Belle Isle Preview

Although today’s calendar still says May 31, we all know that the Month of May effectively ended this past Sunday, when Simon Pagenaud took the checkered flag after a thrilling late-race duel with Alexander Rossi. The Victory Banquet put a period on the month and that was it. All that’s left are the memories of another Month of May and the start of a new countdown to the 104th Running of the Indianapolis 500 to be held on Sunday May 24, 2020.

After a month of focusing on No-Tow speeds, the Top-Thirty, the Fast Nine and the Last Row Shootout; it’s now time to turn our attention to the points battle that leads to the 2019 NTT IndyCar Series Championship. With the series headed to Belle Isle, teams and drivers will be facing the only double-header weekend of the season.

As quickly as Simon Pagenaud became the new points leader after sweeping the Month of May and all of the points that came with it – it could all go away by Saturday afternoon.

Think about it. Of all of the available points that were up for grabs in May, the only ones that Pagenaud did not take were the point for winning the pole for the IndyCar Grand Prix and the two points for leading the most laps in the Grand Prix. He took everything else, including the Indianapolis 500 pole, the race win and leading the most laps – all in double-points. After all that, Pagenaud leads his Penske teammate Josef Newgarden by one point.

Alexander Rossi trails Pagenaud by twenty-two points and Takuma Sato is forty-seven points behind. Simon Pagenaud has the opportunity to really stretch out his lead over his competitors, or he could leave Detroit kicking himself for blowing his lead and falling back in the pack.

Recently, the winner of the Indianapolis 500 has performed fairly well in the double-header at Belle Isle; or at least held their own. Will Power continued that trend last year by finishing seventh in Race One and third in Race Two. In 2017, Takuma Sato finished fourth and third respectively. In 2016, a young rookie named Alexander Rossi finished tenth and twelfth after coming off his surprise Indianapolis 500 win. Juan Montoya finished tenth in both Belle Isle races following his second Indianapolis 500 win.

You have to go all the way back to 2014 to find a driver that laid an egg at Detroit following an Indianapolis 500 victory. Ryan Hunter-Reay finished sixteenth and nineteenth at Belle Isle, just one week after drinking the milk. So for most drivers, the grueling media tour following an Indianapolis 500 win does not seem to have as much of an adverse affect on them as you would think.

Most regular readers of this site know that I don’t care for the Raceway at Belle Isle, in the middle of the Detroit River. It is my least favorite track on the IndyCar schedule. I will qualify that statement by admitting that I’ve never been to that track. I am basing that opinion strictly from what I observe on television. I have been told by more than one person that I have been too harsh in my assessment of Belle Isle – that I would speak much more favorably about it if I would go there. Well, I base my choices of tracks to attend on what I see on television. If it looks unappealing on television, I don’t see much point in spending my own money and vacation time to go to a place I think I won’t like.

I have also been an outspoken critic of the double-header concept. In 2013 and 2014, there were three double-headers on the IndyCar schedule – Belle Isle, Toronto and Houston. I saw it as a gimmicky way to add races to a schedule that was losing venues. I thought that it was tough on teams, drivers and even fans watching on television.

Beginning in 2015, double-headers mercifully went away except for Belle Isle, and that holds true today.

Aside from the track and the double-header concept, I don’t care for the placement of this race on the schedule. I think that having this race, which tends to be processional and boring, coming on the heels of the Indianapolis 500 is a momentum killer. It’s hard to say “Did you like what you saw last Sunday in the Indianapolis 500? Well, tune in this weekend and you’ll get more of the same.” Instead, potential new fans that are hoping for the high-speed excitement that they saw on Sunday, will be lulled to sleep for two days in a row as cars go around Belle Isle in a mostly single-file fashion.

I’d prefer to give Eddie Gossage his way and let Texas be the next race, but I think Gossage needs to figure out a way to promote it in one week instead of two. Having Texas follow up the Indianapolis 500 on the following Saturday night would be a much better way to capitalize on the Indianapolis 500 than two street course races at Belle Isle…but that’s just me and my opinion that doesn’t really count for anything.

So do I have anything good to say about what’s coming up this weekend? Yes. Shiny race cars will be racing each other at (relatively) high speeds for both days. There will also be a significant impact on the points race. History says that Simon Pagenaud will not win either race this weekend. It’s not because he will be too worn out from the media frenzy he has endured all week. It’s because he has a Chevy engine, which hasn’t fared too well at the event that Chevy sponsors in their own backyard. Chevy has won only one race in the last eight at Belle Isle, and that was Will Power winning the Sunday race in 2016. Pagenaud won once, in the 2013 Sunday race – but he was driving a Honda for Sam Schmidt in those days.

