Random Thoughts on Belle Isle

For someone who historically doesn’t care for much of anything about Belle Isle, I came away from the double-header event fairly pleased – for the most part. Granted, it took Sunday’s wild race to salvage the weekend, as Saturday gave us only forty-three mostly wet laps over only seventy-five minutes of a timed race. Overall, Saturday left us with more questions than answers.

But yesterday’s race more than made up for Saturday’s frustrations. From the multi-car pileup on the opening lap that involved Indianapolis 500 winner Simon Pagenaud, to the Turn Three debacle involving Josef Newgarden, James Hinchcliffe and Alexander Rossi – there were enough twists and turns and subplots to keep even the casual viewer engaged.

Josef Newgarden won Saturday’s race on a well-timed pit stop just before a caution that gave him the lead over Rossi and vaulted him back into the championship lead. There was not a lot of on-track happenings behind Newgarden, because no one dared to venture out of the dry groove on the track.

Scott Dixon won Sunday’s race, also pitting just before a caution. But unlike Saturday’s race, there was a ton of action going on behind him on a bright sunny day.

Dixon crashed in a one-car accident on Saturday that was a rare mistake on Dixon’s part. He underestimated the amount of grip in the corner and clipped the wall with the right-rear of the car, breaking the toe link and the steering rack. Dixon’s day was done on Lap Twenty-Three and he finished last. But as the great ones do, Dixon brushed it aside and focused on Sunday. Dixon led forty-four of the seventy laps on Sunday and won his first race of the season and the forty-fifth of his IndyCar career, putting him only seven wins behind Mario Andretti.

The script also flipped for Josef Newgarden, albeit in a different direction. After leading the most laps on his way to a win on Saturday, Newgarden won the pole for Sunday’s race. But just before the halfway point, it all went terribly wrong for Newgarden.

James Hinchcliffe had just left the pits and sort of forced his way in front of Newgarden with Rossi in pursuit. Hinchcliffe was on cold tires, but Newgarden got impatient and tried to go to the inside of Hinchcliffe in Turn Three. He lost control and slid into the tire barrier, collecting Hinchcliffe who collected Rossi. Instinctively, Rossi got on the throttle and spun around the other way – losing only one spot to Felix Rosenqvist. Hinch and Newgarden both repaired their cars, but their day was effectively done.

Hinchcliffe finished eighteenth, while Newgarden finished nineteenth just one day after taking the win. Rossi would go on to finish fifth and now sits just fifteen points behind Newgarden in the championship standings just before the halfway point of the season. Simon Pagenaud finished twenty-first and slipped back to third in the standings. Heading into the weekend, Pagenaud was leading the championship. Leaving Detroit, he now sits in third.

TV Coverage: This was not NBC’s best outing, but I am not complaining about what most were – when Saturday’s race was moved to CNBC for the final twenty minutes or so. NBC had a hard window coming up at 6:00 EDT. This is the downside when races are on network over-the-air TV. Network affiliates are dependent upon their local news for revenue. When the news is cut short or runs late, advertisers get upset. Networks don’t like their primetime programming upset for sports. The NFL is big enough to make an exception. IndyCar is not.

I’m old enough to remember the infamous “Heidi” NFL game on NBC, featuring the New York Jets at the Oakland Raiders. The Raiders scored two touchdowns in the last minute to complete a miraculous comeback. However, no one in the Eastern or Central time zones saw the last few minutes, because NBC cut away from the game early in order to show the made-for-TV film “Heidi”. There were no cable outlets at that time to move the game to, so football fans were left to wonder what happened.

NBC had no control over Saturday’s weather. I know people that were on Belle Isle over the weekend and they say Saturday’s storm was brutal. Looking at their radar from home, it looked like it. A massive red and purple cell went through the area just before the pre-race show started. I complain about our society getting soft in many areas, but one trend I do agree with is getting sporting participants out of harms way when lightning is present. Fans can choose to put themselves in danger, but the drivers or other athletes have no choice if the event is allowed to continue.

I applaud IndyCar’s decision to postpone Saturday’s race until the lightning had passed through. I’m sorry for those that have no cable and did not have CNBC to finish watching the race. I’m also sorry for those that had set their DVR and came up with not much to watch. But I felt NBC did all they could do in this situation. Based on what I read on social media Saturday night, it’s obvious I am practically alone in my opinion.

