Detroit Grand Prix continues to build on impressive history

David Goricki
The Detroit News

Detroit — The Detroit Grand Prix will be celebrating its 30th Anniversary this weekend with the running of the doubleheader on Belle Isle’s 2.3-mile street course.

The first Detroit Grand Prix took place on the streets of Detroit in 1982 when Northern Ireland’s John Watson took the checkered flag on the 17-turn, 2.493-mile course which surrounded the Renaissance Center and included two tough hairpin turns, a tunnel and a run alongside the Detroit River.

Ryan Hunter-Reay, left, and Scott Dixon pose with their first-place trophies after the IndyCar Detroit Grand Prix doubleheader in Detroit last year.

The late, great Ayrton Senna won the Detroit Grand Prix three straight years (1986-88) with his final win leading to his first of three Formula One championships. The ’88 race was also the last for Formula One — deciding the course was far too bumpy and grueling for the drivers to handle — and then it became a CART-sanctioned race in ’89 won by Emerson Fittipaldi, then by Michael Andretti in 1990 and Fittipaldi again in ’91.

Four-time Indianapolis 500 winner Rick Mears recalls racing on the streets of Detroit in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, finishing fifth all three times, including in 1991 a few weeks after winning his final Indy 500.

“Way back when we first started hearing about the talk of us possibly running here in Detroit, to me it was like Motor Capital of the World, what makes more sense than that?” Mears said. “Really, to me it was a very simple thing to do, very possible to do.

“Obviously, I ran the streets downtown and it was a great course. I loved the course. It was the era of the ground effects cars and the suction from the bottom of it, we didn’t realize quite how much there was until, ‘Whoa, the manhole cover is up, maybe we had better stop and do something about that.’ They got that handled right off the bat and we went on racing and it was just a great event. The track had a tunnel, there’s an elevation change, just a good race track. But, then the move to Belle Isle, I think for the overall sport and city and everything absolutely made a lot of sense also.”

Bobby Rahal enjoyed success on the streets of Detroit, but felt the move to Belle Isle was a good one.

“It was just rough, that’s all I could remember, the course was very, very rough,” said Bobby Rahal who had a pair of second-place finishes on the streets of Detroit in 1990 and ‘91. “It was an interesting circuit, but I think Belle Isle to me was the right place to go, great place, great venue with the idea that you could build a permanent facility in a city park where obviously there’s a lot of advantages to that.

“Downtown was great in its own kind of way, but there were a lot of restrictions. They didn’t have a lot to choose from frankly. I remember we crossed over by Cobo Hall and we crossed over the railway tracks and that was the first time I had ever driven a race car over railway tracks, and then you had the area along the lakefront behind the RenCen. You understood why they wanted it there, because it was in the city and it was on the riverfront, but in the end going to Belle Isle was the right place to go for sure.”

More: Graham Rahal, Detroit double winner in 2017, eager to return to Victory Lane

More: ‘Very blessed’ Simon Pagenaud heads to Detroit after living his dream at Indy

The Detroit Grand Prix moved on from the streets to Belle Isle in 1992 where Bobby Rahal won the inaugural event.

It would be safe to say the Rahal family has experienced tremendous success on Belle Isle with Bobby winning in 1992 and his son, 30-year-old Graham Rahal, sweeping both ends of the doubleheader in 2017.

“Belle Isle, I remember coming here as a kid and to see where it is today, to see the (Scott) Fountain operating again and to see what all Bud (race chairman Denker) and Mr. Penske and Chevrolet, everybody’s commitment to this race, you can see the change it gives to the entire city, the excitement that it gives, it’s just an awesome place to race and we’re fortunate to be here,” Graham Rahal said. “Dad and I take a lot of pride to come here. This is probably the only place in my entire career that I can say I have more wins than my Dad had. We love coming here. It’s special.”

Bobby Rahal remembers his 1992 win like it was yesterday. He went on to win his third and final series championship that year.

“I remember it was kind of cold actually,” Bobby said. “Of course, it was a very different circuit than it was in downtown. It was more of a permanent circuit which was nice. We had a good race. We qualified well. We were running first or second for much of the race, then lost some positions on a pit stop and came out third right behind Michael (Andretti) and Paul Tracy.

“Then, I got to watch them beat on themselves for a while. You just kind of got that feeling that sooner or later if I stayed in touch with them that they would make a mistake and that’s exactly what happened. I was able to squeak by them as they were arguing over the same piece of territory, and then it was just a matter of staying ahead. They had a number of restarts towards the end of the race and we managed to keep Michael behind us and then he eventually spun from suspension damage that had occurred a lap or two earlier.

