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Photo: Bret Kelley/INDYCAR

Voted Off The Island? The Checkered Past and Uncertain Future of the Detroit Grand Prix

by Frank Santoroski           @seveng1967  

When the Verizon IndyCar Series arrives at Belle Isle this coming weekend for the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix presented by Lear, they will add another chapter to an on-again/off-again, controversy-laden history that dates back to 1982.

Some feel that the Grand Prix is an important and viable event held in a necessary market for IndyCar, while others are ready to wash their hands clean of it and say goodbye. The arguments for and against continuing to race on Belle Isle are both passionate and sincere.

Open-wheel racing in Detroit dates all the way back to 1905 on the dirt oval at Grosse Point. However, modern open-wheel race cars first roared through the city streets in 1982. The idea was to highlight the revitalized downtown area around the Renaissance Center, and stage a Formula One race in the seminal birthplace of the U.S. automobile industry.

While the idea was brilliant, the execution was not. From day one, the efforts of the Grand Prix organizers looked like amateur hour. To make matters worse, the track was bumpy, narrow, prone to crumbling, freckled with manhole covers, had very few runoff area, and even featured a section that crossed railroad tracks. With 17 turns squeezed into 2.5 miles, the speeds were slower than Monaco.

The Detroit Grand Prix became a brutal, exhausting battle of attrition that was universally panned by the drivers. Despite changes to the course, and minor improvements, Formula One finally had enough in 1988, choosing to move its show to Phoenix. The CART Series picked up Detroit in 1989, and relocated the race to Belle Isle in 1992. The Belle Isle circuit proved to be narrow as well, with very few opportunities for passing. The surface was, however, smooth and forgiving.

A redesign of the course in 1997 allowed for better racing, but six harsh Michigan winters had deteriorated that fresh 1992 paving. Continued complaints about the muddy paddock area and poor access to the Island caused CART to drop the event in 2001. The teams and drivers were complaining, but you know who wasn’t complaining; the locals. (more on that later).

Photo: Chris Owens/INDYCAR

In 2006, IndyCar team owner, Roger Penske sought to bring racing back to Belle Isle since he holds several business interests in the area. He invested heavily into the infrastructure to make upgrades to the track and paddock area. He also implemented a Park and Ride system to improve access.

The race returned from the dead in 2007, and was considered a success, although that would be short-lived. It disappeared again in 2009 due to the economic crisis facing the automobile industry and the city of Detroit.

It was back again in 2012, and a year later, it became a double-header. Again, local opposition was minimal, but something was about to change all of that.

In 2014, management of Belle Isle operations moved from the city to the State. Although the city of Detroit maintains ownership of the Isle, it is now designated as a State Park. Since 2014, an estimated 32 million dollars worth of renovations and improvements have transformed Belle Isle from a nice city park (some have used the term “shit-hole”) into a truly beautiful multi-purpose facility that attracts nearly 4 million visitors annually.

In short order, the opposition groups began to appear. A lawsuit against the Grand Prix organizers filed by a private citizen was thrown out of court in 2014. The largest of the opposition groups, Belle Isle Concern, was formed in 2015 and has staged protests leading up to the Grand Prix weekend for the past few years.

The crux of their argument lies with the lengthy set-up and tear-down process that is associated with staging the Grand Prix. With construction crews making a percentage of the State Park’s niceties unavailable for over ten weeks, they feel that they are being robbed out of use of the Isle during the pleasant spring and early summer months. Many of the group members state that they have no problem with the Grand Prix, just go have it somewhere else. Others raise concerns over pollution and the environmental impact of the race event on the park grounds.

Photo: Vito Palmisano/Visit Detroit

They actually have a valid point over the lack of use, and Grand Prix organizers have tried to appease by scaling down the construction period from 107 days down to 68 days. The protests still rage on, and they have become louder.

Their most vocal member, freelance journalist and self-proclaimed watchdog, Michael Betzold, utilizes his forum to write scathing articles about the Grand Prix, painting Roger Penske as a greedy billionaire that treats the State Park as “his personal racetrack.”

The other side of the coin is the reality that the Grand Prix itself was instrumental in allowing Belle Isle State Park to become so glorious. Of the $32 million in improvements, nearly $13.5 million came from Penske and his group. The race also brings between $45-50 million into the local economy, (a claim that Betzold disputes) creating tax revenue that make the rest of the improvements possible.

Betzold and Belle Isle Concern have now enlisted the help of the local Audubon Society and Sierra Club to petition for an environmental impact study in order to strengthen their case for moving the race elsewhere. So far, according to Betzold, their requests have been denied.

Michele Hodges, the president of Belle Isle Conservancy, with a stated mission to “Protect, preserve, restore and enhance the natural environment, historic structures and unique character of Belle Isle as a public park for the enjoyment of all” sees things a bit differently than Belle Isle Concern.

“I think a success is a community that works together, for the mission to protect itself,” Hodges told the Detroit News. “And public-private partnerships are in important way to get there. For example, the aquarium wouldn’t be open if it wasn’t for the race. It’s an enabler. It empowers us to fulfill our mission.”

While the State has honored the contract that the GP organizers struck with the city back in 2012, it should be noted that the contract expires after this year. Whether or not the contract is renewed remains to be seen.

Local opposition aside, is the Dual in Detroit a successful and viable event that properly showcases the Verizon IndyCar Series?

Photo: Bret Kelley/ INDYCAR

Attendance has been on the rise since returning to the Isle in 2012, with race organizers announcing a record weekend crowd of 110,000 in 2017. The race also has 77 different sponsor partners that support the event over the weekend. Despite these positives, the race still does not turn a profit, although that doesn’t seem to faze the organizers.

“There is a lot of different ways to look at measuring the success for the Grand Prix, and certainly I wouldn’t say the financial outcome of our event is one of those,” said race chairman Bud Denker, “We’d  love to make a profit on an event like this, but that’s not our goal, frankly.”

What about the racing though? The past few seasons have seen a mixed bag of different races ranging from processional one-car domination to savvy fuel strategy games to a little bumping and banging.

Is it the most exciting race on the schedule? No. Is it the worst? No.

It falls somewhere in between, but since the quality of racing hasn’t hurt the attendance or sponsor support, it really seems to be a moot point. Certainly, many IndyCar old-timers would love to see a return to Michigan or Milwaukee in place of Detroit. Given the Series’ recent struggles with oval-track attendance, I can’t come up with a reasonable reason to go that route.

Ultimately, the fate of the Dual in Detroit isn’t up to you or me, or even Michael Betzold, Roger Penske, Bud Denker or IndyCar. Ron Olsen, chairman of the Parks and Recreation division of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, is the one individual that holds the key to the future of the event.

While Olsen has publicly acknowledged that the Grand Prix Association has been a great partner to the Isle, he also shares some of the concerns of the opposition groups, particularly regarding the lengthy set-up/tear-down process. Olsen hasn’t been swayed strongly one way or the other, preferring to wait until he sees the new proposal from the race organizers which is expected to cross his desk sometime in June.

Stay tuned.

 

 

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