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Photo: Zach Wenzel

Belle Isle’s Park Status Could Prove a Detriment

The Verizon IndyCar Series turns its focus to the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix on the city’s Belle Isle. Belle Isle’s 2.35-mile configuration offers a significant contrast to IndyCar’s home for the month of May, Indianapolis Motor Speedway and its 2.5-mile oval. Nevertheless, the circuit demands a respect of its own despite not carrying the 230mph lap averages that IndyCar displays at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Resting on the river between Windsor, Ontario and Detroit, Michigan, Belle Isle suffices as an interim remedy against calls for an additional Canadian IndyCar venue. Its rough surface gives drivers a unique challenge as the cars often lose contact with the racing surface, even among all four wheels. The Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix also remains the sole double-header of the Verizon IndyCar Series, forcing drivers to balance maximum points on Saturday with conservation to manage a solid effort on Sunday. Lastly, and perhaps most uniquely, the course rests within a Michigan State Park. Plenty of other circuits offer runs through forests but few offer the label of “state park.”

Belle Isle’s unique label as a state park, however, could call its future into question as the home of the Detroit Grand Prix.

Protest groups organized at the venue prior to this weekend’s race calling for a new venue of the temporary course. Picketers held signs with slogans like “no place for a race,” among others, on the grounds of Belle Isle as promoters put the final touches on the venue prior to this weekend’s race.

According to The Detroit News, Sarah Novacek, organizer of Belle Isle Concern—a small advocacy group looking to end the run of grands prix occupying the park, led a small group of about two dozen protesters picketing near the entrance to the park.

Novacek, flanked by other protesters and advocacy groups, lauded the improvements made to Belle Isle since becoming a state park in 2014 as part of Detroit’s bankruptcy plans. She felt the grand prix completely contradicted the park’s use. “This race is the antithesis of the mission of the Belle Isle Conservancy and the DNR,” she told The Detroit News.

Novacek continued on, stating her qualms center on the park’s intended use; not the grand prix itself. Unable to offer a definitive alternative, she wondered about the possibility of a street race through the city streets on the mainland, or perhaps at one of Detroit’s airports.

The protests come at an interesting time as officials representing Belle Isle, the grand prix, and IndyCar look to return to the negotiating table to discuss an extension of the race’s contract with Belle Isle.

Novacek’s suggestions of a grand prix at the airport or through the city’s center are sure to ruffle feathers of those who have grown to love Belle Isle’s unique contribution to the IndyCar calendar. But the Detroit Grand Prix previously ran through the streets of downtown Detroit. IndyCar already uses a runway in its layout with the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. IndyCar also faces frequent calls for a return to Cleveland’s Burke Lakefront Airport—where the series used the airport for the entirety of its temporary race circuit in the Ohio city.

Perhaps one surprising aspect of the protests surrounding the Detroit Grand Prix centers on its importance to the city. The groups looking to change its venue do not seek an end to the race’s run in Detroit, but simply a change in its location within the city. The grand prix generates $45 million to the Detroit area, according to event organizers. The race sits in the shadow of GM’s headquarters—owner of Chevrolet, which is one of IndyCar’s two engine manufacturers. With all parties invested in the race’s continuation, the Detroit Grand Prix looks almost certainly set for a return. But the return of Belle Isle could hold a larger question mark.

Zach Wenzel