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Belle Isle races a good time for fans, drivers

06/03/2014, 12:07am EDT
By RACHEL LENZI BLADE SPORTS WRITER

Track improvements slated before next year

Belle Isle races a good time for fans, drivers

Takuma Sato leads the field across the start line on Sunday for the second race of the Chevrolet Grand Prix Dual in Detroit. Officials estimate that more than 100,000 fans attended over the weekend. ASSOCIATED PRESS

DETROIT — Two hours before the start of Sunday’s Chevrolet Grand Prix Dual in Detroit race, swarms of fans surrounded the IndyCar garage areas to watch teams fine-tune the open-wheel cars that were being prepared to compete.

At one station, IndyCar driver Sebastien Bourdais and his team looked under the hood of his open-wheel Chevrolet. At another garage area, IndyCar driver Graham Rahal zipped his motor scooter past a group of fans, beeping his horn as he passed.

“You can get closer access to the garage, to the teams, to the cars, and it’s up close and personal,” said Fred Hauptstueck, who traveled with his two sons from Fort Wayne, Ind., for the Detroit race. “At some of the other events, it doesn’t feel like you get that personal interaction.”

That was only part of Belle Isle’s Grand Prix experience. For spectators and auto racing fans, Belle Isle became an all-encompassing experience. For the IndyCar drivers, their experience focused on the track — and on the results.

Mike Conway, who won one of the two 2013 Dual in Detroit races on Belle Isle, said prior to the weekend that he noticed a difference in the track.

“I thought there was more grip than there was last year,” Conway said. “It felt pretty hooked up to start with. Just some curve changes down in three and seven were really the biggest things. It opened up seven a lot more now. The entry speed is a lot quicker than last year.”

Detroit Grand Prix chairman Bud Denker said the two-race weekend format will return and that race organizers are pursuing a multi-year contract with IndyCar. Event officials said the Grand Prix generated over $46 million in total spending for the Metro Detroit region in 2013 and while exact attendance and revenue totals were not available Sunday night, Denker estimated that attendance topped 100,000 over the course of Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.

The event drew more than 100,000 in 2013 and about 95,000 in 2012, the weekend of an IndyCar race that was marked by extensive damage on the 2.35-mile road course. Tony Kanaan took note of the track’s current condition, which required minor repairs before Sunday’s second IndyCar race.

“It needs a little bit of work,” Kanaan said after finishing third in Saturday’s race. “I know Roger [Penske] is putting out a lot of effort to make it better. I appreciate that. I know there is a huge repavement plan for next year. I think it will be better. You know, it's pretty tough to keep it up. It takes a lot of maintenance when you have hard winters like that.”

Denker said that a repave will begin this summer on the Belle Isle racing surface, a $4 million project that will be primarily funded by Penske Corporation.

“We’re building a great platform,” Denker said. “I want it to grow. It’s going to be a very easy job for us to sell sponsorship [for next year].”

Hauptstueck’s nephew, Ryan, changes tires for Takuma Sato, who won Sunday’s pole at Belle Isle, and the family has traveled to various IndyCar events. Fred Hauptstueck agreed with the assessment that IndyCar may be regarded as a niche sport, but saw the weekend at Belle Isle as another means for exposure for the sport — not just through tourism or through television air time.

He also considered the power of word of mouth. His sons, Charlie and Sam, said they plan to bring their photos, autographs, and driver cards back to Fort Wayne to show off to their classmates.

“They’re going to show all of that to the other kids and say to them, ‘come out and see IndyCar,’ ” Fred Hauptstueck said.

Contact Rachel Lenzi at: rlenzi@theblade.com, 419-724-6510, or on Twitter @RLenziBlade.

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