Random Thoughts On Belle Isle

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Last year, I was chastised unmercifully for my negative commentary on the Dual in Detroit. The two races last year were both affected by rain and I thought they were boring for the most part. When I said so, I was accused of eating an extra bowl of Grumpy Flakes and pouring negativity all over the series.

At first, I decided last week that my return to the keyboard should be more upbeat. After all, I had ridden the euphoria of the 100th Running of the Indianapolis 500 all through the week and didn’t even have too much of a post-May letdown. That could be due to the fact that Susan and I are heading to the IndyCar race at Road America in two and a half weeks. But when I realized that the qualifying order for Friday’s race looked like more of the same before the Indianapolis 500, I thought to myself – “Typical Belle Isle, here we go again”.

I decided that if the racing was as boring as last year, I would be true to myself and unload. – Grumpy Flakes or not. It’s no secret that Belle Isle is my least favorite track on any CART, Champ Car or IndyCar schedule. It’s especially frustrating that the series goes from racing on my favorite track on Sunday to practicing on my least favorite the next Friday. I think if this event was slotted later in the schedule, I could tolerate it better.

If the IndyCar upper brass would ever be foolish enough to ask me my opinion, I would say swap weekends with Eddie Gossage at Texas Motor Speedway and run his Texas race the Saturday night after Indianapolis, run Belle Isle the next week and then go to Road America. Gossage wants that date. It could be a good bargaining chip down the road if IndyCar ever has visions of running at Circuit of the Americas (COTA) in Austin.

Gossage has threatened to pull his popular 1.5 mile oval off the schedule if IndyCar runs at COTA. Give Eddie the date he wants and get his blessing for COTA in exchange. That way Gossage gets the date he wants, it clears the way for COTA and IndyCar gets to fully capitalize on the momentum built by the Indianapolis 500 and run on another competitive high-speed oval, rather than two days of a relatively slow speed parade. But what do I know?

Fortunately, I don’t have to be that negative on Belle Isle – for this year anyway. Although it wasn’t edge-of-your-seat excitement, there were enough things going on to add a good deal of suspense to each race and make both of them more than mildly entertaining. Some claim that I overuse the word “enjoyable”, which is ironic when I’m also accused of being Mr. Grumpy Flakes – but I did actually enjoy both races.

Sébastien Bourdais used a very effective strategy and fast pit work to win Saturday’s race. He rolled the dice on Sunday, but the plan back-fired with no yellows in the final stint. Bourdais had to pit on Lap 58 and ended up eighth in yesterday’s race. Alexander Rossi looked like he might have been trying to duplicate last weekend’s improbable Indianapolis 500 win by stretching another fuel run to the limit. He led in the closing stages but had to pit on Lap 60, handing the lead over to Will Power, who had no such fuel issues. Power led the final ten laps to take the checkered flag for the first time since mid-May of last year, when he won the 2015 Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indianapolis.

Both races had plenty to keep viewers happy – even me. There were several different pit strategies in play, involving tire compounds as well as fuel tactics. There was plenty of bumping and banging, especially in yesterday’s race – probably a little too much to James Hinchcliffe’s liking, as he was taken out in the first turn of the first lap after enduring a difficult day on Saturday also.

Most importantly, there was decent racing – especially considering the tight confines of Belle Isle. There weren’t many passes up front, but there were many good battles further back in the pack. Helio Castroneves did pass teammate Simon Pagenaud for the lead in yesterday’s race on Lap 41 and you’d be hard-pressed to find a better pass than the one Will Power put on Pagenaud on the last restart. Although they were not yet at the front, that proved to be the winning move as Power won and Pagenaud finished second on Sunday.

So for those who expected me to blast the Dual in Detroit this past weekend, you’ll be disappointed to find that I found the races to be…um…enjoyable. I just wish the dual fell at a different time in the calendar.

