Forgiving Racers Put Patch On Belle Isle’s Image

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, June 4 2012

Teammates Scott Dixon and Dario Franchitti share a toast in Victory Lane in Detroit. They finished first and second respectively. (INDYCAR/LAT USA)

Fueled by Frosted Flakes during an unexpected mid-race break, Scott Dixon won Sunday’s Chevrolet Detroit Belle Isle Grand Prix and then implored IZOD IndyCar Series fans and critics to give the mean Streets of Detroit a break.

“It was a fun day. Fun day. Pretty crazy,” Dixon said after waiting-out a near two-hour red flag stoppage while several areas of torn-up pavement on the 2.07-mile, 14-turn street circuit hastily were repaired. “Not every time you go out you do half the race. I went back, watched the ABC telecast from the truck, had some Frosted Flakes and came back out and did a 15-lap dash. If I could have got my gloves off, I probably would have chewed all my nails, the ones that I have left. It was a fun day, and just really glad that we finished where we did, and a clean sweep is always nice.”

Dixon, of Target Chip Ganassi Racing, finished 1.9628-seconds ahead of teammate Dario Franchitti, who rallied from his 14th-place starting spot in an event shortened from 90 to 60 laps to score his 28th career runnerup result. A week earlier, Franchitti led Dixon across the start/finish line at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway to win his third Indy 500.

Rookie Simon Pagenaud finished third – the Frenchman’s second podium of the season – to give Honda-powered drivers bragging rights on a circuit laid out in the shadow of the towering GM Renaissance Center downtown. Series point-leader Will Power of Team Penske finished fourth and Oriol Servia of Panther/Dreyer & Reinbold Racing advanced 12 positions relative to his starting spot to place fifth.

The race was played-out against the backdrop of the public confirmation by Randy Bernard, INDYCAR’s

A piece of the Belle Isle asphalt. (INDYCAR/LAT USA)

chief executive officer, that one team-owner actively was seeking the support of his colleagues in a bid to oust Bernard from the post he has held since March 1, 2010. Bernard publicly defended his leadership over the weekend, stating that he reports to the series’ board of directors and not to the team-owners.

The red flag was displayed by INDYCAR sanctioning officials at 4:53 p.m. (EDT) _ about 68 minutes after the start of an event that returned to the schedule following a four-year hiatus. Beaux Barfield, INDYCAR’s race director, called the cars onto pit lane following the day’s first full-course yellow flag on Lap 40, when James Hinchcliffe’s Andretti Autosport Dallara/Chevrolet struck a chunk of asphalt that sent him into the tire barrier in Turn 7. Almost simultaneously, Takuma Sato’s Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Dallara/Honda slid into the Turn 12 wall. With that, Dixon sat down for a snack, courtesy of Tony the Tiger.

“You know, it’s nothing you can plan for,” said Dixon, who led every lap en route to his first win of the season and first at Belle Isle. His previous best finish at the track was fifth in 2008. “I feel bad for everybody that organized the event. They’re doing their best and they did a hell of a job, I think. And it’s really important for us to be in the Motor City, Detroit, with the (engine) competition back; we have great friends here. It was sold-out again today.

“We have to focus on the positives. That’s just out of anybody’s control and I can guarantee you, it won’t happen again next year. I think with the additions and the changes we’re looking to do for next year, as well, are going to be pretty sweet, too. It’s been great to be back here and I would like to come back here next year.”

Engines were restarted at 6:52 p.m. after a delay of 1 hour, 59 minutes, 46 seconds. Dixon led the field into Turn 1 when the race went green on Lap 47. Pagenaud got past Power for second place moments before Helio Castroneves, Power’s teammate, spun and collected owner/driver Ed Carpenter in Turn 6. That was followed by a spin in Turn 7 that collected rookie Josef Newgarden of Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing and Team Penske’s Ryan Briscoe, prompting a full-course caution.

Dixon again retained the lead when the race went green on Lap 51. Franchitti passed Pagenaud for

The car of James Hinchcliffe is towed away after a piece of loose asphalt caused it to crash. (INDYCAR/LAT USA)

second in Turn 1 but another full-course yellow flew when KV Racing Technology’s E.J. Viso stopped on-course in Turn 4. The race was restarted for the final time on Lap 54, with Dixon and Franchitti in control. Dixon took the white flag on Lap 59 with a lead of 1.3771-seconds and crossed the finish line 1.9628-seconds in front of Franchitti.

“Those last restarts, I was able to get good runs off of the restart and pass people on the outside,” said Franchitti, driver of the No. 10 Unilever Dallara/Honda. “And then I tried to get Dixie, but he’s been in a different class all weekend. And he’s a wild little fox there, made some great moves. Those last however many laps _ six, eight laps behind him _ that’s the hardest I’ve ever seen somebody drive a car over the crest in Turn 2; I could see about that much air underneath his inside front tire, there were sparks flying off the bottom wall but he was crossed-up everywhere. It was a pretty impressive performance.”

