Is Belle Isle a race track or park? Protest planned over Grand Prix mess

Belle Isle Conservancy. Photo by Steve Neavling.

Belle Isle Conservancy. Photo by Steve Neavling.

By Michael Betzold
Motor City Muckraker

For generations Belle Isle has been a refuge for weary Detroiters.

Now, every spring, concrete barricades and huge grandstands occupy the most popular and scenic west end of the park.

This Saturday, people upset by the huge impact on the island plan a “peaceful rally” to protest the Chevrolet Belle Isle Detroit Grand Prix – set to roar the first weekend of June.

Sandra Novacek, spokeswoman for the protest organizers, says Roger Penske’s race takes way too long to set up and tear down and isn’t being held to account for the damage it does to the island’s ecology and mission.

“The race has nothing to do with what the island is supposed to be,” Novacek says. “It’s led to the degradation of the island so that now people think it’s suitable for any kind of racing,” she adds, citing last year’s Red Bull race around Scott Fountain and occasional unofficial car meets that have cropped up in recent years. Though she acknowledges the Grand Prix has raised money that has been used for some island improvements, she says that should be done in a way that’s more compatible with the park.

Grand Prix setup at Belle Isle. Photo by Michael Betzold.

Grand Prix setup at Belle Isle. Photo by Michael Betzold.

This year, a slew of advertising banners line the track, sponsored by everyone from General Motors to MGM Grand to Shinola, making the island, which even the Grand Prix official website correctly calls, “The Jewel of Detroit,” look more like a corporate whore.

The protesters, who have organized as a Facebook group called “Belle Isle: Park or Racetrack?,”  plan to gather from noon to 2 p.m. Saturday along eastbound Jefferson at the turnoff to the MacArthur Bridge. They ‘ll provide signs under a general theme of “No Place for a Race” but invite others to bring their own.

The group’s ultimate goal is to end the race by the time the current contract expires after 2018, saying race organizers and city leaders should find someplace more suitable to hold it. (The race was held downtown from 1982 to 1988 and in various incarnations on Belle Isle from 1992 to 2001, in 2007 and 2008, and annually since 2012.)

In the meantime, the group seeks to shorten the race’s set-up time, which this year began in early April, and speed up its dismantling, which isn’t completed until late June or later. Novacek also wants to know if race organizers have ever done an environmental impact statement; she says repeated questions about that have never been answered.

The larger question the rally raises is why the city of Detroit treats its jewel – one of the very best urban parks in America—like an unscrupulous pawnbroker.

http://motorcitymuckraker.com/2013/10/01/belle-isle-to-become-state-park-with-11-annual-entry-fee/

Michael Betzold

Michael Betzold is a former Free Press reporter and longtime area freelance journalist. He wrote Queen of Diamonds, a history of Tiger Stadium. He lives on Detroit’s east side.

  • David Martin
  • Trexinmichigan

    Valid points about the money that’s been invested because of the Prix. But the set up and teardown can and should be done more efficiently.

    However, there has been and still is ,a solid core of volunteers that has invested themselves in that park and they are equally responsible for that parks improvement.
    It ain’t all Penske folks.

  • JohnJoslin

    Hey, come on…the Grand Prix is worse than ridiculous on its own smoky demerits… completely outmoded worshiping of fossil fuel engines really is a relic of a much dumber time ! It ain’t 1956 anymore, Detroit !!

    Add in the wrecking of Belle isle for close to 3-months of its best season …and you have just plain stupid tacked on to the ecological mini-disaster of promoting car racing in a time of Climate Disruption.

    Detroit is in the midst of a much awaited reinvention. Lets not dilly -dally by aiding & abetting antique stunts like the Prix. Carbon burning parties only stand in the way of new technology & our survival.

    In the future… Belle Isle piled high on one end with busted-up concrete barriers will likely be known to our curious descendants ( if any…) as PENSKEHENGE. Nobody will know why we did it.

    -JJ ( Detroit )

    • javierjuanmanuel

      Lots of tech comes out of autosports/racing.

      Nothing about cars is the same as the 1950s, we have 300 hp 1.8 engines, that can take in dirty air, product insane hp and torque greater than a 1980s borderline supercar, and expell air that is cleaner than it took in.

      Ultra low emission vehicles have been for sale since about 1999-2001.

      I do not think you know jack shit about cars, or science, or the environment, you sound like a blowhard who took middle school science clases and got C’s, and you think talking about science in a round about way makes you smart. You think it is a club.

  • Clifford Forester

    I was completely on Penske’s side here until that part about it taking three months to put up and take down. As long as a cut continues to go to the conservancy and whoever else is maintaining and upgrading the island, I don’t think it’s such a bad thing. But it can’t be taking up space for 14 weeks!

  • Erik Rickel

    You trolls don’t even go there. Penske and State of Michigan saved it. Move on. $11 pass got the vermin out of the bathrooms! Get real.

