Random Thoughts On Belle Isle

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Once again, the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix has come and gone. Over the years, I’ve made it clear that this is my least favorite stop on the Verizon IndyCar Series schedule. I’ve piled on enough about this race in the past, so I’ll refrain from any more griping. The series leaves the Motor City without much damage done. Unless you look at Graham Rahal’s wrecked car from Saturday, Josef Newgarden’s championship standings, the front-end of the Pace Car or Pace Car driver Mark Reuss’ ego – most of the series got out of town unscathed.

Overall, this was one of the better race weekends from Belle Isle that I can remember – especially since they went to the double-header format in 2013. There was one surprise pole winner in Marco Andretti on Saturday. There were two surprise race winners, with Scott Dixon taking the checkered flag on Saturday and Ryan Hunter-Reay winning on Sunday – although can you ever really call Scott Dixon a surprise winner even though he had not won a race since Road America last season? Saturday’s race was won on pit-strategy, while Sunday’s was pit-strategy combined with raw speed and a superb bit of driving from Ryan Hunter-Reay.

Graham Rahal put on a driving clinic himself on Saturday, but it was all for naught. He made one tiny mistake when he clipped the curbing in Turn Thirteen on Lap 47. The result was a massive impact with the unforgiving concrete barrier, that left his team scurrying through the night to prepare his backup car for Sunday. Although he hardly got any mention in Sunday’s race, Rahal kept his nose clean and finished fifth – softening the points hit he took by finishing last on Saturday.

Although the hit wasn’t as hard as Rahal’s, the most spectacular incident of the weekend came on Saturday when IndyCar newcomer Santino Ferrucci was clipped by Charlie Kimball going into Turn Seven on Lap 56. He was flipped backwards, but went airborne when he hit the curbing. It’s hard to scrub off any speed when your car is airborne. He continued to pirouette in the air before hitting the tire barrier head-on. It was a scary looking crash, but fortunately Ferrucci was uninjured. Is it a trend or a coincidence that Charlie Kimball always happens to be around when cars inexplicably crash? This time, Kimball was given a stop-and-go penalty for avoidable contact.

A glance at Sunday’s box score would show only one caution period, giving one the indication that there was not a whole lot going on. As usual, the box score doesn’t tell the whole story. The one caution that does show up was on the opening lap, when Spencer Pigot was tagged from behind by Ferrucci. Although Pigot made light contact with the wall, it was enough to bend a suspension piece and Pigot would eventually retire on Lap 21.

Twice in Sunday’s race, there were “opportunities” for a yellow-flag, but Race Control chose not to bring it out. Ferrucci spun leaving the pits on Lap 22, but he managed to keep the car from stalling and continued on. On Lap 38, Sébastien Bourdais spun after hitting the curb. He dug up a lot of grass and dirt, but managed to not hit anything – although he was lucky to not be collected by the fast-approaching Ryan Hunter-Reay. In years past, both of these incidents would have brought out an immediate yellow. Credit Kyle Novak, Director of Race Control for not being quick on the trigger for an immediate caution period. This is a trend I’ve noticed throughout most of the season. Restarts after a yellow may be good for the show, but they can wreck a driver’s good day for no reason if the caution was avoidable.

Saturday’s race was boring. There was no on-track pass for the lead. Scott Dixon had a faster pit stop than Marco Andretti and pitted one lap later, giving him the chance for a fast in-lap. After the first round of pit stops, Dixon was in front and there was no catching him. Hunter-Reay made it interesting with the three-stop strategy that gave him a second place finish; with Alexander Rossi finishing third, giving him the points lead heading into Sunday.

Sunday was a different story. It appeared to be a snoozer as well. Alexander Rossi won the pole and seemed to be in a class of his own. Rossi led forty-seven of the seventy laps on Sunday, with Ryan Hunter-Reay leading a few as he again followed a three-stop strategy. But it suddenly got very interesting when Hunter-Reay made his final stop on Lap 52, after a series of laps when he poured it on to try and out distance himself from Rossi.

