Late in August, the sports cars of the American Le Mans Series rolled onto Belle Isle in Detroit for the 10th round of the '07 schedule. The event marked the first time motorsports competition had alighted on the Isle since the open-wheel CART series last ran there eight years earlier.
With its reputation for bumpy, uneven pavement and precious little passing room, the circuit had fallen from favor with race-sanctioning officials by the late '90s. If racing, and the fans, were to ever return to the Detroit venue, significant changes would have to be made.
Enter racing legend Roger Penske, who led the charge to bring Belle Isle back to racing prominence. Penske, who was instrumental in luring the 2006 Super Bowl to Detroit, felt that returning the Isle to its former motorsports glory would help further revitalize the city's downtown area.
With Penske's backing, major corporate sponsorship-from companies such as GM, Ford, Chrysler, Honda, Acura, Firestone, and Bosch-quickly followed. Before any ignition keys were turned, race organizers had sold 50 corporate hospitality chalets at a price of $50,000 apiece.
With the usual Penske panache, the 983 acres of Belle Isle were transformed into a first-rate racing venue. More than 600,000 square feet of concrete were poured to form the racing paddock, to smooth and widen the racing surface, and to enlarge the parking area. Some of the 14 turns around the 2.07-mile circuit were also expanded, including the critical Turn 1.
Penske's Belle Isle makeover extended beyond the racing circuit itself. For this year's ALMS race, the island was staffed by seemingly thousands of golden-shirted volunteers dispensing directions and other information. At Penske's direction, all of these workers previously had attended "Ambassador School" to receive training in "ultimate customer service." Friendly smiles were everywhere, and questions never elicited the typical blank stare and nebulous reply. By going the extra mile, Penske furnished a first-class experience for the ALMS fans.
When it came to the race, the heated competition in the LMP2 and GT2 ranks only served to highlight the cakewalks unfolding in the other two categories. By the time of the Detroit event, the Audi R10s and the C6.R Corvettes had all but sewn up LMP1 and GT1, respectively. Indeed, outside of a lone Aston fighting the Vettes at Sebring, and a Maserati showing up for Mosport, the two GM-backed entries had faced no class competition at all. Such was the case again on Belle Isle.
Oliver Gavin, driving the No. 4 car, got a little nudge from one of the prototypes during Friday's morning practice session and was forced back to the pits for fresh rear bodywork. With that done, Gavin was back out on course to complete the session and qualify in the afternoon.
While the two Corvette Racing teams epitomize the "all for one and one for all" mentality, when the green flag falls for qualifying, it is truly every man for himself. Jan Magnussen in No. 3 had the better of the No. 4 car this time around and took the GT1 pole. Bragging rights were especially important at this race, since it was held right in the backyard of the major corporate players, and many industry luminaries were on hand to watch.
Saturday's 2-hour, 45-minute race started at 3:00 p.m. and ran under clear skies and relatively moderate temperatures. Even though the Belle Isle course has been improved, it is still very tight, and passing is not easy. As a result, yellow flags were common. These interruptions repeatedly restacked the lineup and provided for tight competition.
The GT1 race between the two Corvettes was well run, even if the result-a C6.R victory-was a foregone conclusion. Both sets of pit crews and drivers performed faultlessly, and the No. 3 car, with Jan Magnussen and Johnny O'Connell sharing the driving duties, took First in class.
The war developing in GT2 boiled over into the predictable collisions, with the Flying Lizard team's hopes for a driving championship literally going up in smoke as Johannes van Overbeek watched his Porsche 911 burn to the ground following an on-course altercation. The Ferrari 430 of Jaime Melo and Mika Salo went on to take First in class.
The race's true battle was between the LMP1-dominating Audis and Roger Penske's factory-backed LMP2 Porsches. The Audis, with their superior torque, had the straight-line power advantage, but the Porsche spyders were lighter and quicker in the corners-a prescription for success on a tight road course like Belle Isle.
With the race drawing to a close, the Audi of Emanuele Pirro seemed to have victory in hand. Then, with just a few minutes left, Porsche driver Romain Dumas outbraked Pirro into the corner and nudged past the silver LMP1 entry. The Audi's superior torque got the best of the Porsche down the following straight, however, and Pirro retook the lead.
Dumas then took a wider, faster entry line into the next right-hand corner, repassing Pirro who was trying to defend his first-place position with a shallow corner entry and a wider, slower exit. The Porsche driver never looked back and finished the inaugural Detroit Grand Prix in First Place overall, handing the "Captain" a victory in a storybook ending.
Next up on the ALMS schedule is Road Atlanta and the 10th anniversary of the 10-hour Petit Le Mans. Class placement in this race brings an automatic invitation to the 24-hour Le Mans spectacular in France next June. Rumor has it that some legitimate competition will finally show up to challenge the flashing yellow streaks from GM. It's about time.
Corvette Racing Shines in Pit Crew Challenge
To back up their exemplary on-track performance, Corvette Racing also shined in the semi-final round of the Klein Tool Pit Crew Challenge. Held on Friday before the Saturday race, this round was supposed to include eight teams battling for one of the final four spots.
Both of the Corvette Racing crews made the cut and stood ready to take on all comers. Unfortunately, the two Porsche teams from Tafel Racing and the two Audi LMP1 entries elected to skip the competition and concentrate on prepping for the qualifying session just three hours in the future.
The narrowed field saw the Corvette crews taking on a pair of LMP1 entries from Dyson Racing. The No. 4 team won the day with a time of 44.12 seconds, while the No. 3 crew managed a 44.29-second effort to beat out the No. 20 Dyson squad for Second. The Corvette teams took home prize money totaling $15,000 for the day's effort. The Challenge's final round will be held in Monterey and promises to be a close one.