Remembering the magic of Belle Isle

The last IndyCar race on Belle Isle was a classic – but the unique demands of the track made so many of the races there so memorable. David Malsher-Lopez recaps the action on one of IndyCar’s finest venues.

Remembering the magic of Belle Isle
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Last Sunday’s Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix presented by Lear was an epic way for the 2.35-mile racetrack to sign off its time on the IndyCar schedule. Will Power’s triumph by one second over Alexander Rossi meant the Team Penske ace landed Chevrolet’s 100th win since it returned to the sport at the start of the 2.2-liter V6 twin-turbo era in 2012, and he did so in the marque’s – and Roger Penske’s – backyard.

Power also joined Helio Castroneves and Scott Dixon as three-time winners at this venue that has seen so many memorable moments since it first appeared on the schedule in 1992. On the eve of the series arriving for its eighth round at its most scenic and spectacular road course at Road America, let us pay tribute to what became one of the most distinctive and also most grueling venues for IndyCar racing, Belle Isle.

The CART Indy car drivers of 1992 loved the course and it’s not hard to understand why: their most direct comparison was the downtown Detroit venue they’d inherited from Formula 1 in 1989, where they’d been pointing-and-squirting around 90-degree turns and turning average lap speeds of 88mph. By comparison, this new 2.1-mile venue saw averages comfortably exceed 100mph and while it was as bumpy as the old track – Michigan winters and Michigan summers will do that to any kind of surface – there was barely a right-angle to be seen. Instead there were flowing slow-, medium- and high-speed turns thrown into the mix, and the price of overambition was as high as ever, involving a trip into concrete or tire walls.

It remained ever thus over the 30 years. Following his tremendous pole lap last Saturday, Josef Newgarden commented: “That was one of the most satisfying pole laps I've ever had because of the difficulty of it. It was on the edge. It was not easy at all. Some laps you put together, the car is so hooked up and so good you're kind of just steering it. Makes it sound a little bit too basic and simple. It feels that way at times. Today was not that case. It felt like you really had to go and attack and work for it. The way I started the lap was so promising. I was up already from the Q2 lap. I said, ‘If I can just really push this thing in the middle section of the track, I'm going to try to go for it. If I hit the fence, that's what it's going to be today.’ Fortunately we had just enough to not do that, had plenty of speed to put it on pole. It was on the edge. [Turns] 4, 5 and 6 – I thought those three corners I was going to hit the wall, and we stayed off.”

Josef Newgarden, Team Penske Chevrolet

Josef Newgarden, Team Penske Chevrolet

Photo by: Art Fleischmann

Power, starting from a desultory 16th, told Mason Young of Detroit Free Press on Saturday: “I reckon this place is one of the coolest race tracks there has been simply because of how hard you have to drive to be fast. Like, there's no other place where you feel like you've done the best lap of your life and you're like P20 or something. But whatever it is, I've certainly enjoyed my years here. I really have. It's kind of a bit sad, it's sad to see it go.”

Bobby Rahal won the first race, his second victory as an owner/driver, on his way to the ’92 title. Danny Sullivan conquered in ’93 for Galles Racing and then Paul Tracy’s win in ’94 is notorious for him drop-kicking his Penske teammate Al Unser Jr into the tires on the run to Turn 10.

Robby Gordon’s triumph in the gorgeous Valvoline-colored Walker Racing Reynard was one of restraint (no, really), wise tactics from Derrick Walker and of course, Gordon’s never-say-die attitude.

The following year, on a damp track, Little Al messed up trying to get around his nemesis and teammate again, Tracy, and thumped into the tires once more. Showing everyone how passing a teammate should be done, Michael Andretti, with just seven laps to go, pressured long-time leader, fellow Newman Haas Racing driver Christian Fittipaldi into outbraking himself just a tad following a restart, slipping on a damp patch and leaving just a big enough hole for Michael to move through and score a superb opportunist victory.

It would be hard to describe the late, potentially great Greg Moore’s win in 1997 in the Forsythe Racing Reynard-Mercedes as opportunistic, so much as the result of the two cars ahead of him in the closing stages, the PacWest entries of Mauricio Gugelmin and Mark Blundell, attempting to complete the race on just one stop. Had the race been one lap shorter, or had there been a couple more laps of yellow, the gamble would have paid off. Instead, the former Formula 1 drivers were mortified to run their tanks dry with just a few corners to go and tumble down outside the top 15 for the want of a flask’s worth of fuel.

