Wojo: Weather claims race's fans, but not its spirit

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News
Will Power races through Turn 8 on Sunday on Belle Isle. Power finished the race 18th.

Detroit -- This was like every backyard barbecue dampened by rain, every house party cut short by a flooded basement. First, the elements chilled the festivities. Then the guests in racing suits grabbed the goodies before they left.

Roger Penske and his team can do amazing things with the Detroit Belle Isle Grand Prix, but after two days of rain-shortened competition, we saw what they can't do. They can't negotiate with Mother Nature, they can't always win with the home-island advantage, and they can't control the vagaries of the sport.

Sebastien Bourdais won the second race of the Dual in Detroit on Sunday, and at least had the common decency to do it in a Chevrolet. Beyond that, it was a rough weekend for the home team, and not just because the miserable weather kept many fans away. Two of Penske's drivers, Will Power and Helio Castroneves, bumped cars late in the race, knocking both out.

But if you think the dampening gave Penske a lasting chill, you don't know Detroit's ever-optimistic billionaire entrepreneur.

"For our team, we had a tough day, it was double bad losing two guys at once," Penske said. "That's racing, and we'll be back bigger and better next year. I wouldn't say I was disappointed with the crowd — the corporate people were there in the chalets, and that's important. It's amazing how many people were in the stands, as cold and rainy as it was. The good news about Detroit is, we're able to bounce back."

This is how it goes in Indy Car racing and event-building — you win some, you lose some and you tie some up in knots. That's what happened on lap 64, when Power was tapped into the wall by Tristan Vautier, spun back and bumped teammate Castroneves. Both were out, and an exhausting weekend that began with so much willpower ended with no Will Power.

Weathering the weather

It's a shame the annual national showcase for Detroit was blurred by clouds and splattered by drops, but there was no one to blame. Risky ventures, like gliding along at 180 mph on the Belle Isle straightaways, offer no guarantees. It's just too bad the Grand Prix has had an on-again, off-again dance with fortune.

Last year, there was a flooding downpour before the weekend, but then the weather cleared and Power and Castroneves swept the races. In the Grand Prix's 2012 return, the asphalt track tore apart, which provided handy, nasty symbolism to national viewers. With $4.5 million in renovations to Belle Isle and a smooth new concrete track, there were no unexpected revelations this weekend (unless some people didn't realize Michigan's weather is annoyingly persnickety).

The woe-is-us days continue to fade around here, as buildings and optimism go up. The improved track that was supposed to produce faster times instead served a higher purpose — improved drainage. Before the race, there were geese swimming in the back straightaway, but the water receded quickly. Afterward, tow trucks got stuck pulling cars out of parking areas, but the landscape will be repaired.

When Bourdais crossed the finish line with a few drops of gas to spare, only a smattering of fans remained to witness the tense conclusion. Again, a shame, but no blame.

"The obstacles we faced, I think we worked through all of them admirably, and we got the race in," race chairman Bud Denker said. "The sponsors were very happy. Obviously, the fans didn't show up because of the weather, and in many cases, you don't blame them."

Officials already had worked on contingency plans to run the race Monday on ESPN2. Not only was the rain relentless until race time at 3:30 p.m., but temperatures dipped into the low 50s, and you have to really, really like the roar of fast cars to shiver through that.

'Spectacular finish'

By the time Bourdais wrapped up the victory on the 68th lap (shortened because it became a timed race due to the weather), there were only puddled reminders of the deluge. Saturday's race won by Carlos Munoz was called after 47 laps because of lightning, not because of track conditions.

Attendance figures weren't yet available, but some of the grandstand areas were less than half-full. Those who didn't brave the elements missed the final scene of dejection. Juan Pablo Montoya, who won the Indianapolis 500 last Sunday for Team Penske, fell out of contention as he ran low on gas, and had to walk back to the pits.

Penske was in no mood to complain, not with the Indy 500 victory still glowing, and not with the gritty response by workers and volunteers.

"I just feel bad for our fans, dealing with the weather," Penske said. "As for the racing, we've been doing it so long, we've been down this road before. It turned out to be a good race with a spectacular finish. Next year we'll be back, and hopefully the Man upstairs will give us a break."

Divine intervention is nice, but the Grand Prix, like many growing endeavors around Detroit, is here because of refined determination. From Penske to Dan Gilbert to Mike Ilitch and others, passion pushes the projects. Rain and cold may have dashed the atmosphere this weekend, but it didn't dash anything else.