Random Thoughts on Belle Isle

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When it comes to eating crow, I am a big believer in doing it – even when it applies to me. For years, I have disparaged Belle Isle every time the NTT IndyCar Series raced on the island in the Detroit River, in between Detroit and Windsor, Ontario to the south (yes, to the south). I figured about the only good to come out of the pandemic, was that it took Belle Isle off of the schedule last year. Readers here took me to task because of my opinions of Belle Isle and the shots that I took at the race weekend. When it became to only remaining double-header on the schedule, I winced that we had to endure it twice in one weekend.

Keep in mind, my opinions were based simply on what I had seen over the years, since CART moved the race from downtown Detroit to the island in 1992. I have watched many, many races there that featured no passes and no action. The concrete barriers seemed to allow enough room for cars to run in a parade and the only changes in position took place in the pits. I mentioned on Friday that the DW12 had proven to be more racy in road and street circuits than other cars, and even more so in this current configuration that started racing in 2018. Still, I always cringed when I saw Belle Isle show up as the next race.

Well, I’ll take my crow on a bun with salt and pepper. This past weekend, we saw two of the wackiest and more exciting races you’ll see on a temporary street circuit. There was drama, intriguing strategy, luck (good and bad) and flat-out great racing all on display in both races.

Many times with double-headers, we’ll see one good race and one dud on either days. Saturday and Sunday featured two completely different races, but both were outstanding. In fact, I’ll go so far as to say that both races from this past weekend were the best two races we’ve seen this season – outside of the feel-good result and the pageantry of the Indianapolis 500 a couple of weeks ago.

Sunday’s race ended as Saturday’s race began – with Pato O’Ward at the top of the leader board. But so much happened in between the start of Saturday’s race and the conclusion of Sunday’s contest – it’s hard to cover it all, but I’ll try and hit the high (and low) points.

Besides Pato O’Ward winning on Sunday, Marcus Ericsson won on Saturday in one of the most unlikely finishes you’ll ever see – when Will Power’s car failed to start after the second red flag of the day. Power was leading when the field was brought into the pits, with Ericsson second. When Power’s car suffered a literal meltdown of the Engine Control Unit (ECU), Power was unceremoniously pushed out of the way as the field went by with Ericsson as the new leader and ultimate winner. I have distinct thoughts on that sequence of events as well as many other topics of the weekend, so I’ll get started.

TV Coverage: With all that happened over the weekend on Belle Isle, it was the TV Coverage, or lack thereof, that had everyone chirping on social media. It began as we all tuned in for Saturday’s race, which we had been warned would be a fast green flag with little pre-race coverage. As I tuned into NBC at 12:55 CDT, I saw a lacrosse game going on. After a minute or two, I was dismayed as the announcers gladly boasted that the game was going to overtime, Before the overtime session started, it was 1:00 – the starting time for the IndyCar broadcast. I checked social media to see if the start of the race had been bumped to another NBC channel. I flipped though NBCSN, CNBC, USA, MSNBC and even checked Peacock – nothing.

I ended up watching more lacrosse in that overtime session than I had watched cumulatively in my entire life. Fortunately, one of the teams scored and they switched to the race – after commercials for Draft Kings and an Erectile Dysfunction treatment. When the broadcast was finally joined, the race was wrapping up Lap Two and many drivers had already pitted to shed their red alternate tires. It was irritating that lacrosse was valued over IndyCar, but I figured that was the one snub/flub for the weekend and I would quickly get over it. I was wrong.

The race ran way over the allotted window, mostly due to the frightening crash of Felix Rosenqvist and the resulting cleanup and track repair. I was not at all surprised when Leigh Diffey said the post-race coverage would be thrown to the NBC Sports App. I wanted to see Ericsson celebrate his first IndyCar win, but I really wanted to hear what Will Power had to say about the end of the race.

I quickly went to the NBC Sports App and easily found the icon for the GP of Detroit – Race 1. I clicked on it and was greeted with a screen with the NBC Sports logo and a message saying “Coverage will begin shortly”. Like a zombie, I stared at this screen for several minutes. I backed out and re-launched it, thinking that there was some technical difficulty. After a few more minutes, I checked social media and saw that everyone else was having the same problem.

To me – this was inexcusable. I understand that when our sport is on the big network and it runs way over, you will get bumped to another outlet. We got that for years with ESPN or ABC throwing the end of a race to ESPN News or ESPN Classic. But when they told us they were doing that, they did it.

