The Detroit Grand Prix Gears up for Its 30th Anniversary

With its 13 turns in 2.35 miles, the annual race celebrates a milestone anniversary this year. Some say it’s not all glory.
Grand Prix
Illustration by Sean McCabe

On a late-winter afternoon in Indianapolis, Ed Carpenter cast his thoughts three months ahead to sparkling waters and a verdant island. Carpenter was not booking a cruise vacation but rather contemplating the 30th running of the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix presented by Lear. From May 31 to June 2, racers will imbibe the glory of springtime on Belle Isle. Their engines will convert air and fuel into horsepower and torque. They’ll out-scream the gulls. 

The event’s unique format, dubbed Dual in Detroit, puts open-wheel cars from the NTT IndyCar Series on the grid for two 70-lap races, one on Saturday, and the second on Sunday. The Ed Carpenter Racing team planned to enter racing aces Ed Jones and Spencer Pigot. Yet for drivers and crews — despite the lush and historic setting — the 2.35-mile, 13-turn circuit, poses challenges with its crooks and narrows, concrete surface with some asphalt, and innumerable boundary barriers, all seeming to represent Chief Pontiac’s spite. 

“It makes you a little more tense than other courses where there’s more room to maneuver,” says Carpenter, who has competed on the island event several times but today specializes in the series’ five oval-track races, in what is otherwise the Jones’ seat. The Detroit races come after an entire month at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, a period also known as the Year of May, where teams will endure immense pressure. “And then you’re going straight to Detroit for a double. We’re all a little worn out and then roll straight into that double-header weekend. It’s a grind.”

The first Detroit Grand Prix was a Formula One contest that took place in 1982, the year after Carpenter’s birth. It wended 62 laps through downtown Detroit on a 2.59-mile street circuit. Englishman John Watson won; American Eddie Cheever finished second. Ten years later, Indy cars from the then-current CART series replaced Formula One and the racing moved to Belle Isle, where it has continued with hiatuses — the most recent active sequence started in 2012.

Frederick Law Olmsted might not have envisioned horseless carriages going 175 miles per hour on the back straight here. Historian George B. Catlin points out that Île aux Cochons, as the French called it — Hog Island — was swampy and mosquito-ridden but the English settlers’ hogs made it marginally more habitable by running wild and exterminating the endemic rattlesnakes. The name Belle Isle came into use in the 1850s, and in 1879 the City of Detroit paid the exorbitant sum of $200,000 for the island and commissioned Olmsted — designer of New York’s Central Park — to effect a transformation. Upon surveying the stagnant ponds and marshes, he said, “It may be questioned whether the city is justified in allowing, not to say inviting, ignorant people and children to stray near them.” 

Belle Isle eventually came to house various architectural masterpieces like the Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory, designed by Albert Kahn, and the monumental James Scott Fountain, by Cass Gilbert, another highly prominent architect. The angels that surmount the fountain get a comprehensive view as cars negotiate turns 9 and 10, reach the western tip of the island, and return via turns 11 through 13 to the start/finish line. Winner’s circle is at the base of the fountain. Last year, its vast lower bowl received Dual 2-victor, Ryan Hunter-Reay, for a celebratory dip before he climbed up to the next tier and straddled one of sculptor Herbert Adams’ marble lions.   

Hunter-Reay’s revelry doesn’t sit well with all. Nor does the race event itself. “That is emblematic of how they respect the island,” says Sandra Novacek, coordinator of Belle Isle Concern, an ad hoc group devoted to ending racing on the island. The organization formed in 2015 after race preparation and breakdown dragged through the spring and well into the summer much to the consternation of some island goers. The frustration was exacerbated by the fact that the Red Bull Global Rallycross series held a July event that ended in acrimony between race organizers and the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. At the time, Novacek — who deems the purpose of Belle Isle to be “a place of rest and respite,” not racing — recalls thinking, “Wait a minute, this place is turning into a car venue.”  

