Random Thoughts on Belle Isle

For a track that I have maligned for years, I’ll give it its due. Belle Isle went out with a bang yesterday, as the NTT IndyCar Series ran it’s final race on the island before moving it back to the streets of downtown Detroit for 2023 and beyond. Belle Isle gave us one of the cleanest and most suspenseful race in its thirty-year history.

To be fair, many of the races in the past decade have been good races. My dislike of the place grew from watching the duds that were run on Belle Isle in the 1990s and 2000s. My perception of the track, that I never visited in-person, stemmed from those parade – and I was never able to get past them. Just when I am starting to slightly warm to the place, it goes away. Oh, well.

I cannot remember a race that had such a diversity in tire strategy. It was common knowledge throughout the paddock that the softer red alternate tires fell off quickly to where they were a detriment and a liability instead a help. The question facing each team and driver was when to run the required stint on the reds.

Quite honestly, before the race started – I thought the teams that chose to start the race on the reds and get rid of them quickly had the best strategy. I thought Alexander Rossi executed the strategy perfectly. He moved up from eleventh to fifth in a handful of laps, then ducked into the pits and went to the harder black primary tires. In the second half of that first stint, those that stayed on the reds, like pole-sitter Josef Newgarden, for more than ten laps were being gobbled up by the cars that started on blacks. The problem for those that started on blacks was that they still had to run the reds at some point in the race,

Drivers like Scott Dixon and Alex Palou chose to run the reds in their second stint. This seemed to be a decent strategy – maybe not as sound as staring on reds then making a quick switch, but it seemed to be solid. To me, the worst strategy appeared to be saving the reds to the final stint. That was what happened to Newgarden last year and it bit him, when the field was bunched up for a late caution. I was shocked when Will Power followed that same strategy yesterday.

I just knew that Alexander Rossi had made the right call. When Power came into pits with twenty laps to go, I figured Rossi would reel in, and then blow by Power with about ten laps remaining. Rossi would cruise to his first IndyCar win in almost three years.

There is a reason that teams never seek out my opinion on race strategy. As we all know by now Rossi trailed Will Power by exactly one second across the line. Power scored his first win of the year, giving Team Penske their fourth win in eight races. Rossi was happy to collect second-place points towards the championship, but was left sort of scratching his head after the race. Had there been just one caution during that last stint, it likely would’ve been a different outcome.

As it turned out, there was not a single caution all day – a little unusual for a track surrounded by concrete barriers. It was one of the cleanest races I can remember at Belle Isle. The old girl went out in style.

TV Coverage: On Saturday’s coverage of the morning practice on Peacock, the announcers in the booth were Dave Burns and (I think) Townsend Bell. They were discussing the Rookie of the Year award from the Indianapolis 500. They acted surprised that the Indianapolis 500 had a few co-winners of that award. You could tell they were anxiously turning on their Wikipedia machines and struggling to find information. This was after they had bungled some other incorrect stat that only a die-hard would notice. I texted my friend Paul Dalbey and said “(NBC statistician) Russ (Thompson) must not be in the booth this morning. They have gotten a few things wrong”. As it turns out, he sat out this weekend for being under the weather. His presence was missed.

I had no issues with the NBC telecast on USA Network. Some had the usual complaints about too many commercials. My complaint was more with the commercials themselves. I have long detested any Liberty Mutual commercial, ever since they introduced the girl who named her car Brad. When LiMu Emu was introduced, I thought television advertising hit a new low – which is quite an accomplishment when you think about it. But with Doug officiating an emu wedding – I’m not sure they can get any worse. Who am I kidding? Of course they can; and they will.

Some say the fact that I am devoting a couple of paragraphs to this proves that Liberty Mutual is ingenious because I am giving them free advertising. I don’t think so. When selecting products, if two companies offer identical products, but one has an overly annoying ad campaign – I choose the company that doesn’t annoy me.

The other ads that turned my stomach was for a reality show I had never heard of until yesterday: Austin Dillon: Life in the Fast Lane. I never found one redeeming quality of Austin Dillon to make me cheer for him in NASCAR. Then yesterday I learned he has his own show? It was the cheesiest looking waste of time I’ve ever seen. If this is considered desired TV viewing in America – we’re doomed!

On a positive note, I thought James Hinchcliffe got off to a rocky start on NBC after the first couple of races. Well, he has made up any deficit in a hurry. I now much prefer him to Townsend Bell, whom I’ve always found a little condescending. Hinchcliffe, is funny, pleasant, knowledgeable and seemingly humble. That’s a pretty race combination. I thinkn he is having an outstanding debut season.

New Career? It’s no real secret to people that have followed this site for a while, that I have never been a huge fan of Ryan Hunter-Reay. I never found him to be very fan-friendly unless the cameras were running. He always seemed to carry a sense of entitlement to me and seemed to think he was just slightly better than anyone else. While I would have liked to see another Indianapolis 500 winner in the field of last month’s 500 – it didn’t upset (or surprise) me that he did not get a ride this season.

But on this weekend’s practice coverage on Peacock, Hunter-Reay joined the NBC crew and was really quite good. He had some unique insights that a series champion and an Indianapolis 500 winner brings that Townsend Bell or Hinch can’t. I also found Hunter-Reay far more likeable in this role than as a competitive driver. If the forty-one year-old driver can’t find any work as a driver for 2023, I think NBC would be wise to find a spot for Hunter-Reay.

Sour Milk: Twice this weekend, I heard Marcus Ericsson comment about how the inside of his car smelled like sour milk. Last Monday, I saw where Marshall Pruett complained that Ericsson wore the same driving suit for the day-after photos for the 500. To quote Pruett: “He smelled like a**”.