After a stop that took only 6.2 seconds, Hunter-Reay tore out on fresh Firestones seeking to hunt down Rossi. As Hunter-Reay kept whittling down Rossi’s lead, I found myself suddenly sitting up in my chair. My oldest brother texted me saying “RHR might make this interesting”. My response? “I doubt it”. That shows how much I know. I really didn’t think that Hunter-Reay had enough time to catch and pass a savvy racer like Rossi. But let’s not forget that Hunter-Reay is pretty savvy himself. With seven laps to go, he forced his teammate into a mistake in Turn Seven. Hunter-Reay went on for the win, while Rossi finished twelfth after dominating the entire day.

During the Month of May, it’s all about a driver getting his or her face emblazoned on the Borg-Warner Trophy. For the rest of the season, it’s all about the points. With the IndyCar Grand Prix, the double-points paid out for the Indianapolis 500 and two points-paying races at Belle Isle, there have been a lot of points up for grabs within a twenty-two day period. There have been a lot of changes in the points standing in that time. After Saturday’s race, Alexander Rossi had the points lead. On Sunday he collected a point for winning the pole and another for leading the most laps. Then it all went terribly wrong. Today, Rossi is third behind Will Power and Scott Dixon, with Ryan Hunter-Reay a distant fourth.

Believe it or not, we are approaching the halfway point in the season. Wasn’t it just a few weeks ago that the season started in St. Petersburg? But there are now eight races in the books for this season, with nine races to go. The Top-Five drivers in points are all within a mere thirty-nine points of each other. Any of them could win the championship, while those in sixth and seventh are very much in striking distance. It promises to be a very interesting summer.

TV Coverage: What can I say? I don’t like kicking people while they’re down, no matter how much they might deserve it. After fifty-four years, ABC signed off of their IndyCar coverage for perhaps the last time ever. They vow to be back after the three-year deal with NBC runs out, but I wouldn’t count on it. Unless NBC unexpectedly drops the ball, I don’t think IndyCar fans will be clamoring for the return of ABC/ESPN anytime soon.

This past weekend was typical of ABC’s coverage the last several years. There were a few specific gaffes this weekend, but in more general terms – their coverage just sits there. One thing I noticed for the first time Sunday that has probably been there for years, was that they seem to have the volume on the engine sounds turned way down. Perhaps this was so we could hear the understated tones of all three in the booth. Here’s a hint for any motorsports coverage they do in the future – race fans like to hear the engines. We like our engines loud. They should not be turned down so that we can hear announcers doing a golf-announcer’s whisper.

That one little thing may have made for a much more spirited telecast for the past fifteen years, when we were suffering through Todd Harris and Marty Reid. Personally, I like Allen Bestwick and I hope he can land on his feet.

But if you’re looking for me to dance on the grave of ABC/ESPN, I’m not going to do it. A lot of people are losing their jobs over this, or being forced into an early retirement. I know a few people personally with the departing network and I hate that I won’t be seeing some of them at race tracks anymore.

And Andy, if you happen to be reading, I’m talking about you. Though we disagreed on some of the way IndyCar was presented over the years, you were always fair with me and we will remain friends long after all this passes.

The Pace Car Crash: How does a thing like that happen? In case you live under a rock and haven’t heard, Sunday’s race was delayed by thirty-four minutes because the Pace Car crashed shortly after leaving the pits. And this was no gentle brushing of the wall. The car whipped around violently and went head-on into the concrete retaining wall. And this was not just any Pace Car, it was a Corvette ZR1 carrying a price tag of around $125,000. After the occupants got out safely and apparently unhurt, the jokes started flying on social media – and rightly so. “I said DEPLOY the Pace Car, not DESTROY the Pace car” was one of my favorites that I saw going around.

At first it was reported that the driver was Oriol Servia, who was scheduled to be the driver after the start of the race throughout all of the caution periods. But the driver who let the car get away from him was a GM executive by the name of Mark Reuss, who leads several key departments within General Motors.

