It's the week after Indianapolis and IndyCar is back in action for the second time in a five-race-in-five-weekend stretch. Thanks to the efforts of Roger Penske and Chevrolet, the Detroit Grand Prix has been revived for the first time since 2008. It marks the fourth iteration of IndyCar in Detroit since the first race in downtown in 1989, and third at the Raceway on Belle Isle (1992-2001, 2007-'08). It's also the lone street course of the month, with three ovals to follow after this.
INDYCAR - CHEVROLET DETROIT BELLE ISLE GRAND PRIX
ON AGAIN, OFF AGAIN, ON AGAIN – IndyCar's relationship with Detroit has been a bit like Elaine Benes and David Puddy on Seinfeld – on and off depending on the episode. Perhaps I'm dating myself here, but the last season of the show ran from 1997 to 1998, and coincidentally, that's the first year some of the drivers in this year's field made their CART debuts at Detroit. But IndyCar and Detroit can't seem to make a long-term commitment.
Detroit's been through several different iterations around The Raceway at Belle Isle. The 1997 race marked the last race in its 2.1-mile configuration before transforming to a 2.35-mile course in 1998 with another extra straight built in (RIGHT). That configuration ran through 2001, before Detroit faded from the calendar for six years.
When it was revived in 2007, it was back to the original Belle Isle layout, one that's not particularly conducive to passing. The race was dropped after 2008 thanks to the region's economic meltdown and a lack of sponsorship. The 2012 layout is the same, but given the raciness the DW12 provided in the first four road and street races of the season, there's hope that it can spice up what's often been a mundane race.
VARYING DETROIT EXPERIENCE LEVELS – The three drivers who were rookies in 1997 and 1998 and Detroit – Dario Franchitti, Helio Castroneves and Tony Kanaan – are also three of four former Detroit winners in the field this go-around. Castroneves' 2000 Detroit win, the first in his career, served as the launching pad for his trademark “Spiderman” fence-climbing escapades. Oriol Servia also scored his first podium that race, third behind Castroneves and Max Papis.
Where Castroneves doesn't have good memories of the place was at the last IndyCar round in 2008, when he was called for blocking Justin Wilson. That allowed the Englishman to score an emotional victory for Newman/Haas Racing (LEFT) – the team's last to date and the last before co-founder Paul Newman passed later in the year.
Because of the on/off nature of when IndyCar has raced at Detroit, only 14 of the 25 drivers entered have prior Detroit experience. Four of those – Wilson, E.J. Viso, Will Power and Graham Rahal – have only the 2008 start to their records. For all his career open-wheel accolades, Sebastien Bourdais has never started a race at Detroit, and neither have 10 other drivers in the race.
RELEASE THE HOUNDS – Count Servia, Bourdais (RIGHT, sandwiching Wade Cunningham) and Alex Tagliani as three of the happiest campers in the field entering Detroit this weekend. Sure, all three made their debuts in a car without a Lotus engine at Indy, but none were realistic win contenders – even despite Servia's stealthy run from 27th on the grid to fourth by the flag.
However, in their natural habitats of a street course, where they all overachieved in Lotus machinery anyway this year, expect the Chevrolets of Servia and Bourdais and Tagliani's Honda to rank much higher up the charts this weekend both in qualifying and the race.
OTHER CONTENDERS, CREEPERS AND SLEEPERS – He didn't win at Detroit in his only start and he's coming off a 28th-place finish at Indy after a wreck not of his own doing. So, most likely, we should expect Will Power to resume his rightful place atop the standings throughout practice and qualifying before delivering another beat-down on the field.
Scott Dixon and Ryan Briscoe are also due for wins – Dixon after recording his third second-place finish of the season at Indy and Briscoe as he'll no doubt want to end his winless drought dating to Texas 2010 at the Chevrolet-sponsored race, in front of his team owner who brought the event back. His frustration with his best race of the year at Indy is a good sign for Briscoe going forward.
Andretti Autosport, too, seeks a bounce-back after its Indy disappointment, and could figure into the equation with any of its three drivers. Fellow Chevrolet teams KV Racing Technology and Panther Racing could threaten the Firestone Fast Six and podium this weekend.
Some others to watch: Takuma Sato for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, the two “Ganassi 2” drivers Graham Rahal and Charlie Kimball, Wilson at Dale Coyne Racing, Josef Newgarden of Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing and Mike Conway for A.J. Foyt Enterprises.
AN UNFORTUNATE HISTORICAL SIMILARITY – Sadly, not all the talk this week has centered on celebrating what was a phenomenal Indianapolis 500 from start-to-finish. A tweet from IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard Tuesday night read, “#INDYCAR @indycar it is true that an owner is calling others trying to get me fired. I have had several owners confirm this. Disappointing.”
