Penske official: Grand Prix race won’t remain at Belle Isle for much longer

Grand Prix car on Belle Isle in 2018. Photo by Steve Neavling.

At the close of a contentious 200-minute-long public meeting on Belle Isle, Penske Corp. President Bud Denker made a startling statement that was mostly overlooked. Many in the media and audience had already left when he said: “The Grand Prix isn’t going to stay here forever. The race is not sustainable here.”

Belle Isle Conservancy President Michele Hodges, a strong supporter of the “partnership” with Roger Penske, followed up Denker’s comments by pledging that over the three-year life of the new Grand Prix contract her organization would find other sources of funding to replace the annual race fundraiser money that buttresses her budget.

Grand Prix race on Belle Isle in 2018. Photo by Steve Neavling.

So, despite all the blather from Grand Prix volunteers recruited to come to the meeting about how this “world-class event” is essential for Detroit’s image and economy, those in charge actually admit that the race doesn’t belong in Detroit’s most vital public space. Not sustainable.

But since Penske has decided it’s not quite time to walk away yet, DNR parks chief Ron Olson has to keep doing clumsy contortions to put official sanctioning on a new Grand Prix contract. In his presentation at the meeting Thursday, this dance ranged from tired deceptions to laughable assertions.

He again claimed that the race generates $58 million in (some unspecified sort) of economic benefits to the Detroit area—a Penske PR team talking point that’s the result of a misreading of a hired sports industry consulting firm’s “study” that has been repeatedly debunked.

Trying to explain that the DNR didn’t need to do any independent third-party environmental impact study of the race, Olson stated: “Environmental impact depends on who you talk to.” He reported that DNR staff somehow determined “there was no real impact on animals” from the race, apparently by watching one bald eagle’s nest. And, most entertainingly, he pointed out that the 10,000 cars of regular visitors that can’t come onto the island on race days would generate more pollution than the racecars. By blocking access to Belle Isle, the Grand Prix is a boon for the environment! Let’s have more car races in all state parks.

The blessing by the DNR and Hodges to three more years of racing was no surprise. But Denker’s comment was—though it came with the warning: “We still have some things we want to do here yet.” Beware! Coming to further enhance the natural environment of Belle Isle in 2020 are events associated with the International Auto Show.

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.