Thirty years ago, three-time Verizon IndyCar Series champion Bobby Rahal jump-started his championship challenge with a win in the first-ever race on the streets of Toronto.
The driver of the No. 3 Truesports Budweiser car arrived at Exhibition Place in a mini-slump following his win in the 1986 Indianapolis 500, and used some familiar Canadian scenery to get back in the thick of things.
"Having raced so much earlier in my career in Canada, I always looked forward to going back,” said Rahal who raced in Canada in Formula Atlantic in the 1970s.
“For us (in ’86), we had won Indy but then we had a couple of frankly average races after that, so we were looking forward to getting off on a better foot at that race.”
Despite a controversial penalty for overtaking the pace car, Toronto delivered the first of five wins in the last 10 races that helped push Rahal to his maiden Indy car title. (A photo of Rahal on the 1986 podium with Danny Sullivan and Mario Andretti is at the bottom of this story.)
The eventual three-time season champion also became the first of many great racing names to find the winner's circle at the challenging street course commemorating its 30th anniversary this year with the Honda Indy Toronto, including Sebastien Bourdais, Scott Dixon, Emerson Fittipaldi, Dario Franchitti, Al Unser Jr., Alex Zanardi and the king of Toronto, seven-time winner Michael Andretti.
Along the way, Toronto became one of the longest-running street races in the world, second among Indy car venues only to the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach. The California street circuit hosted its first Indy car race in 1984 with Toronto's beginning two years later.
“The Canadian fans are so supportive of Indy car racing and frankly that is what has kept the race going,” Rahal said. “I started racing in Canada in 1975 and saw Toronto really blossom as a city. The city has really become a spectacular place. That’s almost part and parcel of what made the event so much fun.”
Three decades after Rahal's triumph in the first race, the Honda Indy Toronto remains a hugely popular event with fans and drivers alike. Usually a hard-fought, wheel-to-wheel pitched battle sandwiched between ever-present concrete walls and car-swallowing tire barriers, Toronto tests the mettle of even the toughest competitors.
“It's always a race full of mayhem and you have to survive the restarts. It's tough to win,” said Will Power, driver of the No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet driver who mastered Toronto in 2007.
“Toronto is a track you can really race on, pass on and you can get involved in incidents. But you know if you go to the back that you can get back to the front if you are quick enough.”
Nobody knows more about winning from the back at Exhibition Place than 1991 Indy car champion Andretti, who scored his record seventh victory there in 2001 after dropping to last on the opening lap due to a collision with Dixon.
Then driving for Team Green, Andretti cleverly pitted to top off his tanks under the inevitable yellows and had plenty of fuel available when the leaders switched into save mode late in the race. The strategy allowed him to score an incredible last-to-first win that many feel was the greatest performance in Honda Indy Toronto history.
“After the first lap, I thought the race was over,” Andretti (pictured at top spraying champagne on the 2001 podium with Adrian Fernandez and Alex Tagliani and at left with sons Lucca and Marco) said at the time.
“It was nice to be able to drive hard the whole race and not save fuel. I had fun doing it and I was able to pass a lot of cars. This win ranks right up there with the best of them.”
While Andretti's jaw-dropping seventh win in Toronto impressed many, two of the most welcomed victories were delivered 10 years apart by hometown hero Paul Tracy in 1993 and 2003.
Known as the “Thrill from West Hill,” Tracy's 1992 debut in Toronto didn't go as planned when a gearbox failure saw him retire at one-third distance. A year later, he erased that disappointment with a hugely popular victory in his second try.
“I certainly would have liked to have won more, but luckily I was able to get a few wins at home (in Toronto and Vancouver) and it was great,” Tracy said.
“The year I won the championship in 2003, it was Player's last year (as a team sponsor) in the sport and they wanted to win the title, so to be able to give them that and win in Canada was great,” added Tracy, shown at right being doused with champagne by second-place finisher Michel Jourdain Jr. on the '03 podium.
One of Tracy's best memories in Toronto came in 2000 when California artist Troy Lee painted his race helmet to match the design used by the late Greg Moore, the fellow Canadian who died the year before in a crash at Auto Club Speedway in California. The helmet fetched $45,000 in an auction to benefit the fallen driver's foundation.
Toronto also delivered another fan favorite winner in 2005 when RuSport driver Justin Wilson passed Oriol Servia of Newman/Haas Racing late in the race to secure his and his team's first Indy car victory on the 11-turn, 1.755-mile street course.
As Rahal, Andretti, Tracy, Wilson and others battled for wins on the streets of Toronto, an aspiring youngster named James Hinchcliffe stood on the other side of the fence dreaming of racing in front of his hometown crowd.
Today, Hinchcliffe is living it, but he sometimes reverts to that excited racing-crazy kid who spent more than three hours waiting outside Moore's trailer at the 1999 Toronto race to meet his hero.
“Every once in a while when I'm sitting in pit lane and the team is doing a change on the car, I'm kind of alone with my thoughts and I look out across the Toronto skyline and it hits me a little bit,” said Hinchcliffe, who will be the huge fan favorite in Sunday’s race driving the No. 5 Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda. “I used to look at that same view through a chain-link fence and now I am on the other side of it, which is a cool feeling.”
The lure and excitement of racing on Toronto's challenging street course is so strong that it can even make some want to come out of retirement to try it one more time. Four-time Verizon IndyCar Series champion Dario Franchitti, who called it quits following a serious crash in 2013, didn't feel the urge to get back into the car until he arrived in Toronto the following year working as a driver consultant for Chip Ganassi Racing Teams.
“Qualifying in Toronto was the first time since I stopped that I really wanted to slap on a set of Firestone reds and go for a play,” said Franchitti, a five-time Toronto pole sitter who won the race in 1999, 2009 and 2011.
“I always enjoyed driving there and the challenge of it and I've got some good memories there.”
With Bobby Rahal retired and moved into the role of team owner years ago, son Graham, who drives the No. 15 Rousseau Metal Honda for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, would like nothing better than to create his own memories by celebrating the 30th anniversary just like his father did at the first.
“Obviously it would always be great to win in Toronto, but doing it 30 years after Dad won would certainly be cool as well,” he said. “Toronto is a special race for all of us. I think the Canadian fans always love and respect what we do and come out and support us in big numbers.”
Practice for the Honda Indy Toronto begins Friday, with all practice sessions streamed live on RaceControl.IndyCar.com. Qualifying airs live at 1:30 p.m. ET Saturday on NBCSN. Race coverage begins at 2:30 p.m. ET Sunday on CNBC, with a race re-air at 5:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN.