Random Thoughts On Belle Isle

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I find it fascinating that the Verizon IndyCar Series can race on the same 2.36 mile stretch of pavement over a twenty-four hour period, have two distinctly different races yet come up with the same car in victory lane both days. Odd as it seems, that is exactly what happened this past weekend at Belle Isle in the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix.

To say that Graham Rahal was dominant this weekend may be an understatement. His domination of this track reminded me of how much Michael Andretti owned Toronto in the early to mid-nineties. No one could touch Andretti at Toronto in those days and Rahal was the same this past weekend. To use a phrase that Eddie Cheever used more than once, he was in a league all of his own.

The difference was that when Michael Andretti was ruling the streets of Toronto, he was with one of the best teams in the business – Newman/Haas Racing. No disrespect to Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, but they are one of the smaller teams in the paddock. In fact, they are the only single car team on the grid – although he did have a teammate in Oriol Servia this weekend. Perhaps having Servia giving additional feedback was the difference-maker.

Most of us pull for the underdog, no matter the situation. It’s human nature. To see the smaller Rahal team beat the “Big Three” of Penske, Ganassi and Andretti by this great a margin is a major storyline. The fact that the series now heads into Texas where Graham Rahal is the defending champion makes it that much more interesting.

Heading into the weekend, Graham Rahal was fifteenth in points, having fought hard but enduring terrible luck throughout the first six races of the season. Whether it was poor qualifying for road courses or a cut tire late in the Indianapolis 500, Rahal couldn’t buy a break. But with two wins, a pole and leading the most laps in the lone double-header of the season – Rahal left the Motor City yesterday in sixth place and back in the championship hunt.

As I mentioned, the two races may have had the same winner, but they could not have been more different. In all honesty, Saturday’s race was a snooze-fest – literally. About halfway through, I nodded off for a few laps. When I awoke, it was obvious I had missed nothing. I would’ve asked Susan what I missed, but when I looked over at the couch – she was sound asleep too.

James Hinchcliffe spun at the start, bringing out a full-course yellow – and that was about it for any incidents. Rahal followed a two-stop strategy, which must seem too simple to other teams. It stands to reason that two stops might be quicker than three, no matter how quickly the red-alternate Firestone tires fell off. Rahal confounded the field again on Sunday by following the same blue-print.

Saturday was not a banner day for the title sponsor for the weekend, Chevrolet. With GM Headquarters looming in the background, Chevy could do no better than fourth (Josef Newgarden) on Saturday and only three cars in the Top-Ten. It was better on Sunday, with Newgarden finishing second and Will Power coming in third. Simon Pagenaud finished fifth to give Chevy and Team Penske three of the Top-Five spots yesterday, but still it was Honda at the top of the podium for both days and a weekend that saw Chevy embarrassed in their hometown by their Japanese rival.

Speaking of Japan, Indianapolis 500 champion Takuma Sato bucked a recent trend and actually performed well in the weekend after winning the Indianapolis 500, despite getting very little sleep throughout the grueling week of media stops. Sato finished eighth on Saturday, won the pole for Sunday’s race and finished fourth to stay in third place in the points, only eleven points behind points leader Scott Dixon and only three points behind second-place Helio Castroneves.

Unlike Saturday’s snoozer that saw Rahal lead fifty-five of seventy laps, Sunday’s race was much more interesting. There was a lot of bumping and banging for position, creating the occasional flat tires and broken front-wings; but the race managed to stay green. In the latter stages, Graham Rahal had been seemingly on cruise-control when he came upon the slower car of Ryan Hunter-Reay, who justifiably would not give way to Rahal. Trapped behind Hunter-Reay, the second-place car of Josef Newgarden was catching Rahal by about a second per lap. At that pace, he would catch Rahal by the white flag.

Then on Lap sixty-six, James Hinchcliffe was the victim of his second Honda engine failure in nine days. When it looked as if the caution would wave, the turbo of Spencer Pigot erupted into a plume of smoke billowing across the track. IndyCar officials decided at that point to red-flag the race. More on that decision later.

For seventeen minutes, the cars and tires cooled on pit-lane, while Rahal’s temper fumed. Needless to say, he was none too pleased about the red-flag. But to his credit, he was able to keep his emotions in check as he pulled away from Newgarden at the restart and was well ahead at the end of the two-lap shoot-out.