Coverage of practice on Friday will be on NBC Gold, with Session One starting at 10:55 EDT and Session Two at 2:50 EDT. Qualifying for Race One will be live on NBC Gold Saturday morning at 10:45 EDT and delayed on NBCSN at Noon EDT. Race One will be shown live on (big) NBC at 3:00 EDT Saturday. Sunday’s qualifying for Race Two will be shown live on NBCSN at 10:30 EDT, while Race Two will air live on (big) NBC Sunday at 3:00 EDT. Please check your local listings and cable guides.

My pick to win at least one of the races and come away with the most points of anyone this weekend is the driver that came so very close to winning his second Indianapolis 500 in four tries – Alexander Rossi. I think that falling short after coming so close is going to provide extra motivation for Rossi for the remainder of the season. I also look to Josef Newgarden reclaiming the points lead by the time the weekend is over.

George Phillips

16 Responses to “Belle Isle Preview”

  1. I’m quite looking forward to viewing on television!

  2. Detroit has gone from being one of my least favorites to one of my favorites to look forward to.

    The racing isn’t always grand but I love the double header! Drivers these days are really juiced up on supplements, I don’t feel like driver fatigue is a factor in racing any longer except this weekend. I feel like they are really working for it this weekend.

    I really liked when they did more of these at Toronto and Houston. Would like to add a double header at Portland in 2020!

  3. I typically share your opinion of this track/race(s), but I will be attending tomorrow’s race so I’ll let you know if it’s better in person (spoiler alert: it will be, because there’s nothing better than being at a race track, even if the race is a snoozer).

    This will be my first street race, I’m looking forward to it. I opted for this race over Gateway this year, it’s the same drive (4 hours to each) and while I enjoyed Gateway the last two years the facility is pretty barren/boring and the race isn’t very exciting so I figured I’d switch it up this year.

    • I’ll be curious to hear your comments. I thoroughly enjoyed my first street race, earlier this year at St. Petersburg. I’ve heard that Roger Penske has made a lot of improvements with the venue. I think I would not be so down on Belle Isle if it had a different spot on the schedule. – GP

      • Agree about it’s place on the schedule, it’s one of the worst possible races to have after the excitement of The 500. From what I’ve heard the park is beautiful so at the very least it will be a nice place to spend an afternoon. We’re just going general admission but they have a couple grandstands just for GA tickets and one of them is at the entrance to the fountain so that should be a good view. Looks like there’s a chance of rain right around when the IndyCar race starts, hoping not to get soaked.

    • billytheskink Says:

      All races are indeed better at the race track (yes, even the much-maligned Houston event) and multiple races are better than one (ditto for Houston). The great thing about attending a double-header is that you get to see two races, what fan could complain about that?

  4. Yannick Says:

    I may not be a fan of double-headers but the 2010 version of Phoenix International Raceway appeared way more processional to me than a street circuit such as Belle Isle during the same timeframe. The Detroit track has produced quite a few very entertaining races during the past few years. Here’s looking forward to good and safe racing.
    Yet, I still do miss the Milwaukee Mile which held the date of this race for the longest time.

  5. Looking forward to my 4th year in a row at Belle Isle. Not looking forward to the paddock being open for all ticket holders this year. There were already a lot of people in the paddock when we were paying 25 bucks for the pass. Now it’s probably gonna be packed. Oh well, got great seats once again in Grandstand 2 and hopeful for nice weather!

  6. Bruce B Says:

    In the movie “Winning”, didn’t Paul Newman declare ……..”after Indy we know we all pack up for Milwaukee” ??

  7. George I feel near 100% about Belle Isle as you do above in your write up . A Saturday Texas night race after the Indianapolis 500 goes together like peanut butter & jelly . Besides any racing events every time I have visited Detroit I have had a excellent time and was surprised . The GM building downtown has some worthy cars to view on the lower level .

  8. Ron Ford Says:

    Perhaps some or one of you may remember that there was once a fine restaurant in Detroit called “The Oil Can”. Each table featured a old time oil can with a flower in the spout. Excellent food. The last time I ate there (this goes way back in time) , who should walk in but Johnny Cash and Buffy St. Marie. Johnny Cash was quite tall as we know and Buffy was vertically challenged, but they made a nice couple.

    • Ron Ford Says:

      In retrospect, the restaurant was a hotel restaurant near Cobo Hall in Detroit and probably not called “The Oil Can”. It did have oil cans on the tables however. There was a vintage Detroit restaurant called “The Garage”. Maybe that was it. Anyway, enough old guy reminiscing, we have two races to watch.

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