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IndyCar Detroit

Why Detroit GP nostalgia isn’t what it used to be

Over 30 years after Formula 1 departed, Penske and IndyCar brought racing back to downtown Detroit. It didn’t go completely smoothly but, on this bumpy street course, it never has…

Will Power, Team Penske Chevrolet, Alex Palou, Chip Ganassi Racing Honda

Thirty five years after Ayrton Senna drove his McLaren to victory in the last Formula 1 Detroit Grand Prix, the event returned to the city's downtown streets.

IndyCar raced thrice more on a modified version of the track used by F1 from 1982-88, but this run ended infamously after 1991, when Mario Andretti crashed into a recovery truck and son Michael then shunted into Dennis Vitolo’s stranded car that the wrecker was trying to tow. Its time was up.

The event headed to Belle Isle – mimicking Montreal’s Circuit Gilles Villeneuve as a race track on an island in the middle of the city. The good news was that it was a self-contained venue and offered a decent challenge that the drivers enjoyed. The bad news was that it was an absolute hassle for the public to access and was poorly attended. The Belle Isle race even died in 2001, but was resurrected by Roger Penske six years later and became a staple of the IndyCar Series thanks to his efforts.

Emboldened by its purchase of IndyCar and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 2019, the Penske Corporation set itself the task of going a step further and returning its Detroit event beneath the shadow of the mighty Renaissance Center – seven interconnected skyscrapers that form General Motors’ global headquarters.

Penske Corporation’s president Bud Denker and Penske Entertainment’s Michael Montri were inspired by the success of the Nashville IndyCar event. And in August 2021 they put their minds to recreating the Detroit GP at its spiritual home.

Like Nashville, the key to this event is minimising disruption to locals, lest they create action groups to get it banned. That came at the cost of a shortened 1.645-mile layout, compared to the old 2.5-mile track – but it still used a few common roadways. It also meant a juggling act of city and state, as key roads Jefferson Avenue (owned by Michigan) and Atwater Street (owned by GM) needed approval, engineering studies and road repairs. For instance, the seven-eighths of a mile straight on Jefferson – where the IndyCars topped 180mph – has 162 manhole covers that all needed welding shut. The Turn 3 grandstand effectively spanned a freeway. And another fun factoid: it’s the only race track on the planet that has an international crossing literally beneath it: the Detroit Windsor tunnel connects the US and Canada.

Michele Alboreto scored the Tyrrell marque's final win on the streets of Detroit in 1983

Michele Alboreto scored the Tyrrell marque's final win on the streets of Detroit in 1983

Photo by: Motorsport Images

The proposed layout was scanned by lidar at the end of February, so teams and drivers could use their simulators to give feedback. When they got to try the track for real in practice on Friday and qualifying on Saturday, we got both barrels.

“It’s a crazy track,” said pole winner Alex Palou. “I agree with most of the other drivers, it’s too tight for IndyCars, it’s too short for IndyCars. There’s too much traffic, it’s too bumpy. And I’m the happiest driver, starting on pole, so I cannot complain too much.”

But it was all smiles 24 hours later, Palou changing his tune to: “Well, I mean, I was on a positive note giving my comments. Honestly, it was tight. We saw that. It was a really fun race. It was a lot better than I expected. We had a lot more grip.”

"Michael's original design was going through the tunnel, going down to the riverfront a while longer. But we couldn't do it. We couldn't find a place after the tunnel to have the cars go back the other way through the tunnel. It would be pretty cool" Bud Denker

No harm, no foul, as they like to say around here. A relieved Denker says: “I think we recovered any kind of potential damage by today's race, right? You saw the action. I was happy to see the competition.

“I mean, how much action in the last 20 laps? A lot of what happened, the cautions, was not because of the track. I think we had maybe one or two cautions that were because somebody stalled the car in the runoff. I was afraid we were going to have more of those, frankly, based on what we saw in the first practice.

