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Krupa: Prix drivers prove mettle on punishing course

Gregg Krupa
The Detroit News
Cars make a turn during Saturday's IndyCar race on Belle Isle.

Detroit — Amid the extraordinary speed, treacherous corners and bumps so big and battering all the jostling inside the cars hurts them, racers risked death to compete again Saturday, this time at the Raceway on Belle Isle.

They will be off to do it somewhere else next weekend, with schedules so tight in some of the motor sports series that drivers fret about the lack of time for workouts and mechanics go without sleep.

A prejudice of some devotees of the ball-and-stick sports is that these racers are lesser athletes.

Nonsense, and if any track in the IndyCar Series proves it, it is the Raceway at Belle Isle Park.

All 22 drivers are doubtlessly so banged up after 70 laps on the hard-hitting course that many will go to sleep sore. And, because of the twin races in Detroit, they have to get up and do it again in the morning, beginning with qualifying and then another 70 lap race in the afternoon.

“That was a tough race,” said Graham Rahal, who had consecutive podium finishes on Belle Isle before finished 1.8 seconds off of it Saturday, in fourth place, behind Juan Pablo Montoya of Team Penske.

“Literally it hurt my bones. The kickback in the steering wheel is so rough that my wrists are just aching."

With 14 corners, bumps and a surface of both concrete and asphalt, the 2.3-mile track is a snarly beast.

That it sets up on the schedule a week after the Indianapolis 500, with its four corners, long straights and smooth surface, is a contrast that makes the two races seem almost like events in two different forms of motor sports.

Brickyard to bone-cruncher

“Leaving Indianapolis, I’ll tell you, this was a bit of a shock to the body today,” said the series leader Simon Pagenaud of Team Penske, after qualifying first before finishing a harshly disappointing 13th.
“But it’s a lot of fun.”

The rookie Conor Daly, who finished second, talked about grappling with the pounding and the grind.

“Once you’re in the zone, you feel good,” he said. “But I was tired. And it’s hard.

“This is a hard place. It rained last year so we didn’t notice it, so much. But this is a hard place.”

It was especially true Saturday when the clouds darkened and some drizzle came, cooling the surface and the tires. Until the heat came up in the rubber, Daly said driving was “all arms and elbows.”

So much for the just-sitting-in-the-car-and-driving complaints from the unknowing detractors.

Maybe we need more shots from more onboard cameras for longer durations on the television broadcasts of racing.

The view through the windshield has always struck me as the most exhilarating. But another perspective from the inboard cameras that is too infrequently presented or appreciated is a camera shot of the drivers driving.

Their work in the cockpit is far more physically demanding than casual fans can observe from outside of the cars. The constant exertion on the steering wheel and frenetic, reflexive movements are a big part of the sport that is unseen from the stands, certainly, and in most views on television broadcasts.

Wrestling a 1,500-pound car with 550-horsepower around the circuit on Belle Isle requires significant strength and endurance.

Braking at the end of the front straight or the arcing back-stretch into the tight right at Turn 3 or the more sweeping one at Turn 7 requires bringing a car from 150-160 miles per hour to 55-65 miles per hour while bouncing off the bumps of a washer board surface is a jarring experience, riddled with danger.

“When you’re able to brake a little deeper on the bumps than another driver, it creates good diversity and a challenge as well,” Pagenaud said. “I think it shows the best cars and also the best drivers.
“I don’t dislike it. I really don’t.”

The thumping and bashing the drivers take rattle the arms and wrists, and they talk about going to bed sore and dealing with aches in the morning.

Let's race two

And, in Detroit, they have to get back into the cars and race again.

“It’s so bumpy around here, you’re in the air as much as you are on the track,” said James Hinchcliffe, who finished 18th after the nasty little track on Belle Isle took a bite out of him, Saturday, leaving his Honda-powered Dallara chassis up against a wall.

Rahal has a reputation as one of the fittest drivers on the circuit.

“Typically, what suits me about this place is that it is very physically and mentally demanding and draining,” said the 27-year-old.

“That’s where I tend to excel, when the guys start to get tired, I don’t as much.

“It was physical today. There was so much bottoming out on the backstretch until the air pressure (on the tires) came up.”

Amid all of the physicality and skill, it seems we quite nearly lost a driver, Saturday.

Competing in the Super Truck Series, a fusion of extreme sports and racing, Matt Mingay flipped his designed-to-be-wobbly vehicle coming out of Turn 5. As he bounced around menacingly, the roof sheared off the cab and his head was plainly exposed.

Extracted only after minutes so long the race was cancelled, Mingay was placed on a stretcher and taken to Detroit Receiving Hospital.

It looked bad, and one could feel the reverence for Mingay and all the racers in the sudden hush and concern that seemed to descend over the track, especially behind the scenes.

At first, according to a hospital spokesman, Mingay was in critical condition. But he improved to serious but stable a few hours later, and racing officials said his family reported that his injuries were substantially facial.

It was a big relief for all, and the incident underlined the perils drivers must seek to avoid by maintaining top conditioning and competing at their best, not only to win but to survive.

One stick sport guy, Dylan Larkin of the Red Wings, who has performed admirably through the week in his ceremonial and public relations duties as grand marshal, said it brought a new understanding of the athleticism of racers.

Larkin got a brisk ride around the course in a specially-designed, two-seat Indy car on Thursday.

“Yeah, they’re athletes for sure – 100 percent,” said Larkin, who appeared to be taking a measure of each man during the drivers’ introductions.

“How they navigate through the course and how they are in good shape to battle in the car.
“You know, it’s really impressive what they do.”

Twitter: @greggkrupa