IndyCar looking to end Belle Isle race on a high

DETROIT (AP) — Helio Castroneves won his first race at Belle Isle, his seventh start for Team Penske, and essentially boss Roger Penske.

Castroneves celebrated the win by getting out of his car and climbing over one of the fences surrounding the temporary street course. The rise of Spider-Man became his signature, and Castroneves climbed fencing at the Detroit Grand Prix three times.

As the Detroit Grand Prix prepares to leave Belle Isle after Sunday’s race, Castroneves wants to replicate that inaugural climb from 2000 one last time.

“It could be the same fence,” Castroneves said. “This place, I’ve been coming here for a long time. But things are changing. I’m happy to be at least there for the last race. I would love to win my first win here and win my last too.

The Detroit Grand Prix began as a downtown street race for Formula 1 in 1982 and capped its seven-year run with three straight wins for Ayrton Senna. But F1’s sanctioning fees were exorbitant and the promoters renamed the race to CART, which at the time was the US-based open-wheel series.

This three-year race ended in 1991 and the event was moved the following year to the temporary 2.35-mile course called Belle Isle Raceway. The circuit is located on 982 acres of island parkland in the Detroit River and although it is a tight and bumpy course, riders love it.

“I will miss Belle Isle. It’s a place with 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 had to describe the IndyCar series, I think this track describes it best. It’s very old school, very raw. A lot 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 would be the last race at Belle Isle and that the Detroit Grand Prix would move to a new downtown urban course that would use elements of the original F1 layout.

Belle Isle will become a public park again after Sunday’s race.

CHEVROLET STAGE

Josef Newgarden took pole for Sunday’s race and can give the Chevrolet manufacturer a decisive victory in his garden.

Chevrolet is the title sponsor of the Detroit Grand Prix and the race takes place in the shadow of its offices inside GM’s Detroit Renaissance Center world headquarters. A victory for Newgarden or any Chevy driver would give the bow-tie brand its 100th win since returning to IndyCar competition in 2012.

“Obviously this is a special race for Chevrolet and we would like to do a great job for them,” Newgarden said. “I think they’ve already done a lot for us. If you look at the performances we’ve had across the board, it’s hard to ask for much more. We have to continue like this, 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 STREAM

Jimmie Johnson was fast every day before the Indianapolis 500 and considered a legitimate threat to win in his racing debut. But he was never a contender and his late crash triggered a red flag that forced his Chip Ganassi Racing teammate Marcus Ericsson to work harder to preserve his own Indy 500 victory.

Johnson, who called the race “the greatest race of all time”, finished a disappointing 28th. He starts 22nd out of 26 drivers this week.

Johnson’s performance at Indy was still good enough to earn him the Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year Award – an honor that angered the loser. 20-year-old Dale Coyne Racing rookie David Malukas was the highest-ranked rookie in the seven-driver class in 16th place.

Malukas posted his frustration on Twitter when Johnson accepted the award at Monday’s post-Indy 500 ceremony. A firestorm then ensued – Johnson joined Fernando Alonso as top drivers in winning 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 given to the driver who has distinguished himself the most among first-year Indianapolis 500 drivers. Criteria include on-track performance during practice, qualifying and the race , media and fan interaction, sportsmanship and a positive influence on the Indy 500.”

Based on this, Johnson felt he was the winner.

“The criteria is written for a reason and in my case, I know there was an outcry about me being Indy Rookie of the Year, but looking at the criteria I feel like to be 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 blistering speeds in practice and qualifying, was the second-highest rookie qualifier, and was dispatched by IndyCar to promote racing with Jimmy Fallon on “The Tonight Show.”

Malukas, meanwhile, received 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 for Sunday’s race, his career-best sixth, and didn’t deny the Indy snub was motivation.

“Absolutely. It was in the back of my mind,” Malukas said. “It builds confidence, pushes me a little bit harder.”

Johnson, who lost the NASCAR Rookie of the Year battle to Ryan Newman in 2002, sympathized with Malukas’ snub. Johnson won three races in his NASCAR rookie season and lost the prize to Newman, who won once and finished one spot below Johnson in the standings, but had six poles to Johnson’s four.

Johnson called for the criteria to be clearly explained ahead of the race in future years.

“At the end of the day, that’s where the responsibility lies,” he said. “I was learning as Monday’s awards unfolded, and I didn’t fully understand it myself. So I think someone dropped the ball trying to explain how the rookie of the year is rewarded.

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