May 30, 2014 at 8:45 pm

Gregg Krupa

Indy Dual in Detroit puts the challenge - and, yes, fun - into racing

Detroit — Imagine for a moment you play for a local baseball or softball team, and you have two games this week.

The first is at one of the local fields, well-kept for the action. The second is inside a vast local supermarket, closed for the day of your game.

You are used to the first field, almost before you see it.

The second one? Well, that requires some adjustments to your approach, including dodging a few frozen food and cereal displays as you hunt down grounders and fly balls.

The comparison is anything but precise, of course. But it provides a sense of what it is like racing in the IndyCar Series, going from the Indy 500 Sunday to the Indy Dual in Detroit this weekend.

The Raceway at Belle Isle Park is entirely different from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

And after both practice runs Friday, on a gorgeous, sun-splashed day in the middle of the Detroit River, the moment many of the cars pulled off the track, crews started pulling the Chevrolet and Honda-powered IR-12 chassis apart.

Adjustments for the 2.3-mile temporary street circuit laid down in an urban park?

IndyCar racing is all about adjustments to the cars, and drivers getting used to what the next race brings.

“It’s extremely bumpy, as it always is here,” said the Indy 500 winner, Ryan Hunter-Reay, who currently leads the Indy series, driving for Andretti Autosport.

“But I think it’s going to make for some interesting racing, that’s for sure.”

Mike Conway, the 30-year-old Brit who won one of the dual races on Belle Isle last year, described the task for the drivers.

“It’s a real challenge around this place, every lap gets your attention,” the 30-year-old British road course specialist said. “Very bumpy, very challenging, though some corners have got a lot of grip.

“So sometimes you go into a corner and it’s, ‘Ooooooh! Am I going to make it?’ And, you know, you come through it.

“It’s always like that, around here, really. Just because of the bumps, the quick change in direction.

“It’s a lot of fun.”

Beyond the bumps, some of the corners on the racetrack are broad, while others tight as ticks.

Some of the racing surface is concrete. Some is asphalt. And that means in one instant it is one and in the next, the other — often at more than 100 miles per hour or with an approaching corner to negotiate.

Hunter-Reay told a colleague that, in effect, “there is no line” between racing and crashing.

There was a blizzard of yellow flags, crashes and restarts in both races last year. And scuba divers stand by, dressed for duty, just in case one of the cars ends up where the big freighters pass — in the river.

Meanwhile, of course, the whole enterprise is geared toward determining who is fastest.

Little wonder that, after the two practice runs, they were pulling body work and tires off the cars, as soon as they hit the paddock.

The tents arrayed in the infield looked like battlefield hospitals.

Men scurried to-and-fro around the incredibly complicated machines, retrieving new parts, discarding old ones and peering continually into computer screens, both large and hand-held.

They looked for that edge, that bit of magic — and, truth be told, maybe even a little lightning in a bottle — to pick up the extra few hundredths of a second that can mean the difference between ecstasy and agony in motor sports.

You think the drivers got it tough? What about the race engineers, the mechanics and the general grunts behind the scenes.

They were flat out Friday, on a day when some heat and intense sun made the imperative, “Don’t sweat it,” impossible to obey.

Hard driving

Every season, they are given weeks to figure out Indianapolis. Then, they get perhaps three days to figure out Detroit, before the racing begins, again.

The eventual “setups” on the cars, compared to Indy?

“There’s no comparison to it,” said Hunter-Reay, who was fifth in the combined practice results.

“The cars are totally different, and it’s hard for the drivers to get used to the difference between the silk-smooth surface at Indy and the incredibly tough nature of this track.”

It all left a rookie to ponder things.

“Here, the car is hard to drive,” said Carlos Munoz, the 22-year-old Colombian who finished fourth in an Indy Lights race on Belle Isle two years ago. “Each corner is different, here.

“You have to live with the car you have. OK, you’re going to change a bit, and people are all over the car, for a time. But, here, really you just have to drive with the car that you have.”

Munoz and Marco Andretti were among the drivers to talk about the physical toll. The myth that racers “are not athletes” is destroyed by casual observation of them, in person.

The 'belle' of the season

How does one improve performance, when it involves wrestling a 17-foot, 1,600-pound car through corners, with a g-force (a measure of acceleration as weight) of five bearing down on them, chasing some of the blood in their bodies away from the direction of the turn, as they struggle to keep the car out of the river?

Defending series champ Scott Dixon and Tony Kanaan do triathlons. Helio Castroneves boxes. Ed Carpenter bikes and runs, as part of endurance training.

But a busy month at Indianapolis leaves most drivers admitting that their conditioning has ebbed a bit, just when the rough, complex circuit in Detroit will challenge them in new ways.

That said, almost every driver who talked about the challenges on Belle Isle eventually mentioned the word, “fun.”

“Yeah, big change from Indy,” said 30-year-old Frenchman Simon Pagenaud, who won the other dual race in 2013 and had the second-fastest combined time in the practices Friday.

“We’ve been spoiled, you know. It’s such a smooth track and fast oval. Here, it is completely the opposite.

“But when you get into that rhythm, it’s lots of fun to drive around Belle Isle.”

Juan Pablo Montoya, front, zips around Turn 7 during practice for this weekend's two races of the Detroit Belle Isle Grand Prix. / Steve Perez / Detroit News