While everyone agreed the Belle Isle track was a delight compared with the old downtown Detroit layout – lap speeds were up to 108-109mph by 1997 – in fact there were few passing places unless the car ahead hit a severe problem or a wall. There just weren’t enough long straights followed by tight and wide corners. So for 1998, the decision was made to bypass the narrow slalom of Picnic Way, and instead, after Turn 2, add a long and wide drag down to the new Turn 3, a 90-degree right-hander which just about allowed two cars through side-by-side, followed by 100-degree right-hander, before a blast up to Turn 5 where the cars rejoined the previous iteration of the track. The track length increased to 2.346 miles, the average speed leapt to 114mph, and the job was done.

Not that you’d have guessed it from that ’98 race. It was a relatively simple affair in terms of the lead battle. Moore took pole ahead of reigning champion Alex Zanardi of Chip Ganassi Racing, and the pair of them dropped all their rivals in the opening stages. But Moore made his first stop two laps earlier than Zanardi, and a combination of strong in-laps and a great pitstop saw Zanardi emerge into a lead he would never lose.

Zanardi’s replacement at Ganassi, Juan Pablo Montoya, made a scary-looking wall-scraping run to beat Paul Tracy’s similar Team KOOL Green Reynard-Honda to pole by a mere 0.026sec in 1999. He dominated the 72-lap race until Lap 58 when he pitted. Had the race stayed green to the end, forcing others to stop, he would have clambered back to the lead. Unfortunately, he was one of the causes of a yellow when he punted Roberto Moreno and spun in sympathy. Then, under another yellow, he was struck by Helio Castroneves and eliminated. The race finished under caution, Dario Franchitti leading Tracy in a KOOL Green 1-2.

Helio Castroneves scored back to back wins at Belle Isle in 2000 and ’01.

Helio Castroneves scored back to back wins at Belle Isle in 2000 and ’01.

Photo by: DPI

The Montoya/Ganassi combo looked impossible to beat again in 2000, now using Lola chassis and Toyota engines, but again the Colombian ace was foiled, this time by a broken CV joint. That left victory lane open to Castroneves, now a Penske driver, to score his first win at this level. The following year, Helio would do it again, this time leading from green flag to checkered flag.

Now at the end of CART’s contract with Belle Isle’s organizers, the lack of motivation to renew reflected the dwindling enthusiasm of the public over the previous couple of years, and the event went away. One man who was very sorry to see it go was Roger Penske, however, and following his role as head of the Super Bowl XL [2006] Host Committee, he had an array of contacts and potential sponsors to help finance a revival. And what The Captain wants, The Captain normally gets, because the people he’s trying to rouse will be aware that he’s done his due diligence, and, for many, that’s often the clincher: if RP says the tide is rising, his listeners tend to add their boats to the armada he’s assembling.

As a team owner he gained no satisfaction from the revived 2007 event which was the penultimate round of the IRL IndyCar Series season, but as an organizer he couldn’t have asked for a more dramatic conclusion to attract people’s attention to the fact that Belle Isle was back – albeit on the original tight 2.1-mile layout. Behind Tony Kanaan of Andretti Green Racing and Buddy Rice, desperately fuel-saving in his Dreyer & Reinbold Racing car, Scott Dixon (Ganassi) ran third with his mirrors full of his championship protagonist Dario Franchitti (Andretti Green Racing, as it was then). On the penultimate lap, Rice slowed under acceleration toward Turn 12, Dixon made a lunge for second, which sent Rice into the tire wall. On corner exit, Dixon then looped into a spin but kept rolling backward and into Franchitti, bringing them both to a standstill. Meanwhile Kanaan led an AGR 1-2 with Danica Patrick being the main beneficiary of the clash between the title contenders.

Tony Kanaan, Detroit winner in 2007.

Tony Kanaan, Detroit winner in 2007.

Photo by: Eric Gilbert

In ’08, with IRL and Champ Car united to form the IndyCar Series, Castroneves was leading in the final stint but received a penalty for blocking Justin Wilson’s Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing car and was ordered to cede position. The Brazilian was furious afterward, but it’s doubtful if he had the pace to hold off the Briton, who thus delivered the final win for the illustrious team, and gave co-owner Paul Newman cause to smile, just a few weeks from the end of his remarkable life.

