Detroit Grand Prix officials want to move race off Belle Isle to city streets

Detroit Grand Prix officials are seeking to move the event from Belle Isle back to the city streets.

At a meeting with members of Detroit City Council on Tuesday, Grand Prix Chairman Bud Denker said he wants to connect the IndyCar race and the IMSA sports car race to citizens of Detroit, where more than 50% of the race could be viewed for free, including from a pedestrian bridge on Jefferson.

Organizers of the Grand Prix say they "are exploring the option of returning the event to a downtown street circuit beginning in 2023."

Rinus Veekay entering turn one at the Detroit Grand Prix in Detroit, Michigan on June 13, 2021.

"Operating on Belle Isle in a park setting presents physical and also presents some community barriers," Denker said.

The proposed track would be set on Jefferson and Atwater, essentially between Rivard and Bates, and would run past the Monument to Joe Louis.

The proposed track would be set on Jefferson and Atwater, essentially between Rivard and Bates, and would run past the Monument to Joe Louis.

"We think we can hold an exciting event in an urban area, but to do that, we have to overcome several challenges," Denker said.

Among them, he noted, is the event needs to be more inclusive and not disrupt city businesses or traffic along the route.

"We have to add to our Detroit businesses, our minority businesses, in helping them better with this event," Denker said. "Importantly, we must make the event inclusive, inclusive to our citizens, inclusive to our communities."

The 2022 Detroit Grand Prix will be held on Belle Isle on June 3-5.

Council President Brenda Jones said there will be another meeting on the 2023 proposal at 5 p.m. Friday and the public can attend and ask questions.

"That is something the citizens have been asking for, that it leaves Belle Isle and come to the streets of Jefferson, as it did before, and that is what they are exactly looking at doing," Jones said.

Mayor Mike Duggan said Wednesday he was a "strong supporter" of moving the race onto the mainland.

"I worked downtown in the 80s when the Grand Prix was downtown," Duggan said Wednesday at a press conference. "It was exciting. It shows off the city in a way that the shots from Belle Isle never did." 

For years, an activist group called Belle Isle Concern has spoken out against using Michigan's most popular state park as a race track. The races take away time from park users, they have argued.

Sandra Novacek of Belle Isle Concern said Wednesday the proposal was "good news."

"You have to be a little reserved," Novacek said. "It isn't over till it's over. It's premature to think it's actually going to happen. But it is the right thing."

More: Detroit Grand Prix's return stirs tension despite capacity limits

Belle Isle Concern finds the race itself and its two-month footprint problematic, and counter to the purpose of a public resource.

According to figures from the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, an estimated 4.9 million vehicles traveled onto Belle Isle in 2020, which is one in seven visits across the entire state park system.

"The best thing for Belle Isle is to not have the Grand Prix on it," Novacek said. "But it makes you wonder what else is planned? What else is up their sleeve? A lot of things can happen between now and 2023."

Ron Olson, chief of parks and recreation for the DNR, said Wednesday the state was "just recently" given a heads-up that the Grand Prix was looking for another venue.

Olson said the state didn't make the decision, the Grand Prix did, "for whatever reason."

"We don't anticipate hunting for an event that would take its place," Olson said. "That's not to say there won't be groups that will try to have events. But it's too early for Plan Bs."

The new plan requires sign-off from the city.

"If for some reason this doesn't obtain approval," Olson said, the Grand Prix has two option years left after the 2022 race.

But if the transition happens as planned, "the park will continue to be used like it normally would be," in the absence of the race.

Since the Grand Prix returned to Belle Isle in 2007, event organizers and contributing partners have made more than $13.5 million in improvements to Belle Isle, including raising more than $5 million in funds for the Belle Isle Conservancy for their mission to preserve, protect and restore Belle Isle Park through the annual Grand Prixmiere Charity Gala.

The Detroit Grand Prix celebrated its 30th anniversary with the doubleheader on Belle Isle in 2019. The inaugural race on Belle Isle took place in 1992, won by Bobby Rahal. His son, Graham Rahal swept both races of the doubleheader weekend in 2017 while competing for his father.

There have been stoppages and gaps in years when the IndyCar series didn’t hold races on Belle Isle, including from 2002 through 2006 when the contract ran out for the CART/Champ Car series following the 2001 race.

Roger Penske, now the IndyCar series owner, brought racing back to Belle Isle in 2007, but again tough economic times sidelined the race from 2009 through 2011 before again returning in 2012 followed by its first doubleheader in ’13.

The race weekend on Belle Isle even had a little Hollywood in it with Sylvester Stallone starring in the movie "Driven" more than 20 years ago.

Open-wheel racing in Detroit actually started with Formula One running through the streets of downtown in the early ‘80s with Northern Ireland’s John Watson winning the inaugural Detroit Grand Prix 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.

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 and also being the last time the series competed in the Motor City with the drivers feeling the course was too bumpy and grueling to handle.

Open wheel did continue with a CART-sanctioned race in 1989 won by Emerson Fittipaldi, then by Michael Andretti in ’90 and again by Fittipaldi in ’91 before the series moved on to Belle Isle.

dgoricki@detroitnews.com