Tuesday, June 25, 2024

Detroit, The World’s Racetrack: My First Time At The Belle Isle Grand Prix

A couple of weeks ago, we spoke with Dave Gifford, local transit guru and the Eeyore of Michigan transportation infrastructure, about his communication with the Department of Natural Resources about his public comment on transit connectivity with Belle Isle. It’s kind of hard to get to the island on a bus. It’s very easy to get there with a car. This is a problem on hot summer days. Tragedy of the commons, ya know– a commons not served by buses. Anyway, last weekend, I carried this thread forward to a whole ‘nother level and had my first and what will probably turn out to be my only experience attending the Somethingth Annual Local Car Company Car Race Presented By Car Company. Uh, also known as the Belle Isle or Detroit Grand Prix.

The genesis of my unusual involvement in this activity? My partner’s friend was visiting Detroit as part of a years-long conquest to visit every Major League Baseball stadium in the United States. He’s also a racing fan. So, why not combine the two in one weekend? I enjoy a good baseball game! And I figured that, given how much time I spend railing about the iniquities of the Grand Prix, I probably had to see for myself what it was all about. Sports go ball, cars go vroom!

Grand Prix to NZ: “U Mad, Bro? “

For the uninitiated, I have a sincere disgust for the idea of an event that ties up the crown jewel of our city’s frankly grossly underdeveloped parks system for weeks and weeks. The Grand Prix trashes the island. Advocates to keep it in place– mostly, from my experience, white suburbanites- say that You People Should Be Grateful For These Suburbanites Spending Their Hard-Earned Dough In The City Their Parents Fled And Then Said Racist Shit About For Half A Century. The race brings “investment” in the city, and for this we are supposed to be grateful. I am unclear as to what this investment looks like, given that few, if any, of the limited number of vendors are actually Detroit-based vendors. And given that the island ends up, well, trashed for weeks to come. But more on this later.

Tigers Pregame

The Tigers game wasn’t terribly notable, with the exception of a late-game rain interruption. It was root, root, root for the home team, but, in spite of the fact that they didn’t win, it wasn’t too much of a shame, because it was a lovely evening all around– in terms of weather and general vibes. It poured rain for a few minutes, but this stopped, and a good time was had by all. It was also, for three out of the four of us, the first mass public event we’d been to. Masks were few and far between, which felt weird, but also kind of good? As though maybe this whole thing is going to be over at some point?

We had second-row seats a little off third base, next to a guy who was utterly hammered and having a great time. In honor of pride month and to demonstrate how #woke and socially responsible the Ilitch companies are, the opulent, pizza-slice glazing of the Little Caesars Global Headquarters on Woodward Avenue, cast rainbow hues onto a sea of parking lots built with the tax dollars of a heavily-disinvested, majority Black city. The Sox trounced the Tigers– a few times, as it would turn out. After the game, Checker Bar had closed early (frowny face), so we went to Greenwich next door. It was an unremarkable but satisfactory experience. The spot was packed.

We all slept soundly.

Belle Isle Grand Prix, Saturday, 12 June 2021. Look at all of these Detroiters, spending money in Detroit.
Pro Tip: Unmetered Street Parking Is Often Free

Big, if true, am I right? The next day, our journey to the Grand Prix began by driving downtown and parking on a side street. While I normally argue for bus in cases of spendy lot parking– we had had a disastrous time trying to get into an Ilitch-owned lot the previous evening downtown- this was a fairly basic calculation. It would have been about an hour-long trip to walk to the Vernor bus, pay $6 one way for three of us, walk to the shuttle pickup spot east of the Ren Cen, and then pay $6 on the return trip, which would also hopefully take but an hour as well. A connection between, say, the Vernor bus and the Jefferson bus, would be grand, but not something to be counted upon. So, yeah, no, not even for this transiteer, in this case.

Driving, in contrast, probably cost about $1 in gas. We parked for free on Franklin Street a mere block down instead of the $15 Beaubien garage or the cheaper surface lot. (The Grand Prix literature unironically suggests the People Mover and QLINE as ways to get to the event. In the map below, I crudely illustrate that the closest stop on either “transit system”– with that term used extremely loosely- is a full 3.5 miles, or 5.63 km, away from the race itself).

