Rubin: Fast-lane visitors take a slow roll on the QLine

Neal Rubin
The Detroit News

Two people who make a living driving fast were rolling slowly up Woodward on Tuesday morning, talking about walking.

Christian Fittipaldi and Joao Barbosa will be back in town next week to pilot Cadillacs you wouldn’t recognize at the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix. For the moment, they were meandering to Midtown aboard the QLine, the slow road to fast times.

“We were just talking about the difference,” said Fittipaldi, who’s been racing in various series here since 1995. Two decades ago, or even one, or maybe even five years in the past, “if you walked downtown at 9 or 10 o’clock at night, you had to pay a little bit of attention.”

Now you have to be wary of pedal pubs, which is an entirely different issue.

There’s a danger, of course, in judging Detroit by what you can see out the sparkling windows of a weeks-old QLine streetcar. It’s like going to church on Easter Sunday and thinking that next week, you’d best arrive early with a new hat.

Barbosa asked about the rest of the city, and was advised it’s very much a work in progress. The fact is, though, that “my first time here was five years ago,” he said, “and I can see a big difference.”

We mostly know that. We’ve watched the waxes and wanes and the rounds of renaissances that never quite caught on, and now we’ve seen an actual influx of young people with disposable incomes. But it’s nice to hear validation from sophisticated travelers with an unusually high number of reference points.

Fittipaldi, 46, was born in Brazil and lives in Miami. Barbosa, 42, was born in Portugal and is in the process of moving from suburban Daytona Beach, Florida, to Davidson, North Carolina.

They’ll compete June 3 on Belle Isle in the IMSA WeatherTech Sports Car Championship, driving the No. 5 Mustang Sampling Cadillac DPi-V.R for Action Express Racing.

In 2014, along with co-driver Sebastien Bourdais, they won the 24 Hours of Daytona. In January, they finished second. In the early moments of their QLine experience, they pressed to the left side of the northbound trolley to see Little Caesars Arena, where a man in a lift crane was working on a window. “That’s what it’s all about now,” said Barbosa, who has a baseball-loving 10-year-old son and had also taken note of Comerica Park. “Not just the stadium, but what’s around it.”

Ask the visionaries behind the QLine and they’ll tell you if all it ever does is trundle passengers up and down Woodward, it’s a failure. If it prompts more development and more mass transit, it’s a success.

For Fittipaldi and Barbosa, it was a reinforcement of what they’d already deduced. Detroit, Barbosa said, feels like “a cool place to race now, not just a place we have to go.”

Truth is, their schedules rarely call for sightseeing. “Racetrack, meetings, hotel,” Barbosa said. “Airport,” added Fittipaldi.

They need places to go to dinner and maybe to stretch their legs, and they were watching with interest as they passed HopCat, the parking garage for Whole Foods Market and a guy smoking a joint on the steps of a church.

Exiting at Canfield, they walked to Avalon International Breads, where a man who refused to bow to trendiness was wearing a black canvas jacket with Cass Corridor on the back.

Fittipaldi, the son of former Formula One driver Wilson Fittipaldi and the nephew of Formula One and Indy 500 winner Emerson Fittipaldi, had a bacon-and-Swiss quiche. Barbosa, perhaps best known for scaring his wife witless on a spin around the banked track at Daytona International, ordered a baguette.

Both noted that they’d seen the new Avalon Cafe downtown, on Woodward, and applauded the presence of more local businesses than large chains. That was a solid segue into a quick trip to Shinola, where Fittipaldi, a watch collector, was particularly intrigued.

Duty was calling, however: A press conference at Belle Isle, and some spins around the track with particularly bold media members.

They left Shinola empty-handed — but they knew a place to start when they came back, and they knew how to get there.

Twitter: @nealrubin_dn