DETROIT -- The IZOD IndyCar Series staged the first of three street course doubleheaders this past weekend, and there was plenty of action on and off the track at the Chevrolet Indy Dual in Detroit.
The Saturday race was clean and quick, the Sunday race -- the first half, anyway -- was strewn with crashes, and both ended with surprising winners.
Mike Conway, who put his IndyCar career in jeopardy at the end of last year by electing to no longer compete on oval tracks, demonstrated what an excellent road racer he is by dominating Race 1 on the Belle Isle temporary course for Dale Coyne Racing. In Race 2, Simon Pagenaud avoided the carnage to score a popular first Indy car victory for himself and team owners Sam Schmidt and Davey Hamilton.
For the fifth race in a row, no drivers from the mighty Penske and Ganassi teams finished in the top three. Let that one sink in for a moment.
In the meantime, here are several things we learned at Belle Isle:
1. This is the craziest, most unpredictable season of Indy car racing in a decade.
Seven races into the 2013 campaign, we've had three first-time winners (James Hinchcliffe, Takuma Sato and Pagenaud) and the mighty Penske and Ganassi organizations have been shut out of the win column. Penske's Helio Castroneves and Andretti Autosport's Marco Andretti are tied atop the IndyCar Series championship standings, and unlike in recent years, there is no clear-cut favorite for this year's title.
"This year, it's very much been the case," said Pagenaud, who ranks fifth in the championship standings. "It's quite impressive, to be honest. We never know who is going to be on top each weekend.
"It's great to see what IndyCar has been able to provide, a product that's helping every team to be able to be competitive. There are a lot of smart people in every team right now, so it's about who's going to be the smartest every weekend. It's certainly very, very competitive, and very difficult to pick a winner every race."
The last time an Indy car championship battle was this wide-open came 10 years ago, when five drivers were in title contention going into the final race of the 2003 IRL season before Scott Dixon prevailed for his first series crown. A similar scenario occurred in the CART-sanctioned series in 2000, with Gil de Ferran taking the honors.
2. The doubleheader format was a hit -- quite literally in Race 2.
Prior to the Detroit weekend, some observers thought the notion of the IndyCar Series staging two full-length races on the same weekend was a bit gimmicky. But the format worked well, and despite the challenges of completing two full races in the space of 26 hours, just about everybody came away from Belle Isle feeling very positive about the inaugural doubleheader weekend.
Of course, they all might be singing a different tune if the events that transpired Saturday and Sunday had been reversed. More than half the field was involved in accidents Sunday, including a 10-car pileup that blocked the track and produced a lengthy caution period. Fortunately, none of the cars was seriously damaged and all could have been repaired overnight if necessary.
From a commercial standpoint, the Detroit weekend achieved one of its primary goals for Roger Penske -- a very solid Saturday crowd, up considerably from past years when the Saturday ticket included only IndyCar qualifying and support series races.
Penske said the goal of boosting Saturday attendance was "absolutely" achieved.
"I think it's been excellent," he added. "We had lots of support from the corporate community. We love racing, and I'm very in favor of [doubleheaders] from a team perspective. This will help build a lot of fans here in Detroit. I've never seen the kind of corporate support we've had here, which makes a big difference."
3. Changes to the cars are coming -- eventually.
On Sunday morning, INDYCAR revealed to the media an outline of its plans to improve the performance of the Dallara DW12 spec chassis through a regimented series of updates to the chassis and its aerodynamic package, as well as development of engines and tires.
To the disappointment of many, unique body kits designed by engine manufacturers Chevrolet and Honda will not debut until 2015. In the meantime, INDYCAR plans to introduce modifications to the flat floor of the DW12 in an effort to eliminate the car's tendency to lift. Although it doesn't have the airplane-like launch characteristics of the previous Dallara chassis dating to 2003, the DW12 has shown an alarming tendency to flip on its side during high-speed oval crashes.
But aerodynamics won't be the only change. INDYCAR understands that to meet its goal of achieving a new track record at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 in 2016, additional development of engines and tires will be necessary. A 10-year timeline was presented to engine manufacturers Honda and Chevrolet on Saturday, and approval from those manufacturers is the first step toward putting the plan into action.
However, don't look for a new chassis in the IndyCar Series any time in the near future. Derrick Walker, INDYCAR's new technical boss, hinted that the basic DW12 platform, including chassis and gearbox, may be in use through the 2021 season.
"I think these old dogs, by '21, will be old dogs, and we'll be changing them," Walker said. "How do we make this thing last longer, save money for the teams and build in some longevity? That's our plan."
4. Randy Bernard still follows IndyCar -- and he still tweets.
Randy Bernard was forced out as INDYCAR CEO last October, but the former series boss obviously keeps a close eye on his former domain. Bernard, who has maintained the Twitter handle @RBINDYCAR, often tweets his support for the series, and unencumbered these days by management responsibilities, he's more willing to express his opinion about events that transpire.
It was almost exactly one year ago that Bernard thumbed out "the tweet" that many observers believe cost him his INDYCAR post. Essentially, he said at the time that some team owners were trying to get him fired, and those in the know were aware that one of those team owners was Panther Racing CEO John Barnes. About a month before that tweet, Bernard fined Barnes $25,000 for comments detrimental to the series when Barnes sent a tweet that called IndyCar Series officiating "embarrassing."
There's obviously still tension between the men, because when Barnes made the news this week for firing Panther's driver JR Hildebrand in midseason, Bernard was paying close attention. He was clearly monitoring the action in Detroit on the Internet, because he had a quick retort when Indianapolis radio personality and IndyCar Radio Network announcer Jake Query queried Barnes about the dismissal of Hildebrand.
"This is a business, and business can be difficult," Query began. "You have always been a supporter of JR. Take me through the last four days."
"None of your business," snapped Barnes.
Panther's Twitter feed blew up, especially when Bernard weighed in, calling Barnes "a complete arrogant buffoon."
He later posted a tweet to Query, saying: "Keep doing your great job of telling all of us fans what's going on. You would never hear Roger Penske say something like this."
Fans quickly weighed in on Panther's Twitter feed supporting Bernard; the team was fairly heavy-handed in its editing, later explaining "Deleted tweets to avoid distracting from race." Clearly, Bernard's popularity with Indy car fans has extended well beyond his tenure as series boss.
But that's the IndyCar Series for you -- never a dull moment, on or off the track.