That does not mean that NBC had a great weekend. They did not. The same audio glitches that appeared during the Indianapolis 500, resurfaced again this past weekend. At one point on Saturday near the end of the race, my volume suddenly started getting softer. I may be old, but I still have excellent hearing (my vision, not so much). I grabbed the remote and had to increase the volume by about a third just to get it back to where it had been. On Sunday it was worse. I know nothing about TV production, but I don’t think you need a genius sound engineer to lower the volume of the cars or raise the volume of those in the booth. Many times, I could barely hear the trio in the booth over the sounds of the engines. I love the sound of racing engines, but I also want to know what’s going on.

Paul Tracy continued his regression. Although I never cared for him as a driver, I always thought PT brought a lot to the television booth. He was a pleasant surprise with his insight, candor and humor. But this season, Tracy has been in a fog. He seems to be completely out of touch with what’s going on, and lately has displayed a failure to even understand some basic IndyCar rules.

Case in point: During Sunday morning’s qualifying, after Rossi posted the fastest time in Group One, Tracy said that regardless, it was the fast time in Group Two that would be on the pole. Townsend Bell quickly corrected him, but this was just the latest in a half-season of Tracyisms.

During the Carb Day Final Practice at Indianapolis, they had the NBC broadcast piped into the Media Center. They were focusing on the car of Santino Ferrucci, when Tracy uttered that his car had been solid white with no sponsors all through the week until Carb Day. No…that was Kyle Kaiser’s sponsorless Juncos Racing car – who PT pronounced JUNK-ose – that was in the usual Juncos livery by qualifying, after they had rebuilt their backup.

I could go on with examples from every race weekend, but suffice it to say – Paul Tracy now seems to be oblivious to some fairly obvious things in the NTT IndyCar Series. He needs to really step up his game in the second half of the season.

NBC also had their glitch with about eleven laps to go in Sunday’s race. First they had a jumbled picture, then they went to what sounded like phone lines for about twenty seconds before we were suddenly watching another Firestone ad. I know this happens in any sport, but that’s the second time it has happened to NBC in the first half of this season.

Aside from Tracy, I thought everyone else had a good weekend on the NBC telecast, and it’s good to see Jon Beekhuis back after a hiatus in the early part of the schedule.

No pack-up? One of the few treats from Saturday’s race was watching Marco Andretti be the first driver to go to slicks, while the track was still fairly wet. It was a big gamble, but if he could keep it off the walls; Marco would be in great shape whenever the certain yellow came out – so long as he wasn’t the reason for the yellow. Marco willed his car around on sheer determination, but managed to keep his car off the walls. When Ed Jones got into the tire barrier on Lap 18, it looked as though Marco’s gamble would pay huge dividends. When all the remaining cars pitted for slicks, Marco and those that followed his lead would be cycled to the front.

For whatever reason, Race Control opened the pits immediately and Marco remained buried in nineteenth place. As I type on Sunday night, I still have not heard any explanation as to why Race Control chose that moment to abandon a practice that many don’t like anyway. I’m not a fan of closing the pits immediately after a caution, but if that is the practice – do it, and don’t arbitrarily abandon the practice without announcing it. Marco and Bryan Herta based their strategy on assuming the pits would close and allow the field to pack up before opening the pits – just as it has been all season and before. Why the pits opened immediately is beyond me, but it totally screwed Marco Andretti and others out of a good finish.

Power Woes: The un-Penske-like season for Will Power continued through Sunday morning. He made two mistakes in qualifying, both Saturday and Sunday. But his biggest gaffe was when he was motioned out of his pit stall before the right-front tire changer had secured the locknut. As Power was pulling out, the tire-changer made it clear he wasn’t finished. Power lost the wheel before he ever left pit lane and he had to circle around on three wheels to return to his pit. This wasn’t on the tire-changer, this was on whoever told him to go without checking that service had been completed. Was that Roger Penske himself or the outside tire changer? Regardless, it made a bad day a lot worse.

Fortunately for Power, he rebounded after a bad start to his day on Sunday and finished third. From the smile on his face, you would’ve thought he had won the race.

Timed Race: Although I don’t fault NBC for moving Saturday’s race to CNBC for the closing minutes, I have to wonder who made the decision to go to a timed race in the first place. Darkness was not the issue. At this time of year, it doesn’t get dark until after 9:00 in Michigan. If they already knew the race would be moved to CNBC, then why have a timed race? A full-length race would have given the track more time to dry, thereby bringing more strategy into the race and perhaps making passing possible. Instead, we got a seventy-five minute race that resulted in only forty-three wet laps.