TV Coverage: Where do I begin? There were some highs and lows for the final weekend of ABC’s coverage of the Verizon IndyCar Series for 2016. But in my opinion, everything was overshadowed by one thing. I’m just curious how many people noticed it.

When Juan Montoya crashed in Turn 10 on Lap 35, ABC had just gone to a commercial. That’s bad luck, but you can’t fault them for that. However, after watching a couple of laps of cleanup, ABC decided to cut away for local commercials – meaning no side by side. Shortly into the commercial break, I checked Twitter, only to find a video from IndyCar showing the restart of the race. I checked timing and scoring to see that the track was green, yet I was still looking at local cheesy commercials for bad lawyers. When ABC came back, they showed the restart and from that point on – they were three and half laps behind for the rest of the day.

Some may see this as no big deal. If I chose to DVR the race and watch it later, it would obviously be no big deal. But I came in from outdoor chores to watch this race live, so it was a big deal to me. I felt duped and also felt that ABC/ESPN was insulting my intelligence. Most probably wouldn’t agree with me, but I would have preferred that they come back and fess up that they missed the first three laps after the restart. Oh well.

The highs for the weekend started with the segment showing a behind the scenes look at what all went into ABC’s production of last week’s telecast of the Indianapolis 500. Some feel like it’s time to turn the page from Indianapolis and never speak of it again. I disagree. Without the Indianapolis 500, there would be no Verizon IndyCar Series. You see how long CART/Champ Car was able to survive without that race. So, I have no problem with continual references to the Indianapolis 500 throughout the season and I found this segment fascinating.

I’m also a big Allen Bestwick fan. To me, he is the consummate professional. He is adept at calling IndyCar, NASCAR or College Football and does all of them flawlessly. I don’t think NASCAR when I hear his voice. Instead, I hear a knowledgeable motorsports broadcaster that could call anything that rolls. He was a highpoint throughout ABC’s short season and that continued through this past weekend.

I really thought Scott Goodyear had a…well, um…good year. Did he suddenly become the best racing analyst on television today? No, but he showed vast improvement over what he had brought to the booth for the past few years. I really thought his best years were when he partnered with Paul Page in the early part of last decade. It was when Eddie Cheever came to the booth in 2008 that Goodyear flat-lined.

And that brings me to Eddie Cheever. During his racing days, he crashed out early in the Texas night race (I think 1997 or 1998) and was brought up to the booth as a guest analyst. He was hilarious and brought great insight. That’s why I was excited when it was announced he would be joining the broadcast for the 2008 season. I was disappointed when he showed up as stiff and boring. I figured it would take some time for him to loosen up. I’m still waiting.

This season and this weekend in particular, Cheever sounded like he was on another planet. He was master of the obvious, with such astute observations as “the fastest car usually wins” or “the teams that use the best strategies are usually always up front”. I’m paraphrasing, but these were typical of what came out of Cheever’s mouth this weekend.

The sad thing is that I understand that Cheever and Goodyear are hilarious to be around when they aren’t in the booth. But when the red light goes on, they both must assume totally different personalities, because their on-air chemistry is still not there after all these years.

If I were calling the shots at ABC, I would keep Bestwick in the booth but I would take a hard look at replacing one or both analysts with either a recently retired former champion or possibly a driver that may retire at the end of this season, whoever they may be.

Or how about Pippa Mann? The Indianapolis 500 is usually her first race of the season. I thought she did a great job the year she was an analyst of the IMS Radio Network, before politics put Davey Hamilton back in her seat. If any personality in the booth might bring in more viewers, it would be Pippa Mann. Did you hear the ovation she got when she was introduced at last week’s Indianapolis 500? It rivaled that of Helio Castroneves and James Hinchcliffe. She is very popular among fans and could bring viewers in for the first few races until it’s time for her to run in the “500”. Any later appearances by her on track would not be hampered because all later races are covered by NBCSN. It’s just a thought and it probably won’t happen because it makes too much sense.

