Godfrey hopes Toronto Indy can reclaim its charm after attendance struggles

TORONTO — It has been nearly 10 years since Paul Godfrey brokered a deal to secure $2 million in provincial and municipal subsidies to help bring the Toronto Indy back from the dead.

While it returned to the city after a one-year hiatus in 2009, there has been a lukewarm response from fans.

The race routinely attracted more than 70,000 people and about 170,000 over the course of three days during the 1990s and early 2000s, but the turnout figures to be far lower this weekend for the Honda Indy.

Godfrey, president and CEO of the Postmedia Network, feels the race has “somewhat lost its charm” in the years since he and seven-time Toronto Indy champion Michael Andretti helped secure funding to revive it after it was given the axe because of scheduling issues when the Indy Racing League and Champ Car reunited in 2008.

“The buzz that was there a few years ago has not gotten back to the same levels it’s been at in the past,” Godfrey said in a phone interview.

“I know Honda (the main sponsor) is trying their best to get that to happen and hopefully it will. Because it’s a great sport and it’s a great event, and I’d love to see it get back to the excitement of yesteryear.”

Godfrey — who was the chairman of the Indy’s board of trustees when it was sponsored by Molson from 1986 to 2006 and for a year after it dropped its support — said he and his colleagues would try to create anticipation nearly a year in advance and would focus on local charity events.

He said he doesn’t see the same strategy from current owners Green Savoree.

“I’m not being critical of them, I think they had their own charity, and that’s fine, but I think it did take away from some the excitement that took place,” Godfrey said.

“We got people who were involved who weren’t necessarily racing fans, through wanting to do a charity and because of that, we got them involved in that and they became racing fans.”

Godfrey refereed to Molson as ”outstanding corporate citizens,” while describing Green Savoree as a “very bottom-line-oriented group.”

“They spent a lot of money on the race, but they also spent a lot of money as well on the events surrounding the race that created sort of the focus of attention,” Godfrey said of Molson.

“When Molson dropped out, I must say, the area of the excitement of the race diminished.”

Jeff Atkinson, president of the Honda Indy Toronto, said the race has grown over the past two years since he took on the role, adding that he’s expecting a three-day turnout of “well over” 125,000.

“We’ve been very pleased with where ticket sales are at,” he said in a phone interview.

“I think Toronto has very much embraced the event.”

He added that under his watch the Indy has increased the types of charitable events that were seen during Godfrey’s time, such as the donation of tickets, and a ramped up Fan Friday, which allows people to attend for free in exchange for a voluntary contribution to the Make-A-Wish foundation. The promotion raised a record sum of about $95,000 last year, said Atkinson.

Atkinson added that the Indy also is expecting a boost because of a good weekend weather forecast and three Canadian contenders — James Hinchcliffe of Oakville, Ont., Robert Wickens of Guelph, Ont., and Zachary Claman De Melo of Montreal.

“I think the fans have a lot to cheer for,” he said.

The Honda Indy certainly isn’t the only race with attendance concerns.

Former Canadian IndyCar star Paul Tracy has a theory on fading fan support at races across the continent. The two-time Toronto Indy winner said race owners don’t seem to prioritize fan interest and are instead intent on getting corporate support.

“They don’t seem to be overly concerned about empty stands as long as they sellout the corporate suites,” he said in a phone interview earlier this week.

“If you sell out the corporate suites, (they’ve) basically made their money, and the money generated from that is far greater than selling … those $25 tickets, so sadly they’ve focused more on corporate side rather than the fan side.”

The race, which has signed a three-year deal to stay at Exhibition Place through 2020, generates nearly $40 million in economic activity in the Greater Toronto Area, according to Green Savoree’s 2017 agreement with the city. That’s a drop from the $46.7 million figure in its previous deal from 2014.

Former Canadian NASCAR driver Ron Fellows co-owns the Canadian Tire Motorsport Park, about an hour outside Toronto in Bowmanville, Ont. He said the annual Mobil 1 SportsCar Grand Prix held the weekend prior to the Honda Indy has been growing every year since he and his partners took over the venue in 2011, and typically averages 70,000 attendees over the course of the event.

Fellows said Mosport offers a completely different atmosphere than the downtown Toronto street race.

“We’ve got a beautiful piece of property, almost 900 acres, rolling hills in the Durham Region,” he said.

“Camping is a big, big part of our … weekend experience.”

Fellows said the economics of open-wheel racing have changed since the departure of the big sponsorships and driver salaries during the Champ Car days, but feels the Toronto Indy should be on the rise with success seen among the current crop of drivers from Canada.

“I think there’s probably an ebb and flow in terms of interest level up here,” he said.

“It may be relevant to the Canadian content and right now it’s kind of like the ’90s all over again. Certainly, with James (Hinchcliffe) and Robert (Wickens) … it’s safe to say they’re hitting it out of the park, or heading in that direction anyway.”

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