Now, any Michigan native – or anyone who has spent enough time here – will tell you that this state isn't exactly renowned for its immaculate road surfaces. And because the Belle Isle circuit sat unused for the past three years (aside from its day-to-day duties as a public road on Detroit's island park), cracks and potholes were present along the entire race surface. Before the weekend's events took place, road crews used synthetic rubber to fill the cracks and dips, but as you can see from the photo above, the patch job wasn't good enough. As the racers lapped the patched pavement at high speed, it began to break loose to dangerous effect.
Autoblog was present at the race, seated trackside between Turn Nine and Turn Ten – the latter of which being one of the corners where the synthetic rubber patching started to come apart. Huge chunks of the rubber would break off and scatter across the track, and in one case, a car kicked up a piece of the asphalt with such force that it flew over the safety fences and landed on the roof of a nearby chalet.
As the race went on, we cringed while watching the cars speed over the broken pavement, wondering how long it would be before track officials would declare the conditions unsafe, or worse, how long it would be until a driver lost control over the broken pavement and went off the course... which is exactly what happened.
James Hinchcliffe, driver of the No. 26 GoDaddy.com Chevrolet, ran over a strip of the loose asphalt around Turn Six, sending his car off into the tires on lap 39. A yellow flag was immediately flown, and the race was eventually given the red flag at lap 45.
Not a single yellow flag was waved before this incident.
The race was stopped while crews assessed the damage of the track and repairs were made. At one point, rumor 'round the track was that the race would be cancelled altogether.
"Roger Penske must be beside himself," one person near us said. After all, Penske was one of the key players who made this return to racing in Detroit possible, along with General Motors and the IndyCar series, and the race was on the verge of being stopped only half-way through.
Eventually, a decision was made to use a Quikrete fast-drying concrete material to patch the various sections of the track that had come apart during the first 45 laps of the race. Crews were quickly dispatched to a number of corners of the track, where we watched them repair the broken Belle Isle surface with genuine speed.
Drivers were given the opportunity to come out and inspect the track repairs, and after a two-hour red flag, the cars were restarted and the race was set to resume. Crew members were applauded by patrons in the grandstands and chalets as they drove off the track in their Silverado support trucks.
Because of the lengthy delay, the race was shortened from 90 laps to just 60, meaning there were only 15 left to complete. The first two laps after the red flag were completed under a yellow flag so crews could show the drivers exactly where the track surface had been repaired.
But just as soon as the yellow flag was put away, it was back out again. Some passing light rain caused the track surface to become slick while the crews were working, and driver E.J. Viso's car was bumped by Marco Andretti, causing him to spin.
After those caution laps had ended, it became a mad dash for the finish as Scott Dixon in the No. 9 Target Chip Ganassi Racing Honda pushed to keep his lead, trailed for the most part by his teammate, Dario Franchitti in car No. 10, and Simon Pagenaud in the No. 77 HP Motorsports Honda. At one point, Will Power in the No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet had been running in the top three, but Pagenaud edged by in the final laps of the race.
Those four drivers spent the last four or five laps way out in front of the pack, so it's no surprise that Dixon, Franchitti and Pagenaud took the podium in first, second and third place, respectively.
IndyCar is set to return to Belle Isle in 2013 for the second of the three-year deal struck between GM, Penske and IndyCar. We can only hope that the lessons from this year will be remembered and that the track surface will be in tip-top shape before those racing tires hit the pavement next year. We Detroiters may tolerate broken pavement and potholes, but if people are serious about bringing racing back to Belle Isle in a big way, Roger Penske and the boys will have to get serious about improving the circuit.