-sanctioned 1995 Michigan 500. By 2000, Firestone's dominance drove chief rival Goodyear out of Indy car racing.

"Racing is in Firestone's DNA, and we are extremely proud to celebrate our 250th victory," said Lisa Boggs, director of Bridgestone Americas Motorsport.

"Every trip to victory circle is special, but the 250th is a testament to our unrivaled passion and commitment to providing world-class race tires."