Some of the more humorly challenged took offense to this gentleman suddenly becoming the punchline to a lot of jokes. They rushed to his defense sighting his credentials and even pointing out that he had lapped the Nürburgring in the past. But before about 3:50 EDT yesterday, the vast majority of IndyCar fans had never heard of Mark Reuss. Today, he lives in infamy. He may be very accomplished in the world of design, engineering and safety. He may have even successfully lapped the famous Formula One track in Germany. But all IndyCar fans know is that he let the powerful Corvette get away from him in a very public setting.

He is in good company. He joins Johnny Rutherford, who took out Donnie Beechler at Texas in 1999 while driving the Pace Car. Of course, there was also Eldon Palmer who crashed the Pace Car into a photographer’s stand at the start of the 1971 Indianapolis 500.

The jokes were all good-natured and downright funny. I wouldn’t want to be him going to work at GM this morning, but what can he do but laugh about it? Maybe others might want to learn to laugh at a few more things to brighten their own lives, instead of chiding those of us that do have a sense of humor.

But aside from all the jokes, there is one serious takeaway from all of this. Celebrities, former athletes or sponsor executives do not need to be driving the Pace Car at any events. This is a serious job and needs to be done by professional drivers. I’ve never seen the benefit of having celebrity Pace Car drivers. I don’t think one person tunes into a race because of who the Pace Car driver is. They got off lucky this time. The only casualty yesterday was a Corvette and a GM executive’s pride. If they continue treating the Pace Car as a perk, the cost may be much higher the next time something like this happens. IndyCar should take this as a warning and leave driving the Pace Car to the professionals.

Chevy Woes: For the second year in a row, Chevrolet has been embarrassed in their own event. It’s one thing to sponsor a race and not win it. That happens a lot including this year’s Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama, won by Josef Newgarden in a Chevy three out of the past four years. But except for Will Power finishing second in Sunday’s race – Chevy barely had a presence in the Top-Ten either in qualifying or during both races.

I’m not an engineer, so it’s hard for someone like me to understand how Chevy can be so dominant at Indianapolis just one week ago, and then be at such a disadvantage at Belle Isle just one week later. They are obviously two totally different tracks, but what is it that gives one manufacturer the advantage at Long Beach and another the advantage at Barber or Belle Isle? Whatever the answer is, I’m sure Chevy executives aren’t thrilled at being embarrassed in their own back yard by Honda.

Newgarden Woes: It was only about six weeks ago that fans were afraid that if Josef Newgarden won the Indianapolis 500, he would have the IndyCar title wrapped up before Labor Day. After all, of the four races run at that point, Newgarden had won two of them and finished a decent seventh in the other two, giving him the points lead heading into the Month of May. Newgarden finished eleventh in the IndyCar Grand Prix and eighth in the Indianapolis 500, but relinquished his points lead to Will Power.

Newgarden seemed frustrated after Saturday’s race when he finished ninth. Last night, he must have been despondent after finishing fifteenth in Sunday’s race. The mediocre performance for Newgarden has dropped him from the points lead heading into May, to fifth in points after Belle Isle. Newgarden is still only thirty-nine points from leading the championship and is certainly still a contender. But he has allowed a lot of the top drivers (Will Power, Scott Dixon, Alexander Rossi and Ryan Hunter-Reay) to pass him. He can’t count on any of those drivers stumbling in the summer months, and he has his work cut out for him. He can ill-afford any more slipups like he had in Sunday’s qualifying, where he misjudged a corner and plowed into the tire barrier.

Pagenaud Woes: One thing that has been under the radar for a lot of the season is the mediocre season that Simon Pagenaud is having. While some of Newgarden’s troubles may stem from trying too hard, Pagenaud simply seems to be underperforming. The only real bright spot for Pagenaud this season has been a front-row start in the Indianapolis 500 and finishing sixth.

Yes, he was punted on the opening lap by Graham Rahal at Long Beach causing him to finish twenty-third – but Pagenaud does not seem to have the edge he had two years ago. He underperformed in his initial season with Team Penske in 2015, finishing eleventh in points. He followed that up with the championship the following year and was runner-up to Newgarden last season. But this season, Pagenaud seems to be going through the motions. Other than his sixth place finish in the Indianapolis 500, Pagenaud’s best finish this season is eighth in the IndyCar Grand Prix.

