Nearly four months of Belle Isle auto race construction has park users feeling fatigue and frustration

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Saturday, in the park. - PHOTO BY TOM PERKINS
  • Photo by Tom Perkins
  • Saturday, in the park.


Over the weekend of July 25 and 26, the sound of racecars zipping through Belle Isle bounced across the island for a second time this season.

The park already hosted the Detroit Belle Isle Grand Prix as it does every May, but in 2015, a new event, the Red Bull Global Rally Cross, once again temporarily turned the island’s west end into a raceway.  

The two events — including their construction and breakdown — figure to consume just less than four months of southeastern Michigan’s warmer season this year, and that’s a problem to a growing number of park users upset about not being able to access part of Belle Isle during that time.

Critics’ frustration over the 3.5-month construction project that is the Grand Prix’s setup and teardown first became evident in June as it surfaced online and in public meetings with island officials. Articles on the ongoing conversation followed. Much to the dismay of those critics, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, which took over the island’s management from the city two years ago, announced the second race just as the dialogue over the Grand Prix started.

Skip Davis, a Southfield resident who has frequented the park since 1965, is part of a small group of park users regularly attending meetings with state and island officials to represent those with concerns about the events.

He praised the DNR’s work to improve Belle Isle, but questioned their handling of the races, which he called contradictory and inappropriate.

“Seeing Belle Isle deteriorate was breaking my heart, and seeing it coming back to life and being a place families can enjoy was great,” Davis says. “As much as I like working bathrooms, having the grass mowed, and having the fountain working — all that is such a wonderful thing — but at what price? We’re losing such valuable recreation time on the island because of the races.”

That doesn’t mean there’s any question of whether the races are popular, or whether Grand Prix organizer Roger Penske has paid for wonderful improvements to the race footprint. But, as Davis says, there’s a cost: Visitors don’t get to use some or all of Belle Isle’s west end between the middle of March and end of June, roughly half the time most people want to use the park.

That timeline is unusual because construction for other races doesn’t take nearly as long as in Detroit.

A look other at all other IndyCar or Formula One street races found the Detroit Grand Prix requires more setup and breakdown time than any other race in the world. In Toronto, for example, the Honda Indy assembled its 2014 race in the city’s downtown in around three weeks. All work was done at night and required no full road closures except race weekend, according to the Toronto Sun. That despite crews working within a much more complicated downtown setting.

The DNR and a Penske employee who spoke with MT didn’t provide a specific explanation on why it takes so long here other than “that’s what the contract allows.”

And the race construction is in addition to what’s already in place. Since moving the Grand Prix onto the island in 2007, Penske built a permanent 2.3-mile racetrack, laid a 400,000-square-foot concrete paddock and installed infrastructure for the annual late May event. That alone is problem enough to many park users.

Even when there’s less restriction in the construction’s early and late stages, there’s five miles of cement barricades and protective fencing winding through a one-of-a-kind, Fredrick Law Olmsted-inspired island park.

The grandstands, pedestrian bridges, the cell phone tower and the 400,000-square-foot concrete paddock also don’t exactly fit the standard picture of natural beauty. It’s a tenuous balance between Belle Isle as public park and Belle Isle as event location.

Park users also weren’t thrilled to discover the vehicles jammed onto the island over the May 29 to 31 race weekend turned acres of grass fields into acres of mud pit, though, it’s important to note the grass was quickly replaced and parking won’t be allowed on it next year.

The DNR, which has the final say on Belle Isle events, claims there’s nothing it can do about the construction timeline. It inherited a contract the city signed with Penske, says Ron Olson, the agency’s chief of parks and recreation. That contract allows for seven weeks of construction and four weeks of breakdown, though apparently no one says anything if it takes longer.

Also, Olson stresses that the DNR only signed a one-year contract with Red Bull, and that event will be up for review next season.

Shortening the Grand Prix, however, is up to Penske.

Though he didn’t provide any specifics, Charles Burns, the race’s general manager, says organizers are always looking for ways to streamline the process and will continue working with the DNR to do so.

And the feeling that it is indeed time to do something continues growing. Detroit cyclist Darren Metzger rolled his eyes at the mention of the Grand Prix. He says he’s fine with it being there but finds the construction enough of a hassle that he and his friends go elsewhere for the first part of the season.

In other words, Belle Isle is losing some of the customers it’s designed to serve.

“I avoid coming out here sometimes in May and June, whenever they have the barricades up,” Metzger says. “It’s too much to deal with when you’re trying to relax and you can’t get to half the park anyway, so what’s the point? Head somewhere where it’s easier and safer.”

