There once was a time when IndyCar racing was a national fascination in Canada. However, since the late 90s the nation’s prowess on the circuit has dropped off. TSN.ca Producer Shane McNeil questions why.
Originally published TSN.ca – July 22, 2012.
For two-thirds of the Edmonton Indy on Sunday, it looked like it might be Alex Tagliani’s day.
The Lachenaie, Que.-native led for almost two-thirds of the race, but fell behind for good after his second pit stop.
Finishing fifth, it was a decent showing for the Canadian on home soil, but Tagliani’s failure to capture the checkered flag means that it has now been more than five years since a Canadian driver has reached the top of the podium at an Indy race, the last coming when Paul Tracy claimed the 2007 Cleveland Grand Prix.
James Hinchcliffe – expected to be Canada’s next great racing hope – finished 12th overall.
What has happened to Canada’s winning tradition in IndyCar racing?
That victory came in the final season of the Champ Car World Series, before it merged with the Indy Racing League to form the current IZOD IndyCar Series.
The reunification of the two leading circuits has coincided with a long drought for Canadian drivers in a sport that once captivated an entire nation.
Starting in the early 1990s a crop of Canadian drivers emerged to take North American open-wheel racing by storm.
Scott Goodyear thrust himself into the national spotlight in 1992, finishing a mere 0.043 behind Al Unser Jr. at the Indianapolis 500. The result remains the closest finish in the race’s 101-year history. Goodyear would win the Marlboro 500 that same year to become the first Canadian Indy driver since Jacques Villeneuve Sr. in 1985 to win an Indy race.
From there the floodgates opened.
Tracy would win five races in 1993 including the Molson Indy in Toronto, becoming the first Canadian to win on home soil.
The next year, Canadians would win five Indy races, including three by Tracy, helping him to third in the year-end driver’s standings. That year would also mark the debut of Jacques Villeneuve (the younger), who would win Rookie of the Year honours.
Villeneuve would help launch the team that would come to define Canadian racing for the next decade. Forsythe-Pettit Racing – under the sponsorship of Player’s – would produce a long line of successful Canadian drivers.
Despite losing Villeneuve to Team Green, where he would win the Indy driver’s title as well as the Indy 500 in 1995, Forsythe found success with the likes of Greg Moore, Patrick Carpentier and Tagliani who would thrive on the circuit from 1996 through 2004.
Tracy and the Forsythe drivers became breakout stars in North America while Villeneuve conquered the Formula One circuit with Williams-Renault, winning the 1997 overall Grand Prix points title.
The future looked bright, with Forsythe’s pipeline of successful Canadian drivers winning races at the Indy Lights and Atlantic Championship levels as well. In addition to developing Moore, Carpentier and Tagliani, the team’s stable included promising young drivers like David Empringham, Claude Bourbonnais and Lee Bentham.
Forsythe’s biggest breakthrough, however, would come in 2003.
After signing with Forsythe from Team Green, Tracy would win the CART driver’s championship in 2003 after winning seven races. He along with Carpentier and Tagliani would guide Canada to the Nation’s Cup that season with a Canadian reaching the podium in 13 of the season’s 18 races.
The trio would repeat the feat in 2004, missing the podium just four times in 14 races.
However, the bubble would burst soon after.
The Vancouver Indy – founded in 1990 – would run for the last time in 2004. The Grand Prix of Montreal would also be cancelled after just five races in 2006.
The Toronto Indy, long viewed as the strongest Indy event in Canada, would also be forced to shut down, cancelling the 2008 race after the merger of CART and IRL. It would return in 2009 with fresh sponsorship from Honda.
Coupled with a lack of success on the track, the sport’s prestige in Canada has tumbled in recent years.
But is the sport on the rebound?
Hinchcliffe has become the nation’s poster-boy in the sport after winning the 2011 Rookie of the Year Award and has a pair of podium finishes under his belt thus far in 2012.
The Series’ CEO has also hinted at adding another Canadian race for the 2013 season, so there may still be room for further growth for Indy north of the border.
So, what do you think?
Is Indy’s star once again on the rise in Canada, or are the series’ glory days merely a thing of the past?