After a five-year hiatus, motor racing returned to the Motor City this year and to a large extent it was a huge success. The race was revived in large part thanks to the efforts of Roger Penske. For many good reasons, the Detroit Grand Prix was roundly criticized in both of its previous iterations – on the downtown streets of Detroit and later on Belle Isle. As anyone who has ever paid any attention to Penske's racing or business efforts knows, the man never does anything half-assed.
If it's not worth doing well he doesn't do it all, and this year's race was no exception. The biggest criticisms of the Belle Isle track from the perspective of competitors used to be the fact it was a narrow course that made it nearly impossible to pass and a dearth of paved areas for the paddock. Teams had to lay down sheets of plywood to work on and when it rained the place turned into a mudpit.
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For this years race the organizers laid down several acres of concrete for use as paddock areas, which made the race teams and sanctioning bodies very happy. Access from the paddock to the track was easy, and although the weather was perfect this year, if rain comes in future years they will be all set.
The track was also modified this year to make it more amenable to actually passing somewhere other than the pits. Corners were made wider and many of the bumps were smoothed out. That's not to say the track was smooth as glass as the ALMS cars could be seen noticeably bouncing on the start/finish straight. Nonetheless, it's a huge step forward.
The weather also cooperated this year and Mr. Penske's order for sunny skies was delivered on time. Moving the race to the Labor Day weekend also helped avoid the oppressive humidity that typically permeates this region from June through early August.
Not everything was perfect, however. At heart, this is still a street race. The fundamental flaw with street racing is that it's great as a social gathering but lousy for actual race fans. Having virtually the entire track lined with concrete barriers makes spectator sight-lines limited to non-existent. At best you can see one small section right in front of the grandstands in which you're sitting. Detroit organizers should follow the lead of the Montreal F1 track and transform this into a permanent course.
Remove the barriers from the edge of the pavement and provide some run-off areas. This will provide the drivers more flexibility to race and allow fans to see more of what's happening on-track. Make it more like a real road racing course, we say. Even if the track is only used once or twice a year, it will be a much more attractive place to race. As it is now, it's actually better to watch the race on TV in a hospitality tent where you can actually see some of the action on track. Speaking of which, we hear the race wasn't broadcast in HD, which is a shame and should be corrected before next time.
The crowd waiting for a bus to get off Belle Isle
Finally, the single biggest problem with the event was leaving the island. The only way on and off the island is by a single bridge. In order to avoid traffic jams that have plagued past events, all parking for spectators was at remote lots around the Detroit area. Free shuttle buses were provided from all lots to Belle Isle and back. Getting there was no problem, as people arrived staggered all throughout the day. Unfortunately, after the IRL race on Sunday afternoon, everyone wanted to leave at once.
The lines for the buses were a total mess. It was disorganized, with people cutting under ropes and nobody was quite sure where to go. There were plenty of buses lined up on the bridge to pick up passengers, but they were slow to be allowed into the pickup loop. There were often periods of five to ten minutes where a lineup of buses could be seen 100 yards away and none were in front of the ever more agitated crowd picking up passengers. This whole process must be completely revamped before next year's event.
Overall, Penske and the rest of the organizing team did an outstanding job this year. If they can just do something about egress from the island and further improving sight-lines at the track, 2008 and beyond could make the Detroit Grand Prix one of the outstanding events of the year.