It’s no secret that I am not a fan of Belle Isle, but I thought Sunday’s race was one of the better races I’ve seen there since CART moved from downtown Detroit to the island in the middle of the Detroit River in 1992. It’s a good thing since Saturday was so boring. But you can blame Graham Rahal for that. He outclassed the field and made it a boring race. Had he not run away with it, it might have been a better show. But you have to be impressed with the way Rahal came back Sunday and backed it up. That’s the sign of a mature and hungry driver.

TV Coverage: By now, I’ve had time to go back and watch ABC/ESPN’s coverage of the Indianapolis 500. I came away thinking it was one of their better efforts. This weekend, I had the same feeling. Eddie Cheever actually came across as humorous instead of annoying. Scott Goodyear still likes to take the IndyCar 101 approach to dumb down his comments and explain things like he’s explaining racing to a five year-old; but he seemed on top of his game as well.

I find this ironic because for many of the ESPN staff, this was the end of the road, with this being the last IndyCar telecast of the season for ABC/ESPN. Allen Bestwick was given his pink slip when ESPN had their bloodletting a few weeks ago. That’s a shame, because I always felt like Bestwick was a professional and did a good job. He was head-and-shoulders above his two predecessors – the tiring Marty Reid and the abhorrent Todd Harris.

But the biggest crime of the ESPN cuts occurred when they let longtime veteran (which probably explains the reason) pit-reporter Dr. Jerry Punch go. Doc Punch wasn’t on every ESPN IndyCar broadcast over the years, because he was shuffled to NASCAR when the network covered both. But I honestly cannot remember the last Indianapolis 500 telecast that did not feature Dr. Punch. From what I understand, he is as classy off-camera as he is on it. He will be missed and I wish him well for whatever he chooses to do with his future.

Many seem to think that this was the swan song for ABC/ESPN and it is just a formality for NBC to come in and snag the whole deal. Don’t be so sure. First of all, while discussions for the new TV contract are really just getting started – ABC/ESPN has another year left on the current contract. Secondly, I was told by two separate individuals close to the situation in May, that ESPN is still very interested in bidding on the new contract. Whether they get it remains to be seen, but I wouldn’t make plans to see the Peacock Network carrying all of the IndyCar races just yet. I wouldn’t expect a decision to be made on the TV deal until October at the earliest – maybe November or even December. But unless something changes, the new deal won’t go into effect until 2019.

The Red Flag: By glancing through social media during yesterday’s red-flag, it appears that the majority of folks were in favor of pulling out the red-flag. Count me in the minority.

To me, the only reasons you pull out the red-flag is if the drivers, crews or spectators are in danger when the cars keep running under the yellow; or if driving a car close to an accident scene might damage a car unnecessarily. I was fine with the red flag at Indianapolis in order to repair the catch-fence ripped open by Scott Dixon’s car. Although I wasn’t there, I approved of the red-flag usage in the 1964 and 1973 Indianapolis 500’s because the track was completely blocked.

What I wasn’t fine with was the use of the red-flag in the 2014 Indianapolis 500 or in yesterday’s race at Belle Isle. The only reason the red-flag was used in those instances was to improve the show. Another interpretation of that is manipulating results with a contrived finish. Where is it written that a race must finish under green at all costs?

All three of Dario Franchitti’s Indianapolis 500 wins finished under the yellow. Had race officials been so free with the red-flag, how many of those might be altered? I’m thinking the 2010 race may have come out differently had the race been halted on Lap 198 for Mike Conway’s horrific accident. It’s the same with Tony Kanaan’s 2013 win. Had race officials stopped the race after Franchitti’s crash on Lap 197, Kanaan may still be looking for his elusive win.

I understand that we got a great finish in 2014, but I’m a believer that great-finishes should come naturally – not as a result of a red-flag being over utilized. IndyCar fans love to chirp that we’re above the laughable Green-White-Checker that has been used in NASCAR for the past several years. I tend to think that yanking out the red-flag anytime there is an accident close to the finish is not much better than what NASCAR does.

Graham Rahal was heard over his radio saying “This is bulls**t” regarding race officials stopping the race that he had so dominated. I tend to agree. Had he lost the race to anyone else, that would have been a tough pill for anyone to swallow. As it was, Rahal was just too strong and pulled away in the end. Controversy avoided.

