Payne: Belle Isle course offers plenty of bang and buck

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

Detroit — The back seat of an IndyCar is a spartan place to be. No cupholders, no climate controls, no legroom.

But the infotainment system is like none other.

Flying at 145 mph down the back straight at Belle Isle in a two-seat, demonstration open-wheel racer, I am struck by the violence of the experience. As a weekend racer of very quick Lola and Porsche sports cars, I am no stranger to racing. But on Belle Isle’s concrete street course bordered by high curbs and unyielding concrete walls, the IndyCar is a bucking, seething bull in a rodeo ring.

My chauffeur in this 2,000-pound, 500-horsepower beast — specially-built to give race fans a front, er, backseat taste of what it’s like to be in an IndyCar — is Gil de Ferran, 48, a retired IndyCar champion who won poles here twice between 1995-2001.

The Brazilian knows the course like the back of his hand. At the end of the straight he hits the brakes like a brick wall — the nearly 3 forward G-loads of braking force pulling the eyes from my sockets — then flings the car right then left through the brutal Turns 7-11 complex. Halfway through the lap, de Ferran and I would be bruised black-and-blue were we not lashed down with five-point seatbelts and our helmeted heads held in place by cockpit liners that resemble giant airline neck pillows.

From Indianapolis’ billiard smooth, 2.5-mile oval, IndyCar racers transition in less than a week to the Dual in Detroit — exhausting, back-to-back, Saturday-Sunday races on the demanding public roads of downtown’s Belle Isle park.

“It’s a street fight,” said IndyCar points leader Simon Pagenaud, who hopes to join a long line of Team Penske talents who have won the series championship, including de Ferran, Johnny Rutherford, Rick Mears, and Will Power.

Twister road

I lapped Indianapolis a week ago with IndyCar driver Sebastien Bourdais. In the front seat of a V8-powered Chevrolet SS sedan. With cupholders. But even though our lap speeds of 130 mph were a full 100 mph below the IndyCars’ breathtaking 230 mph pace, the all-left turn, smooth, banked oval is noticeably easier on the body than Belle Isle’s twisty, concrete road

“That’s what’s challenging about this series,” de Ferran said. “In order to be champion you have to be at a high level at all of these disciplines. It’s not easy to change the chip in your head from one week to the next.”

Coming through the last turn before the pit straight nearly flat out, the IndyCar really bucks over concrete undulations (the only asphalt on the track is the straightaway between Turns 2 and 3). This is one of de Ferran’s favorite two turns on the track — the other is Turn 1 — where he can explore the envelope of the state-of-the-art, carbon-fiber Dallara chassis.

The two-seater is based on the same bones as the IndyCars that will race this weekend. Only the chassis has been lengthened – to accommodate an extra seat — and the driveline changed to house a more durable, quieter, 500-horsepower, 2.8-liter twin turbo V-6 Honda engine with a redline at 7,500 RPM. The current IndyCar engine — a 2.2-liter twin-turbo V-6 — pumps out over 600 horses at a screaming 12,000 RPM.

Helio’s on board

At the Indianapolis 500, I watched on the grid as Lady Gaga slipped into the same two-seater for pace laps with Mario Andretti at the wheel. The car has become a staple at IndyCar events and a celebrity magnet.

Before my go with de Ferran on Thursday at Belle Isle, Red Wings rookie Dylan Larkin suited up for his own ride. With a TV camera shadowing his every move, he flashed a thumbs up before de Ferran lit up the tires and peeled away into Turn 1. Both Gaga and Larkin fit comfortably in the backseat, whereas my 6-foot-5, 220-pound frame is at the limit of the 6-5, 250-pound seat limit.

While the twin-seater is a neck-stretching simulation to what an IndyCar driver feels, the racing thoroughbreds take the game to another level. At 1,610 pounds the single-seat IndyCars are considerably lighter as well as more powerful than the demo. They will pull a neck-snapping 2.5 G-loads in corners — compared to my run’s 1.5 — and over 3 Gs in braking. Put a radar gun on them on the back straight and they will hit 175 mph.

“This track is exhausting,” said Penske driver Helio Castroneves, flashing his trademark smile as he walked by before my run. “But I love it.”