100th Indy 500 revs up excitement for Grand Prix
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Just as Detroit is regarded as the Motor Capital of the World, few would deny that auto racing’s premier event is the Indianapolis 500. The iconic race – often called the Greatest Spectacle in Racing – will be celebrated worldwide this weekend with its 100th running on May 29.
Once again, the Verizon IndyCar Series goes back-to-back this season with just six short days in between this particularly historic Indy 500 and the Chevrolet Detroit Belle Isle Grand Prix.
With a global spotlight of massive television and media coverage – combined with race-fan hysteria and intensified public interest beaming down on the 100th Indy 500 – Detroit should shine brightly with anticipation as the Verizon IndyCar Series barely skips a heartbeat and moves quickly, 290 miles northeast, into the Motor City.
“More than 300,000 people will be at the 100th running of the Indy 500,” said Bud Denker, chairman of the Chevrolet Detroit Belle Isle Grand Prix. “Think about that, and how it’s the biggest sporting event anywhere in the world. And to have the Chevrolet Detroit Belle Isle Grand Prix right after, there’s a reason for that.
“We get the coattail effect; I call it the wake. We have the winner of the Indy 500 coming to our city the following week. We have the momentum of it, and you’ll see in the TV ratings from last year that we were among the top in viewership. That’s important for Detroit.”
Similar to how the Masters golf tournament kicks off the golf season in the minds of many sports fans, both Denker and Chevy IndyCar driver Josef Newgarden likened the Indy 500 to igniting the summer racing season. Newgarden will start second at Indy on Sunday after nearly winning the pole this past weekend.
“What’s great about Detroit, we have a great springboard right off the Indianapolis 500,” Newgarden said during a recent visit to Detroit. “People are normally pretty psyched about IndyCar racing after the 500. We get to come to Detroit right after, and we have such a unique race here where we run two races in one weekend.
“The Super Bowl was 50 years old this season, and now the Indianapolis 500 will be in its 100th running this year. It’s impressive from a sporting historical standpoint… you really have to be respectful of the magnitude of the Indianapolis 500.”
Practice runs and qualifying for the first of two IndyCar races on Belle Isle will take place during Comerica Bank Free Prix Day on Friday, June 3, before the Chevrolet Dual in Detroit presented by Quicken Loans races take place June 4 and 5.
Traditionally, the driver who wins the Indy 500 struggles at the next race. Some experts cite exhaustion, or media commitments and other distractions for the winner, plus a mental let down after conquering what racers consider their ultimate goal.
Team Penske Domination
Almost to the point of lapping the competition, Team Penske has completely dominated the start of the 2016 IndyCar season. Chevy driver Simon Pagenaud has won the last three consecutive races – at the Grand Prixs of Long Beach, Alabama and Indianapolis (May 14), all of which are road or street courses, like Detroit – after placing runner-up at the first two races in St. Petersburg and Phoenix.
“The momentum we have now, this little domination, is incredible,” Pagenaud, who will start eighth Sunday, said to motorsports.com writer David Malsher. “It’s not only because you don’t see this happen often, but also because it’s the Verizon IndyCar Series. So when you can have perfect weekends like this several times in one race season, it’s incredible. Certainly it feels like being on a cloud, living a little bit of a dream.”
Pagenaud’s blazing start to the season puts him well ahead of the next closest racer in the standings – defending Verizon IndyCar Series champion Scott Dixon, a Chevy driver for the Chip Ganassi Racing team, and also a former winner on Belle Isle.
If Pagenaud – who won his first-ever IndyCar race in 2013 at Detroit – can carry that torch to the finish line at the Brickyard, then also win just one of the two Chevy Duals presented by Quicken Loans, he’d be very difficult to pass for the coveted season-long championship. That’s how much is at stake during the next two weekends: for Pagenaud to either speed off into the sunset, or for others to keep him within shouting distance.
“I’m very happy about the beginning of our season, as contention for the championship is very important to me, and obviously we’ve done that so far,” Pagenaud said after winning the Grand Prix of Indianapolis road course.
