INDIANAPOLIS -- The history of the Honda Indy Toronto kind of mirrors the overall history of IndyCar racing over the past 25 years: hugely successful in the 1980s and '90s, adversely impacted (and temporarily idled) by the open-wheel split and slowly on the comeback trail.
The inaugural Molson Indy Toronto was won in 1986 by Bobby Rahal. The event quickly turned into Canada's No. 2 motorsports weekend, eclipsed only by the Formula One Canadian Grand Prix in Montreal. Three-day attendance figures were routinely around 170,000, the product of aggressive marketing by Molson's in-house promotional division, Molstar Sports and Entertainment.
Molson dropped its support in 2006, and for a year, the event was sponsored by the now-defunct Steelback brand of beer. However, when the CART/IRL war finally came to an end in early 2008, Toronto was left off the schedule.
But the value of the Toronto event was obvious. In 2004, when Tony George and the IRL tried to acquire selected assets in CART's bankruptcy hearing, Toronto was one of five events the IRL pledged to keep, albeit with a potentially critical omission of the race for one year.
That one-year break instead came in 2008, when the 11th-hour merger of CART and IRL into the Izod IndyCar Series precluded putting it on the schedule. When the Toronto race was revived by Andretti Green Promotions and returned to the rotation in 2009, the place was a ghost town, a depressing sight to those who had attended the event in its glory days.
Seven-time Toronto race winner Michael Andretti is no longer part of the equation. After a split of his own, his former partners in the renamed Green Savoree Racing Promotions now run the show. And progress is being made. Attendance has been on a steady upturn for the past two years, and while the crowds haven't been anywhere near as large as they were 15 to 20 years ago, at least there are crowds lining the 1.7-mile temporary course that winds through the Exhibition Place fairgrounds.
The high-quality, unpredictable action that has been a hallmark of the IndyCar Series in 2012 should draw some doubters back.
Although Team Penske's Will Power dominated the first quarter of the season, with three wins in four races, the Australian's championship lead is a slim three points over Andretti Autosport's Ryan Hunter-Reay. Despite an officiating gaffe that likely cost him a top-3 finish at Milwaukee, Target Chip Ganassi Racing's Scott Dixon is just 15 points back, and five other drivers -- including four-time IndyCar Series champion Dario Franchitti -- are still in championship contention with six races remaining on the 2012 schedule.
Power's mastery of road and street courses makes him the logical favorite this weekend (1 p.m. ET Sunday, ABC), but the two-time Toronto winner (2007 and '10) has watched his championship lead dwindle from 45 points to three and knows he needs to turn things around.
The biggest threat may come from Hunter-Reay. The 31-year-old Florida native is on a two-race win streak (short ovals at Milwaukee and Iowa) and is riding a huge wave of momentum.
Sam Hornish Jr. (2001, '02, '06) was the last American driver to win an Indy car season crown.
"It feels like we're prepared for a championship effort, and we're going to fight for this championship right to the finish," Hunter-Reay said. "A big part of our success the past two races has been the ability to save our tires and then make our move when the other cars lose pace, and we can do some of that at a street course like Toronto.
"We've shown we've been strong on the road and street courses this year with podium finishes at St. Petersburg, Brazil and even Long Beach, so we can expect the same at Toronto. Our focus is to remain consistent and be in contention for the win when Sunday rolls around. We're going to keep our heads down and attack each race, each lap."
The Ganassi team has suffered through an inconsistent season, with Dixon and Franchitti each winning races but also suffering from Honda engine failures. Franchitti's pole-winning power plant erupted in an embarrassing blowup on the pace lap at Iowa Speedway, severely hurting the Scotsman's hopes of a fourth consecutive (and fifth overall) series championship.
It feels like we're prepared for a championship effort, and we're going to fight for this championship right to the finish.
”-- Ryan Hunter-Reay
Dixon, meanwhile, is one of five drivers using the last of their five available engines for the season. Should the New Zealander's car require an unscheduled engine change at any point during the rest of the season, he will be assessed a 10-place grid penalty.
The Andretti team is in the best shape with regard to engine life, as all three of its drivers -- Hunter-Reay, Marco Andretti and Canadian favorite James Hinchcliffe, who ranks fifth in the standings, 30 points behind Power -- have two fresh engines to complete the season.
In other engine-related news, INDYCAR and its three engine manufacturers will introduce a push-to-pass feature at Toronto that will be used in the five remaining road and street races.
INDYCAR initially promised a boost of 50-100 horsepower when the Dallara DW12 chassis concept was unveiled, but the real-world P2P that will hit the track in Toronto is somewhat disappointing.
INDYCAR has dropped the standard turbocharger boost pressure from 155 kPa to 150 kPa, and the P2P will provide a temporary increase to 160 kPa. The engines will produce approximately 685-690 horsepower at standard boost (down from 700), and the P2P will kick it up to about 710-715 horsepower.
"I am pleased to see this feature added because it gives the driver significantly more power when activated to overtake another car," said Jay O'Connell, vice president of technology for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. "Push-to-pass will increase the ability to pass an equally fast car on the straights, which should make the racing more competitive and exciting."
INDYCAR has also approved modifications to the Lotus engine in an effort to make its performance more equal to the Chevrolet and Honda engines that have won every race in 2012. The Lotus was believed to be at a 50-horsepower deficit to its competition, resulting in all of its entries being black-flagged out of the Indianapolis 500 after just 10 laps due to a lack of competitive speed.
Simona De Silvestro's HVM Racing entry is the only Lotus-powered entry at Toronto.