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'Gross' sensory overload at Honda Indy Toronto

The sound of the race is unmistakable, that high-pitched whine of finely tuned machines chasing each other for victory at the Honda Indy Toronto Sunday at Exhibition Place.

But other senses come into play, says Dario Franchitti, the 38-year-old Scotsman who leads the IndyCar standings. The IndyCar defending champ, who has three wins this season, has 303 points and holds a 20-point lead over another three-race winner in 2011, Australian Will Power, the defending champion on the Toronto waterfront.

On what is expected to be a hot, humid day, Franchitti and 25 others will try to harness the horses for 85 laps of the track. To the outside observer, it's going for a fast ride. Inside the cockpit and inside the pits, it's a world of steam and perspiration and vibration.

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"The taste is the sweat running down your face, and the drink bottle and water pipe going into your mouth. It's gross," said Franchitti, who is married to actress Ashley Judd.

"In the car I wear nasal strips on my big nose to get enough air through my small nostrils. These cars run on ethanol so there really isn't a smell, until something goes very wrong and you have an accident.

"Then the first thing you smell is the tortured rubber sliding across the track, and the different parts of the car that might be on fire. Smells happen when it goes wrong."

Two weeks ago, in the Iowa race, it went wrong for Power in a crash. He got the smells. He also got the tests.

"They test the reflexes. They test the short-term memory and compare it with baseline tests they run at the beginning of the year," he said at a news conference Friday after a 25-hour odyssey from his home in Charlotte, N.C., which included a flight cancellation, a search for baggage and a visit with Canada Customs officials. He said he could have driven to Toronto faster.

"Everything was fine and I'll race here," Power said. "I didn't get knocked out, just a headache. It was a light concussion. I've done two test days since."

It's a more nerve-racking job than it seems, said Franchitti, who earned his first pole position in Toronto in 1997.

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"Don't get me wrong, I enjoy doing what I've wanted to do since I was a boy, driving Indy cars for the best team [Target Chip Ganassi Racing] in the series. But in the quest for success, you focus so hard on the details of it you rarely come up for air. You don't have a chance to enjoy it. But that's the price, isn't it? I still consider myself very, very fortunate to have this life to live. I devote myself to it."

Franchitti said he drives a precision instrument and must work in perfect harmony with his pit crew, car builders, strategists for everything to work.

"You've got to have that all in synch," Franchitti said. "There are elements that are not in your control. In Iowa [which was won by Marco Andretti], we led so many laps. We had a pit stop and I made a tactical error coming out on the restart and the next thing you know, we weren't second or third but fifth. It's a business of details."

Sometimes he is aggressive and takes a risk to pass or to win, "but it depends on the situation."

"But it's a risky business," he added. "If you didn't want to take risks, you'd drive at 50 miles an hour in the middle of the track. There's always an element of risk no matter what you do. It's how late you brake for a corner, how close you get to a wall, an overtaking manoeuvre in a restart. There's always a calculation of risk against reward."

Humidity on Sunday will have little effect on the Honda-built engine, and rain will not be any deterrent to winning. "I grew up in Scotland," Franchitti said. "I did a lot of driving in the rain and I've won races in the rain as well."

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The infamous bumpy Toronto street course makes the Indy stop here a challenge, he said.

"It's part of the charm of Toronto. Each time you touch a concrete or asphalt surface, you get a different grip level. It affects everything. Whatever part of the track you're on, you're pushing the car to its limit. When you're coming out of a corner, you're accelerating as hard as you can, when you are going down the straight, you're shifting gears at the last possible second to get the maximum rpm's, when you come into a corner, you're braking as late as possible without locking the tires up and missing the corner. You make turns at the car's limit [of holding the course], despite the bumps."

It's a physical track that requires drivers to be athletes, Franchitti said. He lifts weights and does cardio work cycling, rowing and kayaking "trying to replicate [the stresses and strains] the body goes through in the car. What you can't replicate is the G-forces."

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Sports reporter

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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