Detroit — The IndyCars have left Belle Isle and are headed for Texas for a rare Saturday night race while NASCAR drivers are headed to the state to compete on the series’ fastest track this weekend at Michigan International Speedway.
The Detroit Grand Prix doubleheader on Belle Isle’s 13-turn, 2.3-mile street course had a little bit of everything during the weekend, including a thunderstorm Saturday afternoon where race chairman Bud Denker and his group had to evacuate thousands of fans from the bleachers for safety purposes.
Then, Denker and IndyCar had a decision to make: Cancel Race 1 and run both races on Sunday like Toronto did in 2014 when it held one race in the morning and another in the late afternoon, or run a shortened race?
Well, Denker & Co. shortened the race from a 70-lap event to a timed 75-minute race where drivers competed on rain tires at the start of the race and started in single file to prevent additional problems.
The first 20 minutes of the race was run in the rain before better conditions presented itself. Team Penske driver Josef Newgarden took advantage of a good strategy call by Tim Cindric to take the lead and eventually win Race 1 with Alexander Rossi, who finished second to Team Penske driver Simon Pagenaud in the Indianapolis 500, finishing second again.
Denker said following Sunday’s race that 95,000 fans stepped on the island to watch the races, 10,000 less than last year due to Saturday’s inclement weather.
“Great attendance," Denker said. "Operationally, we got people off the island as far as fans go in less than 45 minutes which was amazing. And, we opened up the paddock free of charge, where it used to be $25, but we’ve never been about the almighty dollar here, and that allowed people to be in the paddock, but also at the Scott Fountain, and is there any more beautiful Winner’s Circle anywhere than The Scott Fountain? I haven’t seen one.”
Denker had more challenges to take care of Sunday before Race 2, because a wreck in one of the support race left Turn 12 in shambles, actually needing Denker and his group to rebuild the entire turn and finally finishing the project five minutes before the start of the race.
Race 2 had the drivers run all 70 laps, and in beautiful weather with sun and 70 degrees. This time, Honda dominated the action with Scott Dixon of Chip Ganassi Racing winning for the third time on the island, second in as many years, to match the all-time record of wins by a driver with Helio Castroneves winning in 2000, 2001 and 2014.
Honda drivers took nine of the top 10 spots in Race 2, with Team Penske’s Will Power being the lone exception, finishing on the podium (third place).
It was a bit of redemption for Dixon, who had his first DNF in two years when he hit the inside wall, lost his steering and crashed into the tire barrier, finishing dead last. It was the first time in four years that Dixon crashed as a result of his own mistake.
Dixon’s win Sunday was his first of the season, after three runner-up spots, and gave the five-time series champion his 45th career win, placing him just behind four-time Indy 500 winner A.J. Foyt (67 wins) and Mario Andretti (52).
Dixon celebrated by jumping in the Scott Fountain after the race. Dixon, who won at Texas last year to help him win the series championship, competed at LeMans last year and is getting ready for a repeat effort this summer.
On Sunday, Dixon became part of the British Commonwealth royalty when he was honored by Queen Elizabeth II in recognition of his services to motor sports.
“It’s not like a normal accolade, not like a trophy or race win, it’s something of a very different feeling,” Dixon said. “For me, I’m very proud to get that label.”
While Dixon left on a high note, the same can’t be said for Pagenaud, who stepped on Belle Isle as the points leader, but left third, 25 points behind Newgarden and 10 points in back of Rossi after placing sixth in Race 1, but then running in the back of Power on the initial lap of Race 2 and ultimately finishing 17th.
Now, it’s NASCAR coming to MIS. Kyle Busch of Joe Gibbs Racing is the man to beat with Team Penske drivers, Rochester Hills native Brad Keselowski and defending series champion Joey Logano certainly in the mix. There's also Busch’s JGR teammates, Michigan native Erik Jones, who finished third Sunday at Pocono, and Martin Truex, who will be hungry after suffering an engine problem at Pocono.
Busch won at Pocono on Sunday, giving him a series-high four wins.