As a guiding spirit, the BIC’s website presents a photo of Oscar Marx, Detroit mayor from 1913 to 1918, who opposed bringing the Vanderbilt Cup, then America’s premier road race, to Belle Isle and accommodating “promoters who are seeking to make money.” (A Grand Prix spokesman said breaking even is the goal.) The opposition centers on reduced access to features of the park’s west end, the mess caused by construction and breakdown of race-weekend facilities, and possible environmental damage. The Grand Prix says it has gone to great lengths to ensure accessibility, and president Michael Montri finds “no reason to believe there isn’t” a sound legal status for the race. However, Detroit attorney Paul Kettunen, a member of the Belle Isle Concern’s core committee, has renewed a previous threat to sue. In an email to Hour Detroit he wrote, “I will say at this time that I am in communications with public interest environmental law organizations regarding financial and technical support in initiating litigation to end this gross violation of the public trust.” Kettunen declined to elaborate further.

Since its 2013 bankruptcy, the City of Detroit has leased the island to the DNR for 30 years with two 15-year renewable options. The agency’s parks and recreation division oversees the activities on the 982-acre island. Last fall, after what the DNR’s Ron Olson calls “robust input” during two public meetings, still a new three-year agreement was signed with the Detroit Grand Prix. The deal stipulates a 39-day period for setup, three days for practice and racing, and 18 days for breakdown, and includes a two-year renewal option. The Grand Prix pays a use fee of $325,000 and contributes an additional $125,000 for park priorities determined by the DNR. Its Friday-night “Grand Prixmiere” charity event has also raised an additional $4 million in the last five years to benefit projects of the Belle Isle Conservancy and designated $400,000 for renovations to the Scott Fountain last year.

To those who see the Grand Prix as a vital community asset and benefactor of Belle Isle, the objections are almost inconceivable. For the first Grand Prix, promoted by Detroit Renaissance in 1982, Rena Shanaman was stationed underground at Hart Plaza. As a volunteer she was then responsible for getting entertainment acts in and out of the circuit while racing was in progress and never saw a race car on track. “Following that experience I did get more involved,” says Shanaman, who has worked at every race since, which entails four different periods of racing with three different promoters. Today, as Grand Prix event director, she martials the impressive force of about 1,000 volunteers. She says 20 to 25 volunteers have, like herself, worked every race, about 300 have worked at least 10 races, and the volunteer return rate is 75 to 80 percent. “It’s self-evident that it’s an enjoyable experience,” she says. “We end up with volunteers who have no interest in motorsports. What motivates them is that association with something that’s good for Belle Isle, good for Detroit.”

From a financial standpoint, that’s difficult to debate. National television coverage portrays Detroit as the glittery site of a big celebration and with its nearly six-dozen corporate partners, the Grand Prix is an important means of fostering inter-business relationships that ultimately benefit all Detroiters.

“It’s fantastic,” says Jim Campbell, General Motors vice president for performance vehicles and motorsports. He adds, “In a city that has such history in the automobile business, and some of the biggest companies in the industry are based here, to have world-class racing in Detroit just feels natural.” Now, if only Olmsted had seen far enough ahead, he could have included a racing track in Belle Isle’s original design.

Landmarks in Detroit Racing


Mayor of Detroit, Oscar Marx, opposes bringing the Vanderbilt Cup, the country’s premier road race at the time, to Belle Isle.


The first Detroit Grand Prix takes places as a Formula One contest in the city of Detroit.


Racing moves to Belle Isle where it takes place on and off for the next decade.


The most current, active, racing sequence begins and has continued for the past five years.


The Belle Isle Concern forms — an organization dedicated to ending racing on the Isle.


The Red Bull Global Rallycross holds a competition in July that ends in tension between the race organizers and the DNR. The event does not return to Belle Isle.


Dual 2 victor, Ryan Hunter-Reay, takes a celebratory dip in the James Scott Fountain.


The Department of Natural Resources signs a new three-year agreement with the Detroit Grand Prix that stipulates an approximate 60-day period for setup, racing, and breakdown of the event.