  • Mich Neerd

    Take the race, all the new concrete, all the brand new lights on the bridge, and around the lagoons, all the rest rooms that are open, “”NOW” and all the perpetual road lakes, from one rain storm to the next…… that are no more……. all the dead trees that have disappeared…… grass that has been cut……… on and on…..

  • Mich Neerd

    this person, who complains at every meeting, complains about the Noise !, yet she lives real close to the Hydro planes races…….. 2 miles closer….

  • gwiz313

    Well, it amazes me how only 1 side of this story is being reported. How about the $6 Million dollars Mr. Penske has put into the park since 2013, including restoration of the fountain and the paving of the entire west end of the island.

    Without his money, the fountain wouldn’t run, by the way he has actually restored it twice after thieves stole all of the copper plumbing out of it after he restored it the first time. You should be thanking him for bring this back to Detroit.

    But that’s fine, you can have your way. And Mr. Penske can take his race and millions of dollars in local business it generates up to the new M-1 concourse in Pontiac…

  • gwiz313

    Well, it amazes me how only 1 side of this story is being reported. How about the $6 Million dollars Mr. Penske has put into the park since 2013, including restoration of the fountain and the paving of the entire west end of the island.

    Without his money, the fountain wouldn’t run, by the way he has actually restored it twice after thieves stole all of the copper plumbing out of it after he restored it the first time. You should be thanking him for bring this back to Detroit.

    But that’s fine, you can have your way. And Mr. Penske can take his race and millions of dollars in local business it generates up to the new M-1 concourse in Pontiac…

    • Erik Rickel

      Perfect

    • Todd Scott

      That repaving of Penske’s race course was largely funded by $4 million in taxpayer dollars that came from the “pot hole” fund. That included widening and straightening the park roads and removing sidewalks.

      • javierjuanmanuel

        They function as roads year round.

  • Armin Tamzarian

    You know what Belle Isle isn’t? The shithole it was 5 years ago. Unless you have a viable alternative plan, stop whining.

    • Erik Rickel

      Spot on. Go to Shorpys to see the jewel back in the day. This beauty has been excrement of the city of Detroit for too long. They still don’t get it. Hilarious!

  • Harry Palmer

    I remember when the “Gran” Prix used to be run through downtown. That was actually a cool event, but Belle Isle is a park, and should be left as it was intended to be, a park.
    Build a permanent track at the old state fairgrounds, why does Detroit insist on cramming this event onto something that’s already an viable attraction for what it is (a island park, for city residents)?
    Just like the same short sighted idea of building 3 (do I hear 4?) sports stadiums into a 2 square mile area that’s also their major business district…

    • javierjuanmanuel

      the roads down town are too crappy to race on. Big rigs do not smoosh the crap out of black top on belle isle.

  • Derik Roberts

    Why would you prevent anything that brings tourists and money to a local
    economy that desperately needs both? Do you want bums?….because this is how you get bums….

    • SnowStormsinDetroit

      I think she understands the overall benefit the race has to the City. In my op, seems her main objective is for Penske to significantly reduce the setup and breakdown time of the event. Which is not all that unreasonable if ya think about it.

  • Thom Mann

    It is usually the same people who complain about everything and anything….whiners…

  • javierjuanmanuel

    I am not really into racing beyond highlights on espn, I do not follow it beyond knowing the names of the big races, and big name top 5 racers, even so the race does not bother me.

    Its on the island because you cannot have a good race on our crap roads down town like we used to.

    I would be fine with a decent percent of the gate and tv profits, and it has to all go into the island. If it can produce hundreds of thousands or a million bucks per year for the island, as well as show the island off to the rest of the country on tv, and it looks great, its worth beating up some grass, and taking the arguably nice part of the island

  • javierjuanmanuel

    “Sandra Novacek, spokeswoman for the protest organizers, says Roger
    Penske’s race takes way too long to set up and tear down and isn’t being
    held to account for the damage it does to the island’s ecology and
    mission.”

    I would like sandra to comment what is done to the “ecology”, does she mean they crush planted mowed grass ? Do boats, freighters, invasive species fish, and birds, industry on both sides of the river etc not count ?

    Seriously, what is new and significant about the race, does she mean exhaust from a couple race cars ?

  • javierjuanmanuel

    “The race has nothing to do with what the island is supposed to be,”
    Novacek says. “It’s led to the degradation of the island so that now
    people think it’s suitable for any kind of racing,” she adds, citing
    last year’s Red Bull race around Scott Fountain and occasional
    unofficial car meets that have cropped up in recent years”

    Atleast since about 1989 when I was just in grade school, the island certain days and times, was speaker showdowns, twerking 20 years before miley showed twerking to white people, and a informal car show.

  • javierjuanmanuel

    “The race has nothing to do with what the island is supposed to be,”
    Novacek says. “It’s led to the degradation of the island so that now
    people think it’s suitable for any kind of racing,” she adds, citing
    last year’s Red Bull race around Scott Fountain and occasional
    unofficial car meets that have cropped up in recent years”

    Atleast since about 1989 when I was just in grade school, the island certain days and times, was speaker showdowns, twerking 20 years before miley showed twerking to white people, and a informal car show.