Group protests use of Belle Isle for Detroit Grand Prix

Shawn D. Lewis, The Detroit News

Detroit — Leave Belle Isle alone and take your race cars elsewhere.

Citizens with the group, “Belle Isle Concern” protest along E. Jefferson in Detroit at the foot of the Belle Isle bridge, Saturday afternoon, May 27, 2017.

That was the message Saturday afternoon to the 2017 Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix organizers as about 26 peaceful protestors converged at the entrance of the island on Jefferson.

The Grand Prix, with a 2.3 mile track length, now is in its 35th year, and runs June 2-4 on the island.

The group, who call themselves “Belle Isle Concern,” held picket signs including, “Picnics not Pit stops,” say Belle Isle — a 982-acre island,— is meant for family reunions, fishing, and relaxing, and is not supposed to be a raceway. They want race organizer Roger Penske to find it a new home.

A request for comment from Penske was not answered. The Belle Isle Conservancy and Department of Natural Resources phone numbers had recorded messages saying they were closed Saturday.

Organizer Sandra Novacek, of Detroit.

Sandra Novacek, who described herself as the organizer of Belle Isle Concern, wore a bright red bird mask and carried a picket sign saying “Green Space, not wheel space.”

“We don’t like 10 acres of concrete paths on the island,” said Novacek of Detroit. “This race is the antithesis of the mission of the Belle Isle Conservancy and the DNR. Why don’t they find a donor whose mission is in keeping with protecting the beauty of the island? I think plenty would come forward.”

She did not have a real alternative, but tossed out a few suggestions.

“A lot of people have been talking about city airport,” she said. “It’s already noisy and the residents may be used to the noise, but maybe not,” she said. “There is a lot of land in the city where people are suffering so maybe they could benefit from it.”

Donald Green, of Detroit, pickets as a Michigan Conservation Officer drives east on E. Jefferson.

To set up for the race, concrete barriers, cables, fencing, construction barrels and detours are numerous. Access to certain parts of the park are limited.

The event will feature the cars of the Verizon IndyCar Series, the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, the high-flying trucks of the SPEED Energy Stadium SUPER Trucks presented by Traxxas and the Trans Am Series presented by Pirelli. The weekend collectively is referred to as the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix presented by Lear and it will feature the Chevrolet Dual in Detroit IndyCar doubleheader.

The first Detroit Grand Prix was in 1982 and it started as a Formula One race through the streets of downtown Detroit before becoming a CART-sanctioned race in 1989. According to its website, the race moved to Belle Isle in 1992 continuing under the CART/Champ Car banner until 2001. After the success of the Super Bowl in Detroit in 2006, Roger Penske and the Downtown Detroit Partnership (DDP) teamed up to bring an annual national sporting event to the city of Detroit and spearheaded the return of the Grand Prix in 2007 on Belle Isle. After challenging economic times delayed the event after the 2008 season, the Grand Prix returned in 2012 with the current promotional group as a subsidiary of the DDP.

The Grand Prix organizers say it generates over $45 million in total spending annually for the Metro Detroit region. Over 95,000 people attended the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix presented by Lear events in 2007, 2008, 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2016.

The Michigan Department of Natural Resources is considering whether to sign a new contract that will allow Penske to use the island for years to come.

Since the Grand Prix returned to Belle Isle in 2007, event organizers and contributing partners say they have made over $13 million in lasting improvements to Belle Isle.

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