I think fans, teams and drivers were cheated out of twenty-seven laps that could have been very interesting had they been allowed to play out. I’m sure there wasa good reason to go to a timed race on Saturday. I just haven’t heared the explanation yet.

No Time to Savor:  Another reason why I don’t care for double-headers, is that the winner of the first race gets so little time to enjoy it. Josef Newgarden has won enough races by this time, that he probably doesn’t need a lot of time to savor a win. But what if a rookie or a veteran who has gone years without a win, had won on Saturday? Normally, a driver gets a week or two to savor the win. Colton Herta got a week after his win at COTA. Newgarden got about twenty hours to savor his win before he had to get right back at it.

Is it really a Tradition? Last year after Race Two, Ryan Hunter-Reay jumped in the fountain at Belle Isle to celebrate his win. To my knowledge, that was the first time that had been done at Belle Isle. When Josef Newgarden won on Saturday, Marty Snider kept egging Newgarden on to jump in the fountain, saying it was the tradition. After the broadcast had ended, Newgarden jumped in – admitting that he was bowing to peer pressure. Again on Sunday, Snider told Scott Dixon that he had to follow tradition by jumping in the fountain. Whether he did or not – I don’t know.

Leigh Diffey mentioned several times over the weekend that it was the tradition for the winner to jump in the fountain.

IndyCar has been racing at Belle Isle since 1992, with a couple of breaks from 2002 to 2006 and again from 2009 to 2011. Counting double-headers, there were twenty-four IndyCar races run at Belle Isle without the winner jumping into the fountain before Hunter-Reay did it after Race Two in 2018. Does that really count as a tradition?

Traditions are usually organic. They just grow on their own. You don’t seize on someone doing something idiotic (like pouring milk all over you), and then announce that this is our new tradition. The words new and tradition should never be used together anyway. End of rant.

Short Leash? Is the No.10 car at Chip Ganassi Racing due to get another driver, perhaps the season is over? Surely not, but it sounds like Chip Ganassi is leaning that way. Going into the weekend, there were loud whispers that rookie driver Felix Rosenqvist was on very thin ice and needed good results in both races this weekend to solidify his status. Saturday, the Swedish driver got the job done by finishing fourth. He appeared headed to another solid finish on Sunday when he clipped the wall on Lap Sixty-Four and then had a spectacular spin and hit the wall, just past the pit exit – for the entire world to see.

It was pointed out that Chip Ganassi does not like to write checks to repair damaged race cars. What does he expect when he goes with unproven commodities from overseas? They can’t all be Alex Zanardi or Juan Montoya.

I think Ganassi fancies himself as having an eye for talent. But truth be known, he has had more misses than hits in his second car. Eddie Cheever lasted three years with Ganassi. Arie Luyendyk lasted only one full season. It was the same with Bryan Herta. Ganassi hit magic with Jimmy Vasser, Alex Zanardi and Juan Montoya. But then came Nicholas Minassian, who lasted less than half a season, and Bruno Junqueira, who lasted two. Jeff Ward and Kenny Bräck had one-year tenures in the IRL and CARt side of things respectively. He obviously struck gold with Scott Dixon. After Tomas Scheckter flamed out in 2003, Tony Renna was signed for 2004 but was fatally injured in an IMS testing accident in Octover of 2003. Darren Manning, Ryan Briscoe and even Dan Wheldon took their shots with Ganassi and were ultimately shown the door. Only Dario Franchitti has shown sustained success in the other car not driven by Scott Dixon over the past two decades. Last year, Ed Jones joined the group of drivers that were given one season at Ganassi. Now it’s Felix Rosenqvist that is the newcomer already on the hot seat.

Just this past February, all we heard was high praise from Mike Hull about how they have finally found the potential successor to whenever Dixon hangs up his helmet. Four months later, it sounds like his demise is eminent. Paul Tracy hinted that Ganassi might just write a big check to get Alexander Rossi. I think Rossi has far greater career potential by staying at Andretti, rather than joining the revolving door at Ganassi. Too many good drivers go there and under-perform. Is it just bad luck, bad timing or a bad environment?

