Smaller crowd greets Free Prix Day, but cars produce same rumble and awe

Neal Rubin
The Detroit News
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Detroit — There were fewer fans than normal at Comerica Free Prix Day on Friday, and correspondingly fewer places for them to sit. There was less to do, less to buy and less corporate swag to take home for free.

There was, however, the usual amount of sun and heat on Belle Isle at the start of Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix weekend, which made finding shade a priority. And as long as experienced racing fans could track down their share of that on an 86-degree afternoon, the things that were missing didn't much matter.

Matt Williams and Chris Anderson, for instance, found the only shaded picnic table in the former Fan Zone entertainment area. "A lot of long, hard study," said Williams, and a thoroughly veteran move as the race returned with pandemic-related limits after a complete COVID-19 washout in 2020.

Donald Good, 45, and Sandra Barnes, 39, both of Armada, look over Felix Rosenqvist's #7 of McLaren Racing in the paddock area on Belle Isle in Detroit on Friday, June 11, 2021.

Williams, 46, grew up in Jackson, lives near Naples, Florida, and admits — with the statutes of limitations long expired — that he has reached 138 mph on four wheels and 162 mph on two. As racers from the IMSA WeatherTech Sports Car Series took practice laps, he savored memories from other weekends.

"The smell. The sound," Williams said. Maybe best of all, the feeling of being on the footbridge over the track, its chain-link sides covered to discourage gawking on a high-traffic walkway, "so you can't see anything and then the cars get there and the sound swallows you up."

Sandra Barnes, 39, an artist from Armada, tapped her chest to express the same sensation.

“I like the feeling you get here,” said Barnes, and that sense of being swept away lingers even if things like the Fan Zone were scrubbed out of concern for social distancing.

Grand Prix spokesman Merrill Cain said grandstand and general admission ticket sales for the weekend were reduced and entire sections of seating weren’t erected as organizers tried to plan months ahead amid COVID-19 uncertainty.

Race organizers expect between 8,000 to 10,000 fans a day, down from the 33,000 a day the races typically average, he said.

Rather than try to outguess the pandemic, he said, the race opted to scale back on things like merchandise booths and midway games, with hopes of bringing them back next summer.

"Hopefully," Cain said, "this will get us back on the road to where we need to be, for the Grand Prix and other big events in Detroit."

Chris and Lindsay Johnson of Garden City, 31 and 32, said the missing pieces were apparent, but the important thing was to be back on the island with engines screaming.

Staking out their own sliver of shade, they sat on a grassy curbside across from the fenced-off former Fan Zone. They've been to every race since the Grand Prix resumed in 2012.

"The cars. The racing. The competition," said Chris, a mechanical designer. Amenities are nice, but they come for the sound and the speed.

Unlike the Johnsons, Donald Good of Armada didn't ache for the Grand Prix when it was pushed to the curb by the pandemic, but that's only because he didn't live here yet.

An hour into his experience Friday, admiring the cars with Barnes, he was already a race-regular-to-be.

"It's all art," said Good, 45, a glassblower who relocated from northern California in 2020. The power of the engines, the curves and lines of the bodies: Standing in the paddock in a tie-dyed Grateful Dead T-shirt, watching a mechanic tweak the wiring on an Arrow McLaren SP racer, he was hooked.

As for Paul Carter of Warren, he was lured in as an 11-year-old, when he skipped a Little League game to come with his dad. Now he's 32, with the same awe and appreciation. 

"It killed me not to have the race last year," he said.

Margaret Butler of Detroit doesn't share Carter's expertise, but she also felt the absence. Back on the grounds, watching a Chip Ganassi Racing crew ease a car from its trailer, she realized it's the engines and tires that draw her in, not the bells and whistles.

"I love being outdoors anyway," said Butler, 69. And, she noted, "Friday is still free."

Margaret Butler, 69 and Henry Nelson, 60, both of Detroit, hang out in the paddock area of the Detroit Grand Prix on Belle Isle as cars are unloading for the races on the state park in Detroit.

She was strolling with Henry Nelson, 60, also of Detroit. They pounce on Friday passes every year, and he said the experience was particularly meaningful in 2021.

"Back to normal," said Nelson, or at least closer than things have felt in a while.

Volunteer John Matyn of Detroit, offering directions near the pedestrian bridge, said he missed the madness of a full-octane crowd.

“Usually, it’s wild,” Matyn said. “Checking for cigarettes, checking for open containers.”

Ready for action in his purple race-issued T-shirt, white Grand Prix baseball cap and orange earplugs, he was mostly limited to cheery greetings. But it was better than whatever he was doing a year ago.

“I’ve been hunkering down,” said Matyn, 77. “Stay home, watch TV, go grocery shopping. It's good to be here.”

Jeffrey Suhre said he was glad to be there, too, even if he'd only had five visitors linger at one of the relatively few booths near the track.

He and his team from the Detroit Health Department were offering COVID-19 vaccinations — Pfizer, Moderna, the one-jab Johnson & Johnson, no waiting and no charge.

"We're trying to make it as convenient as possible," said Suhre, 60, a registered nurse from Farmington. He had just administered a dose of Johnson & Johnson to a visitor from out of state, explaining it wouldn't require a follow-up.

Several people, he said, had declined a shot because they're afraid of needles.

They'd come to watch drivers who spend their workdays fearlessly playing bumper cars at warp speed, but Suhre didn't bring that up. He was just hoping that by next year's race, he'd be obsolete.

nrubin@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @nealrubin_dn

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