Detroit Grand Prix delivers another dynamic event weekend

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Say what you will about Long Beach being North America’s marquee street race – for my money, it’s still a personal favorite and the gold standard for street race operations – but Detroit’s getting pretty close to usurping that “gold standard” title after just three years since coming back on the schedule in 2012.

For the second consecutive year (I wasn’t on site in 2012, so I can’t properly comment on that year), everything about the Chevrolet Detroit Belle Isle Grand Prix weekend on Belle Isle Park, run to near perfection by Roger Penske’s organization and with Bud Denker leading the on-site staff’s efforts, ran like clockwork.

The track flows in such a way that once you’re inside, everything runs in close proximity. The paddock is just behind pit lane and covers all four series that were in action – the Verizon IndyCar Series, TUDOR United SportsCar Championship, Pirelli World Challenge and SPEED Energy Stadium Super Trucks. Victory Lane and the media center are just next to the paddocks, which reduces a lot of unnecessary time spent going back-and-forth to get where you need to go.

The fan zone here is laid out in grand, open style, with a mix of vendors, booths, food options, family friendly activities and a giant concert stage – put onto great effect with Lifehouse and Shaggy performing on the two weekend days. Rising singing star Anna de Ferran, daughter of former Indianapolis 500 and CART champion Gil, also performed during the weekend.

Where this race really nails it is on the corporate side. Penske’s organization focuses heavily on the corporate suite side of things and works effortlessly to ensure the suites get sold out. The Shinola-backed suites were on the outside of the front straight this year, and combined with other corporate chalets, these offered a great vantage point for those clients on site.

The track is transparent with its grandstand numbers. On Friday, Trackside Online reported the numbers, from the track posting, as a total of 15,229 grandstand seats among the five grandstands. It’s not a huge number, but it’s also not the event’s primary focus.

The volunteers go out of their way to be friendly and helpful, almost to a fault. Occasionally you’ll be at an event where volunteers do whatever they can to make your life miserable; not so in Detroit.

As for the weekend on-track? Yes, the course is bumpy but that’s one of its defining characteristics. Denker confirmed at Thursday’s media lunch that a full-scale repave will occur before 2014 to eliminate some of the rough concrete bits.

It will smooth things out, although Cadillac Pirelli World Challenge driver Johnny O’Connell, who won both races this weekend joked during Sunday’s press conference, “With Detroit being a little bit on the bumpy side, I think that works to our advantage. It was funny, I was talking to Roger Penske and I said, please don’t make this track too nice. A couple of bumps are good for me!”

Chevrolet, too, has committed to the event for another two years, through 2016. Denker confirmed to RACER.com’s Marshall Pruett that next year’s weekend again features a Verizon IndyCar Series doubleheader and the Pirelli World Challenge, while also hoping to confirm the return of the TUDOR United SportsCar Championship.

This was the last of two weekends this year – Long Beach as well – where all three series competed alongside each other on the same card.

For IndyCar, this weekend was once again a showcase of varying strategies, which adds an extra layer of spice and intrigue because you never know which strategist or team will nail it.

You also had the emergence of rivalries in greater doses. The “#IndyRivals” campaign premiered on Sunday and it was rather appropriate that it did, considering Will Power appears to be on a quest to be the new Darth Vader of the paddock.

Perhaps, as I suggested on Twitter right before the end of Sunday’s race, Team Penske should revert his No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet back to the all-black colors it premiered in when Power was a then-unheralded part-time third driver for the team in 2009.

The Power-Simon Pagenaud battle has enough momentum to where it can be promoted as “the new rivalry.” Power’s had brief encounters with Ryan Hunter-Reay and Scott Dixon before, after having one with Dario Franchitti for a few years. But now him and Pagenaud are the best at-odds thing to promote.

It’s a good thing for the sport, and Pagenaud’s the likeable underdog as the Schmidt Peterson Hamilton Motorsports lacks the resources of a Penske, or a Ganassi, or an Andretti Autosport, but still brings the fight and the bark on every weekend.

Penske and GM ruled the weekend, but those on site will once again attest this was another first-class event through and through. Kudos to all who made it happen.

Coyne transitioning from underdog to Indy 500 threat

Photo: IndyCar
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For most of the team’s existence, Dale Coyne Racing has been the Chicago Cubs of American Open Wheel Racing – a team whose history was more defined by failures, at times comically so, than success.

The last decade, however, has seen the tide completely change. In 2007, they scored three podium finishes with Bruno Junqueira. In 2009, they won at Watkins Glen with the late Justin Wilson.

The combination won again at Texas Motor Speedway in 2012, and finished sixth in the 2013 Verizon IndyCar Series championship. That same year, Mike Conway took a shock win for them in Race 1 at the Chevrolet Dual in Detroit.

Carlos Huertas scored an upset win for them in Race 1 at the Houston double-header in 2014, and while 2015 and 2016 yielded no wins, Tristan Vautier and Conor Daly gave them several strong runs – Vautier’s best finish was fourth in Race 2 at Detroit, while Daly finished second in Race 1 at Detroit, finished fourth at Watkins Glen, and scored a trio of sixth-place finishes at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course, Race 2 at Detroit, and the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.

And 2017 was set to possibly be the best year the team has ever had. Sebastien Bourdais gave the team a popular win in the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, and then rookie Ed Jones scored back-to-back top tens – 10th and sixth – at St. Pete and the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach to start his career.

But, things started unraveling at the Indianapolis 500. Bourdais appeared set to be in the Fast Nine Pole Shootout during his first qualifying run – both of his first two laps were above 231 mph –  before his horrifying crash in Turn 2.

While Jones qualified an impressive 11th and finished an even more impressive third, results for the rest of the season became hard to come by – Jones only scored two more Top 10s, with a best result of seventh at Road America.

But, retooled for 2018, the Coyne team is a legitimate threat at the 102nd Running of the Indianapolis 500.

Bourdais, whose No. 18 Honda features new sponsorship from SealMaster and now ownership partners in Jimmy Vasser and James “Sulli” Sullivan, has a win already, again at St. Pete, and sits third in the championship.

And Bourdais may also be Honda’s best hope, given that he was the fastest Honda in qualifying – he’ll start fifth behind Ed Carpenter, Simon Pagenaud, Will Power, and Josef Newgarden.

“I think it speaks volumes about their work, their passion and their dedication to this program, Dale (Coyne), Jimmy (Vasser) and Sulli (James Sullivan) and everybody from top to bottom. I can’t thank them enough for the opportunity, for the support,” Bourdais said of the team’s effort.

Rookie Zachary Claman De Melo has been progressing nicely, and his Month of May has been very solid – he finished 12th at the INDYCAR Grand Prix on the IMS Road Course and qualified a strong 13th for the “500.”

“It’s been surreal to be here as rookie. I’m a bit at a loss for words,” Claman De Melo revealed after qualifying. “The fans, driving around this place, being with the team, everything is amazing. I have a great engineer, a great group of experienced mechanics at Dale Coyne Racing.”

While Conor Daly and Pippa Mann struggled in one-off entries, with Mann getting bumped out of the field in Saturday qualifying, Daly’s entry essentially puts three Coyne cars in the race – Daly’s No. 17 United States Air Force Honda is a Dale Coyne car that has been leased to Thom Burns Racing.

Rest assured, the days of Coyne being an “also ran” are long gone, and a Coyne car ending up in Victory Lane at the biggest race of the year would complete the Chicago Cubs analogy – the Cubs won a World Series title in 2016, and an Indy 500 triumph would be the crowning achievement in Coyne’s career.

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