In many respects, Canada has come out on the short end of the long-needed unification of Indy-style racing. The popular open-wheel event in Toronto that was established in 1986 dropped off the calendar altogether in 2008 after the Champ Car World Series went out of business, and its return this year was met by extremely disappointing attendance. Champ Car's two Canadian drivers -- Paul Tracy and Alex Tagliani -- were unable to secure full-time rides in the unified IndyCar Series, though both will be on the 23-car grid this weekend in Edmonton.
AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Jeff McIntoshThe backdrop for Sunday's IndyCar race is Edmonton, Alberta, where Scott Dixon won in 2008.
The Edmonton event has generated its share of controversy. Despite a very successful first couple of years attendance-wise as part of the Champ Car World Series, the Edmonton GP proved to be a money-loser. City officials anticipated a $1.5 million (Canadian) loss for the 2008 event, the first Edmonton race run under the IndyCar Series banner, but the shortfall ended up as a massive $5.3 million. Race organizer Northlands hopes that additional time to promote the 2009 event and the return to a Sunday race date (last year's race was run on a Saturday) will improve attendance, especially for practice and qualifying days. But they still predict a $1.5 million deficit.
In addition, local government recently revealed its plan to phase out the Edmonton City Centre Airport -- on which the race is staged -- over a 10-year period. The shutdown is not expected to affect the IndyCar event in the short term.
The IndyCar Series has one year remaining on its contract with Edmonton, and series officials are optimistic the event can be retained in the future. That would be popular with the drivers, who love racing on airport circuits such as Edmonton and Cleveland's Burke Lakefront Airport, which hosted CART and Champ Car events from 1982 to 2007.
This weekend's race is likely to be a shootout between the usual IndyCar suspects: Target Chip Ganassi Racing's Dario Franchitti and Scott Dixon, and Ryan Briscoe, Helio Castroneves and part-time road course ace Will Power of Team Penske.
After two DNFs in the last three races that have dropped him 78 points behind championship leader Franchitti, Castroneves desperately needs a victory to boost his hopes of securing his first series title. Helio led the most laps at Edmonton last year but overextended his tires and lost out in the end to Dixon, who scored perhaps the most impressive of the six race wins he claimed in 2008 on the way to the championship crown.
Franchitti has never raced at Edmonton, but there is no reason to believe he won't be a favorite on Sunday. Other potential victors include Dale Coyne Racing's Justin Wilson, who won the 2006 Edmonton race under Champ Car sanction for RuSPORT Racing and finished third last year while driving for Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing. NHLR's Graham Rahal is also likely to be a front-runner.
Then there are the Canadians, both of whom starred two weeks ago at Toronto. Tagliani was in position to score Conquest Racing's first IndyCar Series victory, only to get unlucky with the timing of a caution flag, while Tracy was his usual racy self before being crashed out by his longtime rival Castroneves. Tracy finished fourth last year at Edmonton in his only IndyCar Series start of the season in a one-off run for Vision Racing. This year he will drive a car prepared by KV Racing Technology.
More of a question mark is the rapidly unraveling Andretti Green Racing organization. AGR made the headlines for all the wrong reasons at Edmonton in 2008: Danica Patrick and Marco Andretti raised the ire of team leader Tony Kanaan when they refused to allow the clearly faster Brazilian past after he started from the back of the grid due to an engine change.
Then a frustrated Andretti punted Patrick off the track in the closing laps, leading to a postrace pit-lane shouting match between Marco and his father, AGR co-owner Michael Andretti. The argument carried into the AGR transporters, where raised voices could clearly be heard from outside during an hour-long team meeting.
Dixon left Edmonton last year with a 65-point advantage but still nearly lost the title to Castroneves. With three drivers (Franchitti, Dixon and Briscoe) clustered within 13 points, this year's title chase is much closer, and with only six races remaining after Edmonton, the championship pressure is beginning to increase.
It promises to be a slam-bang weekend.