The NTT IndyCar Series returns to Toronto this weekend after a two-year hiatus sparked by the coronavirus pandemic. It has been 55 years since IndyCar held its first championship round in Canada. Since 1967, the National Championship has been raced for in various cities north of the border from Montreal to Vancouver on Canada’s West Coast, but IndyCar’s most tenured event in Canada by far is the street race in Toronto. It’s hard to believe that the temporary circuit was originally intended to host Formula 1’s Canadian Grand Prix.
IndyCar’s first visit to Canada was the 1967 Telegraph Trophy 200 at Mosport, today known as Canadian Tire Motorsport Park. Mosport, located roughly 50 miles northeast of Toronto, was and arguably still is the premier permanent racing facility in Canada. Only a month later, the track also hosted Canada’s first world championship Grand Prix. IndyCar would visit the Ontarian circuit again in 1968 before ending the partnership, in parallel with the conclusion of a brief two-year stint visiting Circuit Mont-Tremblant in Quebec.
In 1968, there was a proposal to move both IndyCar and F1 races to Toronto. The planned track centered around the Canadian National Exhibition and used Lake Shore Drive, similarly to the current IndyCar street circuit. The only major difference between the two was that the now-demolished Exhibition Stadium’s field would have been used for the start-finish straight.
The move would have taken away Mosport’s two most profitable events, so the track owners went to extreme measures to prevent it. They went to a local neighborhood group in Toronto to sow discontent against a potential race on their streets. According to the Toronto Star, they “scared the living daylights out of them with stories about deafness from noise, and terror brought on by Hells Angels who would burn down their houses and kidnap their daughters.”
It worked. The Canadian Grand Prix stayed at Mosport, but IndyCar abandoned Canada. Mosport would go on to host eight of the first ten Canadian Grands Prix. During that span, Canadian brewery Labatt would become the race’s title sponsor. Also, Formula 1 racing became dramatically faster and much more popular over the decade. The Grand Prix outgrew Mosport, and Labatt wanted to take up a revised version of the late 60s proposal for 1978, but the public opinion was still against the idea a decade later. Toronto City Council voted to reject the event by a margin of two votes. The Canadian Grand Prix moved to Montreal instead, where it remains today.
In the wake of the Montreal move, Labatt’s competitor Molson helped IndyCar return to Canada in 1978 with a race at Mosport. In 1985, Molson decided that the third time could be the charm and spared no expense to make it happen. Toronto-based newspaper The Globe and Mail referred to the event as “the most expensive beer commercial in Canadian history.” Toronto City Council voted in favor this time by a margin of two votes. There were a number of conditions, including capping attendance at 60,000 and Molson covering the costs of road resurfacing.
Besides a small spat with the Indianapolis Motor Speedway over the use of the term “Indy” in the event name, the 1986 Molson Indy Toronto went off without a hitch and became a perennial fixture on IndyCar’s schedule. Molson was the race’s title sponsor for 30 years until the partnership ended after the 2006 event.