Good Ad: I’ll admit, I had never heard of Gainbridge until I heard they were replacing PennGrade as the presenting sponsor of the Indianapolis 500. Other than writing a check to get their logo in the Indianapolis 500 logo and showing up on Graham Rahal’s car a couple of times, I never saw signs of any involvement from PennGrade. Like so many, when the contract was up, they were gone.

Gainbridge has been a lot more visible in explaining who they are (a financial investment company). Not only are they the season-long sponsor for Zach Veach’s car, they have actually been running ads on television during races. And not only do they run ads, they have a very well-done ad comparing racing to investment strategies. They say the goal at the Indianapolis 500 is not to have the fastest lap – it’s to have the fastest two-hundred laps. Then they go on to compare investing to that same mindset.

It’s one thing to run an ad during a race. It’s another to create one that race fans can identify with. I wish more sponsors would follow their lead.

Get the Gun:  The smallest details sometimes emerge in a big way. You have to wonder if the most significant incident of the day would have happened at all, had the air gun on James Hinchcliffe’s pit stop on Lap Thirty-Three been retrieved in a timely manner. If you’ll recall, Hinchcliffe had to pause momentarily until the air gun was pulled out of the way. It was significant enough that the TV crew mentioned it at the time. Had Hinch been allowed to go without pausing, would he have been out quick enough that Newgarden would not have felt the need to pass him at Turn Three? That little hesitation by the crew to get the air gun out of the way, may have had major consequences on all three involved…or maybe I’m trying to make a case for something that really doesn’t matter.

All in All: With all of the weather and delayed conditions surrounding Saturday’s race, it wasn’t given much of a shot at providing entertainment. It didn’t. That may have been different had someone had not made the decision to make it a timed race. As it was, we got pretty much what you would expect. It was a race in name only.

Fortunately, Sunday made up for it. This may not be saying much, but Sunday’s race was one of the better races I’ve seen at Belle Isle. There was constant action everywhere on the track and you were never quite sure who was going to win. Even though Scott Dixon led more than half the laps, you were never quite sure what might happen to keep that from happening. Although Dixon did ultimately win, it never felt like a foregone conclusion.

So overall, I’d say Belle Isle was a success. Now the NTT IndyCar Series moves on to one of my favorite tracks – Texas Motor Speedway, where nothing is a foregone conclusion.

George Phillips

22 Responses to “Random Thoughts on Belle Isle”

  1. I missed Sunday due to travel so missed race. Timed races are not my favorite but changing the rules of the competition in midstream is very unfair. And when I read the Indy Star this morning of course the photo was of Dixon floating in the water. I’m sure Indycar will suggest this “new” manufactured tradition continue.

  2. Paul Fitzgerald Says:

    George…I have to say that Texas is my least favorite race on the schedule. Too many times it has been a wreck fest and I will not watch it. I don’t want to see anyone hurt.

    • billytheskink Says:

      I won’t argue that wrecks at Texas aren’t scary, they often very much are, but the race is rarely a wreck fest. Only twice has more than 1/4 of the field wrecked out and only 3 times have there been multiple multi-car crashes. Texas races have averaged fewer than 1 multi-car crash per race, and only just over 3 total wrecked cars per race.

  3. So, this was my first trip to Belle Isle and Detroit. I didn’t see too much of Detroit but it wasn’t as scary as the stories say, just felt like a big Indy. Belle Isle is a beautiful place and they seem to put on a great event. There were lots of vendor/food booths scattered across the island, lots of stuff for kids to do, some car displays, and the paddock was open to everyone which was neat. I took a couple friends who had never been to an IndyCar race and within 10 minutes of being in the paddock we saw about a dozen drivers/owners up close and personal which was cool. Mr. Penske even signed my 103rd 500 ticket! Pretty big crowd all day.

    That being said, I don’t think general admission is the best way to experience this race. There’s a GA grandstand inside turn 3 which seemed like it would be a good spot but due to the walls and fending you could only see the cars for a couple seconds and it wasn’t very exciting. There’s also a GA grandstand at turn 7 as they enter the fountain section but it was similar there, could only see the cars for a few seconds. And both grandstands require quite a bit of walking to get to, according to my watch we ended up walking 7.2 miles on Saturday. If I go again I’ll sit in the grandstands on the front stretch, much better/longer view of the action and a lot less walking.

