May 30, 2014 at 3:40 pm

Detroit Grand Prix fans revel in chance to get close to racing action

Detroit — Auto racing fans flocked Friday to Belle Isle for practice and qualifying runs at the Chevrolet Detroit Belle Isle Grand Prix, which runs through Sunday.

“I’m a big racing fan,” said Brian Devlin, 59, of Portland, who has attended the event since it started in the 1980s. “I think the Detroit Grand Prix is very colorful and the drivers give it an international flavor. I also think it’s a great showcase for all of the technology in automobiles.”

Devlin was joined by his wife, Patti, 58, and two sons, Henry and Charlie, 19 and 16, for the Grand Prix’s free admission day Friday. He said they had tickets for both race days Saturday and Sunday.

Drivers were scheduled to practice Friday on the Grand Prix’s 2.3-mile track for races in the Verizon IndyCar Series, the TUDOR United SportsCar Championship, the Pirelli World Challenge Series and the SPEED Energy Stadium SUPER Truck Series.

In addition, the first race of the Grand Prix’s truck series, which features high-horsepower, off-road trucks, was scheduled to start just after 4:30 p.m.

Frank and Paula Baker have worked as volunteers at the event for the last three years. This year, the couple from Livonia is stationed at one of the Grand Prix’s information booths.

“(The Grand Prix is) just an awesome experience,” Paula Baker, 60, said. “We weren’t really racing fans before, but volunteering here has introduced us to it.

“I never thought I’d like the noise so much and the excitement of seeing the cars race and all that,” she said. “To me, it’s a neat experience.”

Her husband, Frank, 62, said his favorite thing about the race is getting into the paddock area, the sort of locker room for the drivers. “You can get real close to the race cars,” he said. “Normally, you can’t do that. It’s awesome.”

Crowds were checking out the practice runs from bleachers around the track.

A carnival-like midway offered something for everyone: food and drink, auto racing-themed apparel and mementos as well as entertainment, including bouncy houses, X-sports-style bicycling and remote control racing trucks.

Friday’s weather was great for taking in the fast and furious action on the speedway. The sky was partly cloudy and the temperature reached 76 degrees by 2 p.m.

Devlin and his sons tried a video-game-like auto racing simulator. “I’m horrible at it,” Devlin said. “I think I came in dead last.”

The Grand Prix returned to Belle Isle in 2007 after a six-year absence.

Since then, the event’s organizers have made more than $7 million in upgrades to the park, including road improvements, repairs to lighting and drainage systems and the renovation of Scott Fountain, the Belle Isle Casino and the Belle Isle Boat Club.

Last year, the event contributed more than $46 million to the region’s economy, according to organizers.

It’s estimated more than 95,000 people attend the annual event.

Marvin Mines, 50, of Detroit was among the throngs of fans on the island Friday. A towel draped over his head, he sat on one of the grandstands watching cars zoom past.

“I like everything about the Grand Prix,” said Mines, who, like Devlin, said he hasn’t yet missed a Grand Prix since it first rolled into the Motor City.

The Detroit Grand Prix began as a Formula One race held on downtown Detroit city streets from 1982 to 1988.

From 1989 to 2001, the Grand Prix was a Champ Car race. In 1991, the race’s governing body — Championship Auto Racing Teams — moved the race from downtown Detroit to Belle Isle.

Like Devlin, Joseph Luna brought his three children to the races on Friday. He said it was the second time he’s come to the races; the first was sometime before the event’s six-year hiatus.

“I’m a big racing fan and I like to watch all the different cars on the track,” he said. “Today is really great because you get to walk around places you can’t go on race day.”

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Ryan Hunter-Reay speaks at the Rattlesnake Club in Detroit on Thursday. He won the Indianapolis 500 in a squeaker. / Todd McInturf / Detroit News