He still has time to turn his season around, but in Saturday’s race, Pagenaud finished seventeenth. Sunday, he rebounded for a somewhat respectable tenth place finish. He currently sits in tenth.

Am I being overly critical, or does Pagenaud look to you like someone driving without a sense of urgency? It’ll be interesting to see how he does in the second half of the season.

Marco Resurgence? We’ve been teased before, almost lied to. Since Marco Andretti came within a few feet of winning the Indianapolis 500 as a teenager in 2006, we’ve seen him dazzle us from time to time, and frustrate us most of the time. We’ve seen his car carry almost every number available in the Andretti stable, and we’ve heard about him working with sports psychologists. But what we’ve mostly seen are disappointing results.

Carrying the Andretti name must be daunting. If I had that last name, I probably would have chosen another career rather than live with that pressure every day. But since Marco Andretti chose to be an IndyCar driver, I don’t feel sorry for him. Surely he knew what he was stepping into, even at that young age.

But given my lack of sympathy for Marco Andretti, I always sort of find myself pulling for him. Maybe it’s because I hear he’s a real likable guy or that I enjoy hearing the Andretti name, because I’ve been hearing it my entire life.

Whatever the case, I was happy to see Marco Andretti win the pole for Saturday’s race. He didn’t fold under pressure. Scott Dixon just had a much faster pit stop on Saturday and Marco ultimately finished fourth. On Sunday, it was not as spectacular, but Marco started twelfth and finished ninth.

Marco Andretti currently sits eighth in points. I think we now all know that Marco will most likely never win a championship, but that’s OK. There are lots of great drivers who never won a championship nor the Indianapolis 500, but still had great careers. Marco is having a very solid, albeit not spectacular, season. His worst finish came in the IndyCar Grand Prix, when he finished thirteenth.

We’ve heard before that Marco Andretti is in the middle of a resurgence. I’ve reset my expectations for Marco, but I think that Marco has matured and will continue down this path of solid consistent runs and will most likely win a few more races before hanging up his helmet.

Drive of the weekend: I didn’t labor over this at all. It has to be Ryan Hunter-Reay. On Saturday, he started fifth and finished second. But it was his drive on Sunday that had everyone talking. Hunter-Reay started tenth on Sunday, stuck to his three-stop strategy and executed it flawlessly. He tracked down his teammate Alexander Rossi, who had led most of the day. With seven laps to go, he forced Rossi into a mistake and Hunter-Reay capped off his great drive by taking his first win in almost three seasons.

All in all: For the most part, this weekend’s double-header in Detroit was typical of most races at Belle Isle – mostly tactical racing involving strategy with a little luck. That was Saturday’s race, but the final ten laps of Sunday’s race were all about speed – and Ryan Hunter-Reay had it. Those last ten laps made the weekend a success in my book.

I’d be lying if I said I wish all tracks were like Belle Isle. I’ll throw out the qualifier that I’ve never been there. Those that have gone there say that it is a very well-organized event. With Roger Penske running it, would you expect anything else? But it does not make for great television viewing.

But we got through it. This weekend, the series goes to Texas. Now there’s a race that holds your attention. More on that Friday.

On a Personal Note:  I would like to pass along get-well wishes to long-time reader and commenter Phil Kaiser, whose love for the Indianapolis 500 rivals anyone’s. On Pole Day, Phil went into cardiac arrest in Turn One. The good news is they revived him and he will live to see many more “500s”. The bad news is that doctors ordered him to miss this year’s race to stay home and rest.

Phil is feisty and he and I have tangled more than once on this site. But his passion for IndyCar racing is unquestioned and he is a good guy. Please join me in wishing Phil a speedy recovery.

George Phillips

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25 Responses to “Random Thoughts On Belle Isle”

  1. BrandonWright77 Says:

    Impressive drive from Marco Saturday, both in qualifying and the race. I haven’t read much from Rossi yet, surprising to see him make the same mistake two laps in a row and toss away the lead. Great to see RHR bring home another win, been awhile for him.