I don’t know if this was an innocent mistake by a bumbling intern failing to flip the right switch or what. What I do know is that after missing the start of the race in favor of lacrosse and their dozens of viewers, IndyCar fans were rightfully upset to be sent to mythical coverage that didn’t exist. I follow @IndyCaronNBC on Twitter and I saw no apology or even acknowledgment that they dropped the ball Saturday. Ignoring a mistake to irate viewers is not what I call good customer service.

On Sunday, many fans were upset that the French Open Tennis had run over into the longer pre-race show promised for Sunday. On that one, I’ll defend NBC. The French Open is one of the Grand Slam events in Tennis and is a world-wide event, just a notch below Wimbledon. It is a ratings grab for NBC and I don’t blame them for not leaving it for the Detroit Grand Prix. This time, they made the choice to move all of the IndyCar coverage over to CNBC. Fans were even more irate than on Saturday and had no idea where to find the coverage. I put that one on the fans. It was all over social media, and IndyCar.com that the coverage was moved to CNBC, until the completion of the French Open match. That turned out to be about an hour into the race.

If you’re not on social media, do what I did on Saturday – flip around to NBCSN or CNBC. This is not the first time that coverage has been thrown over to CNBC. Give it a try as soon as you see programming besides the race on NBC. The thing is, I know these people complaining had access to social media, because that’s where they were doing the complaining. Fans sometimes have to take some responsibility to do an easy search to other NBC outlets.

Saying the coverage is going to be on the NBC Sports App and it wasn’t; shame on NBC. Moving IndyCar coverage from NBC to CNBC in favor of the French Open and fans can’t find it; shame on the fans for not trying hard enough.

As for the coverage we did see, it was decent enough. I’m still not a fan of Marty Snider as a pit reporter, but I think Kevin Lee does a good enough job in the pits to make up for it. Paul Tracy was away doing the SRX Series, leaving Townsend Bell as the lone analyst in the booth. I know Tracy comes under a lot of fire for some random off-the-wall comments, but I actually like Tracy in the booth – and that comes from someone who never cared that much for him as a driver. I find Townsend Bell to be arrogant and condescending; and for no justified reason.

Three different times this weekend, one of the pit reporters would say something and Bell made it clear he wasn’t listening. Early in Race One, Kevin Lee had just announced that Ryan Hunter-Reay was in the pits because he had just tagged the wall. Immediately afterwards, Bell noticed that Hunter-Reay was in the pits for some unexplained reason. There were at least two other situations identical to that this past weekend. Listen to your colleagues! That’s what they’re there for.

And by the way, Townsend Bell needs another adjective besides “Super”. “It’s super hot today”, “The track is super slick”, “O’Ward is super quick”. It’s gotten super tiresome.

NBC ended their bad weekend on a high note. They gave us a good post-race show on Sunday, followed by a comical segment of squirrels and gophers on Belle Isle being chased by race cars all weekend, at the end of their Sunday telecast.

The Crash: I’ve been watching this sport for decades, and it’s been a while since I’ve seen a crash as scary as the one we saw Saturday involving Felix Rosenqvist. His throttle apparently stuck and caused him to accelerate out of control toward the tire barrier in Turn Six. Even though we could instantly see that he was awake and alert, I feared for his legs and feet. My mind immediately went to the crash at Sanair Super Speedway in Quebec in 1984, when Rick Mears legs and feet were mangled to the point that his feet are still not right today. Safety has come a long way since then and it was proven to us again on Saturday. Felix Rosenqvist is a very lucky man. He may or may not race at Road America this coming weekend, but the fact he may even have that option is testament to the safety of these cars.

Why Were the Reds So Bad? The whole idea of the red alternate tires on road and street courses is to give drivers a choice. They can opt for the harder black tires, which will last longer but offer less grip – or they can go for the red alternates which will give far better grip, but won’t last as long. Sometimes the red is the preferred tire and will be saved for the last stint. At other races, the blacks might hold a slight edge over the reds. Drivers must run at least two laps on both sets at some point in a race.

At Belle Isle, this was taken to the extreme. Drivers could not get off of the red tires soon enough – especially on Saturday. What changed? Was it the heat this past weekend? Was the red compound simply unsuitable for Belle Isle? I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a weekend where one of the choices was so bad that no one wanted them, like this weekend.

The Red Flag: When Romain Grosjean hit the Turn Nine wall with five laps to go on Saturday, Race Control decided it would be a good idea to throw the red flag and bring the cars down pit road to sit while the cleanup took place. Their thinking was to try and finish the race under the green flag. Will Power had been the leader for the previous twelve laps. Marcus Ericsson was hanging close, but it was questionable if he would ever be able to get past Power.

