God love Eddie Cheever Jr. I used to love it when he was racing because the guy was always good for some color. From his famous “LUNACY!” reaction to four-wide at Texas, to his “flying a jet fighter in a gymnasium” description of Richmond, Eddie was always GOLD, Jerry.
SO, you can imagine my beverage spew when Eddie hit it right on the head again Sunday by calling the Detroit races “Roger Penske’s personal grand prix.” He quickly back away from that, well, not his personal grand prix, but he’s the main guy. No, Eddie, I think you got it right the first time.
The evolution of the IndyCar race at Belle Isle (in Detroit) has been fascinating. When IndyCar first went there, the races were lethally boring. Even the drivers, in moments on candor, admitted said it was an unrelenting parade. Dan Wheldon once said to me “it’s always follow the leader at Belle Isle.” But that was pre DW-12.
Now in our third year with the new IndyCar (DW-12), it’s clear how badly the old car sucked on the twisties (road and street courses). Belle Isle, Barber and other races that offered paint-drying excitement during the old car era are watchable in the DW-12 era. It’s not that shocking, actually, since the previous IndyCar (IR08) was designed for ovals and just kind of jerry-rigged to handle the twisties when IndyCar decided to add them back into the schedule.
“The current car (IR08) has been doing a fantastic job. It is hard to ask for more, given the context,” Andrea Toso Head of Research and Development and US Racing Business Leader for Dallara Automboili said while discussing the Dallara concept car in 2010. “A chassis designed to race for three years just on ovals has ended up with being used for nine years (with two more to come) both on ovals and on road courses without major revisions. That’s outstanding in terms of safety, strength and speed.” (Read the entire story here.)
Up until that interview with Toso, I hadn’t considered the make-shift nature of the IR08 IndyCar on twisties. I think now what we’re seeing what a car that’s made to run on both ovals and twisties (DW-12) can do it’s pointing out the serious limitations of the previous car.
The good news is that the DW-12 and the drivers make places like Belle Isle not nearly as lethal for TV viewers. Just the amount of passing we saw last weekend — I would bet a review of the DVR would show at least 10 televised overtakes per race — was about five years worth at Hell Isle in the IR08 era.
So the racing is improved, but still, drinking alcohol (which is a depressant) and assuming a comfortable position puts you in danger of dozing, which I confirmed by drifting off in the middle of the first race.
As twisties go, Belle Isle is pretty average. Maybe on the low end of exciting, but, again, you’re never going to get nine-wide, four-deep, 14 lead changes in 25 laps, Talladega-level LUNACY from a twisty. That’s like expecting apple juice from an orange.
What really fascinates me about Belle Isle is the reverence with which it is approached. The Penske’s Personal Grand Prix nature of the event. The festival of kid glove treatment it seems to engender because it is, after all, Roger’s race. Criticize anything Penske? That’s like criticizing the Bible. Heresy. An invitation to be zotted by the wrath of GOD.
Personally, I’d love to know what the fan experience is like at Belle Isle, but I can’t find anything on it (Bueller? Bueller?). If you’ve attended the Belle Isle race this year or last, please please please let us know how it was for you as Mr. or Ms. Random Fan in the comments below. The Official Media rarely (ok, never) gives us any color on the fan experience. It’s always limited to the on-track with a big salute to The Captain. Come to think of it, the official media rarely critiques (which means covering the good AND bad) the at-the-track fan experience. More’s the pity.
To be sure, Penske deserves applause. From what I can tell, he’s pouring a lot of his own money (and/or perhaps proceeds from the races) into improving Belle Isle. The millions invested in paving there already must be enormous, with a $4 million repave promised before next year. So, yes, by all means, praise and adoration for Roger re: his investment and fierce dedication to the race. He seems to attract the Chevrolet peeps from Detroit, which is fun-tastic, and if he can keep doing that, Belle Isle will stay on the schedule. And why not? Any race that attracts a sponsor or can pay the sanctioning fee and attracts the level of big dog participation that Belle Isle does is going to stay on IndyCar’s schedule, as well it should.
Well, I assume Roger pays a sanctioning fee to IndyCar, although that may be a false assumption given he’s, you know, ROGER. But, regardless, Belle Isle is a “success” by enough definitions to stay put. I sometimes regret that it’s the race RIGHT after the Indy 500. Assuming someone tunes in to the 500 and says “Party on! This IndyCar stuff is RAD!” and then sits down for the next race (Belle Isle), well … The positive spin on that is they will see firsthand the extreme diversity of talents that IndyCar drivers must have. They go from the BIG FAMOUS OVAL to the technical twisty in six days.
More positive spin: having Belle Isle after IndyCar weeds out the twisty-haters early before they can get their hopes up.
At the end of the day, having Belle Isle right after Indy probably doesn’t matter that much. New fans will have to be at least OK with the twisties if they are going to stick with IndyCar, so having Texas after Indy and then Belle Isle would probably have the same weeding out effect that Belle Isle right after Indy has. Plus, Belle Isle so close to Indy probably gives Roger more juice to attract the Chevrolet big dogs.
Belle Isle works financially. It will probably get some 0.7 or 0.6 TV ratings as it did last year, which seems to be enough to sustain the cactus. And it’s a chance for everyone to express thanks and admiration to Roger Penske, so from that point of view, party on.
I just wish people would be a little more OK with pointing out any opportunities for improvement, or even letting us know about fan experience. Maybe it’s FANTASTIC. As it stands, when you ask “how was the race event?” you get praises for Penske and … crickets. Pity.