It was around 8 a.m., July 15, 2005, and it was teeming with rain in Edmonton, AB. There were still a couple of hours to go before the first on-track appearance of the weekend's big draw, the Champ Car World Series. And yet for Friday's free practice at the City Centre Airport, the grandstands were already well populated.
In the pressroom, Robin Miller leaned toward me conspiratorially and said, “Hey Davey, have you ever seen anything like this?”, as he pointed to the TV screens showing a multitude of cheery grins wrapped in layers of waterproof apparel, sitting in rain-lashed grandstands. “It's a rainy Friday morning in Alberta, and this is a bigger crowd than Milwaukee had on a sunny race day.”
Robin was right: Canada's enthusiasm for open-wheel racing is extraordinary. So was that first Edmonton Grand Prix's weekend spectator figure which, we were told, nudged 200,000. This eventually dropped by 25 percent, but that's still a healthy nucleus of repeat visitors.
That's no surprise. Even from the lowest tier of the grandstands, Edmonton's layout allows you to see vast swathes of the track. In part, this is because of the area's topography. As the local customs officer told me one year, “It's so flat around here that if your dog runs away, you can still see him two days later.” But whoever designed the track should also be commended, for he or she was clearly a racing enthusiast. For a nearly two-mile course, the track is compacted into an impressively tight area and comprises runways, taxiways and access roads. All are wide, allowing huge speed through turns.
If the seats allow you to keep an eye on a lot of cars at once, you can also go and stand at areas where you can watch an Indy car – and its driver – being put through as rigorous a workout as either will face all season, skipping over bumps, dancing across curbs.
Current IZOD IndyCar Series leader Will Power remarked: “Edmonton doesn't really fall into any category except ‘airport circuit.' That's why I look at Watkins Glen this year as my first true road course win. Edmonton's got fast flowing corners like the Glen, but with all those bumps, and tire walls next to concrete blocks, it's like a speeded up street track. Yeah, I'd say Edmonton's a combination of road and street course. I love it. It's unique.”
Of course, it wasn't always unique. For three glorious years, 2005-'07, the Champ Car World Series had both Edmonton and Cleveland on its schedule and at both these airport courses, the racing was excellent and the crowd had fantastic vantage points. Sure, the bleachers at Cleveland's Burke Lakefront Airport could leave spectators suffering the aluminum equivalent of snow blindness, and reflected heat from the pale pavement intensified the effects of an intense and sultry Ohio summer. But if you were able to watch Mario and Michael Andretti, Alex Zanardi, Paul Tracy and Sebastien Bourdais strut their stuff, who was complaining?
No one…nor was anyone coming up with the necessary sponsorship dollars, either. Cleveland became one of the casualties of the Champ Car/Indy Racing League merger, and I hope I'm being unduly pessimistic when I say that its chances of reappearing on the IZOD IndyCar Series schedule seems ever more remote each year it remains absent.
Cleveland's absence is one reason it's so important that Edmonton is retained on the IICS calendar. Yes, Honda Indy Edmonton (its latest name) has a DNA that stretches over just six events, but the track is as unique for drivers as it is for spectators, its width promotes great wheel-to-wheel action and Canada is a country that still regards open-wheel racing as the pinnacle of motorsports.
Let's hope, in light of the new three-year deal that was rumored to be imminent as we went to press, that enthusiasm is matched by profitability in the years to come.