Dixon, driver of the No. 9 TCGR Dallara/Honda, posted the 28th victory of his open-wheel career, which moved him ahead of Johnny Rutherford on the all-time victory list. Next up is Rick Mears with 29 wins. Like Rutherford, Franchitti is a three-time Indy 500 champion who put the heat on his teammate.

“Dario, man, I really don’t know where you came from,” Dixon said during the post-race media conference. “Because on the second-to-last restart, I’m like, ‘OK, Dario, one back.’ I’m like, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me!’ And I was kind of worried because I knew he was on Reds (soft compounds Firestone Firehawk tires), and the Blacks (harder compound) were really hard to get going, especially in the cooler conditions. And then after we had a bit of that rain and fog I was slipping and sliding and I definitely thought I had spun. I think I actually took my hands off the wheel one time on (Turn) 7 and luckily it didn’t spin-out.”

Franchitti posted his third-straight top-five finish. The Scotsman has finished no worse than sixth in six of his seven starts at Belle Isle. Franchitti – who has earned all 31 of his career open-wheel wins with Honda power – also defended the event championed by rival team-owner Roger Penske in a bid to revitalize Detroit’s racing image and economy.

“That was obviously a long delay, and got to take my hat off to Bud Denker and the Penske organization for fixing the track,” said Franchitti, who battled flu-like symptoms following a week-long media barnstorming tour after his Indy 500 win. “That was an amazing turnaround. It was absolutely the right decision by race control to red flag it because, unfortunately, those strips were rolling up and they were actually thicker on the right side of the car. So when you hit one, you lost the steering on the right end of the car as we saw. But the track was definitely in a safe condition for those last 15 laps.

“I came here as early as 1997; Belle Isle is not in the shape it is now and I think full credit goes to the city and Roger Penske and his whole organization. They are pushing so hard. I was at an event last January with Roger and Jackie Stewart and a bunch of the people in Detroit, they are so positive. There are not many cities you come to that has that passion to reinvent itself. It’s definitely here.

“That was a minor problem today. It was fixed very quickly, and, yeah, it will not happen again, I can guarantee you that. The guys running that are just too smart and too organized. We’ll come back next year and go at it again.”

Pagenaud, the Sunoco Rookie of the Year leader over Newgarden by 84 points (171-87), continued to give thumbs-up to a bumpy, tight and physically demanding layout.

“Yeah, I was a little disappointed it went red but they had to fix the track, really quick fix,” said Pagenaud, driver of the No. 77 Schmidt Hamilton HP Motorsports Dallara/Honda. “Really impressive job from the organization. When we went back out, it was even better than before. So great job to them. The second race was exciting because it had a lot of restarts, and watching Scott was actually quite entertaining. Really thought it gave me first place at some point but it didn’t.

“For myself, I feel like it’s one of the most enjoyable racetracks we have on the calendar. You really have to push yourself beyond your limits, beyond the car’s limit even. You know, you push, you push, you push and find more and more and more. That’s definitely why it’s so enjoyable. So I have to say I hope we come back for many, many years. It’s probably the most frustrating racetrack for us drivers, and like Scott said, the fans stayed until the end, which is pretty amazing. So we have got to thank them.”

Dixon, who scored the 88th win for Target Chip Ganassi Racing, moved past Castroneves and Hinchcliffe into second in the point standings, 26 behind Power (232-206). Castroneves is third with 177 points, one marker ahead of Franchitti, the four-time/reigning series champion.

The series returns to an oval track Saturday for the Firestone 550K at Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth. The season’s first night race will be televised by NBC Sports Network at 8 p.m. (EDT) and broadcast by the IMS Radio Network on SiriusXM (Channel 94 and Sirius 212).

“You know, there’s no doubt that the last two weekends have been a big jump for us, obviously, in the championship and I think team morale,” said Dixon, a two-time series champion. “We go into every weekend the same, we try our best and we try to achieve the maximum that we can. I’ll continue on and hopefully we can ride a bit of a wave. Will has still got a fairly decent lead.

“So second and fourth in the championship now for us, we are not out of reach. That’s the main thing. We still have a fighting chance. And I think between Team Target and Honda, we are definitely going to be pushing as hard as we can.”

– John Sturbin can be reached at jsturbin@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, June 4 2012


  • Tony Geinzer says:

    I never signed up for more Detroit Belle Isle Racing. I know Penske’s Biggest Non Racing Passion is Rebuilding Detroit, but, Detroit has been so far down folks only know the bad and I wished for a Vegas or a Kentucky in Indy, I hate to say it because I want to see more folks in Indy.

  • Don Istook says:

    As one of the drivers who raced at Belle Island last weekend (Pirelli World Challenge), well written article about the track. We definitely would go back. The track organizers, officials, and volunteers were fantastic!