The global financial crisis again put the event on hold, but it was back in 2012 although not to resounding success. For one thing, the track was still the original 2.1-mile layout using Picnic Way instead of the Turn 2-3 long chute. Then the race needed to be halted for two hours, after the rubber compound laid down to fill in the cracks on the track surface started pulling up, bringing concrete with it. Organizers rushed to fill in the gaps instead with quick-drying concrete, and just before the race restarted, a brief shower added to the antsy nature of the drivers. But whatever was thrown at Dixon, he had it all under control, and led Franchitti in a Ganassi 1-2.

Belle Isle became a double-header event in 2013, and former full-time IndyCar racer Mike Conway got the call-up from Dale Coyne Racing to replace Bia Figuereido [Ana Beatriz] and promptly delivered a win and a third for the little team. Simon Pagenaud caused a surprise on the Sunday by scoring the first win for Schmidt Hamilton Motorsports, the team we know today as Arrow McLaren SP.

Mike Conway caused a sensation with his dominant win as a sub at Dale Coyne Racing in 2013.

Mike Conway caused a sensation with his dominant win as a sub at Dale Coyne Racing in 2013.

Photo by: Chris Jones

It was an all-Penske affair in 2014, with Will Power driving from 16th to the lead (sounds familiar…) in the first race and then completing a 1-2 behind teammate Castroneves the next day, as Helio got over his narrow defeat in the previous week’s Indy 500. This pair then locked out the front row the following year for Race 1, but rain and lightning brought an early end to the proceedings, while Andretti Autosport pair Carlos Munoz and Marco Andretti were running 1-2. Race 2 was again affected by rain and by numerous mistakes from multiple competitors causing six caution periods and one race stoppage. The latter was for a collision triggered by Tristan Vautier bouncing Power into the wall at Turn 2 and the Penske car twitching into the sister car of Castroneves! Up front, Sebastien Bourdais drove KVSH Racing to victory lane.

And we wouldn’t have to wait long for the next triumphant mix of Belle and Sebastien, for he won the opener in 2016, too, after trouble hit Power – a loose rear wheel confused his gearbox just after his pitcrew had jumped him past early leader teammate Simon Pagenaud. But arguably the story of the day was Conor Daly following Dale Coyne’s inspired strategy to the letter and coming home second to score his first podium in IndyCar.

The following day, Power took pole but was hit with a grid penalty for impeding Andretti during qualifying. However, following a late-race restart, he passed Pagenaud and as three off-strategy cars ahead peeled off into the pits, Power was able to lead home Pagenaud in a Penske 1-2.

Penske's Will Power and KVSH Racing's Sebastien Bourdais were the winners of the two 2016 Detroit rounds.

Penske's Will Power and KVSH Racing's Sebastien Bourdais were the winners of the two 2016 Detroit rounds.

Photo by: Art Fleischmann

Rahal Letterman Lanigan-Honda's Graham Rahal produced the greatest weekend of his racing career at Belle Isle in 2017, when he led 96 of the 140 laps across the two Detroit races to deliver the first and last double-win in the event.

Marco Andretti’s startlingly brave lap on slicks on a damp track to take pole for Race 1 in 2018 couldn’t prevent his pursuer Dixon, running longer and saving fuel, jumping him on the overcut and clinching victory. The following day came that bizarre moment when Mark Reuss of GM crashed the pace car – Power’s Corvette C7.R that he’d earned by winning the Indy 500 the previous weekend! Into the race and Ryan Hunter-Reay increasingly found his car on rails, and into the final stint he pressured polesitter, Andretti Autosport teammate, and erstwhile leader Alexander Rossi into a late-race error. Rossi locked up his front tires badly at Turn 3 on two straight laps, going down the escape road on the second occasion and deflating his left-front, necessitating an emergency pitstop. Hunter-Reay clinched one of the most convincing wins of his career, then started the tradition of going for a dip in the James Scott Memorial Fountain.