Montoya’s Woes: Don’t look now, but we are witnessing a major free-fall with Juan Montoya. After winning the season-opener at St. Petersburg for the second year in a row, many thought that would lead to a season like last year, where Montoya led the championship throughout the season and into the final race, before letting Scott Dixon steal the championship at the season-ender at Sonoma. It hasn’t happened.

Montoya left St. Petersburg with the points lead. Now at the halfway point of a sixteen race season, Montoya has plummeted to ninth in the championship and trails all of his teammates at Team Penske – including Will Power, who missed the season-opener.

Montoya still shows flashes of brilliance, like winning at St. Petersburg and finishing third in Saturday’s race. But he finished dead-last in the Indianapolis 500 and twentieth in Sunday’s race in Detroit; both the result of single-car crashes where he appeared to just lose it for no apparent reason. What’s most troubling is that his body language after both accidents, were that of a man who really didn’t care.

Did losing last year’s championship do more of a number on Montoya than we realized? Does he really no longer care or burn for victories like he did throughout most of his open-wheel career? The Montoya I saw get out of the car yesterday looked like the same Montoya who had seemingly grown content with toiling mid-pack for years in NASCAR.

Montoya will be forty-one in September. I’m wondering if he has reached that point in his career when he realizes he no longer needs this. Rick Mears reached that point as he was sliding on his head in practice for the 1992 Indianapolis 500. He retired that Christmas and never stepped foot in a car again. Is this just a slump that Montoya is in, or are we witnessing the beginning of the end of a long and storied career for a legendary driver? Time will tell.

Two Big Days for Daly: If you were skeptical about the hype surrounding Conor Daly’s driving abilities, there’s still room to hop aboard the bandwagon. But you’d better get on board soon. It’s about to get really crowded.

On Saturday, Daly started sixteenth and finished with an impressive second-place and a step just below the winner’s on the podium. If advancing fourteen positions on Saturday with a sly pit strategy wasn’t enough to impress you; what about his performance on Sunday? It was in Race 2 that Daly followed the same pit strategy as the leaders and moved up from a starting spot of twenty-first (last on the grid) and moved up all day to finish sixth.

I’ve become very impressed with what Daly has done. He has made the most of his full-time ride with Dale Coyne this season. If he keeps this up, he will likely be snatched away from one of the top teams in the series. Good for him! The likeable driver from Noblesville, Indiana has patiently waited on this opportunity. I’m glad he hasn’t wasted it.

A Nice Omission: When Will Power climbed out of his car to celebrate yesterday, one could forgive him if he forgot how to do it. After all, it had been thirteen months since his last victory.

Whether he forgot it or has made a conscious decision to leave it out of his celebratory repertoire, I was glad to see that Power didn’t do that silly little jump from his car that was so prominent whenever he won just a few years ago. It’s a little thing, but I found it very irritating. Perhaps others did too and let him know about it. Whatever the case, I was glad to not see it yesterday.

All in All: This weekend at Belle Isle in Detroit was better than most – from a TV viewing perspective, that is. From what I understand from those that go, it is now a very nice venue to go to. Although there were some visible empty seats, the crowd looked good for both days, so they must be doing something right.

But there are many duds and clunkers in the history of this race since they left downtown and started running at Belle Isle in 1992. There will be others, but fortunately – that didn’t happen on either day this weekend. The racing was good and it was fun to watch all the different strategies working against each other throughout each race.

I still say they should swap this race date with Eddie Gossage at Texas Motor Speedway and let him promote having the Indianapolis 500 winner at his track less than a week after the “500”. That’s the way to capitalize on momentum.

Speaking of Texas, that’s where the Verizon IndyCar Series heads next this Saturday night. Now that’s one I’m looking forward to.

George Phillips

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24 Responses to “Random Thoughts On Belle Isle”

  1. like to see Sunday’s grid set by order of finish of Saturday’s race. like to see one of the races at night. like to see Belle Isle on any weekend but the one following the 500. like to see Bestwick paired with any other announcers. like to see Indycar at COTA.

