Detroit Grand Prix celebrates the 30th running of the race that’s helped keep the wheels turning in the Motor City
Nothing quite like it had ever been seen in motorsports before, and it happened in the Motor City in 2000, following the finish of the CART Series Detroit Grand Prix race on Belle Isle.
A charismatic young race driver from Brazil by the name of Helio Castroneves parked his No. 3 Reynard/Honda on the front stretch of the temporary street circuit on the island, hopped out of the car and climbed the safety fence on the side of the track to wildly celebrate his victory with race fans. It marked his first win in the North American open-wheel series and number one of many more victories to come for Team Penske, the hometown team owned by Bloomfield Hills businessman Roger Penske.
Castroneves would repeat his victory and patented fence climbing for Penske in 2001 at Belle Isle and he earned the nickname of “Spider-Man” for his trademark athleticism, skill and daring maneuvers on the race track — and on the fence.
Now a Team Penske legend and three-time Belle Isle winner (his other victory coming in 2014), Castroneves’ heroics in the Detroit Grand Prix are just part of the race’s rich and fascinating history. Fans can reflect back on the heritage of racing in the Motor City at the Detroit Historical Museum’s 30th Detroit Grand Prix exhibit, on display through the end of June.
The event put down its roots at the 1982 Formula One Detroit Grand Prix (won by British driver John Watson) on the streets of downtown Detroit and it has morphed through the years, enduring numerous name changes and sanctioning bodies into the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix presented by Lear, now highlighted by the Chevy Dual in Detroit doubleheader race weekend on the NTT IndyCar Series calendar at Belle Isle.
“Belle Isle holds very special memories for me,” said Castroneves, also a three-time Indianapolis 500 winner who gained international stardom away from the track as the “Dancing with the Stars” season five champion. “The race there is unique. The track is tough. It is a great challenge to driver and car; I love coming to Detroit for the races and watching the city grow in the process.”
Considered the hardest race to win on the FIA Formula One schedule during its F1 years in Detroit from 1982-88 (the great Ayrton Senna won it three times), the event will host its 30th running at Belle Isle, May 31-June 2.
From its move as a CART race in 1989 on the streets around the Renaissance Center to the temporary street circuit at Belle Isle in 1992 and onward, the Detroit Grand Prix has played a significant role in the politics, social fabric and economic well-being of the city of Detroit.
From a pure racing spectacle, it has produced winners of the highest caliber such as Emerson Fittipaldi, Michael Andretti, Bobby Rahal, Greg Moore, Robby Gordon, Alex Zanardi, Castroneves, Tony Kanaan, Justin Wilson, Scott Dixon, Simon Pagenaud, Sebastien Bourdais, Will Power and Graham Rahal.
“I enjoy racing as much as possible,” said Power, the Team Penske ace who won at Belle Isle in 2014 and 2016. “The current doubleheader format is so important to the series championship with its two races and double points over the weekend. There can be great momentum gained at Detroit.”
Over the years, the Detroit Grand Prix has encountered a few detours along the way. It fell off the then-CART schedule in 2002, before being resurrected as an IndyCar Series race in 2007-2008 with Roger Penske as the driving force following the momentum of Super Bowl XL in the city. The event was postponed in 2009 due to the automotive economic crisis and nationwide recession and their impact on the Detroit area, before General Motors teamed up with Penske and his team to bring the Grand Prix back home in 2012 with Chevrolet as the title sponsor of the event.
In 2013, the IndyCar Series experimented with hosting two events in one weekend at select races and Detroit bought in. The first Chevy Dual in Detroit was a success and the event has hosted back-to-back races on Belle Isle ever since. Team Penske won both races on its home turf in 2014 with Castroneves and Power and in 2017, Graham Rahal became the first driver to sweep both ends of the doubleheader weekend on Belle Isle.
The Grand Prix has not only provided great racing over the years, the event has also made a positive impact on the city and Belle Isle Park.
With the help of its corporate partners, the non-profit event has contributed millions of dollars to the improvement of the island, including renovating two Belle Isle landmarks: the Scott Fountain and the Casino building, replacing old drainage systems, the installation of new LED lights on the MacArthur Bridge, repaving roadways and the installation of children’s playscapes and new picnic tables. The annual Grand Prixmiere fundraiser held on Friday of race weekend has also generated $4 million for the Belle Isle Conservancy over the last five years for additional improvements.
“The Grand Prix has invested over $13.5 million in improvements to Belle Isle since 2007-2008,” said Denker. “We are working with the city council and the DNR. We have raised $4 million for the Conservancy and plan on raising another million this year. Our economic studies show that the Grand Prix pumps $50 million into the local economy during the week of the race. We believe the Grand Prix continues to be a positive force for our community.”
There’s no question the Detroit Grand Prix has left a lasting impact on the island as well as the city and the memories of the 29 previous events in the Motor City will endure. Celebrate the 30th Grand Prix by visiting the exhibit at the Detroit Historical Museum, located 5401 Woodward Ave. in Detroit and be a part of the excitement on race weekend on Belle Isle, May 31-June 2.
More information and tickets to the Grand Prix are available at www.detroitgp.com.