The Detroit Grand Prix started as a Formula 1 race run on a bumpy downtown street course from 1982-88. The CART-sanctioned IndyCar World Series raced on the same course from 1989-91 before the race was moved to a more scenic location on Belle Isle, about two miles away but still in the heart of the Motor City.
Bobby Rahal won the first Detroit Belle Isle Grand Prix, but I have much more vivid memories of the 1993 race. It was, in fact, the very first auto race I covered professionally. Gordon Kirby, who I had just met a few weeks earlier at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, invited me to write the Detroit Indy car race report for Autosport magazine while he attended the F1 Canadian Grand Prix in Montreal.
It was a pretty big gamble for GK to take on a totally unproven quantity. I didn’t own a laptop computer, so Gordon loaned me a spare and gave me a quick tutorial on how to send the text to Autosport’s “bulletin board.”
The race had plenty of controversy and provided some nice challenges for a rookie journalist. Pole winner Nigel Mansell snookered fellow front row man Emerson Fittipaldi into jumping the start. Then Mansell tangled with a backmarker and stormed off without comment. That left the Galles Racing duo of Danny Sullivan and Al Unser Jr. battling for the lead.
The boundary of the curving back straight was marked by a series of cones. Sullivan squeezed Unser into the cones while Al Jr. was trying to pass, and a furious Unser was called into the pits to serve a penalty while Sullivan went on to win. Sully and Little Al weren’t the friendliest of teammates and the Belle Isle incident didn’t improve their relationship.
Bad blood between teammates was also the theme of the 1994 Belle Isle GP. Unser again came out the worse after being punted into a tire wall by Penske Racing teammate Paul Tracy, the ultimate race winner.
Robby Gordon scored one of his two Indy car race wins at Belle Isle in 1995, while the 1996 race produced a thrilling finish as Michael Andretti caught and passed his Newman/Haas Racing teammate Christian Fittipaldi on a drying track in the final laps.
But no other finish could compare to Belle Isle 1997. As the PR man for PacWest Racing, I had a front row seat for the heartbreak when our cars driven by Mauricio Gugelmin and Mark Blundell ran out of fuel while they were running 1-2 on the last lap.
The yellows played out almost perfectly for a one-stop strategy and Mo and Mark led the train into the final lap. But Gugelmin ran dry and slowed on the backstretch, and Blundell did likewise about a quarter-mile from the finish line. The late Greg Moore crossed the line for the win.
Alex Zanardi spun his famous victory donuts as the 1998 Belle Isle winner, while current IZOD IndyCar Series champion Dario Franchitti scored the fifth of his 31 Indy car race wins in Detroit in 1999. And in what has become another famous celebration of victory, Helio Castroneves climbed his first fence at Belle Isle in 2000 after claiming his first career win.
Castroneves repeated as the Detroit GP winner a year later, but the event became a casualty of the open-wheel split and dropped off the CART schedule. However, Detroit resident Roger Penske retained a strong desire to revive the event, so in 2007, the first Detroit Belle Isle Grand Prix was run under INDYCAR sanction.
Tony Kanaan won the 2007 race, which is most famous for a late race collision between championship contenders Scott Dixon and Dario Franchitti that elevated Danica Patrick to a then career-best second place finish. The last Belle Isle GP rekindled memories of the controversial 1993 race; Helio Castroneves was penalized for blocking, opening the door for Justin Wilson to score Newman/Haas Racing’s last Indy car race win.
All in all it’s been a memorable 20-year run for Indy car racing on Belle Isle. Here’s hoping for some great new memories from 2012.
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