June 2, 2014 at 1:00 am

John Niyo

Belle Isle also comes out a big winner in weekend of racing

Detroit — The fountain is flowing again, and Gov. Rick Snyder was understandably glowing Sunday, as Michigan showed off its newest state park as the backdrop for one of its oldest pastimes at the 2014 Detroit Belle Isle Grand Prix.

But no one was beaming quite like the two men directly responsible for this race being here — and staying here, for the forseeable future — despite all the headaches and potholes and obstacles.

There was Bud Denker, the race chairman, finally exhaling as he recounted all the blood, sweat and tears that went into putting on this event, from the mid-week flooding disasters — “I just wanted to cry,” Denker said — to another frantic asphalt repaving job between races Sunday.

And then there was Roger Penske in the winner’s circle — finally — after a doubly-rewarding weekend, with a pair of IndyCar victories capped by Sunday’s 1-2 finish with Helio Castroneves taking the checkered flag ahead of teammate Will Power.

“But the big win,” Penske said, “was for the city of Detroit.”

It was, indeed. The grandstands were filled, the premium chalets sold out — more than two dozen of them — and the vast majority of the 100,000-plus fans who found their way to Belle Isle for this three-day event went home happy, if a little sunburned.

“Just to see the people’s faces, right?” Denker said, when asked how he’d measure the weekend’s success. “The people’s faces were just joyful. They were fun. They all wanted to be here.”

And most of them, no doubt, are planning to be back. Which is a good thing, because so are the races, here in the shadow of General Motors’ downtown Detroit headquarters.

Chevrolet already had signed a two-year extension as title sponsor, ensuring the race weekend will continue through 2016, at least. And Denker announced Sunday evening that they’ve reached an agreement in principle to bring back the same dual-series format for next year with IndyCar races Saturday and Sunday. (Those frighteningly entertaining truck races will back, too, by the way.)

“I thought it was a pretty damn good weekend,” said Denker, proudly waving a cell phone buzzing with text messages to back his claims. “I mean, did this city shine, or what? I was telling some of our people, if you dropped somebody on to Belle Isle today blindfolded and said, ‘Where are we?’ — and then you took ’em out back and saw the boats that were anchored out there and the glistening of our island — you wouldn’t know if it was San Diego or Monaco or Detroit. It was unbelievable.”

Hard to believe, too, after the rain-soaked start to the week. Race organizers were busy pumping water out for days — the main soundstage was “sunk,” Denker said — and hauling in semi-trucks full of wood chips through Saturday. But Mother Nature cooperated for the race weekend, with sunny skies all three days and 80-degree temperatures Sunday.

“Higher authorities have taken care of the weather,” laughed Snyder, after chatting with Penske and Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan on pit row before Sunday’s final race.

And it is the state, amid considerable controversy, that now is taking care of Belle Isle, the 982-acre island in the Detroit River. A 30-year lease from the city took effect in February, making this weekend a grand reopening of sorts.

They held a charity gala event Friday night that Penske says raised over $620,000 for nonprofit Belle Isle Conservancy, which helps funds improvement projects on the island. Denker says a $4 million road project to fix what ails the race course will begin after the July 4th holiday.

Among the most visible symbols of change here is the 90-year-old Scott Fountain, a historic landmark that ran dry as Belle Isle fell into general disrepair over the years. But it’s working now, thanks to the urging of Penske and to the efforts of DTE Energy crews led by Robert Carpenter.

And the plan now is for it to be on display every weekend for the rest of this summer, with funds — as much as $50,000 — committed by the Michigan DNR.

“I talked to the engineer from DTE who got it going and I said, ‘Did you find the (engineering) plans?’ ” Snyder said Sunday. “And he said, ‘No, we just started turning valves and knobs until we got it running right.’ ”

The governer laughed and added, “Now that is ingenuity and innovation.”

And that’s how you rebuild a broken city, I suppose. By rolling up your sleeves and making things shine again, the way Denker and his team have done, aided by more than 1,000 smiling volunteers. And by turning valves and knobs until the water’s flowing, in or out, as was the case here this week.

But mostly by showing everyone that it’s not a lost cause.

“This is about celebrating the successes we’re having in the state,” Snyder said. “We’re the comeback state. And events like this give us a national stage to really reinforce that message, that things are going well. We have more to do, but let’s just keep going. And build on great events like this.”

Open-wheel racing has been a part of the Motor City’s history going all the way back to the roaring ’20s and a dirt-track oval at the Michigan State Fairgrounds.

But it took some tireless effort on the part of Penske and others to bring the Grand Prix back here after it left Detroit in 2001, and then again after a brief return to the IndyCar circuit in 2008-09.

Snyder called Penske “a tremendous asset to the city” and “a role model for all of us” Sunday. His drivers talked about him with similar reverence.

But they were talking about the other star of this weekend, too, appreciating its value as well as its flaws.

“This is a jewel of Detroit,” Castroneves said of Belle Isle. “I’ve heard it many, many times. And I agree.”


'This is a jewel of Detroit,' says Helio Castroneves of Belle Isle. Castroneves is sprayed with champagne by Charlie Kimball in the winner's circle of the IndyCar Series Race 2 on Sunday. / Robin Buckson / Detroit News
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