  2. I like your idea about swapping the Texas weekend to appease Eddie Gossage, and open up COTA as a possibility. It looks like Bernie has milked just about all the $$$ he can out of the race at COTA. Would not be surprised to see F1 drop it from their schedule next year in favor of some place like Turkmenistan.

  3. Ron Ford Says:

    When it comes to racing I am pretty easily pleased, so I enjoyed both races. I have no problems with the announcers one way or the other since it is a visual medium, particularly at Belle Isle. Conor Daly continues to impress. I thought the pass that Power made on his teammate, tiptoeing around the outside, was exquisite. Judging by what happens to roads here in Wisconsin when the frost goes out of the ground each spring, I think Belle Isle will always be bumpy.

  4. The only good thing about racing at Belle Isle is the potential for unexpected winners, so Race 1 was better than Race 2. I’ve got to be honest, I was a little disappointing to see Indycar revert to the pre-Indy status quo (Penske dominance, fuel strategy racing, minimal on track action) so fast. Hopefully Road America, Watkins Glen, Toronto and Iowa provide something better.

    As for Texas… I find that “race” hard to watch. Texas could be such a great race… instead it’s a bad NASCAR 1.5 mile race at slightly higher speeds.

  5. billytheskink Says:

    While I would like to see Indycar at COTA as well, I think the track needs more than Eddie Gossage’s blessing to join the schedule. I was told (granted, this was third hand) that an attempt to reschedule the Houston race at COTA for 2015 was rebuffed not by Gossage’s demands but by COTA itself, citing an agreement with Formula 1. The track has not, to my knowledge, publically stated an interest in hosting an Indycar race (that may change if they lose F1) and Gossage has only barred his teeth at the possibility when asked directly about it by a speculative reporter.

    In any event, Gossage’s displeasure with COTA and the possibility of an Indycar race there is very understandable, if you look closely at his situation. With the X Games ending this past weekend instead of the upcoming one, this next Indycar race will be the first time in several years that COTA has not scheduled a motorsports-involved event directly opposite of one of Texas Motor Speedway’s three annual race dates (dates they have largely held since 1998). Much was made in 2014 of both the Texas NASCAR race and COTA F1 race being scheduled on the same day, but COTA has also hosted the X Games (when it had rallycross), Moto GP, and a major vintage racing event during every single one of Texas’ race dates since. While the fanbases for these variety of motorsports may or may not overlap enormously, having events scheduled directly opposite each other creates an unnecessary amount of competition for sponsorship, hospitality, and media attention.

    I enjoyed the Detroit races well enough. I expect I will enjoy Texas Motor Speedway on Saturday night much more, because I’ll be there. If Indycar ever races at COTA, I will be there and enjoy it too.

  6. The “dual” format is grating on me a bit. Aside from weather, it’s typically the same race but with a slightly different cast based on who gets unlucky and crashes out. Not a huge fan.

    Not a huge fan of the circuit, either. Either find a way to grind down most of the bumps, or re-lay the track on a purpose-laid bed that can withstand the winter heave. If the can do it with concrete slabs on the Chrysler test track in Auburn Hills, the GM facility in Milford, or the Ford Greenfield Village tracks, they can do it on Belle Isle.

    One more thing about the format: run sunday on the reverse circuit. The cars have refueling adapters on both sides, and drivers have experience in refueling left side vs right side. Make it a truer test of driver skill.

    • sejarzo Says:

      I believe the entrances for safety vehicles and runoffs, not to mention pit in and out, are all designed assuming the cars run the circuit clockwise.

  7. I thought Eddie Gossage has said in the past that he wants his race to come two weeks after Indy, as that gives him enough time to properly promote his race as having the winner of the Indy 500 in it. Of course, I think I’ve also read that he doesn’t want a race in between Indy and Texas, as it means that he gets to have the “next race on the schedule after Indy”, but I suspect that he’s going to have to pick one thing or the other forever, as doing an off week directly after Indy is basically never going to be an option.