There is a way to prevent all of these olfactory offenses. Drink the milk, and don’t douse yourself with it! Helio Castroneves started this foolishness with his first win in 2001. Some have chosen to not pour it everywhere, but flooding Victory Lane with milk is now becoming the norm and not the exception. As best as I recall, Juan Montoya in 2015 was the last driver to handle the milk as it was meant – sipped. I wonder what the Dairy Farmers this program think when they see their product dumped everywhere.

If you don’t like you car smelling like Bourbon Street the morning after, don’t dump the milk – drink it!

Le Mans Style Grid: Count me as one who is not a fan of the new way they line up the grid for road and street courses. They are lines up diagonally in the pits, sort of like the grid at Le Mans. What was wrong with lining up in the starting rows of two? Change is Bad!

I’m just glad they don’t have the drivers running to jump into the cars like they used to do at Le Mans. Now, that would be comical.

Rahal Woes: After a less than stellar Month of May, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing was almost in desperation mode in need of a good weekend in Detroit. They didn’t get it. After their three cars qualified nineteenth, twentieth and twenty-third; their lead driver, Graham Rahal, made a mistake on Lap Two, slapped the wall and put himself out of the race. You could feel his frustration as he apologized to his team and sponsors as he described this as being a new low. Rahal finished dead-last, while his two teammates were the last two cars running on the lead lap.

What in the world is going on at Bobby Rahal’s team. Currently, Graham Rahal leads the team, sitting fifteenth in points. That’s sort of like having the highest GPA in the Delta pledge class in Animal House. Rookie Christian Lundgaard is seventeenth, while Jack Harvey is twentieth after having to sit out the race at Texas with a concussion. All three drivers seem miserable when interviewed. You can’t help but wonder if all parties second-guess Harvey leaving Meyer Shank Racing to join Rahal. I’m sure Takuma Sato is much happier to be with Dale Coyne. That last sentence shows just how far things have fallen off the cliff at RLLR.

Another Good Effort: Each and every race, I continue to be more impressed with Kyle Kirkwood. You can already tell that he has the talent to become an outstanding driver, but there is little to show for it in the box score each week. This weekend, he led the opening practice, but an early crash in the Saturday practice out him behind for qualifying and he barely missed the second round.

In yesterday’s race, the pace was there as well as the strategy. But he admitted to a rookie mistake that put the rear wheel into the wall on Lap 49, ending his day early.

As Kirkwood moves on to Andretti next year, he has shown that the Foyt car can be fast at certain tracks. Hopefully, that makes that seat more attractive to drivers who may not have looked at it in the past. I’d like to see AJ and Santino Ferrucci get together in 2023.

All in All: This was a fascinating race to watch unfold. I really thought Rossi had the car and the strategy to pull off the win. But Will Power did a magnificent job of managing his tires and nursing the car home, just ahead of Rossi at the line. Scott Dixon made up for his pit lane gaffe last week at Indianapolis, by coming home third and staying in the points battle.

Josef Newgarden won the second and third race of the season and led the points through that time. But he has been very underwhelming since then and looked very dejected in the post-race interview yesterday.

Marcus Ericsson fell back to earth a little bit, but classified his seventh place finish as “OK”. He now sits second to Power in points.

When Alexander Rossi said at the beginning of May that he had not given up on the championship, I snickered to myself. I’m not laughing anymore. He is currently seventh in points and seventy-four points behind Power. The series in heading to Road America this weekend, where Rossi absolutely dominated in 2019 – his last IndyCar win.

Throughout the weekend, everyone was sentimental about leaving Belle Isle after this weekend. While this was a great race weekend, I’m looking forward to the next chapter of racing in Detroit.

George Phillips

6 Responses to “Random Thoughts on Belle Isle”

  1. Kessler Maurice Says:

    I agreee completely with your view that milk should be drank, not poured over your head. They should keep the Victory celebration dignified.

    • billytheskink Says:

      I wonder if the dairy farmers put the driver up to it for the photo op since Helio received a good response dumping the milk all over himself. I recall when Rossi won in 2016 he initially just sipped the milk and it appeared he had to be goaded into dumping it on his head.

  2. That was an absolutely fascinating race from a strategy perspective, and I enjoyed every minute of it.
    On a side note, my friend and I are making our maiden voyage to Road America this week. Any and all tips are appreciated!

  3. billytheskink Says:

    Power made the most of the kind of strategy opportunity that has usually found Newgarden these last few years. He needed some luck too (no cautions), but he was marvelous as he kept finding speed in tires that didn’t want to give it to him. I was rooting for Rossi but it was a great drive by Will. Rossi’s strategy was nearly flawless as well, and it was good to see him running up front again. If he carries that confidence to Road America, watch out.

    RLL appears to be the kind of mess they were back in 2013-2014. I don’t know if that is 3rd car growing pains or the loss of Sato helping with setups, or something else. That said, Sato probably doesn’t feel too much like he upgraded teams as he sits in 18th in points (which would be his worst showing since 2014 at Foyt), one spot ahead of his teammate and behind two RLL cars. There have been flashes of speed from Sato, but he’s struggled with slow pit stops, poor strategy, and challenging race day setups.

  4. Chris Lukens Says:

    I was really glad to see Power win. Perfect strategy from the pit box and outstanding driving from Will.
    And I think jumping in the fountain ranks right up there with pouring the mike on their head, but watching the entire Penske team jump into the fountain to celebrate with Will was a real hoot.

  5. George…I know you won’t miss Belle Isle but I will and seemingly so will the drivers. Alexander Rossi was asked to rate the 5 street courses earlier this year and he rated Belle Isle 2nd after only Long Beach. St. Pete was 3, Nashville was 4 and Toronto was last. I hope Detroit next year races as well as Belle Isle did this year.

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