    We watched the Trans Am race, watched IndyCar qualifying, watched IMSA, and then about 20-30 minutes before the IndyCar race was to start officials came up to us and said they were evacuating the island because a storm with 50mph winds and lightning was coming. Well, we opted not to take the shuttle and instead parked on a roadside right across from the entrance to the bridge to the island so we had to walk, in the rain and wind and lightning, across that looooong bridge. By the time we got to my car we were soaked and thoroughly exhausted, it had already been a very long day and we had nothing left in the tank so we called it a day. I had a 4+ hour drive home so I couldn’t really wait around a couple hours for them to start the race so I listened to it on the NBCSN app on the way home.

    Even though it didn’t end the way we anticipated it was still a great day and I enjoyed the facility/event. Doing it after three weekends at IMS made it kinda brutal on these old legs but it was worth it and I’ll likely go again at some point. And yes, while it can be a dull race on TV, it was cool as hell to see the cars blasting around that very tight course.

  4. Any comments on how Dixon break checks and accelerates before the restart zone to gap himself unfairly. It was so obvious and blatant and I like Dixon. Just unfair to the competition when he is already a second ahead at the start/finish line. Of course he won’t be challenged.

    • Tony Dinelli Says:

      I noticed that too but nothing ever came of it.

    • billytheskink Says:

      This is a pretty common tactic for most of the series’ drivers when they lead a restart. Some are better than others (usually drivers who lead regularly and thus lead restarts often). Dixon is solid at it, but Franchitti and Castroneves were even better brake check artists back in the day.

  5. Shyam R Cherupalla Says:

    All the reasons George iterated about Indycar is the problem, no consiistency with how a race is operated. When drivers strategy rotates around packing up on Yellows, they don’t or they throw ill timed yellow flags. So why not open the pits all the time (even during yellows) as it worked in Detroit, that would be the most fair thing to do for race fans and the drivers. When everyone knew the race will be past 6 PM, why limit it to 75 minutes, as we knew it, the broadcast would have been moved out to CNBC anyway. And last but not the least it almost seems that Indycar is too slow to react and almost lethargic towards getting a race to start or getting out of yellows when in situations with rain and in accidents during yellows. Its almost like they don’t care about the paying customers Too many laps get spent on running the cars under yellows. They only need to look at F1 in how efficiently they do these things. And who said a yellow has to last 3 laps at the minimum, why not go to a single lap yellow in case of spins and spills and the driver continues on

    • Had this paying customer been able to stay for the race, I would have been extremely happy that the race was shortened to 75 minutes. It was an extremely long, hot, exhausting day and I wouldn’t have had the energy to stay for a full length race.

  6. Speaking of traditions, kissing the bricks is a NASCAR thing and it should stay that way. PNC Bank had a poll about the greatest tradition at Indy and can you believe kissing the bricks was above drinking the milk?!?!?

    • billytheskink Says:

      While Dale Jarrett and NASCAR did popularize kissing the bricks, Scott Brayton actually did it first, after winning pole for the 500 in 1995.

  7. Completely off topic… I am now unable to attend Road America due to health reasons. I have 2 tickets and preferred parking for the weekend. Would anyone be able to use these tickets? This would be a gift, as I want another IndyCar fan to enjoy this wonderful venue. Please email George if you are interested. Thanks George!

  8. JP in Colorado Springd Says:

    One more Paul Tracy stupid comment (repeatedly) , was how Marcus Erricisson
    Had never experienced a “green/ white checkers” restart. This, with five laps to go! Then again later. HEY PAUL! That gimmick is NASCAR, and one of the many reasons I gave up on them. STOP IT! Please!

  9. We never said Paul Tracy was smart. He has been saying “green/white/checker” for over a year and no one has called him out. Indy car does not need gimmicks.

  10. Was I seeing things yesterday? When Seb finally got back to the pits after the crash with Pigot, did his team send him out without a front wing? I kept waiting for someone in the booth to comment on this.

    • Talón de Brea Says:

      Probably to stay on the lead lap, then duck back in for the new nose. Seb certainly provided some visual variety in Race 2 …

      • LurkingKiwi Says:

        Yeah, Scott Dixon did 5-ish laps under yellow without a rear wing at Road America in 2001 doing incremental repairs each time by the pits and ended up fourth.

  11. Speedsport Says:

    The “tradition” of jumping into the Scott Fountain Pool did not start until 2018 when Victory Circle was moved from next to media center to the Scott Fountain where more of the public could view the celebration. If memory serves, Ryan Hunter-Ray was the initial “swimmer”!

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