Detroit Grand Prix praised, criticized in push for three more years on Belle Isle

By Gregg Krupa
The Detroit News
Scott Dixon and Ryan Hunter-Reay were the 2018 Detroit Grand Prix winners.

Detroit — Organizers of the Detroit Grand Prix told the Belle Isle Park Advisory Committee Friday that they will seek permission from the state for three more years of motor sports with options for an additional two.

They said they will cut the targeted staging time from 69 to 62 days, double the permit fee to $300,000 and provide other financing.

“Our goal is to continue to improve, to continue to get feedback,” said Michael Montri, president of the grand prix and a vice-president of the Penske Automotive Group, at a monthly meeting of the committee, attended by about 200 people.

“We feel that, over time, we have paid attention to your criticisms and your feedback,” Montri said.

“We do not take it lightly; Belle Isle is a special place for generations of Detroiters.”

During public comments at a monthly meeting of the advisory committee in the beautiful, time-worn Detroit Boat Club, the opponents said motorsports are an improper use of the 982-acre greensward.

Some, who spoke at the meeting, said it should not be used for automobile racing for even a day, let alone two-months of staging.

“Those in charge of the DNR (Department of Natural Resources) and the Belle Isle Conservancy abused the public trust, and violate their own mission statements by allowing a car race to defile this island,” said Michael Betzold of Detroit.

When the state closed Belle Isle to vehicle traffic on Memorial Day, in 94-degree heat, and said it had nothing to do with the Detroit Grand Prix, families seeking a spot for picnicking “knew that was a lie,” Betzold said.

Others suggested less time, perhaps a month, one said, would be somewhat more bearable.

“It’s a park, it’s not a race track,” said John Rigenhardt, who urged the state to require a transition to another location and the removal of a 10-acre cement paddock, which supports the racing operations, as part of its approval.

“It’s just not worth it,” said Aaron Goodman of Detroit. “It’s not worth viewing that (paddock), and it’s restricting the access for me and my family. “I really hate to ask if this event would occur at any other DNR, Michigan State Park. Would it? “I really don’t think so.”

“Central Park, lots of different parks, parks just aren’t places for races. I’m sorry.

“And so, if this event is as awesome as the supporters say it is, then it doesn’t depend on Belle Isle.”

Supporters said improvements on the island have resulted from revenue generated by the Detroit Grand Prix, and that it is not obtrusive.

“When we say 'no' to hosting the grand prix in the city of Detroit, we say 'no' to helping the city of Detroit,” said Ronald Winters of Detroit, who volunteers to staff the race weekend. “Detroit is on the spotlight around the world, as we are hosting this event. This says a lot for Detroit.

“I know that this is a sacrifice to many, for various reasons. Let’s sacrifice together for a brighter future for the city of Detroit.”

The supporters outnumbered opponents by about 60 to 40 percent.

Opponents said that the rescheduling of the July meeting of the committee, two weeks before the call to order, reduced their numbers.

But, the period for commenting remains open for about three weeks.

The proposal the Detroit Grand Prix will be posted at, under Belle Isle Park Advisory Committee.

Comments may be submitted to until Aug. 2.

At 6 p.m., on Thursday, Aug. 2, at a place to be determined, DNR will release the results of its review of the proposal at another advisory committee meeting, which will afford more time for public comments.

As the chief of parks and recreation for the state, Ron Olson, of DNR, will eventually decide whether the racing continues, beginning in 2019.

Montri said the state would also receive $50,000 for any project the DNR would like to finance, and $35,000 for programs and projects to be held on the paddock.

He said the money given to the state comes from the operating budget of the Detroit Grand Prix.

The grand prix is a tax-exempt nonprofit organization, which has been operating with a deficit for at least a few years.

Montri said moving some of the staging equipment off the island, throughout the year, providing unobstructed views from Sunset Drive through May 13, keeping the Douglas MacArthur Bridge more accessible through Memorial Day, and other steps are a direct response to public criticism.

“Now, we all know that on Memorial Day there was a temporary closing of the island,” he said. “It got busy.

“We are more than willing to work with the DNR and Michigan State Police and conservation officers to be whatever part of the solution we can be, going forward.”

Using a proportion of the length of racing barriers and fencing to time, preparing the Raceway on Belle Isle takes 9.83 days per mile, Montri said.

That compares to 15.28 for the Azerbaijan Grand Prix in Formula One, and 6.94 days for the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, in the IndyCar Series, he said.

“We have continually worked to shorten the timeline.

“Belle Isle is in a good place,” he said. “But there is so much more that needs to be done, and we want to be a part of that. We want to contribute to that.”