The Eventful History of Motorsports in Detroit

Written by Gabe Perrin, Edited by Leah Brown


It is the week after the Indianapolis 500, and for the past decade, that has meant one thing to IndyCar fans: It’s time to go to Belle Isle. Ever since the revival of the Detroit Grand Prix in 2012, the streets known as “The Raceway at Belle Isle” for one weekend in June have put on a show for Michiganders (yes, that is the proper term) seeking entertainment in the form of open-wheel racing.


Since 2023 marks another change in the Detroit Grand Prix history, with the race moving downtown once more, what better way to commemorate racing at Belle Isle than to take a look at the wild history of motorsports in the city of Detroit.


A Bumpy Start

To start this story off, we have to travel all the way back to 1982. Prior to this, there were two American races on the calendar: the United States West Grand Prix in Long Beach, California, and the infamous Caesars Palace Grand Prix in Las Vegas. Formula 1, with the assistance and encouragement of General Motors and inspiration from Long Beach and Monaco, erected a 2.5-mile circuit centred around the newly completed (and GM sponsored) Renaissance Center.


The first few years of Formula 1 in Detroit were certainly eventful, but in all the wrong ways. During the inaugural race weekend in 1982, after practice was first postponed and then shortened, drivers were forced to see the circuit for only the second time during a rainy qualifying session, which had the exact results as one might think.


As for the race, it quickly became known as one of the most gruelling circuits on the Formula 1 calendar, with railroad tracks and downtown streets jostling drivers and their cars around, all while the track was quite literally falling apart.


Track conditions gradually improved over the race’s six-year history, but after the 1988 race (dominated by eventual world champion Ayrton Senna), FISA, Formula 1’s governing body at the time, ruled that the temporary paddock in Detroit was not up to their standards. For 1989, a proposal to move the race to Belle Isle, the island in the Detroit River between Michigan and Canada, was floated but never came to fruition due to infrastructure issues.


Credit: George Tiedemann

The CART Years

They say one man’s trash is another man’s treasure, but in this case, Formula 1’s trash was CART’s treasure. Or at least that was what it seemed. In 1989, just one year following Formula 1’s departure from Southeast Michigan, CART (Championship Auto Racing Teams - the predecessor of modern-day IndyCar) established an annual race on a slightly modified version of the downtown Detroit circuit, removing a few chicanes and extending the track to 2.52 miles. Despite these alterations, CART faced the exact same issues that Formula 1 did on the streets of Detroit, prompting a move to Belle Isle after the 1991 race.


Why did Belle Isle work for CART, but not Formula 1? Simply put, CART regulations did not require permanent paddock infrastructure, as opposed to Formula 1 who did. At the time, Belle Isle did not have that kind of infrastructure. The new Belle Isle race was annually set for the weekend after the Indianapolis 500, and drivers were reportedly satisfied with the smoother racing surface compared to the downtown circuit, which more closely resembled “whoops” on a motocross track than a true open-wheel circuit. However, the overtaking was lacking at Belle Isle compared to downtown, and the narrow track design remained until 1997.


In 1998, the layout of the circuit was altered to extend the main straight and cut out some of the more tedious turns, extending the track to around 2.3 miles long from a previous 2.1 miles. However, these changes never paid off because by that time, the track surface on the island began to crumble, crack, and essentially do everything you wouldn’t want a racetrack to do, because shockingly enough, Michigan winters are cold! This newfound bumpiness effectively negated any track changes, ultimately lowering attendance along with television ratings, leading to the race being taken off the CART (at the time known as Champ Car) schedule.


Credit: Jamie Squire

Revival: IndyCar Style

In early 2006, highly successful IndyCar and NASCAR team owner Roger Penske headed Detroit’s host committee for Super Bowl XL, where he created the “Clean Downtown” program and helped generate over $120 million in revenue for the once-struggling city, according to the Detroit Free Press. Given this success, Penske desired to bring racing back to Detroit, specifically bringing IndyCar, as it was now officially known, back to The Raceway at Belle Isle for 2007.


Penske brought not just IndyCar, but the American Le Mans Series (ALMS) to Belle Isle for 2007, successfully merging both the open-wheel and sports car fanbases. Both 2007 and 2008 were hits both on and off track, with attendance soaring compared to the 1990s and Penske utilizing many of the same strategies he used for Super Bowl XL to bring fans out to the island.


However, this revival was poorly timed, as the auto industry crisis of 2008 hit Detroit harder than any other city in America, prompting Penske and IndyCar to cancel the race for the near future while not ruling out the possibility of a return to the Motor City.


Another IndyCar Revival

In 2012, IndyCar decided to revive the race at Belle Isle again, but this time, a little differently than before. The race returned to its original spot the weekend following the Indianapolis 500, and it was made a Saturday/Sunday doubleheader. Additionally, the Rolex Sports Car Series, now known as the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, came to the Motor City in the same weekend, giving fans plenty of opportunities to see cars on track.


This doubleheader format is how most people recognize the Detroit Grand Prix nowadays, with the two races each year becoming known for producing crazy, caution-filled races. Not to mention that Belle Isle seems to automatically attract rain on race day, with multiple races affected by rain since the second revival of the race in 2012.


However, as always, not everything is all peachy. Holding the race at Belle Isle has proven to not be the best from the perspective of the fans. Since the island is relatively small, there is little to no room for parking on the island itself (even most media can’t park on the island). Additionally, Belle Isle only has one bridge to get on and off the island, and there is no room to expand the seating or the paddock.


Since Belle Isle is a public park, the City of Detroit was unhappy with the amount of time that the island had to be basically shut down to build and tear down the temporary circuit. All of these factors prompted Penske Entertainment, the current owner and operator of the NTT IndyCar Series, to look for a return to where Formula 1 and CART ran previously.


Credit: Brian Cleary

A Return to Downtown

In November 2021, it was finally announced. The Detroit Grand Prix would move back to downtown. The circuit will be a shorter, 1.7-mile loop of downtown Detroit, and will be used starting in 2023. Modelled after the new Nashville Street Circuit, the new layout features what will be the longest street course straightaway on the IndyCar calendar, a 0.7 mile straight along East Jefferson Avenue.


This new circuit, which many have compared to an oval, will only feature eight corners, and will have multiple “free viewing points” for city residents. Additionally, the circuit is designed in a way that will minimize disruption to everyday city traffic, a complaint of both the old downtown circuit and Belle Isle.


Who knows what the new downtown circuit has in store for fans in 2023. But I do know one thing, and that is that I am sure it will be exciting.


Credit: Motorsport.com