Plans for Detroit Grand Prix move to downtown get warm reception

Detroit — A virtual conversation Friday on a proposed plan to relocate the Detroit Grand Prix from Belle Isle to downtown was met with optimism from Detroiters. 

Detroit City Council President Brenda Jones hosted the meeting with Grand Prix Chairman Bud Denker and others from Penske Corp. to discuss the vision to connect the IndyCar race and the IMSA sports car race to residents, where more than 50% of the race could be viewed for free, including from a pedestrian bridge on Jefferson. 

"Just the energy this race will bring into our downtown will be immeasurable," said Timothy Allen, who called in Friday to provide public comment. "We’re the Motor City capital of the world."

The proposal was first presented Tuesday during an evening Detroit City Council meeting. Organizers of the Grand Prix say they "are exploring the option of returning the event to a downtown street circuit beginning in 2023."

The 2022 event is scheduled for June 3-5 on the island that's now a state park.

Organizers said the proposed track would be on Jefferson and Atwater, essentially between Rivard and Bates, and run past the Monument to Joe Louis. It would be a 1.7-mile track, shorter than Belle Isle’s 2.3 miles.

The plan requires sign-off from the city. If the Grand Prix doesn’t get approval, it has two option years left after the 2022 race, DNR officials have said.

Jones said Friday that Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan's administration has not yet requested the council vote on the plan. She said she hoped it would happen before her term ends Dec. 31.

Denker, chairman of the Detroit Grand Prix and president of Penske Corp., noted Penske has invested about $18.5 million into restoration work and other efforts supporting Belle Isle and they will continue to. But holding the event "in a park, on an island" is "not easy."

“We know there are many challenges," he said. "We know there are people that are dissatisfied that we ever had a race on Belle Isle and we’ve tried to reduce our footprint.”

Denker said the event creates a “disconnect." People drive down to the island, attend the event, hop in their cars and go home. 

“They don’t touch our bars, they don’t touch our hotels … we can change that by moving the race downtown,” said Denker. "Right now, you can only go if you are paying. I want to remove those barriers by moving the race off the island."

The Detroit Grand Prix celebrated its 30th anniversary with the doubleheader on Belle Isle in 2019. The inaugural race was in 1992. 

Ced Johnson, a long-time event volunteer and an active member of the Detroit Grand Prix Association, also welcomed the prospect of the relocation. 

"We’ve had an opportunity to show the island. (Attendees) love the island," Johnson said. "Now let’s show them the rest of the city."

Two 2022 Corvette Stingray IMSA GTLM Championship Edition vehicles, left and right, cross the MacArthur Bridge onto Belle Isle with the Corvette pace car, center-left, and the Corvette C8.R race car, center-right, Wednesday afternoon, June 9, 2021. Chevy and Corvette Racing celebrate the team's return to Belle Isle for the first time in 13 years as they will compete in the Chevy Detroit Grand Prix and unveil special editions of the 2022 Corvette Stingray during a press conference at the grand prix finish line on Belle Isle.

Jones added the new route downtown would boost traffic to city businesses and likely boost hiring. 

"There will be opportunities for employment for the residents in the city of Detroit," she said. "So I look forward to it being hosted in the city of Detroit."

The plan also encouraged Michael Betzold, who told meeting participants Friday that he does not believe Belle Isle should have racing. "It’s not a place for those kinds of things," he said.

Organizers also gave a presentation of the proposed site plans on Friday. If the move happens, Denker said the riverfront would remain open during the event.

He said there are plans to build elevated decks in front of Hart Plaza so people can watch the race for free. The only area with paid admission would be the pit lane and chalets for sponsors. There also are plans for concerts.

“I don’t want to make this a race," he said. "I want to make it an event."

During the meeting's question and answer session, some participants expressed concerns.

Todd Scott, who leads the Detroit Greenways Coalition, which advocates for better bicycling in the area, asked if the change would affect future plans on Atwater.

"We just want to make sure that future improvements to that street can still happen whether the race is there or not," he said.

Letty Azar, a former Detroit neighborhood manager who now is vice president, community and government affairs for Penske, said she has confirmed with city officials "that this course in no way will impede that continued development for safer streets and access."