“But we’ve got to keep our head down. The big one is coming, the crown jewel of racing. To me it’s the best race in the world, the most famous, the most prestigious, and it’s special to be a part of it. I’m in a car that can win the race and with a team that knows how to win that race. It would be the accomplishment of my career if I can put my name on that one someday. I would be complete, personally.”
Denker added: “The Indy 500 is a 100-point race [for the winning driver], then you come into Detroit [for the Duals] and it’s a 100-point weekend. So in the course of eight days, drivers have the chance of picking up 200 points. On the flip side, it gives the competitors chasing Simon the opportunity to catch him in two weekends compared to over the course of a month. We don’t talk about it much in the garage, but we all know what’s at stake.”
If any Team Penske driver can win the Indy 500 – Pagenaud, last year’s race runner-up Will Power, defending Indy 500 champ Juan Pablo Montoya or three-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves – it will give team owner Roger Penske his record 17th Indianapolis crown.
Among its four drivers, Team Penske has won five of six pole positions this season, and when adding Montoya’s win at the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, the team has grabbed four wins already. Dixon won the only other event so far, at Phoenix.
RogerPenske Pacing the Field:
Whoever wins the Indy 500, Penske will have a front-row seat.
In this, the 50th year of Team Penske Racing, Roger Penske was selected to drive the Indy 500 pace car, a Chevy Camaro SS 50th anniversary edition. The Bloomfield Hills-based businessman could figuratively and literally lead one of his drivers to winning the very historic race.
Penske was a young, accomplished driver when, in 1964, he was offered a rookie test at Indianapolis but turned it down to focus on his business enterprises. That decision allowed a then young Mario Andretti to test drive, and history shows that chain of events turned out pretty well for both men. But now Penske will be front and center.
It took Team Penske just six years to win its first Indy 500, with Mark Donohue at the wheel in 1972. Before Montoya’s victory last year, eight other drivers won for Penske’s team during the in-between years – Bobby Unser, Rick Mears (four times), Al Unser, Danny Sullivan, Emerson Fittipaldi, Al Unser Jr., Gil de Ferran and Sam Hornish Jr. No other team owner has won the Indy 500 more than five times.
“When you win at Indianapolis, anything you do here is pretty good,” Penske told USA TODAY Sports. “I think it’s got a lot of momentum for us.”
While Team Penske is setting and expanding records, one record that will likely never be broken is A.J. Foyt’s consecutive starts streak at the Indy 500. He stands at 35, with Castroneves the next closest at 15. Foyt was also the first driver to accomplish four wins at the Brickyard, leading to his iconic and undeniable connection to the famed 2.5-mile oval.
“Lots of people say I helped make the Indy 500 as popular as it is, and I don’t think that’s true,” Foyt said to Autoweek magazine in April. “A.J. Foyt didn’t make the Indy 500; the Indy 500 made A.J. Foyt. I believe that in my heart. Indy was my whole life, still is. When I didn’t do well at that race, it would eat on me for a whole year until I got back there to race again.”
While Indianapolis popularized racing in the formative years, Detroit has deep motorsports roots and will always be where the car manufacturing industry began. Now that the Chevrolet Detroit Belle Isle Grand Prix follows the Indy 500, snapping up the spot on the calendar after the Milwaukee Mile reluctantly relinquished its position, the Motor City is an almost equally pivotal destination for IndyCar’s stars.
“It’s very historical to be running IndyCars in Detroit,” Newgarden added about this key turning point in the 2016 season. “I think Belle Isle is one of the best destinations you could have it. It’s a really unique backdrop for everyone. There’s a lot of character to it; there’s a lot of things to like about this track, to like about the event, like about coming to the city.”
The world will be watching the historic 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 this weekend and then the focus and attention will shift immediately to Detroit. Race fans should flock to the city for all the up-close sights and sounds of the Chevrolet Detroit Belle Isle Grand Prix as it rides the wave of a century’s worth of momentum. For tickets and more information, visit www.detroitgp.com.
This story is provided and presented by our sponsor Chevrolet Detroit Belle Isle Grand Prix.
Members of the editorial and news staff of The Detroit News were not involved in the creation of this content.