New Detroit Circuit Better but Still Bumpy in Second Year

Colton Herta rounds Turns 3 and 4 during qualifying for the 2024 Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix.

The combination of high-speed ovals and concrete-walled street courses stands as one of the NTT IndyCar Series’ most defining traits, and when the series transitions from the super-smooth Indianapolis Motor Speedway to the bumpy and manhole-laden downtown Detroit circuit, the contrast — and the challenge — is all the more apparent.

American open-wheel racing at the highest level in Detroit dates back almost as far as the automobile industry itself to 1905. At that point 119 years ago, the AAA Contest Board held a 5-mile non-points race at Grosse Pointe Track during the first season of what became IndyCar.

Championship racing began in the city in 1928 at the Michigan State Fairgrounds dirt oval and eventually arrived on the streets around the Renaissance Center in 1989 for three races. The Raceway at Belle Isle Park became the next home for Indy car racing, from 1992 to 2001, 2007 to 2009 and 2012 to 2022 except for the pandemic year in 2020.

Last year, Detroit’s relationship with IndyCar transformed again with a step back to the early 1990s with the reintroduction of a Renaissance Center-centric layout with nine turns across 1.645 miles of urban tarmac.

Thanks to harsh winters, Detroit’s paved surfaces aren’t known for being smooth. Imperfections abound, and that’s been a major storyline every year during the modern era of IndyCar racing in the city.

Kyle Kirkwood qualifies for the 2024 Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix
Kyle Kirkwood’s two IndyCar wins thus far arrived in the 2023 contests on the Long Beach and Nashville street circuits. | Hayden Durant/The Apex

The issue took on more focus in 2023 coinciding with the track’s change in location as the organizers of the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix, the city and the state of Michigan came together to ensure the infrastructure could stand up to the rigors of a full-length IndyCar race. With lessons learned from 2023, two areas were identified as needing attention.

Notably, the run down to Turn 3 at the end of the circuit’s longest straightaway was immediately flagged both during and after last year’s race weekend as an area needing attention, as well as the Turn 8 and 9 complex before and after pit in. Both areas were addressed by the Penske-affiliated team that puts on the Grand Prix including repaving a large segment of track leading to Turn 3, but whether they would have a major impact on how the short circuit races remained an unknown.

Asked whether the modifications would make a difference, Andretti Global’s Colton Herta expressed skepticism prior to participating in the weekend’s first practice session.

“I don’t think they’ll have too much of an impact,” Herta said. “I think the biggest problem is manhole covers down the back straight, which I don’t really know how you fix that without not having manhole covers anymore, which probably is not a good idea.

“The bumps, they give the track character. It’s good to have them. But last year it hurt the racing because it was one only line that you would avoid the bumps because everything else was so bad.”

Will Power racing on streets of Detroit in 2024 IndyCar Grand Prix
The Detroit street circuit features only nine bends throughout its sub-2-mile lap and rewards a fusion of speed and precision. | Hayden Durant/The Apex

Herta went on to explain that while manhole covers are an issue at every circuit on city streets, there seems to be an abundance of them dotting the Detroit tack.

On the topic of guardrails, which have been added to the inside of some of the circuit’s corners, Herta was more positive.

“I think putting some more of the guardrails on the inside of the corners helps because we slap the walls a lot more than people realize in practice and whatnot. And so you’re just kind of chipping away at the wall and eventually you can get to a point where it just grabs the wheel and rips the rim out of the tire. So having that can help.

“But overall, I think it’s good. They took some of our feedback and tried to make it better, but I have no idea how it’s going to be.”

In only its second year, the grand experiment of the new Detroit layout continues to be refined, hopefully leveraging driver feedback to create both a safer and more entertaining race. Yet with many unknowns, it may take until the green flag waves on race day to truly know if resurfacing or guardrails encourage closer racing and more passing than last year.

Two-time and defending series champion and 2023 Detroit race winner Alex Palou expressed similar sentiments as Herta regarding changes made to the circuit: better but still bumpy, which has almost become a synonym for Detroit.

“It still looks bumpy,” said Palou. “Like, it doesn’t look smooth; I think they resurfaced over. But, it will be better. It’s a street course.”

Alex Palou in 2024 Detroit Grand Prix IndyCar race
Alex Palou enters the 2024 event as the only previous winner at the current Detroit venue. | Hayden Durant/The Apex

A two-time champion in his own right, Team Penske’s Will Power was asked about the manhole cover issue raised by Herta and described the effect it has while racing.

“You run down the left side of the backstretch,” said Power. “That’s what you do, one lane to the left.”

And on guardrails, Power said they’ll allow cars to rub and bounce off easier, rather than jagged walls that can easily catch a car and send it in an unintended direction.

Taking all three drivers’ comments into account, the track changes should promote the following: harder, closer racing; the possibility of opening up additional lines in the track’s best passing zone in Turn 3 thanks to repaving work; safer navigation of the circuit’s tight confines thanks to guardrails on the inside of some corners; and, if there are yellows, more entertaining restarts, should drivers be willing to risk going over the endless string of manhole covers between Turns 2 and 3.

Will Power racing 2024 Detroit Grand Prix IndyCar race
Qualifying expert Will Power is unlikely to struggle in finding a fast way around the tight confines of a street circuit like Detroit’s. | Hayden Durant/The Apex

One of the current layout’s biggest unknowns has not to do with changes made since last year, but rather one of the defining aspects of the circuit: its unique dual side-by-side pit lanes. While pit stops were without issue in the 2023 edition of the race, it did not feature yellow-flag stops with the full field coming in on the same lap.

That kind of congestion with the added complexity of having to remember which side your pit stall is on might just be enough to affect the race’s outcome as much as or more than the track’s modifications.

IndyCar racing’s unpredictability sets it apart from other racing series. Just as any driver can win on any given Sunday, so too can certain drivers master the unique challenge that Detroit presents better than others.

Palou, who was able to prevail in the Motor City last season without the advantage of this year’s changes, anticipates a “better” circuit this year. He may end up having the measure of the field, as he does at many of the series’ stops. Or, those same changes may benefit another driver more than Palou, setting up a different story ending for 2024.

One thing is certain: it will be added to the long and illustrious history of Indy car racing in Detroit, and for that the city should be proud.