IndyCar’s Belle Isle track getting facelift

It’s October in Detroit, so the unofficial state flower – the

construction barrel – is still in full bloom.

It was definitely true on Belle Isle, where workers were pouring

and smoothing asphalt on Tuesday – a beautiful sight for a group of

IndyCar drivers.

”This is great,” said new series champion Ryan Hunter-Reay.

”I’m really excited to see the way this place is getting

fixed.”

In June, the IndyCar series returned to Belle Isle, only to have

the Detroit Grand Prix shortened when the track began to fall

apart. Even after a two-hour red flag to fill holes and replace

long strips of synthetic rubber, the drivers were only able to

complete 60 of the scheduled 90 laps.

For many races, that would have been the end of their

affiliation with the series, but when it is Roger Penske’s baby,

things are different. Not only will the tour come back to Belle

Isle in June, it will do so for a doubleheader – a 70-lap race on

Saturday and 70 more laps on Sunday.

”This is a huge event for the city of Detroit,” said Grand

Prix Chairman Bud Denker. ”Not only are we going to have a better

track, thanks to millions of dollars in repairs and upgrades, we’re

going to have a bigger track with the expansion from 2.1 miles to

2.35 miles. And to celebrate that, we’re going to be the host of

the first IndyCar doubleheader – what we’re calling the `Dual in

Detroit.”’

The track is going to return to a configuration used in 2000-01,

adding a half-mile straightaway through the tree-lined center of

the island.

”I don’t know for sure what effect it will have, but it will

definitely give us another place to pass,” said series veteran

Tony Kanaan. ”That’s a good thing on this track, and it should

make things more exciting for the fans.”

After a short press conference, the drivers jumped behind the

wheels of Chevy Tahoes to drive parts of the track and check out

the construction that is still going on along the riverfront.

”We’re way ahead of schedule,” Denker told them. ”This will

all be done in three weeks, because we need to be finished before

the snow gets here.”

Even before getting out of their trucks, the drivers were

impressed by what they saw.

”There’s a lot more space here, and we’re not driving over

seams all the time like we were last time,” said Oriol Servia, who

finished fifth in June. ”It’s going to be a lot faster and a lot

smoother.”

The drivers watched and chatted with construction workers as a

complete rebuild continued on a road that is used 51 weeks a year

as the public route around the scenic island.

”That’s the reason this was such an expensive project – we’ve

done engineering studies far beyond anything that has been done for

this track or this island before,” Denker said. ”We’ve even done

core samples from around the track and videotaped the sewer lines

to make sure we could improve the drainage. We always have to

remember that we aren’t only building a racing surface, we’re

building something that has to survive as a public road during a

Michigan winter.”

Judging from Tuesday’s reactions, they are well on their way to

accomplishing that goal.

”This looks fantastic,” said Marco Andretti. ”I love racing

in Detroit, and this is going to change everything.”

The reaction of the drivers was crucial, since they will be

asked to drive two full-distance, full-point races here next

summer.

”I hurt already,” Servia joked. ”When you race this track on

a Sunday, you wake up Monday and you are sore. Now we’re going to

wake up feeling like that on Sunday, then have to do it all over

again.”

Andretti agreed, saying that the most important part of

equipment that weekend will be the team’s massage table, but other

drives focused on the implications of having a pair of races in two

days.

”Most of the time, when you have two races in the same weekend,

they are both half-distance for half points,” said Will Power, who

finished behind Hunter-Reay in the 2012 standings. ”These are two

full races for full points, so the entire championship race could

change for people that have good weekends and people that have bad

ones.”

It has been less than a month since the season ended, and even

though the drivers were shuttling media members in their trucks,

they found it impossible to completely hold back their instincts.

Andretti charged past Servia heading onto pit lane at the end of

the tour, while Hunter-Reay stayed out on the main track and

claimed victory.

”I can’t wait to get back here,” he said.