Cars lined up around the block to get into a $15 space? A good metaphor for how messed up our state’s transportation culture is. (We got a better metaphor later in the day, so, don’t touch that dial). A street-digging-up project that started last fall and seemed to have been stalled since, blocked the sidewalk on the south side. Metal halide area lighting, superfluous in the hazy, midday summery glare, was powered by a foul-smelling diesel generator inexplicably sitting on the sidewalk. I mean, whatever, Detroit. You do you.

Grand Prix Shuttle Buses, Michigan’s Most Frequent Transit Service

A block to the west, a caravan of orderly, well-maintained coach buses picked up Prix-goers at two spots, leaving every few minutes from downtown for Belle Isle. This two-day enterprise may well be the state’s most frequent transit service. It’s unclear why this event couldn’t use DDOT. (I would have reached out to DDOT for a request for comment, but neither they nor the city have responded to any inquiries I’ve made in the past year or so. So, I don’t try anymore.).

So, we arrived at the dropoff area at the base of the bridge and were herded through and around crowd control barriers into a security chute of sorts. I must say: one of the nice things about the Grand Prix was that you’re actually allowed to bring in a bag. Contrast this with Comerica Park, where you’re only allowed to bring in a wallet-sized purse or smaller. This forces you to buy, you know, $6 water, $6 shitty chips, a $15 trough of nachos nestled inside a plastic baseball helmet, or what have you. This means we could bring in water (though literally nowhere to fill it). Or sunscreen (absolute necessity).

I was surprised at the cursory look the security did through my bag– no concerns about whether I might have brought a gun or a flask or whatever. Relax, folks, I didn’t try and bring a gun through security.

I mean, I’m not former Michigan Speaker of the House Lee Chatfield! **mic feedback** Ahem.

“MDOT will be the ultimate decider on all roadway decisions.”

The Grand Prix, Detroit’s Real Food Desert

While the crowd felt respectably-sized, the vendor options were sadly limited. A number of drink tents scattered throughout the arena offered a range of domestic beers and $4 water (no tap water, of course, because why would we ever do that?), but food options specifically were surprisingly limited for such a large event, to Andiamo (pizza), Andiamo (not pizza), Andiamo (pizza), Andiamo (not pizza), and perhaps three other options, including a thoroughly non-Mexican-looking taco truck (near the stands), a fried chicken-and-other-things truck (near the fountain), and a General Fried Event Food truck. As Joe Vicari is too much of an asshole for me to patronize his restaurants, I was stuck with the General Fried truck. Their pulled pork nachos were passable, laden with jalapeños, an unnecessary deluge of barbecue sauce, and, above all else, that ever so specific nacho cheese that is likely banned in the European Union for its unacceptably high polyethylene content, but that melts in your mouth like some imported Swedish Chocolate would melt on a 120°F, rubber-adorned asphalt from the vroom.

Day-of pricing was $54 for “general admission” and about double that to have a seat in the unshaded stands, which, to close to the track, were in the 90 to 100+ degree range, as the announcers told us from their air conditioned boxes. While attendance apparently paled in comparison to previous years. But suburbanite Bud Denker, who pulls in a solid seven figures at Penske Heavy Industries, Incorporated, was optimistic. He offered this Pulitzer-worthy quote to the Free Press, saying that attendance at the race “just shows you that with a great product, you can deliver some excellent entertainment.” Bud “Byron” Denker over here! (Denker does mean “thinker” literally translated from German, so, really hits the nail on the head!). 

Two attendees, presumably also Detroiters, inspect the Lamborghini truck. The trucks carry cars in a sort of lofted area on top, while the “first floor” is human- accessible space. The rear door, meanwhile, combines the mechanics of the lift system for the car with a sort of shade canopy. It’s kind of clever.
Pure Michigan Traffic Violence

In the first race, in what was perhaps the most brutal possible metaphor for our state’s approach to traffic violence, Indycar driver Felix Rosenqvist crashed into a barrier covered in Pure Michigan signs at a high rate of speed, delaying the rest of the race for more than an hour. He was conscious and, we were told, did not have any life-threatening injuries, and was later transported to Detroit Medical Center. One of the numerous event volunteers herded onlookers out of the way to try and get an up close shot of the ambulance leaving. (Like, I’m sorry, what, Cindy? You’ve volunteered at this for-profit event for the past 33 years only to be able to take a photo from your phone of an ambulance carrying a seriously injured dude that no one has ever heard of? People are so weird).

Belle Isle Grand Prix: I’m not a sports photographer, but I managed to get these shots of two cars going very fast. Note how tó’ up these fences are. Probably because pesky photographers stick their lenses through. Or because the Penske people don’t maintain their shit.

