The Grand Prix is a Detroit tradition with its racing roots grown in the Motor City
You earn your stripes in a racecar in Detroit.
From the old dirt oval at the Michigan State Fairgrounds, where open-wheel racing legends such as Wilbur Shaw, Louis Meyer and Mauri Rose thrilled fans with their bravery in the ’20s and ’30s, to today’s high-tech Verizon IndyCar Series at Belle Isle, the auto capital of the world has long played host to motorsports’ most admired drivers and teams, in some of the toughest racing anywhere.
In keeping with the Motor City’s fierce determination and will, under sometimes challenging circumstances, the Detroit Grand Prix has endured and evolved. The Grand Prix has played a crucial role in the city’s history, moving forward and driving ahead while shining the light on what’s good and positive about Detroit.
This weekend the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix presented by Lear will attract close to 100,000 people to The Raceway at Belle Isle Park, where the Chevy Dual in Detroit, IndyCar’s only doubleheader weekend format of the season, will be run in the shadow of General Motors’ world headquarters at the Renaissance Center.
The weekend promises to add another chapter in a colorful journey of the race, which began as a round of the 1982 Formula 1 World Championship on the streets of downtown Detroit, was relocated to Belle Isle in the ’90s, had some starts and stops, only to be re-born in much the same way as the Motor City itself.
On that first weekend in 1982, rain, loose manhole covers, a twisty course and shortened qualifying sessions threatened the event – but nothing could dampen the enthusiasm of the crowds, who watched likeable Belfast-born driver John Watson charge through the field from 17th position on the grid to win the race.
Through 1988, the Detroit Grand Prix was a staple on the F1 circuit, and the streets were a brutal test of man and machine, where genius shone through in the form of the incomparable Ayrton Senna, who won the event in 1986, 1987, and, in its F1 farewell, in 1988.
Racing returned to the streets of Motown in 1989 as a CART-sanctioned race, with Emerson Fittipaldi capturing the Detroit Grand Prix in an Ilmor-Chevrolet for Patrick Racing before the race found a new home on Belle Isle in 1992.
Four-time Indianapolis 500 champion Rick Mears, who became a racing legend while driving for team owner Roger Penske, has vivid memories of the race and how it matured from the downtown streets to the Belle Isle circuit.
“When I started here (in Detroit), we were in the streets pulling up manhole covers,” Mears said on a visit to the Motor City earlier in the year. “I now think (Belle Isle) is a perfect venue. It’s a great setting for TV with its water and the island and city in the background. The improvements they’ve made to the track have been great. It’s great racing.”
The Detroit Grand Prix continued on Belle Isle until 2001, and the drivers that won the race in that period read like a who’s who in motorsports – Bobby Rahal, Danny Sullivan, Michael Andretti, Paul Tracy, Robby Gordon, Greg Moore, Alex Zanardi, Dario Franchitti, and Helio Castroneves, who repeated his 2000 victory on Belle Isle and “Spider-Man” fence climb by winning again for Penske in 2001, before the race took a break from the schedule.
Through the efforts of Roger Penske and the Downtown Detroit Partnership (DDP), the Detroit Grand Prix returned to Belle Isle in 2007 as a Verizon IndyCar Series event, with the track much improved and the infrastructure of the island upgraded for race-goers, city residents and visitors.
Brazilian favorite Tony Kanaan topped the podium in the first race back in Detroit.
One of the fittest, most aggressive racers to ever pull on a helmet, Kanaan always felt Belle Isle was a test of character and car.
“I’d have to rate the Detroit Grand Prix tougher than Indianapolis – probably the toughest race weekend on the IndyCar calendar,” said Kanaan in Detroit recently. “It is just plain hard.”
With the economic crisis enveloping Detroit and the country, the Belle Isle race went on hiatus after the 2008 event, won by the late British driver Justin Wilson, but the Grand Prix came back stronger than ever in 2012 with General Motors leading the race’s renaissance and Chevrolet stepping up as title sponsor of the event held in its own backyard.
Scott Dixon won for Ganassi Racing and the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix was back in the Motor City.
With a coveted race date directly following the biggest sporting event in the world – the Indianapolis 500 – the Detroit race weekend grew to include two races in one weekend beginning in 2013, making it one of the most important events on the INDYCAR calendar. Race winners in recent years have included Mike Conway, Simon Pagenaud, Carlos Munoz and Castroneves, along with Will Power and Sebastien Bourdais, who each claimed two victories apiece. Last year, Graham Rahal made history as he became the first driver to sweep both ends of the Chevy Dual in Detroit as he completed a dominant weekend on the island.
Driver Christian Fittipaldi has been racing on Belle Isle since the mid-90’s and he’s seen how the Detroit Grand Prix has become part of the city’s landscape.
A former F1 and IndyCar competitor, Fittipaldi now races in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship. He believes in the heritage of the Detroit event and what it means to the city.
“The race is important because this is the automotive capital of the world,” said Fittipaldi, who drives endurance events and also serves as sporting director for the Action Express Racing Cadillac team. “It is the home of Cadillac and General Motors.
“You want to win every race, but this is a very important one for us with our partner (Cadillac Racing) being based here. The track has improved through the years (here) and the city has really developed as well. It is such a great presentation for Detroit.”
For more information and to purchase tickets to the 2018 Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix presented by Lear, June 1-3 on Belle Isle, visit DetroitGP.com.
Members of the editorial and news staff of The Detroit News were not involved in the creation of this content.