Last checkered flag waves on Belle Isle

Fans and drivers experienced the Raceway on Belle Isle for the last time this weekend, as the Detroit Grand Prix moves to a new downtown venue in 2023.

With the event set to relocate, the last checkered flag has waved on the Detroit Grand Prix at Belle Isle this weekend. Team Penske driver Will Power won the race.

The Detroit Grand Prix was originally held on downtown streets in the 1980s, but ever since 1992 the Raceway on Belle Isle has been the home of motorsports in the Motor City.

“I’m sad about it because I really love the track here.” — Marcus Ericsson, IndyCar driver

That will change next year when the event moves back downtown. A new, temporary racecourse will circle the Renaissance Center — running along Jefferson Avenue and the Detroit Riverfront.

It’s a move that race organizers tout as being good for the city. Grand Prix chairman Bud Denker says half of the new track will offer free public viewing.

“Can you imagine the people we’re gonna have down here?” says Denker. “The tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of people we’re going to have in downtown Detroit next year?”


Listen: Drivers and fans weigh in on the last Grand Prix on Belle Isle.

 


The last laps

In the meantime, IndyCar drivers were turning their final laps on the Belle Isle course this weekend. Scott McLaughlin races for a team owned by Roger Penske.

“I think there’s a lot of history with the track,” says McLaughlin, “Lots of character, bumpy, concrete. Yeah, it’s a full-on track but very excited to move downtown.”

Marcus Ericsson blurs down a straight on Belle Isle.

One driver with mixed emotions about the venue change is Marcus Ericsson, who won the Indy 500 just a week before coming to Detroit.

“I’m sad about it,” says Ericsson, “because I really love the track here. I think it’s a unique challenge.”

Ericsson has fond memories of Belle Isle. He scored his first IndyCar podium and first race win at the track.

“I think turn one-two is two of the fastest corners on a street course that you’ll ever do,” he says. “The way you go over a crest there over the exit of two is pretty harsh.”

Over the years, the island raceway has become known among drivers as an experience unlike any other track.

“It’s the fact that it’s bumpy, it’s walls everywhere, there’s zero margin for error. And I think that’s really for me what Detroit is all about.”

McLaughlin shares that sentiment.

“It was very hard,” says McLaughlin, “like it’s a very hard track to learn initially. But once you get comfortable it’s a very thrilling track to drive, so I enjoy that.”

Fans say goodbye

The final Detroit Grand Prix on Belle Isle raced in front of a sold-out crowd this weekend, with fans getting one more chance to experience the symphony of sound that is car racing on Belle Isle.

Fans like Kenny McPhaul have been excited about the event even before it was on the island.

“What I like about this Grand Prix at Belle Isle?” says McPhaul. “Just to see the people from Germany, the people from all over the world come and embrace Detroit.”

An IMSA sportscar races around the Belle Isle course.

He was hanging out with his friend Tony Long.

“We always love to come out,” says Long, “especially on the free day. Who can’t enjoy this? You look at the weather — the weather is so good.”

While some fans have been coming to Belle Isle for years, Randy Simmons brought his family up from Ohio to experience the race for the first time. When asked about his initial thoughts on the Belle Isle track, Simmons says:

“Just how flat it is,” Simmons chuckles, “and how much harder it is to see the cars on the track.”

In fairness, Simmons has been attending races at the Mid-Ohio Sportscar Course — a very hilly, permanent track. He says he does enjoy the scenic nature of Belle Isle though.

“I think that maybe moving it downtown, [it] will be a little harder to spread out and relax and see things,” says Simmons, “but it might be cooler being able to be in parking garages and hanging out that way.”

Mary Richardson has been volunteering at the Detroit Grand Prix for the last decade. She says the beauty of the venue always stood out to her.

“When you watch it from an aerial shot,” Richardson says, “seeing it presented on the news, it’s just so beautiful.”

Opinions on the move

Richardson says she’ll reserve her judgement on the venue change until the races move downtown.

“It’s going to be new,” she says. “I’ve always worked on Belle Isle so at this point I kind of have to wait and see.”

“Driving the cars downtown through the downtown area, that’s going to be awesome.” — Tony Long, race fan

Also taking a wait-and-see approach are some of the drivers, when it comes to whether the downtown track can produce the same quality of racing as Belle Isle. Marcus Ericsson says that will be determined next year.

“It’s always hard when you see a layout just on a piece of paper,” Ericsson says. “It’s, like, just on a piece of paper. But I’m sure when you sort of get it there and you drive it, it’s going to be really cool.”

Will Power and his team celebrate their race win in the Scott Fountain.

Scott McLaughlin says he’s optimistic the new track design can show off the character of the sport.

“IndyCar is very exciting,” McLaughlin says, “the way the cars handle over bumps and against walls.”

Kenny McPhaul says he’s excited for the move.

“I’ve been to the Grand Prix of Monaco,” McPhaul says. “It gives you that international flavor. Then they gonna run that back straight down the Renaissance, with the Detroit River and Windsor. … It’s gonna be bigger than the Super Bowl.”

Tony Long agrees with McPhaul.

“Can’t nothing take away from the island now!” says Long. “But driving the cars downtown through the downtown area, that’s going to be awesome.”

Pros and cons

The Detroit Grand Prix’s move to city streets comes with pros and cons. Most notably, visitors to Belle Isle will no longer be contesting concrete barriers, as the setup and take-down for the event notoriously impacted island travel for months.

But there are questions about what it leaves behind. A charity gala that accompanies the Grand Prix has had a large impact on the Department of Natural Resources’ improvement budget for the island.

“Our legacy, frankly, is what we’re leaving behind in infrastructure,” says chairman Bud Denker. “$13.5 million we have invested in Belle Isle.”

Denker says the event has also raised about $5 million for the Belle Isle Conservancy.

As the races go downtown, it’s unclear whether the Grand Prix will be making the same kind of contribution to the island. Race organizer have suggested that philanthropic efforts may go toward new causes.


Related: Michigan Department of Natural Resources planning shuttle service on Belle Isle


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Author

  • Alex McLenon is a Reporter with 101.9 WDET. McLenon is a graduate of Wayne State University, where he studied Media Arts & Production and Broadcast Journalism.