The James Scott Memorial Fountain provided a welcome respite to the summer heat, and a reminder of how great that whole physics thing can be on a hot day. It felt about ten degrees cooler as we sat with our backs against the turbulent, clear water, ejected from jets in the mouths of stone turtles and cascaded off the lips of Carrara marble basins. It was from here that we watched the end of the Indycar race.

After the Indycar race, we briefly watched part of The Other Race, which combined regular-ish-looking-cars with the Daytona Prototype International cars. The DPI cars sort of look like an Indycar but with a more helicoptery, or dragonfly-esque fuselage. It’s kind of hard to describe. They raced along with more normal-looking cars. Not NASCAR-esque, but like. Regular, sedan-looking cars, but with funny fins and stuff. I don’t know car stuff.

Before the liberals took away all of our fun, they used to host the Belle Isle Grand Prix in downtown Detroit, as pictured in this screencap from the critically absolutely NOT acclaimed 1987 film Collision Course, which I discovered in my thesis research. It is a buddy cop film with Jay Leno, who lives in a bachelor pad in the Coronado Apartments, and Pat Morita, who plays a Japanese detective tasked with retrieving a top secret prototype car that has been stolen by a saucy automotive upstart entrepreneur. Collision Course was so bad that it actually ran out of budget before it even made it to post-production, and it wasn’t released for several years.
Find New Roads.

A runner-up to the metaphor of Rosenqvist’s sobering, near brush with death was the dark irony in Chevrolet’s slogan, “FIND NEW ROADS,” displayed boldly on the pedestrian overpasses that looked down on the cracked roadways of the isle. (As an aside, an attendee I spoke with lamented that in previous years, the pedestrian walkways were open over the racetrack, providing an additional “general admittance” standing area to watch from a better angle. Why did they stop this? So you can’t … see as well? It’s unclear. Literally.).

Who won? Look, boss, do I look like Leigh freaking Diffey to you? I’m not sure how these things work. Some chocolate guys from Sweden won the Indycar race. They bathed in the Belle Isle Fountain, because that’s what you’re allowed to do when you vroom harder than the other guys vroom. Something that would get Us Mere Mortals arrested. Yeah, muscles!

Sidebar: GM Says They’re Serious About Electrification? Prove It.

Whatever, Linus.

We finally made our way back to the base of the bridge and caught a bus back to the mainland, as it were. The air conditioning and plush, polyester seats were welcome after our sunbaked adventure. We later showered, scraping layers of acrylates copolymer, avobenzone, and particulate matter from our tanned skin, and enjoyed a sumptuous feast from Taqueria El Rey, among the finest Taquerias, Tortarias, and Burritorias in Southwest Detroit, whose barbecue chicken is renowned across these lands. For my part, I managed to get away with only a mild sunburn on my forehead.

As we sat on the porch, content with our sun tans, tacos, and micheladas, we listened to the neighborhood mini-bikes, four-wheelers, and dirt bikes racing up and down the Boulevard as they do every summer eve into the wee hours. The two-stroke buzz in particular was grating, but paled in comparison to the roar of a few dozen thousand-horsepower engines, cranking out a 6mpg circuit, endlessly, noisily. I kept thinking about that Chevrolet adage. Perhaps, we can hope, it was actually directed at the Grand Prix itself.

UPDATE: Our friend informed us that, extending the ironic commentaries on traffic violence, Indycar victor Rinus “VeeKay” van Kalmthout may have avoided a crash at the race, but he suffered minor injuries when he crashed on a bike ride just a couple of days after the race.

Read about Chevrolet’s display at the Grand Prix here.

The Chevrolet Belle Isle Grand Prix Presented By Lear Corporation: The Huski Chocolate team bathes in the waters of the fountain after their man wins the indycar race on Saturday. Huski Chocolate is, we learned, a Swedish protein drink that is not sold in the United States.

Nat M. Zorach

Nat M. Zorach, AICP, MBA, is a city planner and energy professional based in Detroit, where he writes about infrastructure, sustainability, tech, and more. A native of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, he attended Grinnell College in Iowa, the Kogod School of Business at American University, the POCACITO transatlantic program, the SISE program at the University of Illinois Chicago, and he is also a StartingBloc Social Innovation Fellow. He enjoys long walks through historic, disinvested Rust Belt neighborhoods at sunset. (Nat's views and opinions are his own and do not represent those of his employer).

Leave a Reply