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Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix one of strangest IndyCar races in years

DETROIT – It would be hard to find another IndyCar Series race that was as chaotic or absurd as Sunday’s Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix.

Not since the first Big Machine Music City Grand Prix on the streets of Nashville on August 8, 2021, was there an event that feature cars flying through the air, landing on top of other racing machines, then ultimately battling back for top-five and top-10 finishes.

In 2021 at Nashville, Marcus Ericsson’s car was launched into the air early in the race, only to come back and win the race later.

Sunday on the streets of downtown Detroit, Christian Lundgaard went on top of another car on Lap 53, but still managed to finish 11th. There was also a multi-car crash in Turn 3 at the start that included Arrow McLaren’s Pato O’Ward, Alexander Rossi, Linus Lundqvist, Will Power, Santino Ferrucci and Scott McLaughlin.

Power would battle back to finish sixth, O’Ward seventh and Ferrucci ninth.

From cautions 3-8, the field was unable to complete a single lap during any of the ensuing restarts except for caution 6 that ended on Lap 59 before another crash on Lap 63.

The rest were in quick succession that took nearly an hour of the race.

Forty-seven of the first 73 laps were under caution and nearly half of the race was contested under the yellow caution light. 
But the last 27 laps were caution free with one of the greatest drivers in IndyCar Series history winning the race as Scott Dixon claimed his 58thcareer win. That leaves the Chip Ganassi Racing driver just nine wins behind AJ Foyt’s all-time record of 67 victories over his IndyCar career.

That was the on-track action.

Off the track, however, it showcased downtown Detroit in the same aura of the NFL Draft, when 775,000 fans came to Detroit to watch each NFL team reload its roster with the top collegiate players.

From 1992 to 2022, the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix was held on Belle Isle, a state park in the Detroit River about four miles to the north.

But in 2023, Penske Entertainment and the Detroit Grand Prix Association moved the weekend-long festival of speed back to its Formula One roots, by bringing it back to downtown Detroit.

The tight, nine-turn, 1.65-mile street course winds around the GM Renaissance Center and includes Jefferson Avenue, one of the main thoroughfares in Detroit that runs parallel to the Detroit River. It also includes a border crossing – a tunnel to Windsor, Ontario and is a major gateway to Canada.

From a promotional standpoint, it would be hard to argue about the success of the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix. The Penske Corporation has the full support of the City of Detroit and its business communities, with 73 chalets filled with corporate sponsors.

Syndication: Detroit Free Press
Syndication: Detroit Free Press

For what Sunday’s 100-lap IndyCar Series race lacked in clean competition, the thousands of fans that flocked to downtown Detroit were more than entertained by the massive on-track pileups, followed by the high-speed racing at the end that determined the outcome.

“From our corporate support, it looked like a battleship out there, the chalets,” Penske Corporation President Bud Denker said, referring to the huge construction of Pit Suites that overlooked the only dual pit lane in IndyCar and the cars racing down Jefferson Avenue. “We have 73 chalets. We didn't sell them all out last year.

“Every one was sold this year.

“If you were up there at all, it was just a party the whole time.

It was a party also because we had a lot of people who were first timers. They saw a lot of chaos, which was exciting for them. Very exciting for them. I think we got a lot of new fans this year because of the number of people that were there, the fact that it was sold out.”

The Chairman’s Club was new for 2024 and had a capacity of 400. According to Detroit Grand Prix President Michael Montri, the number in the club was much more than that.

“It was really a party,” Denker continued. “I think from a corporate perspective it was tremendous because we got many new sponsors in, including on top of one of the parking deck on Franklin Street, that went to Siemens.”

Denker, Montri and Penske management improved the fan perspective by adding more Jumbotrons around the course so more fans could stay engaged to the racing action.

Syndication: Detroit Free Press
Syndication: Detroit Free Press

Half of the racetrack is open for free, so all citizens of Detroit have the opportunity to take part in the event, from high-end corporations that want to entertain key clients, to lower-income residents that want to be part of the party.

“That gives a very different perspective to our fans that are here than a fan that's paying money to come to an event,” Denker said. “You had a lot of kids out there with their parents you probably wouldn't have had otherwise.

“From a fan perspective, corporate, fan base, it was good.

“We don't know what our numbers are from the fans attending but talk about our revenue from a fan perspective.”

Denker and Montri said ticket revenue increased by 10 percent over last year.

The parking decks that surround the circuit gave the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix an amphitheater venue feel with the impressive 50-year-old Renaissance Center as the iconic backdrop for the city of Detroit.

Denker and Montri turned the parking decks into tailgating areas for the fans and sold them this year. Last year, the parking areas gave a free vantage point.

