The Way It Was — Detroit Grand Prix, 1982

The auto event was first held in the city 40 years ago
detroit grand prix
Photograph courtesy of the Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University

1982 Metro Detroiters with a need for speed got their fix when the first Grand Prix thundered into downtown Detroit 40 years ago on June 6, 1982. Great Britain’s John Watson took top honors that year in the Formula 1 event, which was no mean feat, considering the perilous course, complete with hairpin turns, collisions, burning cars, bumpy surfaces, and even railroad tracks. But that didn’t deter fans from showing up. In the above image, racing buffs seemed to go to any length to get a glimpse of the action. Resembling an artwork by surrealist master René Magritte, heads, legs, and arms of spectators poke through a perforated barrier at upper right.

Although drivers carped about the course, the Grand Prix thrust Detroit into the international spotlight. The race has evolved over the years, not only in the types of cars but also in the location. Championship Auto Racing Teams (or CART) Indy-style autos took to the tracks in 1989, and the site moved to Belle Isle in 1992. The event lasted through 2001 and returned after a six-year hiatus when businessman and former race car driver Roger Penske stepped in, invested, and inspired others to join in. The brakes were put on the Grand Prix again for economic reasons a few years later, but it revved up again in 2012. In 2020, the action was stalled because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

This year’s race, though, is a go, named the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix presented by Lear after its sponsors. It will be the last on Belle Isle, held June 3-5 (, before coming full circle in 2023, when it returns to downtown Detroit with a new 1.7-mile circuit snaking along Jefferson, Atwater, St. Antoine, Bates, Rivard, and Franklin streets.

This story is from the June 2022 issue of Hour Detroit. Read more in the digital edition.