OPINION: An ode to Belle Isle

Jake Galstad/Motorsport Images

OPINION: An ode to Belle Isle

Insights & Analysis

OPINION: An ode to Belle Isle

By

This is the last time that the Detroit Grand Prix weekend will take place at the 2.35-mile temporary course called Belle Isle Raceway that was inaugurated in 1992. Next year, the NTT IndyCar Series and the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship will compete on a new downtown street course that will utilize elements of the original Motown layout used by Formula 1 and IndyCar from 1982-91.

In 1989, Detroit, like Long Beach some five years earlier, walked away from increasingly exorbitant F1 sanction fees and rebranded the Grand Prix as an IndyCar race. The move to the newly created Belle Isle circuit (part of a planned refurbishment of the 982-acre island park in the Detroit River) was already on the cards, but the narrow 2.1-mile layout was barely more popular among drivers than the bumpy downtown track, even after the course was lengthened in an attempt to create a passing zone.

With difficult access, limited parking, poor sight lines for fans, and generally processional races, few will lament the Detroit Grand Prix’s return to downtown. But Belle Isle will always hold a soft spot for me; the first race I covered as a so-called professional was the 1993 Detroit GP for Autosport magazine. That was quite the indoctrination, and Belle Isle and greater Detroit have served up many more memories in the three decades since.

The media hardcard that started it all. Image via John Oreovicz

I met RACER Publisher Paul Pfanner, co-founder Gordon Kirby, and Editor John Zimmermann a few weeks earlier while working as a media center intern at the 1993 Indianapolis 500. They all offered career advice and encouragement – especially Gordon, who asked if I would be interested in subbing for him to cover the upcoming Detroit race for Autosport magazine while he attended the F1 Canadian Grand Prix. What an opportunity…

And what a baptism by fire! I had to borrow a laptop computer and learn how to hook up to a dial-up modem to send text to a bulletin board. Then there was the fundamental pressure of writing on deadline for the first time. On top of all that, the race itself was a mess. First, pole sitter Nigel Mansell accused Emerson Fittipaldi of jumping the start. Then a war erupted between Galles Racing teammates Al Unser Jr. and Danny Sullivan when leader Sullivan forced Unser over some rubber cones delineating the course with 10 laps to go. Unser was ordered to serve a stop-and-go penalty and dropped to sixth place, while Sullivan went on to claim the final IndyCar race win of his career.

I experienced a different kind of Detroit GP drama in 1997 during a two-year sabbatical from journalism working PR for PacWest Racing in the CART series. This was the year that PacWest’s Mauricio Gugelmin and Mark Blundell attempted to complete the race with just one pit stop. They almost made it, Gugelmin running out of fuel halfway around the last lap, while Blundell made it to within a few hundred yards of the finish before his Reynard/Mercedes sputtered to a halt, allowing an incredulous Greg Moore to take the win.

Back on the media side in 2001, Detroit was the site of “Valvegate,” a real-life industrial espionage saga that unfolded when Toyota accused Honda of illegally manipulating the standard manifold boost popoff valve, then essentially colluded with CART to create a solution. It was a watershed moment in the lengthy and acrimonious IndyCar split that led to Honda switching allegiance from CART to the Indy Racing League two years later, and it was also the last Detroit GP under CART sanction.

Danny Sullivan claimed the final win of his career at a messy Detroit race in 1993. Image by Pascal Rondeau, courtesy Bruce McCaw collection

The Detroit race was mothballed from 2003-06 before returning under IRL sanction for two years, 2008 providing arguably the event’s most poignant memory when Justin Wilson took the final race win for Newman/Haas Racing less than a month prior to the death of team co-owner Paul Newman.

The 2007 revival of the event was driven by Roger Penske as part of the Downtown Detroit Partnership, recasting it as a much more polished and corporate affair. A co-headlining sports car race has been an important element of the Detroit event, under American Le Mans Series sanction in ’07 and ’08 and Grand-Am/IMSA since 2012, when the Detroit GP relaunched yet again after an economically enforced three-year break.

In the decade encompassing its current guise, the event’s chief corporate backer is General Motors, which has used the Grand Prix to promote its street cars and trucks while also serving as a high-profile local showcase for its Chevrolet and Cadillac racing programs. In fact, Detroit has proven to be a happy hunting ground for GM on the racetrack, as its cars have come home victorious in eight of nine attempts in the prototype class. The Corvette Daytona Prototype was undefeated in Grand-Am competition at Belle Isle from 2012-16, and the current Cadillac DPi is three-for-four since 2017.

In recent years, the Saturday crowd at Detroit has often matched or exceeded Sunday attendance, and the sports cars have generally provided the weekend’s most compelling racing. The complexity of a race with two classes (DPi prototypes and production-based GTD cars) and the strategic opportunities provided by the timed-race format help offset the challenges inherent to a narrow track where passing comes at a premium.

PacWest duo Mauricio Gugelmin (above) and Mark Blundell were both derailed by a one-stop strategy in 1997. Image by Dan R. Boyd, courtesy Bruce McCaw collection

After this weekend’s racing activities, the walls and fences will disappear for good and Belle Isle will permanently regain its status as a public park, with exercise trails, a swimming beach, an Aquarium, a Nature Center, the Dossin Great Lakes Museum, and the Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory. The rubber on the roads circulating through the park will eventually fade away.

Working the IMSA sports car race is drawing me back to Belle Isle Raceway for one last time. I won’t miss waiting on the bridge trying to get on or off the island, or fondly reminisce about those lengthy walks or shuttle van rides from the parked car to the media center.

But in a way, I’ll be sad that it’s the last time I see the venue where I covered my first race as a racetrack.

MX-5 Cup | Watkins Glen – Round 8

More RACER