Detroit Tough: Grand Prix, Motown are kindred spirits

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Even in a year when the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix presented by Lear will not take place on Belle Isle, it continues to give back to the community.

That has always been its main mission.

“The No. 1 reason we have our event is community,” said Bud Denker, chairman of the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix presented by Lear. “It’s to ensure the revitalization of Belle Isle Park continues. It’s great to have a race for General Motors and in our backyard for Team Penske. But that is not the reason we do this. 

CLICK HERE: To view a gallery of Detroit Grand Prix posters through the years

“It has always been to revitalize Belle Isle, first.”

The racing weekend is headlined by the NTT INDYCAR SERIES double-header races in the Chevy Dual in Detroit. It brings the focus of the racing community to Motor City.

The non-profit event helps raise money every year for projects to improve Belle Isle through the annual Grand Prixmiere Charity Gala, held Friday evening of race weekend. That event alone has generated more than $5 million over the last six years for improvements at Belle Isle. While the island will not be able to reap the charitable benefits of the Grand Prixmiere with no race in 2020, the Detroit corporate community has demonstrated its long-standing commitment to the event.

“That investment, our investment, sponsor investment and other philanthropic investment all goes back to help it out,” Denker said.

The Grand Prix also provides a tremendous opportunity to show off the revitalization of Detroit and its relationship to the automotive industry. This is a special city that has flourished in the good times and battled back from the bad throughout its history.

“The resiliency of Detroit is represented in the resiliency of the race and its ability to bounce back,” said Eric Larson, chairman of the Downtown Detroit Partnership, which organizes and supports strategic initiatives and programs in Detroit. “We are like many places facing some real challenges with COVID-19 and the pandemic. I have no doubt with the kind of leadership and the opportunity and the lasting commitment of Roger Penske and the race, we will bounce back.

“Detroit has repeatedly been counted out. The tenacity of this community, and most importantly the ability to rally around each other and find a path forward that not only supports the specific event but focuses on the community as a whole, is a hallmark of Detroit.”

Socially, the Grand Prix weekend signals the start of summer for the residents of this great American city that shares its community with Windsor, Ontario, just across the Detroit River in Canada.

“It really is a very unique event that has in many ways not only permeated much of Detroit’s DNA centered around the automotive industry but has also become an event everyone looks forward to, gets excited about and signifies the start of the summer,” Larson said. “It’s a community-starting summer activity and kicking that off at Belle Isle with the race.”

The Grand Prix and its partners have made more than $13.5 million in improvements on the island since the event returned in 2007. This includes repairing and resurfacing roadways, renovating Scott Fountain and the historic Belle Isle Casino, repairing and replacing damaged drainage and lighting systems, installing all-new LED lighting on MacArthur Bridge, removing damaged and decaying pilings at the Belle Isle Boat House, installing new picnic tables and children’s playscapes and more.

“We are truly non-profit,” Denker said. “If it wasn’t for General Motors’ support, Penske Corporation’s support and the support of 70 sponsors – we have more sponsors for the Grand Prix than the Indy 500, not including the suites – we couldn’t make it possible. Thanks to Chevrolet’s support and the Penske Corporation’s support, we’ve helped shore up that bottom line to break even every year.

“It’s unique in the fact we want to ensure the focus remains on Belle Isle. It is not a corporate event for Penske or GM. We don’t get one dollar back at Penske. In fact, we spend a lot of money to put it on. Having that as a non-profit is important because of the charter of the Belle Isle Conservancy that helps us put the event on. That non-profit status is important because it ensures the money goes back to Belle Isle.”

The Grand Prix also opens its doors to the community every year with Free Prix Day. In a tradition that’s unique in racing but dates back to the first Detroit Grand Prix in 1982, everyone is welcome to attend the event and experience all activities for free on Friday of race weekend, courtesy of Comerica Bank for the past eight years. The event hosts school groups and students from the city of Detroit during Free Prix Day and has engaged STEM initiatives with these special guests through racing. The education connection to the Grand Prix even extends to the college level as students from the College for Creative Studies art institution in Detroit compete for the real-world opportunity to create the event’s official poster each year. The Grand Prix also provides a small scholarship for “the podium” – top three finishers in the annual poster design competition.

This year would have strengthened the connection to the automotive industry even further because the Grand Prix would have preceded the North American International Auto Show, which was set to transition from January to a new date in June.

Those grand plans, however, must wait until 2021.

Just as Detroit has rebounded from adversity countless times in its history, it will also return from the current shutdown. Racing will return to Belle Isle; the Auto Show will open its doors to the automotive world, and families will have a beautiful park on Belle Isle to enjoy nature and recreation.

It’s one of the great things about being a “Detroiter.”

“Everybody is feeling the sting of not having the race in town,” Larson said. “It doesn’t feel like things are quite right. The Grand Prix has not only meant a tremendous tradition for the city in racing but also to get families together on what is one of our most natural beauties, Belle Isle.

“The race brings in thousands of families to the island, many of which would not be able to experience the island if it hadn’t been for the race. They find a reason to come back to the city of Detroit and Belle Isle for its natural beauty.”

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