    As for Detroit, they (both) were motor races. I enjoyed them.

  8. Yannick Says:

    Thanks George for acknowledging that these were two good races at Belle Isle this past weekend. I completely agree.

    To be honest, the current layout of Belle Isle is OK, and my least favourite track on the calendar lately would be Reliant Park, Houston, TX. I’m kind of glad they don’t race there anymore, even though the sponsor would probably have them back.

    I tried watching on Sunday but the webstream in my area just broke away time in time again so I gave up. Texas is not happening for me because it’s completely out of my time zone.

  9. Actually… I kind of wish Road America were the race after Indy. Granted, MotoAmerica was there this weekend, but it seems to me Road America is close enough to Indy to get the cars there, and probably put on a better race than Belle Isle, and as much as it pains me to say this, Texas. Unless the racing at Texas improves alot, there’s no more point in having Texas as the first post Indy race than Belle Isle. I would prefer an exciting oval (Chicagoland/Fontana/Iowa/Kentucky) as the first post Indy race but the odds of that are slim. It seems possible to switch Belle and Road America with each other and increase the excitement without damaging anyone too badly.

    • Ron Ford Says:

      The chances of switching Belle Isle and Road America dates next year are slim to none. Fontana got screwed over on dates and it is gone. Milwaukee got screwed over on dates and it is gone. Take a look at the Road America schedule. You will be hard put to find a single open day let alone a open weekend. The traditional Road America events have long standing date continuity.

  10. Detroit has always been my least favorite. The major redeeming factor for street races is random stuff usually pops up and creates interest. Belle Isle (clears throat) is what it is and this week was typical of Belle Isle. It’s a LOT better now than with the old Dallara. Back then Belle Isle it really was a nap aid. I agree that having this race right after Indy is a major buzz kill. But, it’s Roger’s race and it has solid sponsors, so those two facts mean it’s not going anywhere. The ABC announcer thing is kind of perplexing. Television isn’t a real sentimental industry, so if the booth trio didn’t generate the results desired, they wouldn’t be there. I find Eddie especially grating, but I think a lot of blame for boring races gets projected onto the ABC crew, honestly. When the race is a snoozer, random goofy stuff from the booth does help hold my interest. I’m with commenters above … Texas has gone from thrilling to a NASCAR race with wings lately, which makes it down by Belle Isle in my list of favorite races. I also hope you resist pressure from the Grumpy Flakes score, George. IndyCar has enough Pollyanna’s. I appreciate an honest take on things, good bad or ugly.

  11. sejarzo Says:

    Most sports leagues/series have the right of approval for the TV announcers. If that’s the case for ICS and ABC, I wonder why either Cheever or Goodyear are still around.

  12. Chris Lukens Says:

    Maybe in my older years I am becoming more curmudgeonly. I thought instead of the “Dual In Detroit” it should have been the “Dull In Detroit.” Was it a good race – sure. Was it an exciting race – no way.
    And the TV guys. I feel sorry for Bestwick being in the booth with those two other guys. I feel sorry for Beekuis for not getting more than about five minutes total air time. The obvious talent of these guys is being wasted. The two ( out of many ) comments that almost made me put a shoe through the TV. The first was being told, very excitedly, that Dixon was slowing down ( of course he was, he was in the pits ). And the second was when my viewing was enhanced by Goodyear telling us that Belle Isle would float away if not for the concrete blocks on the shoreline.

    • billytheskink Says:

      If Belle Isle floated away the right way, then there’s Indycar’s much-desired second Canadian race!

  13. tonelok Says:

    Any venue that succeeds the Indy 500 is going to suffer. Belle Isle, is probably the worst of all the tracks to fill that role but it does not sound like that is going to change. I agree with someone that said TMS has kind of turned into a snoozer as well. I have not been to Belle Isle but something tells me being there in person would have redeeming qualities. Did anyone see that shot of Power’s wife? Sometimes I wonder who is carrying more stress- the driver, or wife.

