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Detroit Grand Prix's return stirs tension despite capacity limits

Detroit — The Detroit Grand Prix returns this weekend after taking 2020 off due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but some Detroiters are questioning whether it's too soon for such a large gathering.

A June 1 Michigan Department of Health and Human Services epidemic order allows for unlimited attendance for outdoor events like the Grand Prix, which the IndyCar Series has been holding on Belle Isle since 2007.

But race officials plan to have "30% to 50%" of the capacity of past years when the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix, presented by Lear, runs Friday to Sunday at Belle Isle.

"It's concerning that they're opening it up so soon after the lift of the pandemic orders," said Wayne County Commissioner Jonathan Kinloch, D-Detroit, whose district includes Belle Isle.

Kinloch said he understands the excitement about getting back to their normal routines, but urged caution. The 15-member county commission is still holding its meetings remotely.

"A lot of people, specifically in the city of Detroit, have not gotten vaccinated," Kinloch said as about 36% of the city's adults 16 years and older had received at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine through Wednesday. "We have to understand that, and we have to continue to operate in a safe fashion."

But Grand Prix boss Michael Montri said race officials planned for a smaller outing despite the lack of a crowd limit because of the uncertainty about restrictions, which changed about two to three weeks before the race weekend. This will prevent the Grand Prix from entertaining crowds of the past, which organizers said averaged close to 100,000 over three days.

"We do want to make sure that we don't overwhelm the infrastructure that we've built," Montri said. "We'll have 30% of what we've had in the past, and maybe 50% when it's all said and done."

There will be two reverse grandstands, as opposed to three in past years. There's a general admission area without grandstands, Montri said. 

Planning started in January, Montri said, "when we weren't sure what the restrictions were going to be." For a large portion of its planning period, the 2021 race was envisioned at 20% capacity, he said

"We planned this event over the course of three different restriction listings," Montri added.

Attendees won't have to wear masks, except when on enclosed shuttles on and off the island, Montri said. 

The reduced capacity of this year's event means the 18 day take-down process "should be a little quicker," he said. "Most years we are off the island with days to spare," Montri added. 

Tickets are still available for the Saturday and Sunday races. Friday's events are free, due to a partnership with Comerica Bank, but are already sold out.

This year's event won't have live music or interactive games. 

"It's still the same action on the track," Montri said.

'It's like a fortress'

For years, an activist group called Belle Isle Concern has spoken out against using the Michigan's most popular state park as a race track. The races take away time from park users, they argued.

Belle Isle accounted for one in seven of the 35 million trips to Michigan state parks last year and saw a nearly 17% growth in visitors from 4.2 million in 2019 to 4.9 million in 2020.

But there is restricted access to the park during Grand Prix week. This weekend, three groups of people will be allowed access to Belle Isle:

  • Grand Prix participants and attendees
  • Members of the Detroit Yacht Club, who are allowed access regardless of capacity limits or others events, due to a "perpetual agreement," said Ron Olson, chief of parks and recreation for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, which manages the park
  • And up to 150 vehicles per day if the drivers have DNR-issued day passes

While concerns remain about hosting the races on Belle Isle, the opposition isn't as visible. And park officials have put some limits on how long race officials can be on Belle Isle.

"We normally don't do a demonstration the week of the race because it's really, really hard to get access," said Sandra Novacek, a coordinator for Belle Isle Concern. "It's like a fortress there."

Aside from a lack of access to the island, "it's a little bit more difficult to mobilize people right now," Novacek said. "Not only because of COVID, but because we have so many other things going on in our country. There's concern for a lot of other things going on too."

But the issue is not going away with the Grand Prix agreement up for renewal in 2022. The current deal allows for a two-year renewal.

"I think having the Grand Prix at Belle Isle makes us look foolish. This wouldn't happen at Central Park in New York," Novacek said. "We're taking this beautiful natural landscape, putting 10 acres of concrete on it, widening the roadways, disturbing the landscape and the wildlife, and taking it away from the public for 60 days out of the year."

The DNR began trying to decrease the amount of time that race officials spend on Belle Isle when officials reached a three-year agreement in 2018 to continue permitting the races in the park. One of the reforms was to create the day passes.

They are available for free on a first-come, first-served basis at the DNR's main office, and there is one last window to get them, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Thursday. The passes are color-coded and numbered: neon yellow for Friday, blue for Saturday, red for Sunday. 

As of late Wednesday morning, only 20 or more people had picked up passes for each of the three days.

One of this weekend's park-goers will be Cathy Green of Detroit, a yacht club member who will have guests in town this weekend. While Green has access through her yacht club membership, the pass will allow a friend without a membership to join her.

Belle Isle's 4.9 million visitors in 2020 works out to roughly 13,400 per day. But the DNR's Olson said the 150 daily visitors allowed this weekend should be compared with the zero guests allowed on the island during past race weekends.

When the DNR decided in August 2018 to continue the Detroit Grand Prix on the island, the Grand Prix doubled its annual contribution to the island to $325,000 and $125,000 toward projects. That doesn't count charitable donations and spending owing to the race.

But in listening sessions with park users, the state realized the need to lessen the event's time footprint on Belle Isle.

The three-year agreement allowed the Grand Prix "60 total days annually" in 2019 and 59 days in the second year, which would have been 2020. 

That's down from 95 days in 2015, but that's not enough for Belle Isle Concern officials.

"This park is our park, 365 days a year," Novacek said.

As another member of Belle Isle Concern wrote in a column for Planet Detroit, "I don’t consider two months of our short warm weather season a short amount of time."

Since the 2020 race did not happen, 2021 is the second year and 2022 is the third year of the 2018 deal, Olson said, which is allowed under the agreement by mutual consent of the parties. 

Montri argued that when NBC broadcasts the races on Saturday and Sunday, it builds Detroit's image on the international stage. The Grand Prix also has contributed to the resumed operation of the James Scott Fountain and $6 million in donations for the Belle Isle Conservancy in five years, he noted. 

A week ahead of the race, on June 5 and 6, the NXG Youth Motorsports program tutored Detroiters, ages 11 to 15, on the math and science of racing. And then they raced go-karts. Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan partnered on it, Montri said.

"Racing is the big, shiny object that gets kids interested," he said. "But it's really a STEM program."

The students spent roughly as much time in the classroom as on the track.

Belle Isle Concern officials said while the charitable benefits are nice, public access to the land is most important.

"The mission of a car race is not the mission of a park," Novacek said. "Our group has never been against the Grand Prix. We're against the Grand Prix being held on Belle Isle."

The Grand Prix used to be held on the streets of downtown Detroit when it was a Formula I event. The IndyCar Series predecessor, which was called Championship Auto Racing Teams or CART, also held the Grand Prix in downtown from 1989 through 1991 before moving the race to its Belle Isle course from 1992 to 2001.

"We all love Belle Isle," Montri said. "We just express that love differently."