    The call of the weekend goes to Allen Bestwick when he was discussing Robert Dixon. Kinda summed up ABC’s coverage I thought. I really thought they’d try to do something special for their final races but they seemed to be phoning it in even more than normal and signed off with barely even mentioning this was their final race. Sad to see what they’ve become over the last decade or so, I will not miss them.

    I never would have guessed this is what the points standings would have looked like if you’d asked me after the first 2-3 races. Really surprising how things have gotten shaken up and I can’t wait to see how things shake out, it’s anyone’s ballgame at this point!

  2. Glad to hear Phil is doing ok. It now turns out I was sitting two rows in front of Phil on Pole Day. I was returning to my seat when I saw him get ill and slowly fall. I know I said a prayer for him and others did too. The yellow shirt that was tracked down was very nervous but he got the EMPs there within 5 or so minutes. They all did a great job getting him on the board and out of the stands, all the while keeping the monitors where the main doctor could see them.

    I wondered how the gentleman who had had a heart attack or seizure was doing. I had no idea it was someone who posts to this site. Just great news that he is doing ok.

  3. BrandonWright77 Says:

    Get well soon Phil!

  4. S0CSeven Says:

    That was funny …. I mean REALLY funny. The aftermath:

    Oilpressure trivia question in 10 years will be ‘what talentless butt-hole walled the pace car in Detroit?’

    For $125g’s don’t you get air bags?

    Top Gear has been proven right when they said that Corvettes can’t turn corners.

  5. Carburetor Says:

    I thought it was a pretty entertaining weekend–especially yesterday’s race with RHR hunting down Rossi, It is not often that a car and driver are that dialed in–quite a show by RHR.

    I too, was amazed that ABC just left with a whimper–Bestwick barely made a mention of their long run ending–sad (in a nostalgic way), but happy that NBC is taking over.

    Thanks George, for the good news on P. Kaiser. I’ve been reading your posts almost from your beginning, and though have never met any of those that post comments, I greatly enjoy reading their perspectives.

    Will be attending this weekend’s race–can’t wait!

  6. Bruce Waine Says:

    Interesting comparison of statistics from PPG Fan posted to Track Forum on June 2nd, 2018:

    Marco Andretti: 206 races, 2 wins, 20 podiums, 40 top 5’s, 96 top 10’s, 11.7 average finish, 40 DNF’s, 1006 laps led, 126 lead lap finishes

    Ed Carpenter: 172 races, 3 wins, 8 podiums, 14 top 5’s, 46 top 10’s, 14.4 average finish, 43 DNF’s, 375 laps led, 49 lead lap finishes

    Ryan Hunter Reay: 181 races, 14 wins, 36 podiums, 50 top 5’s, 92 top 10’s, 11.2 average finish, 38 DNF’s, 1067 laps led, 109 lead lap finishes (Champ Car stats not included)

  7. Bruce Waine Says:

    Re: Corvette pace car accident. For those who have not already read, Chevrolet released a politically correct statement that included the insightful reasons “due to track & weather conditions.”

    Try to get a handle around that and not chuckle while wearing your helmet …………….

    Re: Pagenaud. Wonder if Helio’s absence from Team Penske 2018 driver line up has had any impact on 2018 on track team/driver results?

  8. Ron Ford Says:

    I hope my best wishes to Phil Kaiser for a speedy recovery do not cause him to have another heart attack. I think there should be a permanent safer barrier around Charlie Kimball. Awesome drive by RHR on Sunday. I’m not a Rossi fan. Marco should have shoved him off the track on Saturday.

  9. billytheskink Says:

    Belle Isle Kudos:

    – to Firestone, for option tires that made for interesting strategy in both races
    – to Scott Goodyear, for getting one last “excuse me, pardon me” in this weekend
    – to Dale Coyne, for putting Santino Ferruci in the #19 and giving Eddie Cheever one last chance to over-pronounce an Italian name
    – to Allen Bestwick, for his valiant efforts to protect Reuss’ identity on the broadcast
    – to whoever coined the nickname “Charlie Pinball”
    – to Ryan Hunter-Reay, for turning the kind of thrilling, aggressive, all out attack, high speed laps that we love to see at the races
    – to Roger Penske, for being able to casually drop that the governor of Michigan is sitting next to him in his pit box like it is an everyday occurrence

    And, most importantly, prayers and best wishes for Phil Kaiser’s speedy recovery.