I realize I’m in the minority with that stance, but I think to forsake integrity for the sake of entertainment cheapens our sport. Now…Get off my lawn!

Bad Times for Chevy: Eight races into the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season and just before the halfway point, Honda has won five races, while Chevy has won only three. That’s quite a turnaround considering that Honda won only two races in all of 2016.

Much has been made that Honda embarrassed Chevy in their own backyard. No one seemed to take notice that Chevy regularly beat Honda at Barber (including this season) and Mid-Ohio, where Honda has huge manufacturing plants near both of those tracks. I guess the Chevy headquarters with the big bow-tie emblazoned on the side of the building just across the river from the track might have something to do with it.

If Chevy won every race from this point forward (which they won’t), you’d still have to call this season a success for Honda. They more than doubled their win total from last year and they won the Indianapolis 500 for the second consecutive year. I think it’s time for Chevy to do what Honda did – turn up the wick.

Dull Livery: While I’m not a fan of rotating sponsorships, I understand it is the nature of the beast these days with costs as high as they are. Rare is the car in these economic times that will carry the same livery all seventeen races of the season. One of the trade-offs for fans is that even though it’s sometimes hard to tell who is in what car from week to week – we get to see some pretty interesting liveries pop up throughout the season. I really liked the Hawk paint scheme that Juan Montoya would run a couple of times each season. Josef Newgarden had a good-looking Strike livery from his days at SFHR.

Simon Pagenaud has run some good looking cars lately. The PPG Industries and Hewlett-Packard schemes come to mind as well as the distinctive Menard’s car he drove in May.

This weekend did not provide one of those liveries. In fact, Pagenaud debuted a new sponsor with one of the dullest and most boring liveries I’ve seen in a while. His DXC Technology car was about as boring as the name sounds. It was white with black sidepods and chrome accents, including his No.1. All writing was black and the car just looked generic and lifeless. No, this is not a black-&-white photograph.

2017-CAR-1-DXC-REVEAL

The Real Iron-Man: No disrespect intended to Tony Kanaan, but I’m now questioning if he is the toughest IndyCar driver in the paddock, or even his own team. From what I saw this weekend, that honor may now belong to Scott Dixon. To even climb back into the cockpit after the horrifying self-described “wild ride” by Dixon in last weekend’s Indianapolis 500 defies logic for those of us that only dream of driving a race car. After an experience like that, I would have to think long and hard before ever racing again – much less just six days later.

Add to that, Dixon suffered an extremely sore left foot that he admitted prior to Saturday’s race would make braking extremely difficult at Belle Isle. No one would have blamed him if he just limped around for two days and salvaged some points.

But that’s not Scott Dixon. He finished second in Saturday’s race and had it not been for some fueling problems on a pit stop, he may have improved on his sixth place finish yesterday. His efforts were enough to reclaim the points lead on Saturday and keep it on Sunday. Through it all, he never complained one bit and shook off questions about it.

This weekend’s performance by Scott Dixon was an effort that would make AJ Foyt proud. Anyone who says that racers are not tough athletes has no idea what they are talking about.

All in All: As I said earlier, it’s no secret that I’m not a fan of Belle Isle. I’ve never been there, but it just feels claustrophobic watching it on television. To be fair, those that have been there in person love it. I think my biggest complaint is that it immediately follows the Indianapolis 500, thus it kills momentum that was gathered in the Month of May. Personally, I think that Texas should immediately follow the “500”. People that were thrilled with watching the Indianapolis 500 would be even more thrilled with the excitement of Texas. That’s how you get new fans, rather than lulling them to sleep with what we saw Saturday.

But after Sunday’s more exciting race, the weekend wasn’t too bad. It was much better than some races I’ve seen at Belle Isle. I would also like to see the double-header format done away with. I think it is asking too much from the drivers and teams to do it twice, just six days after a grueling Month of May. If they insist on maintaining the double-header, I think they should move the date.

That won’t happen, though. Roger Penske likes this date and wants the double-header in his city. For the foreseeable future, this is what we’ll have. I guess it’s better than no racing at all this weekend.

