DETROIT – Helio Castroneves won his first race on Belle Isle, in his seventh start for Team Penske, and basically boss Roger Penske's backyard.
Castroneves celebrated that victory by exiting his car and climbing one of the fences surrounding the temporary street course. The Spider-Man climb became his signature and Castroneves has scaled the fencing at the Detroit Grand Prix three different times.
As the Detroit Grand Prix prepares to exit Belle Isle following Sunday's race, Castroneves wants to replicate that inaugural 2000 fence climb one final time.
“It might be the same fence,” Castroneves said. “This place, I've been coming here a long time. But things change. I’m glad that at least I’m here for the last race. I would love to win my first win here and win the last one, too.”
The Detroit Grand Prix began as a downtown street race for Formula One in 1982 and closed its seven-year run with three consecutive victories by Ayrton Senna. But the F1 sanctioning fees were exorbitant and promoters rebranded the race for CART, which was the U.S.-based open-wheel series at the time.
That three-year run ended in 1991 and the event shifted the next year to the 2.35-mile temporary course called Belle Isle Raceway. The circuit is located on a 982-acre island park in the Detroit River and even though it's a narrow and bumpy course, drivers love it.
“I’m going to miss Belle Isle. It’s a place that has a lot of character,” said Pato O'Ward, who is second in the IndyCar standings and earned his first career IndyCar victory at Belle Isle last year.
“If you were to describe the IndyCar Series, I think this track describes it the best. It’s very old school, very raw. Lots of commitment has to come from the driver’s side to extract a lap from this place.”
Penske lives in suburban Detroit and the race is promoted by his group. They decided last year that Sunday will be the final race on Belle Isle and the Detroit Grand Prix will move to a new downtown street course that will utilize elements of the original F1 layout.
Belle Isle will become a public park again following Sunday's race.
Josef Newgarden won the pole for Sunday's race and can give manufacturer Chevrolet a milestone victory in his backyard.
Chevrolet is the title sponsor for the Detroit Grand Prix and the race is run in the shadow of its offices inside GM's Detroit Renaissance Center Global HQ. A win by Newgarden or any Chevy driver would give the bowtie brand its 100th victory since it returned to IndyCar competition in 2012.
“Obviously it is a special race for Chevrolet and we’d like to do a great job for them,” Newgarden said. “I think they’ve done tremendous for us already. If you look at the performance we’ve had across the board, it’s hard to ask for much more. We need to keep that up not just for this weekend. but for the rest of the year.”
Chevrolet drivers have won four of six IndyCar races this season, but Honda drivers have won the last two, including last week's Indianapolis 500.
TOP ROOKIE FLAP
Jimmie Johnson was fast every day leading into the Indianapolis 500 and considered a legitimate threat to win in his race debut. But he was never a contender and his late crash brought out a red flag that forced Chip Ganassi Racing teammate Marcus Ericsson to work extra to preserve his own Indy 500 win.
Johnson, who called the race “the biggest rush of all time," finished a disappointing 28th. He is starting 22nd out of 26 drivers this week.
Johnson's Indy performance was still good enough to earn him the Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year Award — an honor that rankled the loser. David Malukas, the 20-year-old rookie for Dale Coyne Racing, was the highest finishing rookie in the seven-driver class at 16th.
Malukas posted his frustration on Twitter as Johnson accepted the award during Monday's post-Indy 500 ceremony. A firestorm then ensued — Johnson joined Fernando Alonso as high-profile drivers to win the rookie award in recent years — in which Indianapolis Motor Speedway again explained the criteria for the honor:
“The Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year Award should be presented to the driver who has performed with the most distinction among first-year drivers in the Indianapolis 500. Criteria includes on-track performance in practice, qualifying and the race, media and fan interaction, sportsmanship, and positive influence on the Indy 500.”
Based on that, Johnson felt he was the winner.
“Criterias are written for a reason and in my case I know there was some uproar about me winning rookie of the year at Indy, but as I studied the criteria, I do feel like I was a deserving recipient," Johnson said.
Johnson was in a class with Malukas, Devlin DeFrancesco, Romain Grosjean, Callum Ilott, Kyle Kirkwood, Christian Lundgaard and Malukas. Johnson posted eye-popping speeds in practice and qualifying, was the second-highest rookie qualifier, and was sent by IndyCar to promote the race with Jimmy Fallon on “The Tonight Show.”
Malukas, meanwhile, was awarded a personalized trophy made by his Dale Coyne Racing team when the youngest driver in the IndyCar field arrived at the Detroit Grand Prix. He qualified a career-best sixth for Sunday's race, and didn't deny the Indy snub was motivation.
“Definitely. It was in the back of my mind,” Malukas said. “It’s building the confidence, making me push just that little bit harder.”
Johnson, who lost the NASCAR rookie of the year battle to Ryan Newman in 2002, empathized with Malukas' snub. Johnson won three races in his NASCAR rookie season and lost the award to Newman, who won once and finished a spot below Johnson in the standings, but had six poles to four for Johnson.
Johnson called on the criteria being clearly explained ahead of the race in future years.
“Ultimately, that is where the responsibility lies,” he said. “I was learning as Monday’s awards unfolded, and I didn’t understand it all myself. So I think somebody dropped the ball in trying to explain how the rookie of the year is awarded.”
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