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IndyCar hopes to increase Canadian footprint

Australian Formula Indy driver Scott Dixon of Target Chip Ganassi Racing team powers his car during the IZOD IndyCar World Championship Sao Paulo Indy 300 practice session in Sao Paulo April 28, 2012. REUTERS/Paulo Whitaker

Paulo Whitaker/Reuters

Three Canadian cities – Vancouver, Calgary and Quebec City – are on the radar screen for high-speed auto racing as the Izod IndyCar circuit looks to expand its pedal-to-the-metal footprint from 16 races to 19 next year.

Randy Bernard, IndyCar's CEO, made the statement Monday, as Toronto's Honda Indy signed on to be a Lake Ontario waterfront fixture through 2014. This year's Toronto race is July 8.

Some towns on the existing schedule will disappear and some will be added – depending on the projected viability and potential size of the event – but the over all strategy will be growth, Bernard said.

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"We want to secure the great ones and cut a couple," he said, though he added it was "premature" to identify them as potential racing sites. Vancouver played host to IndyCar racing from 1990-2004.

A Toronto Indycar race goes back to 1986 and has been a test for a succession of royal families of driving – Andretti, Unser, Rahal, Mears and Sullivan. IndyCar also boasted Danica Patrick from 2005 to 2011, the only woman to win on the IndyCar circuit. A key IndyCar ambassador, she left to drive the NASCAR Nationwide Series. Bernard said IndyCar officials worried about her departure, but have seen a double-digit rise in IndyCar popularity in four races this year and concluded no damage was suffered by the IndyCar brand.

Toronto – anchored by hometown star James Hinchcliffe, 25, who sits third in the IndyCar standings behind leader Will Power and Helio Castroneves – and Edmonton are the two Canadian stops on the tour.

"Toronto's a staple in our series. It brings out passion, it's one of our highest rate races, its going back [on broadcaster]ABC. It's important," Bernard said. "It would be great to have another race in Canada, but we want to concentrate on making Edmonton and Toronto the two best races we could have."

To come into a large market and have a downtown race is important to the series. Racing on roads, street courses and ovals gives IndyCar a large demographic, Bernard said. Drivers get more passionate about the variety of bumpy concrete-to-asphalt road surfaces on the Exhibition Place and Lakeshore Boulevard site. They start their "cussing games" early, Bernard said. Last year it ended with Power calling eventual winner Dario Franchitti "a princess".

"It adds to the excitement and shows how much winning here means to them," Bernard said.

The 150,000 fans around the Exhibition Place course, from 30 different countries, yielding a $45-million economic impact in Toronto, caught him off guard. "I'd forgotten how many race fans there are in Canada."

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This year, spectators will be looking at a new car buzzing around the course – a smaller engine reduced from 3.5 litres to 2.3, and more fuel efficient as a six-cylinder than it was as an eight.

"We run wind tunnels. … It's designed to be faster. That's what fans want to see – speed. They want to watch the drivers showcase their skills."

Fans will see the race commence from a standing start – another element of the versatility of car and drivers who can handle courses on the roads, the streets and the ovals. The CEO said the drivers need time to practise it, but Toronto would be a good place to try it.

Bernard pointed to the promise of local driver James Hinchcliffe, who takes up the mantle worn by Canadians Scott Goodyear, Paul Tracy and Alex Tagliani, the latter coming off a pole-winning season at Indianapolis.

"I think this year is going to be that much better because of the future Canada has with James Hinchcliffe. I can't stress enough how important this young man is to the Izod IndyCar Series as well as IndyCar," Bernard said.

"I'm putting a lot of eggs in his basket. … This guy is the real deal."

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James Christie written sports for the Globe on staff since 1974, covering almost all beats and interviewed the big names from Joe DiMaggio, to Muhammad Ali, to Jim Brown to Wayne Gretzky. Also covered the 10 worst years in Toronto Maple Leafs hockey history. More

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