Random Thoughts On Belle Isle
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.