Thursday, June 11, 2015

off the grid: retro t.o. the first indy

This installment of my "Retro T.O." column for The Grid was originally published on July 10, 2012.

Toronto Star, May 8, 1986
“The most expensive beer commercial in Canadian history unfolds this weekend on the grounds of Toronto’s Exhibition Place,” observed the Globe and Mail’s Stephen Brunt on the eve of the first Molson Indy a quarter of a century ago. At stake for the brewer were $50 million worth of insurance and the wrath of Parkdale residents petrified that their neighbourhood would be left in shambles.

As back as the late 1960s, several attempts were made to bring a major auto race to central Toronto. Efforts in the late 1970s to hold races at Exhibition Place met fierce opposition from a Parkdale-centric citizens group known as the Anti-Grand Prix Coalition (AGPC) and city councillors like John Sewell (“it’s a stupid idea”). The AGPC reformed in the spring of 1985 when a proposal from Molson to run a CART Indy-car race gained momentum. As AGPC chair Susan Shaw told the press, “We put up a good fight then and we’re going to put up a good fight now.”

As in the 1970s, the AGPC feared the garbage, noise, pollution, and vandalism such an event could bring. While they failed to stop the race (which apparently raised cheers among some Parkdalians who saw it as a boon to the neighbourhood), AGPC succeeded in having the city address their concerns. Toronto City Council approved the race by two votes in July 1985 with several conditions attached: capping attendance at 60,000, a detailed traffic plan, tight noise controls, and the formation of a committee consisting of municipal and Molson officials, police, Parkdalians, and the TTC to oversee the event. Molson received permission for one year to run the race and was responsible for any resurfacing costs.

For two weeks in May 1986, there was a jurisdictional spat between CART and international sanctioning body FISA (Fédération Internationale de Sport Automobile), from which it split away in the late 1970s. FISA ordered its Canadian affiliate CASC (Canadian Automobile Sports Clubs) not to sanction the race and suspend any member drivers who participated. Once threats of legal action ended that tantrum, the operators of the Indianapolis 500 received a temporary injunction from the Supreme Court of Ontario prohibiting Molson from using the term “Indy” in event advertising. A week before the race, the court ruled in favour of Molson as it wasn’t satisfied that the Indianapolis Speedway would suffer irreparable brand damage and had used the “Indy” name for other Canadian races.

Globe and Mail, July 18, 1986
Back in Parkdale, residents prepared themselves for the three-day event, which began on July 18, 1986. The AGPC was satisfied with the consultations they had with the City and Molson but kept their guard up. One benefit quickly pleased them: the special attention police paid to illegal parkers. With only 3,000 spots available near the course, there were nightmares regarding traffic chaos despite pleas from race organizers to take transit. Over Indy weekend, 280 vehicles were towed away, mostly to a temporary lot on Abell Street.

Though residents were given a public-works hotline for complaints, it stayed cool. While there were complaints about noise and naughty patrons, the weekend went smoothly. Though the hum of Indy cars bounced off apartment buildings, an army of decibel meters revealed levels no worse than passing buses—AGPC official Bart Poesiat admitted to the Star that the race was less sonically disruptive than the annual CHIN picnic. Some residents profited by renting out their driveways and yards as parking spots, with rates as high as $10 per vehicle along Tyndall Avenue.

Apart from long waits by spectators to use the walkway to reach the inner section of the track and a first-lap exit by Canadian driver Jacques Villeneuve, the first Molson Indy was viewed as a success. Before the drivers started their engines on July 20, Roy Orbison sang “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Though Emerson Fittipaldi earned the pole position and Danny Sullivan was coming off two CART victories in a row, the winner was Indianapolis 500 champ Bobby Rahal. Despite a lengthy penalty for passing the pace car on his way out of a pit stop, Rahal, who found the course “fun to drive,” flirted with the lead several times before taking it for keeps with only 12 laps left in the race. The worst injury was a broken ankle suffered by Mike Nish, though the Jaws of Life were required to extract him from his crashed vehicle near the Princes’ Gate.

The positive feelings participants felt toward the event were summed up by race car owner Roger Penske. “The people behind this track have done a tremendous job in putting it together and promoting the race,” he told the Star. “I just hope the people in Toronto realize what they have and that’s something special.”

Additional material from the November 1, 1977, June 13, 1985, July 17, 1986, and July 19, 1986 editions of the Globe and Mail, and the July 16, 1985, May 4, 1986, July 12, 1986, July 19, 1986, and July 21, 1986 editions of the Toronto Star.

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