  10. Jim Gray Says:

    My well wishes to Phil for a quick and complete recovery. His posts are often “entertaining” and I do enjoy reading them.
    Belle Isle? Better than most years, still my least favorite. RHR is so confusing to me that I have a difficult time supporting him. He is brilliant when everything is clicking but seems to often not know what to do when things aren’t going well. His aggressive style is fun to watch but his ability to consistently bring home a less than perfect car is still a bit suspect. Kimball is Kimball and won’t change because he never sees anything wrong with his actions. Marco is doing well and that is great for the series. I’ve gone from jeering him to (begrudgingly) cheering for him and I am somewhat shocked to actually type that.

  11. All:

    Thank you SO MUCH for the kind thoughts and prayers! Imagine my surprise when I opened George’s blog this morning and saw his well wishes in it! They (and yours) truly mean a lot to me and reminds me what an incredible family racing folk are. Thank God we can still agree to disagree sometimes on this forum! And Ron? Man! I had to check my pulse!!! Lol! Anyway, I may agree or disagree with all of you sometimes, but I want you to know I consider you all part of my racing family and will never forget the kindness you have shown me here this morning. Thank you all again, and may God bless you.

  12. Ron Ford Says:

    Apparently you have benefited from the “Lucky Dog” rule. Well deserving.

  13. Two motor races. I enjoyed them both.

    Best wishes to you in your recovery, Phil, and hope you can get back to the track soon.

  14. Attended the Saturday race for the third year in a row. I assume the tv broadcast mostly featured what was going on at the front and thus I can understand how it must have been quite boring to watch. I’ll say this though…we sit in Grandstand 2, which is turn one, across from the pit exit. The last two years I think I saw Kanaan pass a car one time there. This year I counted 5 passes at turn one in just the first 30 laps. I’m sure there were more than that as the race went on. Not keen on the technical side of IndyCars but I imagine the removal of all that rear body work has a lot to do with drivers being able to get closer to the car in front of them and thus turn one is now a passing opportunity. Sitting in the stands I have to say the newly configured cars just looked so much racier, even if that wasn’t captured on tv.

    Another positive I believe…though I don’t know what the overall attendance numbers will reveal or what it looked like on the broadcast, but I gotta say the attendance seemed larger this year than the past two years I was there. We normally hang around about 90 minutes after the race to let the crowd file out to the shuttle buses off the island. Despite doing the same this year, the lines (though still moving efficiently) were significantly larger when we were leaving. Seemed like a lot more people roaming around the paddocks and overall grounds this year as well. I know we’d all love to see IndyCars back at Milwaukee on that weekend, but I don’t think that’s ever going to happen. With that said, perhaps “date equity” is starting to help the Detroit GP. Speaking personally, I doubt me and my two best buds would keep going if the event bounced around on the season schedule. But for three years running (and hopefully more) we’re able to circle the same weekend on the calendar, slip away from the wives and kids, make plans, enjoy what’s usually some long-overdue time together, and all the while take in an IndyCar race while we’re at it. Pretty cool!

  15. Ed Emmitt Says:

    Best wishes Phil on a speedy recovery .

    I loved Sundays race because I’m a big RHR fan,love his racing style.

  16. Ron Ford Says:

    I do not agree to use cookies.

  17. I too was surprised that not much was said on the broadcast about Sunday being the last ABC race. I think Bob Jenkins did a much better job of saluting ABC on the Carb Day broadcast. Of course he was a part of the ABC broadcast team, but it was still a very nice touch.

  18. Get well Phil!!

  19. agree with the 3 posts above:
    1. Vettes can’t corner. never could. still can’t.
    2. ABC washed their hands. clean start for NBC.
    3. Phil is one Lucky Dog. lost one on a golf course this way.

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