“We accounted for 25 to 30 caution laps in our budget, which is how we look at the TV time. We had 32. We were right there.”

One criticism that’s hard to swerve concerns the physical constraints of this layout for 27 IndyCars. Saturday morning’s practice session bordered on the ludicrous as drivers tried to create gaps to complete their laps unimpeded, but soon tripped over others doing the same.

The shorter Detroit GP layout made it almost impossible for drivers to find clear laps in practice

The shorter Detroit GP layout made it almost impossible for drivers to find clear laps in practice

Photo by: Michael L. Levitt

Sadly, given that the old 2.5-mile layout was pretty good, apart from the track surface annually breaking apart, local constraints meant that the parcel of roads available were limited to say the least.

“Michael's original design was going through the tunnel, going down to the riverfront a while longer,” reveals Denker. “But we couldn't do it. We couldn't find a place after the tunnel to have the cars go back the other way through the tunnel. It would be pretty cool!

“We are where we are because once you go anywhere east, then you're in a neighbourhood. We can't go anywhere west because of the tunnel. We can't go anywhere north because then you're in business [district].

“Yeah, we have what we have. At one time we were going to go all the way down Atwater Street and turn on Brevard. Too much of a square. Our issue was finding a pitlane. The original pitlane was around Atwater, but we couldn't fit it in there, so we did the dual pitlane.”

That was something that did work, with teams split into two sections on the left and right. There was potential for all of them to pit en masse, but we were spared this. The yellows fell kindly, with the field on split strategies.

Away from the on-track action, the financial side of the Detroit GP story already appears promising. Denker explains: “The grandstands, I think we had about 10,000 people a day. We had 3,500 people a day up on the party porch. Five thousand people in the chalets.

“Belle Isle, in my mind, [felt like] 50 miles away from Detroit in some respects because we didn't see the benefit the city would get. We saw the benefit this time because of how busy it was.”

Remarkably, given the tight confines of its locale, some areas of the track were accessible to the public for free: “We had [the DJ] Steve Aoki for free. Jefferson Avenue was free. Riverfront was free. The fact we had people out there, thousands of 'em, that were lining up along that area to have the drivers and cheer for the drivers, was just a great idea.”

A number of hotspots could allow fans to watch the action for free

A number of hotspots could allow fans to watch the action for free

Photo by: Geoffrey M. Miller / Motorsport Images

The economic impact of spending from that crowd is an estimated $77 million, versus Belle Isle’s $58m.

“I was very happy about that,” adds Denker. “We'll do another economic study. The one we did before was done before we announced this free dynamic, with more people coming downtown. It will be very interesting to see what that is when we do another.

“You’ve got to dig into those things to see how much of it is real. We've all seen these studies before. But we know we made a big impact on the city. Why? Because the hotels were all filled up. They weren't filled up when Belle Isle was there.”

"Everyone in this city had a lot of nostalgia when [the event] was downtown in the '80s and '90s. Happy to say we met most of those. A lot of things that we've ticked off for improvements for next year" Michael Montri

The fans certainly seemed to be buzzed for the event’s comeback, crowding around the podium as a fireboat on the Detroit River saluted Palou’s victory.

“Nostalgia is a high bar,” says Montri. “Everyone in this city had a lot of nostalgia when [the event] was downtown in the '80s and '90s. Happy to say we met most of those. There are a lot of things that we've ticked off for improvements for next year. Man, I couldn't be happier with the way this thing came off.”

And speaking of nostalgia, the grand marshal for the event was Penske’s only F1 winner, John Watson. He also won the first Detroit Grand Prix for McLaren in 1982, and Denker was delighted to host him: “What a gentleman John is. I didn't know him that well.

“After the race ended, he came up and gave me a hug. He said this is just really, really well done. That's how I would say my day ended, with John and his delight.”

Can the Detroit GP build on its success?

Can the Detroit GP build on its success?

Photo by: Geoffrey M. Miller / Motorsport Images

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