“I took a picture of the tailgating that was up there, and it went as far back as you could see,” Denker explained. “It was people pulling up 10 feet off the wall, then picnic tables behind there, partying like you were at a football game.

“Last year those fans were in there for free, okay? So, this year they paid. That was a very cool perspective. I walked around those party decks. It was a party deck up there. Pretty cool atmosphere up there. That was one of the learnings from last year.

“You think about that perspective, it looked like an amphitheater with all the people surrounding you. The dual pit lane was cool. At one time we had 17 cars. We didn't see that last year. How is this going to work? It all worked out fine, right? They figured it out. That was very cool for the fans to see.”

Give the promotion of this year’s race high grades, but for a series that features some of the best racers in the world, the competition on track got some very low marks at times.
Crashes are a part of racing, but to have more time run under the yellow light than the green light doesn’t not showcase the NTT IndyCar Series in the finest light.

Last year, it was a difficult track because it is narrow without a lot of room to maneuver. Despite that, IndyCar had a fairly clean race.

This year, however, had its moments of absurdity.

“Will Power, he had his moments,” Denker said. “He said he passed people in turn one, in turn three, in turn four, in turn five and eight, right? The passes in turn five are crazy, including Herta's attempt, right? Those were crazy. The action on the track...

“I'm not sure if it was just the fact that the track was green because of the rain or craziness of it. Turn three, we knew that was going to be a better passing zone because we repaved it. We heard that in the sports car race yesterday. Much deeper on the braking.

“I didn't hear Scott or anyone else's interview. I talked to Scott. He said it's an epic track in terms of the ability to get around. He said he got passed by Lundgaard one time.

“Never thought he'd pass me there. He passed him back, he said, Dixon said.”

But the fans didn’t mind the long periods of caution. Many still had a good time, despite the inability to see actual racing until the end.

“What I saw and heard throughout the course of weekend, people came here from the other parts of the country because of what they saw in the NFL Draft,” Denker said. “We had 775,000 people here, right? It looked so good that people saw it across the country, perhaps around the world. I saw several people that came here because of what they saw on TV for the Draft.

“The NFL Draft, we had 775,000 people. We didn't have one incident of crime, not one. I think that all lends to the view of this being a safe, vibrant and clean city. We have the best mayor and police chief in the country.

You see it downtown. You feel safe, secure. It's clean. I think we got a lot of draft off the NFL Draft.”

Despite the breakout of yellow fever in terms of cautions, there were 217 on-track passes compared to 189 last year.

“From a promoter standpoint, nobody was disappointed where I was,” Denker said. “There was so much action going on. There were some dive bomb moves there. What are they doing?

“That caused a lot of excitement.”

Syndication: Detroit Free Press
Syndication: Detroit Free Press

Penske Corporation Chairman and Founder Roger Penske also owns the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the Indianapolis 500 and IndyCar. Penske likes having Detroit as the first race after the Indianapolis 500. So does Denker and Montri.

It might have been taxing in terms of manpower and grueling for the IndyCar teams, but it continues to create synergy between the biggest race in the world and Detroit as Motor City.

Tweaks can be made to make the race course more raceable, but in terms of a venue in a major North American City, it brings IndyCar to one of the most important cities in the United States with individuals that make up the American automotive industry.

“I think it stands on its own because of the success you saw today,” Denker said. “We did a lot of promotion in this marketplace, the billboards you saw around the city, social. We had a lot of partners that did advertising for it.

“The other point as I moved around here, in certain areas how many more fans do you want, right? You can't put a lot more in those parking decks. Can't put more in the grandstands, which were sold out. Where do you put 'em on a 1.7-mile track?

“The other part of our track is the riverfront, which is so beautiful. How many tracks do you have where you turn around and look at the riverfront, the walkway we have here. One of the best in the world.

“It's a very unique place to be. You referenced. Monaco. It's just gorgeous when you look around you and the environment we have. We shouldn't take that for granted.

“I'm satisfied with the track, satisfied with the environment, satisfied with the crowd. We had a concert last night that drew 10,500, free. We sponsored. Another by-product.

“By the way, on Friday, the gala, we probably raised gross $1.5 million. In the last nine years we've given away $9 million to charity.”

Success can be measured in many ways. It brough great attention to Detroit, but moments of low comedy to IndyCar.

According to the winner, that’s racing.

“I don't think it's ever embarrassing,” Dixon said. “I think you do a survey; most people go to races to watch crashes. I don't.

I know when I watch some kind of NASCAR race, they have a similar kind of effect. It's obviously exciting. Obviously, you don't want to see the caution laps and them taking over.

“You're in confined streets here. It's tough, man. You make any kind of mistake…”

Those mistakes led to calamity. But to the thousands that came out to the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix, they left with plenty to talk about.

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500