A Wednesday column from SPEED's Robin Miller named names in suggesting who said owners were, although Michael Andretti was careful to deny his involvement Wednesday in various Twitter posts. Andretti has stepped up to help save two events on the calendar this year – Milwaukee later this month and Baltimore on Labor Day weekend.
In 2001, debate over use of a spacer mounted underneath pop-off valves being used on some cars essentially blew up at the Detroit race, in that year's engine wars between Honda, Toyota and Ford-Cosworth. While this tumult this week has seemed to stem from an owner standpoint rather than a manufacturer one, it's an unfortunate irony that IndyCar is at Detroit again when something might be brewing and threatening to take the focus off the on-track product.
Given the job Bernard has done, it seems ridiculous this is even an issue – but that's a topic that should only need to be expanded outside of this preview. Bernard tweeted Thursday, "As we come off a successful Indy 500, I think it is very important that we capitalize on the excitement around this incredible race. Right now I think it is important that everyone focuses on the big picture and all of our great competition storylines as we ride the momentum into Belle Isle."
The IZOD IndyCar Series Chevrolet Detroit Belle Isle Grand Prix airs live, Sunday at 3:30pm Eastern on ABC.
IndyCar isn't alone in the return to Detroit, but is the headliner on what should be an action-packed weekend.
GRAND-AM ROLEX SERIES
Grand-Am's Rolex Series shares the weekend with IndyCar as it did at Barber Motorsports Park in April. It marks the series' first street race since 2006 at Long Beach, as primarily, the series has raced on permanent road courses and “rovals.” It's going to be a tight race, only two hours instead of the standard two hours and 45 minutes.
Both SunTrust Racing (Daytona Prototype) and AIM Autosport Team FXDD Ferrari (GT) are seeking three-peats in their respective classes. Chevrolet will be particularly keen to score its fourth straight win with the Corvette DP with either SunTrust, GAINSCO/Bob Stallings Racing, Spirit of Daytona or the two Action Express cars. If they can't secure the DP win, there's a handful of GT cars which could do the trick – Camaros from Autohaus and Stevenson are due for their first wins of the year.
The other major American manufacturer present – Ford – will want to upset the Chevrolet contingent and can do so with either the Michael Shank Racing Riley Ford or any of three Starworks Riley Fords this race. Chip Ganassi Racing still has yet to secure its first win of the year with Memo Rojas and Scott Pruett.
Beyond the Camaros and Ferrari in GT, Porsche looks for its first win since Daytona with either Magnus, Brumos or TRG, Mazda will try to use its handling and strategy to score another win with SpeedSource or the Dempsey and Sahlen's teams, and Audi will once again look to break through for its first top-10 result in class with the APR Motorsport squad. There are 17 GTs and 10 DPs in the field.
The Grand-Am Rolex Series Chevy 200 airs live, Saturday June 2, at 5:00pm Eastern on SPEED.
PIRELLI WORLD CHALLENGE
As at Long Beach, the Pirelli World Challenge is on display with half its field – the GT and GTS class competitors while the TC and B-spec TC classes are off.
Much like Chevrolet seeks wins in the IndyCar and Rolex races, Cadillac is on home turf from the World Challenge perspective. Johnny O'Connell and Andy Pilgrim have a win apiece in 2012, although Volvo's Randy Pobst came to the fore last race at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca two weeks ago. James Sofronas' GMG Porsche, a pair of TruSpeed Porsches and Hawk Performance Nissan GT-Rs, and Tony Gaples' Black Dog Corvette could also contend in GT.
In GTS, the RealTime Racing Acura TSXs of Peter Cunningham and Nick Esayian and Jack Baldwin's Hot Wheels Porsche Cayman S could upset the home-based manufacturer contenders from Ford (several Mustang Boss 302s) and Chevrolet (several Camaros).
The Pirelli World Challenge race from Detroit will be live streamed on www.world-challengetv.com and airs delayed at 5:00 p.m. Eastern, Saturday, July 7, on NBC Sports Network.
FIRESTONE INDY LIGHTS
Three drivers have won in the first four races of the 2012 Firestone Indy Lights Series season: Tristan Vautier, Sebastian Saavedra and Esteban Guerrieri. No one in the field of 14 – the smallest this year for Indy Lights, and a field nearly devoid of American drivers save for one – has prior experience at the Belle Isle street circuit.
Guerrieri leads his Sam Schmidt Motorsports teammate Vautier by 14 points in the championship, with Saavedra four markers further behind. Those three have been the three dominant forces in the series this year, although teammates Victor Carbone and Oliver Webb (Schmidt) and Carlos Munoz (AFS/Andretti) are due for breakout runs, soon. Munoz finished a career-best second at Indianapolis.
Now on a street course, look for Peter Dempsey to figure into the equation for the fledgling Younessi Racing first-year team. Belardi and Team Moore's pairs of drivers are also in need of a strong result this weekend.
The Firestone Indy Lights race from Detroit airs delayed at 5:00pm Eastern, Thursday, June 7, on NBC Sports Network.