The abandoned water slide, which operated under city control, no longer receives funding. - PHOTO BY TOM PERKINS
  • Photo by Tom Perkins
  • The abandoned water slide, which operated under city control, no longer receives funding.

Making the case for the race
For the time being, the Grand Prix isn’t going anywhere. At least not until the city-signed contract expires in 2018. And it’s difficult to envision a scenario in which the event moves after that.

All the evidence, including Roger Penske saying so, suggests the Grand Prix is staying put on Belle Isle “for a long time.” That’s partly because, in all likelihood, Penske won’t walk away from the $13 million he invested since 2007 to essentially build a raceway on the island’s west side.

And judging by the DNR’s comments, the state appears to have no appetite to boot the race. Especially after its three-day attendance hit 65,000 in 2015. There’s an obvious economic benefit to the city, and Olson and race organizers regularly highlight that Penske pays for capital projects on Belle Isle.

While Penske did spend a lot of money on the park, most, if not all, of the Penske-funded improvements directly impact the Grand Prix. That includes $4.5 million put into the racetrack and a $250,000 drainage system around the raceway’s footprint. Penske also paid for or partly funded new LED lighting on the MacArthur Bridge, the cement paddock for the race crews, improvements to the Casino where media and race personnel operate, improvements to the Scott Memorial Fountain, new sidewalks, new benches, a new roof for a picnic shelter and so on.

Contrast the revitalized Casino and clean, new roadway around the Grand Prix’s footprint on the west end with the deteriorating recreation building and roadway along Vista Drive near the softball fields and tennis courts further east.

If Penske wanted Indy cars to tear through the zoo with animals in it, we’d have giraffes and hippos on Belle Isle by now.

The projects on the west end are, of course, great. But Penske building a raceway on Belle Isle for his own purposes shouldn’t be misrepresented as generosity in the conversation over whether he gets carte blanche to seize half the island every spring.

That’s not to say the rest of Belle Isle doesn’t benefit financially from the race. The annual Grand Prixmeire charity event raised $1.1 million for the Belle Isle Conservancy this year, which could go toward projects across the island like improvements to the aquarium, the conservatory or bike paths, for example.

The conservancy’s total budget prior to the Priexmiere sat at less than $500,000. In an understatement, Michele Hodges, the conservancy’s director, says that extra $1 million is “important.”

“There’s quite a challenging list of needs so it’s an important step forward from a financial standpoint,” she says.

The race itself, according to its organizers, loses millions of dollars each year — but that’s what happens you’re building a $13 million raceway on the fly.

No money has been spent on the crumbling Vista Drive and derelict concessions building on the island's east side, away from the Grand Prix's footprint. - PHOTO BY TOM PERKINS
  • Photo by Tom Perkins
  • No money has been spent on the crumbling Vista Drive and derelict concessions building on the island's east side, away from the Grand Prix's footprint.

Striking a balance
On one hand race organizers shower part of the park with money, and their charity event could raise $1 million annually for restoration projects across the rest of Belle Isle.

On the other hand, 50 percent of the island’s “usable” public land is restricted or off-limits for a long stretch of the season. It’s also, to most, the best part of the island. That is clearly a problem to those like Amy Lister, who rode her bike around Belle Isle during the Red Bull Rally Cross setup.

“It doesn’t seem reasonable to have this much going on. It’s a park, that’s the bottom line,” she said. “I get that they want to have other things, races, events, but, come on, it’s a park, not a racetrack.”

Olson talked a lot about “striking a balance” between Penske’s wants and needs and the wishes of those who prefer a quieter park or to see the race removed.

“We’re trying to work with [race organizers] to keep things as balanced as they can be, and that’s the challenge,” he says.

He wouldn’t expand on that, but he did say that Penske plans to trim two weeks off prep work, which is a start, but it still leaves the Grand Prix with the longest construction timeline in racing. The Monaco Formula One Grand Prix, the biggest street race in the world and far bigger than Detroit’s Grand Prix, requires six weeks of setup.

Burns says the weather situation and other conditions are different in Detroit, and he stresses that organizers are always looking for ways to shorten the timeline.

Completing several major capital improvement projects like the work on the racetrack and drainage system will help shorten the timeline, Burns says, and he also calls the four-week breakdown very thorough.

“I think as we continue forward in this relationship with the DNR and stakeholders, we will work together so we can find ways to do this more efficiently,” Burns says. “I don’t think it’s fair to say ‘It’s only going to take eight days to do this or that.’ But we’ll continue to look for ways to shed a few weeks off.”

It remains to be seen if the race organizers will sincerely work with stakeholders. But with frustration mounting, their sincerity will likely be measured by how much Penske reduces the construction period and how willing he is to give Belle Isle’s west end back to its owners, the public.

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