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Behind the state’s decision to extend Grand ...

Behind the state’s decision to extend Grand Prix on Belle Isle to two weekends in 2021

On October 1, The Detroit Grand Prix–which encompasses several various car races on Belle Isle–surprised many Detroiters with the announcement that the event would now span two weekends in June rather than one, as was the case in previous years.

In addition, Planet Detroit has learned that 2020 will likely not count towards the race’s three-year contract since this year’s event was canceled on account of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

This means that those opposed to the race will have to put up with it through at least 2022, when the event could then be extended for another two years under the existing contract.

Sandra Novacek from the group Belle Isle Concern–which opposes the race–called the Grand Prix’s announcement about the additional weekend of racing a “slap in the face”. She said that her group “stressed so much back in 2018–when the contract was coming up for renewal–that it was important to have public input into this.”

When the Michigan Department of Natural Resources – which has run Belle Isle as a state park since 2014 – was considering the contract, they hosted a number of events where the race was discussed, along with the monthly public meetings for the Belle Isle Park Advisory Committee. In contrast, the decision to add another weekend of racing was made without any public notice. And it’s raised questions about how such decisions are made and if the concerns of residents are being adequately accounted for.

Ron Olson, head of the DNR’s Parks and Recreation Division said that the change is allowable under the current agreement with the Grand Prix and that it won’t alter the 59-day set-up and tear-down time for the event. 

“It’s the same number of events,” he said. “It’s just that one of them will take place the week before.” Olson said that visitors will still be able to visit the park without restriction on the first weekend, but on the second weekend they will require a special pass that’s available at the park office.

At the very least, the change in the Grand Prix’s schedule is a striking turn of events for an issue that’s inspired such heated debate, including contentious public meetings, impassioned Op-Eds, questions over the race’s environmental impact and conflicting reports on its economic benefit

“A lot of this is driven by the television exposure,” Olson said, noting that the race organizers plan to have the NTT INDYCAR Series portion of the event broadcast on NBC over the weekend of June 12-13.

Moreover, it’s an open question if people will  want to attend the Grand Prix next year or even be allowed to do so.  Some experts predict that the COVID-19 pandemic could last well into 2021, raising the possibility that park users could have to negotiate two weekends worth of auto races mostly for the sake of TV. 

Bud Denker, Chairman of the Chevrolet Belle Island Grand Prix, acknowledged the ongoing threat of Covid-19 in an article in Autoweek, but sounded mostly undeterred, “Our assumption is that the show will go on, and we’re full steam ahead.”

 And the show will go on for the Grand Prix in another sense as well, with the DNR leaning towards adding another calendar year to the race’s contract since the 2020 event was canceled. 

“This COVID thing was beyond everybody’s control,” Olson said, adding that the DNR’s initial assessment is that they have to give the Grand Prix another year. This pushes their agreement into 2022, when Olson said, “we would have some kind of a public involvement,” before extending the contract for the race. However, Olson stressed that future races will not move into additional weekends, saying, “This will not creep into the summer.”

As for this year’s race, the public won’t see any additional money from the Grand Prix–which currently pays $450,000 a year to host the event on Belle Isle–for the extra weekend. However, race organizers say the extended timeline will allow them to use mostly paved areas for event infrastructure and “minimize the impact on grassy areas of the island.”

Moving forward, it’s unclear how these latest developments might affect people’s opinion about the Grand Prix and if this could influence decision-making at the state level. State Senator Stephanie Chang — whose district encompasses Belle Isle —said that she learned about the additional weekend of racing on the morning before it was announced, and that she was relieved to learn that the total set-up and tear-down time would remain the same. 

“The bigger questions that everyone’s still wondering is what happens next?” she told Planet Detroit. “There are a number of residents who really would advocate for the race to be held somewhere else.”

Melissa McLeod is one such person. She runs the popular Instagram page Feral Detroit that documents wildlife in the city and spends a lot of time on the island. “This is a public space,” McLeod said. “To me, that means it should be non-commercial, non-transactional.” As for the DNR’s decision to extend racing over multiple weekends, “It just said to me that they were going to do what they want to do,” she said. “And they don’t care what the public thinks about it.”


Brian Allnutt is a writer living in Detroit. He covers open space, environmental justice, food and gardening.

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