Belle Isle Grand Prix course rides with character

Gregg Krupa
The Detroit News
Carlos Munoz, right, makes a pass during last year's Dual I on Belle Isle.

Detroit — The Raceway at Belle Isle Park, the newest venue for major sports in Metro Detroit, is complete.

For the first time since the IndyCar Series returned to the Motor City in 2012, the 2.3-mile circuit is unchanged from season to season. All the preparations for an appropriate track of the first four years are finished.

The only significant task of the offseason was work underground to augment drainage.

“This is the first year we haven’t had the need to work on the race track,” said Bud Denker, event chairman and a vice president at Penske Corporation.

“Last year, we put over $4 million into the surface. Now, it’s just a matter of it seizing, a bit.”

The famously sports-obsessed city has a major automobile racing track to go with Comerica Park, The Palace of Auburn Hills, Ford Field and Joe Louis Arena, soon to be replaced by Little Caesars Arena.

For 50 weeks of the year, the picnicking, fishing, sailing, sight-seeing, bicycling, soccer and handball playing public drives on the track along streets of a state park.

The speed, then, is limited by law, not mechanics, engineering, design and bravery.

Payne: Belle Isle course offers plenty of bang and buck

The experience may provide and impression of impermanence. But the track in Detroit is established.

In motor sports, it beckons to some of the finest racers in the world, network television and an expanding group of corporate sponsors.

The growing list of racing classifications competing provides for running eight races. This year, they include the return of the signature muscle cars of Chevrolet, Dodge, Ford, Aston Martin, BMW and others in the Trans Am Series, which is in the city for the first time since 2001.

Pavement is the canvas

So, what is this new sports venue like? What does it contribute to motor sports, which were firmly rooted in the sinew of this industrial town a century ago, when motors began turning wheels spurring someone to ask: How fast?

The allure of The Raceway at Belle Isle Park for drivers, owners, crews and enthusiasts is an idiosyncratic course that emphasizes the insight and judgement drivers, along with an athleticism that demands strength and endurance.

“I’ll tell you, the track has got a lot of character, here,” said Simon Pagenaud, of Team Penske, who leads the series after winning three and placing second twice in the first five races of the season, before the Indianapolis 500.

“It’s bumpy. I call it a street fight.

“You’re in the car and you’re fighting. You’re fighting with car. You’re dancing with it, bumps to bumps and corners to corners.

“It’s definitely a reason to understand that physically you have to be on top of your form. Because it’s like a boxing match.

“That’s something I personally enjoy a lot.”

The bumps still jar and batter. It is the distinctive facet of The Raceway in Belle Isle Park that separates highly-skilled drivers from the skilled, often sufficiently enough to determine winner and also-rans.

Meanwhile, a straightaway along Central Avenue and an arcing backstretch paralleling the Detroit River along The Strand provide room for speed.

Approaching 10,000-12,000 rpms with their 550-700 horsepower Chevy and Honda engines, drivers must then negotiate the hard right of turn three after the straight, and the more sweeping venture to the right in turn seven after the backstretch.

The last two corners, 12 and 13, on Sunset Drive are thorny.

Placed between the James Scott Memorial Fountain and the western tip of Belle Isle — where Detroiters for generations have gathered to watch the sun set next to the skyline of the city — the turns require prescience and skill, if a driver is to carry optimal speed for the sprint to the finish line.

A misjudgment of mere inches may summon calamity.

The long concrete portion of the circuit should last for years, delaying the need for the more frequent resurfacing the asphalt section will require. But the unusual transition between surfaces registers in the minds of drivers like flipping an internal switch, affecting perception and reflexes.

“You’ve got to make a read,” said Helio Castroneves, another Penske driver, who debuted his fence-climbing victory celebration on Belle Isle 16 years ago after winning a CART series grand prix.

“You change surface in the front straight away and the car reacts differently. So you’ve just got to know what’s happening and, from there on, get used to it.”

Risk management

Beyond victory or defeat, failing to account for the more slippery concrete or greater grip of the asphalt can mean the difference between crashing and carrying on.

Enhancing the risks is that grip on the concrete portions increases throughout the weekend, as more rubber from tires adheres to the track.

“This track is unique in many ways,” Castroneves said.

“Whoever has a better set-up with a handle on that will take advantage of it.”

In the immediate wake of an entirely different sort of racing in the IndyCar series, on the 2.5-mile oval of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, with its long straights and four banked left turns, the drivers and crews are all challenged to master the quirky little course in quick order, without the benefit of significant practice time.

Compounding the challenge is the slipperiness of the concrete, early in the weekend.

“The interesting thing is that we don’t have much time to practice,” Castroneves said. “We go straight from practice to qualifying.

“That’s why it’s extremely important to start with the right set-up.” @greggkrupa