George Phillips

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16 Responses to “Random Thoughts On Belle Isle”

  1. This weekend worked out well for me as I was working on my cars but had the race on in the garage, I could keep an eye on it but it wasn’t the thrilling action that left me feeling like I was missing something. Otherwise to sit and watch it intently, well I don’t know about that…. One thing that I liked was the races ended without gimmicks which bit NASCAR yet again. I even noted on Twitter that I wish Kyle Larson would come to Indycar so he could win races without having to fall into a gimmick finish, which cost him yet another race yesterday.

    • I must admit I commented the above before reading the article, to clarify, when I said gimmicks I meant the “overtime line” and all that, I do prefer the red flag occasionally, especially when comparing the finishes yesterday, which NASCAR did not have the track clean and cost a young driver the race vs going red and cleaning properly. I do also like the doubleheader format at least once a year. Back 30 years ago fatigue was a big part of a race, you don’t see that now, I like knowing these drivers are having to fight through being tired and worn out. I miss that aspect, knowing a drivers muscles were aching when they turned the wheel, thinking the guy behind might have a 2nd wind and make the pass, etc. I do think the spot on the calendar kills it a bit though. I would like to go back to more doubleheader weekends though, I love it.

  2. Ron Ford Says:

    I agree that Sunday’s race was much better than Saturday’s sleep-inducing race. I think that ABC’s visual coverage was as good as could be expected for Belle Isle. I have become accustomed to the announcing crew. Even Diffey could not have made Saturday’s race seem interesting.

    I don’t disagree with the red flag decision. From a fan’s standpoint, why would you not want a race to finish under green?

    I find it curious that any mention of “Chevy” engines does not reference Ilmor. At the various IndyCar races that I attend, I do not recall seeing a “Chevy” trailer. There are always “Ilmor Engineering” labeled trailers at the tracks. I can’t imagine that the Ilmors will have anything for the Hondas at Texas.

    Sato seems to be driving smarter. It would seem that Andretti Racing is a good fit for him.

    Regarding liveries (I had to Google “plural of livery”), there are currently a lot of dull ones. I tend to favor the bright-though not fluorescent-primary colors of orange, yellow, blue, and red.

  3. I completely agree with you about the red flag. I wrote the same thing this morning. Sunday’s race was better, but still pretty ordinary, I thought. This is not the event to follow Indy. Another high speed oval after the 500 would benefit the series more.

  4. I applaud your consistency on the red flag issue. I’ve seen some who bash NASCAR “gimmicks” be ok with similar actions in IndyCar.

    • Ron Ford Says:

      Hi Bill. Nice to see you out of the corn and commenting here. I am one who often bashes Nascar gimmicks, but in what’s left of my mind I have not looked at the IndyCar red flags as gimmicks. What’s not to like about “GREEN-GREEN-GREEN! ?

  5. jhall14 Says:

    Nobody has mentioned the 3 man crew officiating the race. I believe either the system needs overhauled or different people replaced there. Reason being (1) Red Flag, (2) Avoiding Contact, funny how Helio can turn left and run over Ryan Hunter Reay’s RF wing, on a straight and Marco gets a penalty at Indy GP for bumping TK, (3) Conor Daly drops from 9 to 12 due to being pushed into a wall, coincidence that Helio was 10 on the restart behind Daly. I am sure there were others by other drivers but “Avoidable Contact” is not just being hit from behind. Some will say it equaled out because Helio cut his own tire down, not true. Go talk with RHR and see what he says, or Conor Daly.

  6. S0CSeven Says:

    Some random thoughts.

    Nice to see the track grinding. It sounded like Penske paid for it. He went from a butt kicking on Saturday to (except for Rahal) a great finish on Sunday. If this was NASCAR I’d think he got ‘the call’.

    Chevy only has 8 engines entered and Honda has 14. I guess that says something but Chevy will never fill the top 10.

    RHR finally let Rahal by and THEN a yellow (red) comes out. He didn’t get his lap back but was second car in line for the restart. Then he disappeared. I must have slept through what happened there.

    TV Networks WANT Indycar?? That can only be a good thing.

    The red flag was totally unwarranted. Both disabled cars weren’t blocking the track nor did they leave debris. The rules say that each should have been a local yellow. HOWEVER, I liked the ending. A little drama to an otherwise dull finish.