We all know what happened. In the extremely hot conditions, Power’s ECU baked with the cars just sitting there. Power asked for a fan, but was initially denied by IndyCar officials. Townsend Bell theorized that the matte black finish on Power’s car caused the heat to be retained more than the other cars, giving us yet another reason to not like matte black finishes on race cars. Whatever the case, Power’s car would not re-fire when the command came to restart engines for the remaining four laps. Power’s ECU was finally replaced, but it was far too late. Power went from leading the race when the red flag came out on Lap 66, to finishing twentieth and three laps down; as Ericsson celebrated his first IndyCar win.

Afterwards, Power went on an epic rant that none of us saw live. I finally saw it a couple of hours later on Twitter. He called out IndyCar, Race Control, the officials in the pits and anyone else he felt had a hand in robbing him of an assured victory. While the haters had a good time laughing at his misfortune, I agreed with Power.

Too many times over the last decade, we’ve seen the red flag thrown in the very late stages of a race just to avoid finishing the race under yellow. My question is – what is so awful about finishing a race under caution?

IndyCar fans love to laugh at NASCAR for their very contrived Green-White-Checker to try and finish the race under green; but is throwing a red flag with a handful of laps remaining any different? I don’t think so.

I’ve always thought this was a very artificial way of manufacturing false drama. Critics of the practice have been saying for years that these engines don’t always re-fire that easily, and that someone is going to get screwed out of a good finish. Power didn’t just screwed out of a good finish, he was robbed of a win.

Fans are not always entitled to an edge-of-your-seat finish. Sometimes races are just boring. That’s the way it goes sometimes. Not all football games are exciting, but the officials don’t decide to change the rules near the end of the game, just to spice things up. Dario Franchitti is a three-time winner of the Indianapolis 500, yet every one of his wins finished under the yellow. Is that a travesty against the fans? I certainly don’t think so. I have an idea Franchitti doesn’t think so, either.

In 1984, Rick Mears dominated the race for the last thirty laps and finished with more than a two-lap lead. Should they have thrown a red flag or reshuffled the field just to make things more interesting for the fans? Absolutely not. As crazy as that sounds to us, what happened Saturday would have sounded just as crazy to fans in 1984. When Mears won his third in 1988, that race finished under caution. Does that make it less of a win? No.

Race Control has been very inconsistent in throwing the red flag near the end of races. They chose not to throw it after Spencer Pigot crashed on Lap 195 of last year’s Indianapolis 500 last August. I applauded that move as the race ended under caution, but many fans felt cheated of a green-flag finish.

I don’t understand that mentality. In my mind, there are only three reasons why a red flag should be used – poor weather conditions, to protect safety workers as they work to safely remove an injured driver or if there is to be an extended cleanup or track repair. The red flag was never intended to manipulate the results of a race.

But that is exactly what happened on Saturday. Will Power had led the final twelve laps before Grosjean’s crash. If they couldn’t get the wreckage cleared away in five laps, so be it. Will Power would’ve won instead of Ericsson. I’m happy for Ericsson and I’m glad he now has a win to his credit, but I’m not convinced he would have won had Power not suffered the very worst of bad luck.

Will Power had every right to be furious, and I hope Race Control will stop this ridiculous practice of arbitrarily pulling out the red flag in order to fabricate phony late race drama. The potential of a yellow should be part of the late race drama – not a red flag.

Lost Wheels: What is going on with not securing the wheels, suddenly? We all know what happened to Graham Rahal at the Indianapolis 500 a couple of weeks ago. There was a series of small mistakes by many people, but it all started with the left-rear wheel changer fumbling the single lug nut and the car taking off without the wheel secure. The result was a torn up race car in the Turn Two fence.

On Saturday the same thing happened to Josef Newgarden. On Sunday, Dalton Kellett was the latest to exit the pits with an insecure rear wheel. Is there a new vendor out there making faulty single center nuts? Are the nuts stripping or are they being dropped?

A loose tire at speed is a dangerous thing. The results could have been disastrous when Conor Daly punted Rahal’s tire at Indianapolis. Newgarden’s tire rolled harmlessly behind a wall and Kellett stopped his car as he was leaving the pits, realizing that something was wrong before the wheel went off. If this keeps happening, the results may not be as fortunate as they’ve been the last couple of weeks.

As Advertised: I’ve always been a little skeptical of drivers who find success early in their career. Sometimes they are able to sustain it; while other times they get branded a flash in the pan.

But count me as a big believer in Pato O’Ward. His two wins in the last six weeks have been impressive and did not involve luck at all. His late race charge at Texas has now been exceeded by Sunday’s late race charge after the restart. When the green flag flew with eight laps to go, O’Ward was running in fifth place. He made a gutsy move on Graham Rahal for fourth, then two corners later did the same thing to Alex Palou. Colton Herta tried to hold off O’Ward for second, but he would not be denied.