“It was a great win for us. It was the second win of that year, the first being at Phoenix and we went on to win the championship that year. It was a great day for us for sure.”

The race stayed on Belle Isle under the CART/Champ Car banner until 2001 when the contract ran out.

After the success of the Super Bowl in Detroit in 2006, Roger Penske and the Downtown Detroit Partnership (DDP) teamed up to bring an annual national sporting event to the city, and the Detroit Grand Prix returned to Belle Isle in 2007. After challenging economic times the event was halted again after the ’08 race, only to be brought back by Penske with Chevrolet backing in 2012 with the doubleheader taking place for the first time in the series in 2013.

Bobby Rahal has been a longtime car owner in the IndyCar series since retiring as a driver, as has Michael Andretti. Bobby was as thrilled to watch his son, also his driver, sweep the Detroit Grand Prix in 2017 as if he had won himself.

“It was a dream weekend,” Graham Rahal said. “We went out first (practice) session and we were fastest. We went out second session and we were fastest. I think the slowest we were all weekend was when we were second in one qualifying session and everybody knows that’s not really common. We were just fortunate it all played out like that.

“Frankly, you have to have luck on your side. It’s two full races and for us it’s a bruiser of a weekend. There are two events around here and you’re pretty tired Saturday night, then trying to get up and do it again Sunday is quite exhausting.

“It also helped to have luck on our side where there were no strange yellows that ruined the race for us. Second day, we had a red flag with two or three laps to go. I think I had a 25-second lead, thought I was just cruising home and then all of a sudden I looked in my mirror and I had two or three Penske cars staring at me so that’s not easy, but it was great to get it done. It was an amazing weekend.”

But the aero kit IndyCar put in place last year has made it more challenging for drivers.

“Well, I think it was definitely a considerable downforce difference between the ’17 and ’18 car and when you’ve been used to the ’17 aerodynamic regulations which predated it like 17-to-12, those cars generated a lot of downforce and all of a sudden you get about two-thirds of it or so and it makes for a big difference,” Bobby Rahal said.

“I think it took our engineers and our team a little while to get a feel for it, but at the halfway point we were getting the hang of things. Now, just one more year under our belt, a little bit better understanding of the car, and we brought some new people in which has made a big difference. Allen McDonald is Graham’s engineer and I think that’s been a big plus. We still have work to do, but we’re getting there.”

Graham Rahal has two fourth-place finishes while his teammate Takuma Sato, who finished third in the Indy 500, is fourth in points with a win at Alabama.

Team Penske driver Simon Pagenaud, who won the Indy 500 Sunday, earned his first career win on Belle Isle in 2013 while driving for Schmidt/Peterson/Hamilton Motorsports.

Penske drivers Will Power and Helio Castroneves swept the doubleheader the following year. It had to bring back memories for Castroneves, who won his first career race on Belle Isle in 2000, climbing the fence in celebration, then winning again in 2001.

Scott Dixon and Ryan Hunter-Reay will step on Belle Isle as defending champs this weekend.

Detroit Grand Prix highlights


7:30 a.m. – Gates open

7:45 a.m. – Trans Am Series Practice 1

8:30 a.m. – IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship Practice 1

11 a.m. – NTT IndyCar Series Practice 1

Noon – Trans Am Series Practice 2

12:50 p.m. – IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship Practice 2

3 p.m. – NTT IndyCar Series Practice 2

4:30 p.m. – Trans Am Series Race 1 qualifying

5:15 p.m. – IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship qualifying


8 a.m. – Gates open

9:15 a.m. – Trans Am Series Race 1

10:45 a.m. – NTT IndyCar Series Race 1 qualifying

11:45 a.m. – IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship open grid fan walk (pit lane)

12:30 p.m. – IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship Race

12:45 p.m. – NTT IndyCar Series drivers autograph session (Firestone Fan Village within Meijer Fan Zone)

3:30 p.m. – NTT IndyCar Series Race 1

6 p.m. – Frankie Ballard concert (Entertainment Stage within Meijer Fan Zone)


8 a.m. – Gates open

10 a.m. – Trans Am Series drivers autograph session (Heritage Exhibit Tent)

10:45 a.m. – NTT IndyCar Series Race 2 qualifying 

11:45 a.m. – Trans Am Series Race 2

1 p.m. – Stone Temple Pilots concert (Entertainment Stage within Meijer Fan Zone)

2 p.m. – 30th Detroit Grand Prix celebration activities

3:30 p.m. – NTT IndyCar Series Race 2