It wasn’t exactly the souvenir Grand Prix organizers hoped fans would take home from Belle Isle — road shrapnel.
Debris from crumbling pockets of the island street course sprayed into the crowd. The pavement couldn’t withstand the enormous suction generated from the bottom of those wide-winged open-wheel cars. Barely halfway into Detroit’s return to racing, massive sections of the 2.1-mile Belle Isle track resembled the Swiss cheese of so many Michigan freeways.
But after a two-hour delay for repairs and emergency crisis management that include a police escort to a warehouse for more equipment, the race was resumed. Scott Dixon of New Zealand crossed the line first. But the real winner was Detroit and the refusal of determined people to make sure this opportunity to showcase the city finished with a checkered flag rather than a red one.
“There was no way that we were going to stop this race,” said Bud Denker, chairman of the Chevrolet Detroit Belle Isle Grand Prix. “If we did, we’re losers, we’re quitters. That wasn’t going to happen. We were determined to finish, even if we couldn’t get through the full number of laps.”
The delay came on Lap 45, the halfway point. After repairs, the race was shortened to 60 laps.
Denker stood in the media center afterward, his hands caked with the synthetic rubber polymer used to repair the potholes. His tan pants were dulled to a dirty gray. He had gotten down on his hands and knees to help his 25-man crew.
The entire race weekend — four years after the bad economy scuttled the Grand Prix — screamed symbolism. Its purpose was to alter negative perceptions of the city. The event looked great on TV. The crowds were plentiful. The general reaction from the drivers was positive, despite the issues with the track. Members of the event committee even stood across a bridge leading out of the track to apologize to fans who chose not to wait out the repairs.
“We’re bummed that this happened,” Denker said, “but we’re also proud of how we quickly and decisively we responded when the problems arose.”
Denker said there were four significantly compromised areas on the track — a 15-foot long, 6-inch deep crevice on Turn 6, a 6-foot wide hole on Turn 7 and two sizable craters — one 30-foot long and the other 20-foot long — on Turn 10.
The repair crew used a synthetic rubber substance — the same that was used at the Daytona 500 last year when parts of that concrete buckled during the race — because they believed it could quickly and safely repair the track. When they ran out of the rubber filler, Denker got a police escort to his warehouse on Jefferson, just minutes away from Belle Isle, to get more equipment.
And Denker, also executive vice president at Penske Corp., wasn’t averse to getting dirty himself.
“Roger (Penske) shoveled snow during the Super Bowl (in 2006),” Denker said. “The least I could do was get on my knees and pave concrete.”
The situation could have been worse.
“I’ve never seen anything quite like it,” said driver James Hinchcliffe, whose afternoon ended when his car flew into the tire barrier after hitting a sizable gash in Turn 6 on Lap 40. “We had these big pieces of tar just sort of ripping up from Lap 5. The debris was out there. It was tough to drive around it.”
On the lap just prior to Hinchcliffe’s accident, a big chunk of concrete hit the wing of his Team GoDaddy.com Chevy. Hinchcliffe radioed to his pit crew to make sure the damage was minimal. But then on the next lap, a section of concrete track opened up and Hinchcliffe couldn’t avoid it.
“It launched the front end of the car in the air,” he said. “I was just a passenger at that point.”
It’s too bad that so many people will remember what went wrong today.
Whatever our cultural and political differences, everyone in Detroit loves cars. It’s that one common thread. We love speed. We love taking risks The race was an overall success. It’s too bad they couldn’t go the full distance, but the fact they were able to finish it at all is reason for applause for a job well done.