Then he set his sites on race leader Josef Newgarden, who was struggling on worn red tires. Newgarden did his best to hold off O’Ward, but a wiggle coming out of a turn was all O’Ward needed. It was a drag race down the back straightaway but O’Ward got him and took the lead with three to go. By the time O’Ward took the checkered flag, he had checked out on the rest of the field. He finished 6.7 seconds ahead of Newgarden, who did well to fight off a charging Palou at the line.

While everyone is falling all over themselves anointing Alex Palou as the next great thing, I’m still a little skeptical. He may be, but I need to see a little bit more. As for Pato O’Ward – I’ve seen enough. He’s the real deal.

All in All: With apologies to Steve Martin; Saturday was a wild and crazy race. With all of the different tire strategies being played out, I had no idea who was going to win way beyond the halfway point. It had the very scary crash with Felix Rosenqvist and the controversial ending with the red flag at the end. But if I’m Marcus Ericsson, I take that win and I don’t apologize for it. You take a win however you can.

Sunday’s race was just as racy, but without as much drama as Saturday. Still, the different tire strategies chosen by different teams affected the outcome. But when Pato O’Ward decided it was time to go – there was no stopping him.

For better or worse, I’ve seen every race from Belle Isle that has been run since they moved there in 1992. In that time, I’ve seen a lot of duds. Saturday and Sunday featured the two best races from Belle Isle I’ve seen in those thirty years. It’s almost enough to change my opinion of the venue…almost.

George Phillips

14 Responses to “Random Thoughts on Belle Isle”

  1. I feel like Detroit haters are eating crow today, those races were extremely wild! Minus the crash no one wants to see, both races had it all, super strategy, unheard of passing, rubbing, ruffled feathers. It’s certainly what we want to see in Indycar. I too dread this track usually but man, that was a great weekend and thankfully a safe weekend when it looked like it might not be.

  2. Leslie Bissell Says:

    George, I agree completely with you about the red flag. For me, that completely ruined Race 1. Also, I heard later from a reliable source that Rossi passed 14 cars that day. What? I disagree on the Sunday coverage. It may have been fine for those fans who have access to CNBC but I do not. Surely NBC knew ahead of time that they were not going to broadcast the race in its entirety on NBC. They could have moved it to Peacock at least. I know some do not have access to that either. I ended up listening on tne radio like in the old days. That is where I !earned about Rossi’s performance on Saturday.

    • There is no way NBC would have know that the French Open final was going to run way over. However I agree that they should have put it on Peacock.

  3. billytheskink Says:

    Big thumbs up to Firestone, because the tires more than anything made for the action-packed racing this weekend.

    I did not really agree with the red flag, but I will allow that Grosjean’s car was stopped in a more precarious than usual position for the safety team to clear it, quite narrow and quite close to the racing line on the exit of a turn. Even under caution, cars were withing a yard of Grosjean as they circulated by. In a less precarious position, Grosjean’s car is probably removed with plenty of time for a restart with 2-3 laps left. And on Grosjean, very endearing to see him rush to the corner worker for an extinguisher to put out his brake fire in race 2. Good addition to the paddock, this guy.

    I did feel bad for Power, though I’m sure all the guys who had ECU issues at Texas last year would tell him to cry them a river. Interesting that his was the only car that failed to fire, there may be something to Bell’s black car theory (Bourdais fired up, though).

    Townsend Bell earns 10 demerits for looking at a head-on short of Josef Newgarden on 3 wheels and initially thinking he had bent his suspension tapping the wall, a continuation of the missteps both he and Tracy made at Indy where they regularly described a pass as happening after a camera cut that clearly showed the car already ahead defending its position from a would-be passer.

  4. Agreed best Detroit races i can remember , hopefully that is good sign for race at Nashville i’ll be there to watch in person

  5. Bruce Waine Says:

    Formula 1 secrecy has come to Indy Car?

    Marshall Pruett wrote back on the 12th quoting Indy Car Team McLaren, “The sequence of events has been clearly established and the root cause identified (of Rosenquist’s crash) as a signular, non-recurent mechanical fault.”

    No details forthcoming from Team McLaren.

    Puzzling statement or not?

    Why does McLaren not publicly release the “root cause” so that all drivers of the same chassis might not suffer a possibly similar situation and possibly suffer similar or worse injuries?

    A second perspective.

    After viewing multiple times the video leading up the the crash, it appears that Rosenquist does not turn his steering wheel in order to negotiate the corner.

