Turbo boost

IndyCar's return to Belle Isle gives Detroit something to rally around

Updated: May 17, 2012, 4:58 PM ET
By Austin Considine | ESPN The Magazine

Pollard Brothers Roy Ritchie for ESPN The MagazineThe Pollard brothers, Lacey (left) and Tracy, are helping to bring Belle Isle back to its former glory.

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FROM BELLE ISLE, Lacey Pollard's view of downtown Detroit reveals a skyline that appears both beautiful and robust. In reality, it's an illusion, a shimmering curtain over the decades-long decay from which the Motor City is steadfastly trying to emerge. Pollard, the owner of a local concrete company, and his brother, Tracy, are among the workers hustling to prepare the 982-acre island park, situated between the U.S. and Canada on the Detroit River, for the return of the IndyCar Detroit Belle Isle Grand Prix on June 3.

As with other locals, Pollard's bottom line suffered when IndyCar dropped the Belle Isle race four years ago after Detroit's financial crisis ended wide-scale corporate investment in the event. This year, though, he's hopeful once again: The return of IndyCar means a big contract and steady work. "With the economy in Detroit how it's been, this is an upbeat thing," he says.

Even better news is that race organizers have contracted to keep the road race in Detroit for the next three years, which means money will keep flowing into Belle Isle. According to Grand Prix chairman Bud Denker, the last time a race was held there, in 2008, the GP brought about $55 million into the Detroit area -- a figure he hopes to surpass this June.

The race is also a homecoming of sorts for Chevrolet. Thanks to the resurrection of Detroit's auto industry and IndyCar's implementation of manufacturer competition for the first time since 2005 (Honda had been the series' sole engine-maker for the past six seasons), Chevy signed on as title sponsor of the next three Belle Isle races. Chevy will showcase 13 cars from five teams at its backyard event.

The 14-turn, 2.1-mile street course, with a series of tight corners leading into a shorter straight, has been criticized for creating uninspired racing due to a lack of passing opportunities. But series points leader Will Power, who will be leading the pack of Chevys, is excited to take on the narrow course. "I enjoy the track because it's so technical," says Power, who last raced there in 2008. "You have to be smart about how you tackle those corners. It's not like you can just charge in there and go as fast as you can."

Power drives for Roger Penske, a Detroit resident since the late '80s, whose Indy team was the first to partner with Chevrolet for the 2012 season. Penske is also part owner of nearby Plymouth-based Ilmor Engineering, which has designed and built his Indy engines with Mercedes-Benz, Honda and -- in the 1980s and '90s -- Chevy. Reteaming Ilmor with Chevrolet and parent company General Motors allows Penske to consolidate some of his racing business interests, which gives him an edge on the track. "Being based here gives us a very short communication line," he says. "That's helped us."

Results back that up. The new 2.2-liter, direct-injection twin-turbo V-6 -- Chevy's answer to the series' return to turbo-powered engines -- has been a Victory Lane regular this season because of its improved acceleration. Heading into Indianapolis on May 27, seven of the top 11 drivers in points race Chevys, including Power and Penske teammate Helio Castroneves. "I've been so impressed at the reliability of the Chevy engine," says Power, who won three of the first four races in 2012, each on a road course.

The relationship between Chevrolet and Ilmor is symbiotic. The direct- injection technology that Chevy developed for its road cars -- like the Camaro and Malibu -- has influenced the Ilmor design of the Indy engines; experience on the racetrack then funnels back to Chevy's showroom models. "It wasn't just something GM pushed out the door to some company to do the work for them," says Ilmor president Paul Ray. "They wanted an intimate relationship with the technical side of the engine."

That's music to the ears of the 75 employees at Ilmor. "It would have been dire if an IndyCar deal hadn't gone through," says Brett Menig, a Detroit-area native who supervises the assembly of all hand-built engines at the plant. "With all the racing General Motors does, we were ecstatic for them to come back to IndyCar."

Indeed, Chevy's return to Indy is a triumph for GM -- re-emerging successfully from bankruptcy -- and closes a century-long loop that began with Arthur Chevrolet, who raced in the first Indy 500 in 1911. "It's hugely important for us," says Mark Reuss, president of GM North America. "We haven't had anything here with excitement around it for a long time."

For Pollard, his excitement is all about job stability. On a break from installing concrete barriers around the course, he sums up his hopes for Belle Isle: "For me and the guys, we want to make sure we see Indy here every year."

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