    • I always feel for Liz Power, but the look of sheer joy (and relief) on her face when Will won was dazzling. Will was mightily relieved too.

    • Ron Ford Says:

      I should get slapped up alonside the head whenever I descend into the comments section on any Racer.Com article. This week there was a long string of comments by folks complaining that ABC shows the driver’s wives. One idiot said it was “contrived drama”. Sheesh!

  14. I agree with you all the Belle Isle weekend was better than many before. The highlight for me was Conor Daly. What a good show he put on for the fans. I think Conor is in a good place with Dale Coyne and I am positive that he will continue to grow as a racer this season.

    I will spare everyone my crocodile tears, while saying farewell to the ABC crew. I have listened to Dario commentating with Formula E and think he would be a perfect replacement once he is ready to be in the booth.

  15. I attended the Saturday race. I can tell you George, they are doing something right up there. On good advice, we bought tickets in Grandstand 2, and purchased the paddock passes as well. It was a first-rate experience all around. I particularly enjoyed the close-access in the garage area. I got so many great pictures of the cars!

    While at the KV paddock, Jimmy Vasser took the time to walk over to us and say hello. This was 30 minutes before the cars headed out to the pits. He didn’t have to do that. Very cool. We wished him luck and what da’ya know…his guy wins the race.

    Helio said hello to us and EVERYONE while cruising by on his scooter and smiling ear to ear. I met him once before in Vegas on my honeymoon. He was super cool then too. Seems his enthusiasm on TV isn’t an act.

    Same time Helio was heading one way, Chip was scooting by the other direction, not looking happy and not saying hello to anyone. Can’t blame Chip I suppose. He hasn’t had much to smile about this year.

    Food and beverage prices were reasonable, and there was plenty of variety. The crowd (at least in our section) was respectful and friendly. Belle Isle staff was very friendly and helpful.

    Shuttle transportation off the island after the race was efficient and coordinated. Team Penske had a crew person at the venue’s exit thanking everyone for attending the race. Very classy. Not surprising.

    Met Gabby Chaves’ mom Saturday night while dining at MGM Grand Detroit. Really nice lady. I think my friend was hitting on her until she said she had to go to meet up with her boyfriend……….Alexander Rossi’s dad! Hey, I can’t make this stuff up! haha.

    Next year we plan on attending both days. I was pleasantly surprised by how much fun this was!

    • Ron Ford Says:

      How nice to hear of your positive experiences at the track. I have long felt that the experiences and preferences of folks who attend a race should count for more than that of those who watch on TV.

  16. EDGAR Emmitt Says:

    Frankly this Penske doubleheader is a let down after Indy IMO.
    Can the street courses they are boring.
    As far as the guys in the booth I think they do a fine job.When I’m watching the race I don’t need someone talking all the time.Way to many announcers don’t stop talking I don’t need that given that I’m watching the event.
    FOOT NOTE/ OUTSIDE OF INDIANA THE TV RATINGS FOR THE 500 WERE NOT THAT GOOD.NOT A GOOD SIGN.

  17. Bruce Waine Says:

    George – After a less that pleasant (aka rude) experience from Juan at the Penske souvenir trailer at Indy when all of Team Penske were signing autographs, it is difficult to equate the word “legendary” with Juan.

    From the stands while attending the 500, my family also noticed that when Juan spun and was out of the race at the Indy 500, there was no audible reaction by the spectators.

    A sign of the times from the spectators?

    Perhaps, he has already left the series as a racer………………….

  18. Pippa is very popular, but is not accomplished. Dario Franchitti would be the ideal new voice in the ABC booth. 3 time Indy winner, 4 time IndyCar champ, and how about the nostalgic sound of a Scotsman calling the Indy 500?

    If ABC could let Eddie Cheever be himself, he’d be terrific. Overall, he and Scott Goodyear have much better chemistry with a true broadcasting leader like Allen Bestwick than with Mousy Marty.

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