Krupa: Grand Prix excites, but tweaks needed

Gregg Krupa
The Detroit News

Detroit — Some folks can put what they know about motor sports on the head of a pin, with an empty ink pen.

Too bad.

They probably missed Graham Rahal on The Raceway at Belle Isle Park this weekend.

In one of the great performances in the 2017 season of racing in IndyCar, NASCAR or Formula One, Rahal won both races in the singular doubleheader that is the Grand Prix of Detroit.

Racing is not for everybody, and it does not always try to be.

But Rahal, IndyCar and Roger Penske are trying hard, and a dominant performance by Rahal amid some terrific racing on an improved track this weekend provide local fans of motor sports, and perhaps more than a few new folks, a marvelous show.

Discerning fans of motor sports understand the series is hot, and the annual weekend on Belle Isle affords the possibility of good racing.

Halfway through the IndyCar season, seven drivers have won the eight races. They race for four different teams.

It is the sort of parity for which some professional sports leagues work for years, and negotiate new collective bargaining agreements with their players, to achieve.

In qualifying this weekend on Belle Isle, four track records were set.

How sweep it is! Rahal makes it 2-for-2 at Grand Prix

It would have been five, but IndyCar erased Helio Castroneves’s mark for going too fast under the yellow flag.

It is the sort of improvement to the racing surface which Penske and his organizers have worked since returning racing to Belle Isle in 2012.

Putting on a show

Open-wheel racing has proceeded in fits and starts for decades in Detroit. But concerns about whether the most recent effort has staying power might be easing.

The sixth annual weekend of motor sports on the island produced a good show for race fans and the curious.

People are attending, perhaps as many as 100,000 this weekend.

The Department of Natural Resources, which runs the state park that is the island, is already talking to Penske’s people about what happens to the Detroit Grand Prix after the state’s permit, originally let by the City of Detroit, expires after the race next year.

The sense is that with some new controls and, perhaps, logistics in place, the racing will go on, despite some people around town who would like it to go away.

What IndyCar is demonstrating, now, is the entertainment product sparkles.

This is good racing.

“There is no more competitive series in the world or racing than IndyCar right now,” said ABC broadcasting analyst Eddie Cheever, who competed as a driver in Formula One, sports cars and the forerunners of IndyCar, IRL and CART.

IndyCar and the Detroit Grand Prix could use a few tweaks, though.

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The odd dual qualification in Detroit, in which the field is split in two for separate qualification periods potentially presents a big problem for the fairness of the competition.

Usually, on street or road courses, knock-out rounds eliminate the slower drivers until the field is set.

When Carlos Munoz wrecked in one of the rounds Sunday, the other 11 cars were left with only four-minutes of qualifying time in the 12-minute round. It left no time for even one tire change for most of the teams, an integral part of qualifying and race strategy.

To me, it put a damper on the day. There certainly is a way of looking at everything that occurred after that as unfair.

The track could also be smoother, even after the $250,000 spent to grind down two of the straightaways this year.

“I don’t think we’re going to grind (turns) seven through 10,” said Bud Denker, the race chairman. “That’s competition.

“If it was smooth like that, it would be an oval.

“What I think we’ll do is probably some repaving, turn one to turn three. If you look at turn one and turn two, the asphalt’s really starting to crack there by the nature of how long it’s been there. How many years? Who knows?”

Quicker takedown

But something else is of considerably greater importance, however, if racing is to continue on Belle Isle: The organizers need to get on and off the island quicker. That is not my observation alone. DNR officials say it is a prime issue.

Denker, Penske’s right hand man for the enterprise, said it took eight weeks to set up this year, and the intention is to reduce it to six in 2018.

He also said the off-the-island goal for 2017 is to be off the island by the time of the annual Freedom Festival fireworks — June 26.

“So, we got three weeks to get off the island,” Denker said.

“If you look out there now,” he said, pointing out the window of the Belle Isle Casino, “we’re taking stuff down now. We have announced it will take us six weeks to build next year.”

Both Denker and Penske say they expect to get approval from the state for continuing racing, and they perceive no major hurdles.

Given what the DNR is saying publicly, that means less set-up time, less breakdown time, and more time for complete access to the island than the current 41 weeks per year.

“We’re pretty fortunate to have this race here,” Denker said. “And we plan to have it here for many, many years to come. And you can quote me on that.”

Twitter: @GreggKrupa