Ryan Hunter-Reay scored a brilliant victory at Belle Isle in 2018 and started a tradition…

Ryan Hunter-Reay scored a brilliant victory at Belle Isle in 2018 and started a tradition…

Photo by: Michael L. Levitt / Motorsport Images

In 2019, Power climbed from 12th to third in damp conditions, and his pit crew then jumped him into the lead off pit road… alas, with only three wheels properly attached. As Power’s right-front wheel bounced away, Newgarden took over the lead ahead of Rossi and held him off to the checkered flag, while Dixon made a rare error when he clipped an inside wall that sent him into the tire wall on corner exit.

The following day, the Ganassi ace utterly redeemed himself and it was Newgarden who made the error. James Hinchcliffe abruptly cut him off as he exited pitlane, necessitating a downchange at Turn 2, and losing momentum. Under pressure from Rossi, Newgarden sent it down the inside of Hinchcliffe’s Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports car at Turn 3, lost control, ran wide into the tire barrier. Hinch had nowhere to go and ran into the side of the stricken Penske, and as if to make sure he stayed there, Rossi half-spun, shoving the ASPM car further into Newgarden’s!

Power recovered from another electrical issue that left him down an escape road trying to reboot his ECU to climb from last to third but he could do nothing about winner Dixon nor the other ASPM car of Formula 1 refugee Marcus Ericsson.

The Detroit event was one of the several victims of the COVID-19 restrictions in 2020, but returned last year, and in memorable manner. In Race 1, Power rose from seventh on the grid to lead 37 laps until Romain Grosjean’s shunt five laps from the end brought out the red flag. The leader’s car wouldn’t re-fire when the track was cleared, allowing Ericsson to score his first ever IndyCar win, ahead of a terrific scrap for second between Rinus VeeKay of Ed Carpenter Racing and Pato O’Ward of Arrow McLaren SP.

Rinus VeeKay and Pato O'Ward take aim at new IndyCar winner Marcus Ericsson after Race 1 last year. O'Ward would capture a brilliant victory the next day.

Rinus VeeKay and Pato O'Ward take aim at new IndyCar winner Marcus Ericsson after Race 1 last year. O'Ward would capture a brilliant victory the next day.

Photo by: Barry Cantrell / Motorsport Images

The following day O’Ward took advantage of a late-race yellow to slice through from fifth and eventually jump hitherto dominant leader Newgarden with less than three laps to go as the latter struggled to keep his red tires under him.

Teammate Power might have been in similar trouble last Sunday – the race was a singleton affair for the Belle Isle finale – had there been a yellow in the closing stages, but remarkably there were no yellows at all until the very last lap, long after he, Rossi, and Dixon had gone past on their way to a well-deserved podium, from 16th, 11th and ninth on the grid respectively.

The Penske Corp., with RP’s right-hand men Bud Denker and Michael Montri in lockstep with him, have always attempted to boost the event’s value for money, hence the introduction of free admission on Fridays and, right from their 2007 takeover of the event, the introduction of topline U.S. sportscars as part of the support bill. American Le Mans Series for two years, then the Rolex SportsCar Series, and then, once the two governing bodies had sorted out their differences, the United Sports Car Championship, which we know today as IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship. Endurance fans will forgive the author for pointing out that the shortness of these races (in comparison with most other IMSA rounds) made them absolutely compelling viewing. Watching the Taylor brothers, Felipe Nasr, Montoya, Dane Cameron and Bourdais (last Saturday’s winner with Renger van der Zande for Ganassi Cadillac) wrestle a Prototype at high speed through Turns 1 and 2 was every bit as breathtaking as watching the IndyCar drivers try and absorb the bumps, use the whole width of the track without rubbing against the wall. It looked like all four corners of the car were flexing in different directions as they got light, sank down, went light again, skipped sideways…

There should be few qualms about the next Detroit venue, in the shadow of the Renaissance Center. As Newgarden says, the 1.7-mile course with its long straights and sharp turns should be “fantastic for racing”, and it reminds this author of the basic principles of the Sao Paulo street race where IndyCar ran from 2010 to 2013. And getting far more into the heart of the Detroit community can only be a good thing. I just wish we could have both that track and Belle Isle on the schedule. Now that would be a double-header to remember.

Three-time and final Belle Isle winner, Will Power.

Three-time and final Belle Isle winner, Will Power.

Photo by: Phillip Abbott / Motorsport Images

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