    • billytheskink Says:

      Hunter-Reay was moved to the back of the field for the post-red flag restart, along with all of the other lapped cars. The Indycar rulebook requires lapped cars to be moved to the rear of the field on any restart coming within 15 laps of the finish.

  7. Patrick Says:

    I think the main reason for the red flag was because they had so much tv time to kill. Otherwise it probably would have ended under yellow. Even with the delay there was still plenty of time left for interviews afterwards.

  8. billytheskink Says:

    I thought it was the greatest weekend of racing in recent memory! I say that as someone who may or may not own 10 Graham Rahal t-shirts. Mostly may…

    I would agree that Pagenaud’s DXC car was pretty forgettable, but that is largely DXC’s fault. The paint scheme matches DXC’s new branding (they were spun off of Hewlett-Packard Enterprise and merged with CSC), just as the much-maligned Verizon Indycar Series logo matched Verizon’s new branding. In both cases, the finger should be pointed at the sponsor-er more so than the sponsor-ee.

    I’d like to see the red flag procedures codified, but I have a hard time being too unhappy with Indycar attempting to please fans at the track with a green flag finish. It is gimmicky, for sure, but one can find gimmicks everywhere in racing, past and present.

  9. I’m primarily a NASCAR fan but have been getting back into IndyCar for the past few years. While I disagree with most of NASCAR’s changes, ending the race under green (if possible) isn’t one of them. Any time a race ends under caution I feel somewhat cheated. It makes me feel like I invested (wasted) a lot of time only to be disappointed at the end.

    Agree with following Indy with Texas. There are always new fans tuning in each season. Give the series the best chance to retain them.

  10. S0CSeven Says:

    Yeah, re the colors……. Darnica’s florescent green car could be picked out from a mile away. You just knew that was the Go-Daddy car.

    Why not using day-glo fluorescent ANY color is beyond me? Your sponsor name would be immediately identifibable.

    Like……. the Scouting car…… does anyone remember what color/number/driver it was??? Paint the thing like a traffic pylon and you’d remember it. And, btw, does Scouting really pay all that money for sponsorship?

  11. madtad1 Says:

    My takeaway from the broadcast was the shabby way they said goodbye to Dr Punch. No highlight reel, no reminiscing, just a quick goodbye as they rolled credits, almost like an afterthought.

    Completely classless.

  12. I attended the Detroit Grand Prix for the second straight year last weekend. 3 1/2 hour drive from South Bend. We once again attended the Saturday race, stayed the night at the MGM Grand, and headed home on Sunday. I know the Sunday race is typically better than the Saturday race, but Saturday just works out better for us logistically.

    90 bucks got me Grandstand seating, all the races, and the paddock pass. This year we more or less skipped the Sportscar race and just spent all our time in the garage area before the race. Got to talk to Bryan Herta, see a bunch of drivers, several owners, and one of my highlights….saying hi to Rick Mears.

    But the coolest thing…after watching (and videoing) the IndyCars leave the area to head to the track, we walked back through the empty paddock area, and as we were walking past Penske’s garage area….there was Roger Penske, all by himself. My friend Jim asked The Captain if he’d take a picture with him, and he did. Despite the green flag dropping in less than a hour, and a million things likely on his mind, Roger Penske, without hesitation, walked over and took time for a quick photo. He was so polite and professional. The guy is the epitome of class. What a great moment!

    I know most folks don’t like the Belle Isle race. I never cared for it until I attended it. Two years running now, I’m so impressed with the experience. From the shuttle drivers transporting us to and fro downtown to the park, to the workers and vendors at the event, everyone we encountered was so friendly and welcoming. I tend to pull for underdogs. The Detroit community is an underdog in my view. We all know it’s never going to be what it once was, and many folks feel it’s not worth any thing at all. Yet I gotta say, for race weekend they represent Detroit in a great light and help make for a great experience.

    It’s a great value for what you get. If you give it a try next year, go for seats in Grandstand 2, Section D. You get to view the cars heading into and out of turn one, the exit of the pits, and there’s a big jumbotron right in front of you. By all means, also fork over the additional 25 bucks for the paddock pass. I probably enjoy the time in the garage area almost as much as the race! Oh, and a free concert after the race. Not being a country music man I wasn’t sure what Montgomery Gentry is, but they sounded good and the crowd sure seemed to like it.

    Sorry for such a long reply. Just wanted to share the experience with you.

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