DETROIT (AP) — It's October in Detroit, so the unofficial state flower — the construction barrel — is still in full bloom.
It was definitely true on Belle Isle, where workers were pouring and smoothing asphalt on Tuesday — a beautiful sight for a group of IndyCar drivers.
"This is great," said new series champion Ryan Hunter-Reay. "I'm really excited to see the way this place is getting fixed."
In June, the IndyCar series returned to Belle Isle, only to have the Detroit Grand Prix shortened when the track began to fall apart. Even after a two-hour red flag to fill holes and replace long strips of synthetic rubber, the drivers were only able to complete 60 of the scheduled 90 laps.
For many races, that would have been the end of their affiliation with the series, but when it is Roger Penske's baby, things are different. Not only will the tour come back to Belle Isle in June, it will do so for a doubleheader — a 70-lap race on Saturday and 70 more laps on Sunday.
"This is a huge event for the city of Detroit," said Grand Prix Chairman Bud Denker. "Not only are we going to have a better track, thanks to millions of dollars in repairs and upgrades, we're going to have a bigger track with the expansion from 2.1 miles to 2.35 miles. And to celebrate that, we're going to be the host of the first IndyCar doubleheader — what we're calling the 'Dual in Detroit.'"
The track is going to return to a configuration used in 2000-01, adding a half-mile straightaway through the tree-lined center of the island.
"I don't know for sure what effect it will have, but it will definitely give us another place to pass," said series veteran Tony Kanaan. "That's a good thing on this track, and it should make things more exciting for the fans."
After a short press conference, the drivers jumped behind the wheels of Chevy Tahoes to drive parts of the track and check out the construction that is still going on along the riverfront.
"We're way ahead of schedule," Denker told them. "This will all be done in three weeks, because we need to be finished before the snow gets here."
Even before getting out of their trucks, the drivers were impressed by what they saw.
"There's a lot more space here, and we're not driving over seams all the time like we were last time," said Oriol Servia, who finished fifth in June. "It's going to be a lot faster and a lot smoother."
The drivers watched and chatted with construction workers as a complete rebuild continued on a road that is used 51 weeks a year as the public route around the scenic island.
"That's the reason this was such an expensive project — we've done engineering studies far beyond anything that has been done for this track or this island before," Denker said. "We've even done core samples from around the track and videotaped the sewer lines to make sure we could improve the drainage. We always have to remember that we aren't only building a racing surface, we're building something that has to survive as a public road during a Michigan winter."
Judging from Tuesday's reactions, they are well on their way to accomplishing that goal.
"This looks fantastic," said Marco Andretti. "I love racing in Detroit, and this is going to change everything."
The reaction of the drivers was crucial, since they will be asked to drive two full-distance, full-point races here next summer.
"I hurt already," Servia joked. "When you race this track on a Sunday, you wake up Monday and you are sore. Now we're going to wake up feeling like that on Sunday, then have to do it all over again."
Andretti agreed, saying that the most important part of equipment that weekend will be the team's massage table, but other drives focused on the implications of having a pair of races in two days.
"Most of the time, when you have two races in the same weekend, they are both half-distance for half points," said Will Power, who finished behind Hunter-Reay in the 2012 standings. "These are two full races for full points, so the entire championship race could change for people that have good weekends and people that have bad ones."
It has been less than a month since the season ended, and even though the drivers were shuttling media members in their trucks, they found it impossible to completely hold back their instincts. Andretti charged past Servia heading onto pit lane at the end of the tour, while Hunter-Reay stayed out on the main track and claimed victory.
"I can't wait to get back here," he said.
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