    Rather it appears that he holds his steering as if driving in a straight line and drives straight into the barrier without trying to turn his steering wheel in order to negotiate the turn.

    So what is the secret “root cause” McLaren ?

    • Charles Marcy Says:

      I was equally mystified by McLaren’s “non” statement. Did the rough track break the electronic sensor on the throttle pedal?

      I caught that about halfway through the corner Rosenquist straightened the steering wheel out. I think he instinctively headed it to the tires to lessen the impact. One car length to the right and he hits concrete barrier only. The outcome would have likely been much worse. He may have saved his life with that decision!

  6. Doug W. Says:

    I’ve attended almost all of the DGP events since 1982 – I was not there this weekend – the event on site is a good time – street courses are not always the best viewing experience – and I admit – Belle Isle does not have the best viewing spots in Indycar. Great analysis – I agree about the red flag for Felix, I don’t for Romain.

    On Sunday – even more perplexing with the move to CNBC was the seemingly unannounced change in start from 11 AM CDT on NBC to 11:30 on CNBC.

    I don’t follow tennis, not since Björn Borg anyway. Part of the *overtime* seemed to be from a medical timeout. I don’t know of other sports where a player gets injured and play is stopped until it is deemed that the player can continue. Is that the case? That is an outsider’s view of what I saw on NBC.

    I have a love/hate relationship with PT in the booth. You are 100% right that TB did not hear all of the broadcast such as the RHR comment; there were a few more. I’ll be happy to see PT back with LD and TB.

    Pit reporters – would love to have Kevin, Jon, and Katie. I think Marty and Kelly are better suited for NASCAR. I understand why it is the way it is; that does not mean I have to like it. Indycar fans are a bunch of complainers anyway, right?

    Hope to catch up with you at Road America and congratulate you as one of the few who knows how to use CDT properly!

  7. Very happy the Belle Isle races were so good. I’ve attended the race four times (’16-’19) and really enjoyed the experience, but admittedly it’s never been as good on t.v. (until this year!)

    How cool was it when NBC captured the audio exchange between O’Ward and his strategist prior to the last restart, and then Pato goes out and does exactly what they discussed? You don’t see that too often.

    The red flags? I just want consistency! How on earth does race control deem it necessary to end race 1 of the Duel in Detroit under green but NOT the 2020 Indianapolis 500? I’m sorry, but if the point is the enhancement of the “fan experience” I’d much rather see Dixon get a shot at Sato in a shootout at 230 mph than whether or not Power can hold off Ericsson on the mean streets of Belle Isle State Park. Just saying.

  8. Mark Wick Says:

    I was happy these races were scheduled on NBC and that I have found a way to watch local television stations via live streaming (I do not own a TV.) I was disappointed to miss the start of Race 1 and so much of Race 2, but understand NBC’s predicament. A term paper about the infamous “Heidi” game was crucial during my time as a journalism major at Indiana University. When races are not on NBC I follow timing and scoring and listen to the radio broadcast and catch video clips on twitter. While I don’t see as much, I often have a better idea of what is happening and the relative positions of the cars.
    Next week I will be in my car in the library parking lot with the IndyCar app open on my phone and iPad mini, listening to the radio and watching a different in-car camera on each one.
    The second red flag on Saturday was unnecessary, but both races were the kind of show that should increase interest in IndyCar racing. The longer highlights versions on YouTube are worth watching.

  9. SkipinSC Says:

    George,
    I think, without being too melodramatic, that we discovered how much IndyCar means to NBC. As for Sunday, I get the decision regarding the French Open final, but for heaven’s sake, at least run a crawl across the bottom telling us where the broadcast is airing; the situation on Saturday should never have happened. I know something about lacrosse having had 2 nieces who played the sport. But if NBC thinks pro lacrosse is more important than IndyCar, they are truly daft.

    We’ll see what happens with the negotiations for the next TV contract, but I think we can see where NBC’s priorities lie.

  10. Oliver W Says:

    Seems strange that we have better coverage ( every lap of both races shown ) here in the uk. How the American audience puts up with so many commercials is beyond me.
    Great racing. Best Indycar season for a long time.

  11. So glad I stumbled upon this post. Had to go out of town for family emergency. I had set up the DVR to record both races with extra time. I have the series set up to record on both NBC and NBCSN, but had not record before on CNBC, so I had not included it for the series. I still missed the last few laps, yeah those laps. Sunday’s race was just not there. I had set up the Post Race show so I got the last few laps there. Sorry I missed the race but was glad to have the recap. Thanks.

    It has been a fun season of racing in IndyCar, love the competition.

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