After traveling to the Indianapolis 500 last weekend, Patrice and Bob Dufour weren’t planning on coming to Belle Isle.
The friends from Sarnia, Ontario, who share the same last name but aren’t related, typically frequent the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix on an annual basis.
With a venture to the Montreal Grand Prix scheduled for a week from now, they had planned to save their traveling legs, until they realized they’d miss the last race on Belle Isle before the event returns to its origins in downtown Detroit next year.
“It was kind of bad news for us, we really couldn’t believe it,” Patrice said as he stood in the paddock among a throng of attendees. “We love Belle Isle, the settings and everything with the city in the background. We’ll miss it, but that’s the reason why we’re here today.”
FRIDAY’S ACTION:Free Prix Day gives fans of all levels up-close experience
The bittersweet feeling of departure from Belle Isle paired with excitement for the return of racing downtown has prevailed throughout this weekend. Each participant in the Detroit Grand Prix — driver, investor or fan — has been soaking in the last of a 22-year run.
Patrice and Bob weren’t disappointed with their trackside access to Saturday’s full day of racing, headlined by Team Penske standout Josef Newgarden’s 16th career pole in qualifying for Sunday’s IndyCar race.
Linus Lundqvist won the Indy Lights Race 1 while two-time Detroit IndyCar champion Sebastien Bourdais paired with Ranger van Der Zande to win the Chevrolet Sports Car Classic in IMSA Weathertech Championship competition.
Newgarden, driver of the Hitachi/PPG No. 2 Chevrolet and a two-time IndyCar Series champion, first came to Detroit in 2012, the race’s first year back after skipping three years due to economic hardship. The impression Belle Isle left on him then was of disrepair.
Ten years and $13.5 million in improvements later, plus another $6.5 million given to the island’s conservancy, and the island’s growth since Newgarden’s first arrival is the most striking feature in his memories of the Detroit Grand Prix.
“To see the race sort of reinvigorate the island and, I think, help with the downtown area, too, has been great,” Newgarden said. “Every year I’ve come here from 2012 it’s just gotten more exciting, and more development, there’s been additions to the island with lighting and the conservatorship of the island.
“All the work to be done to preserve some of it and improve it, you just noticed that year after year, so it’s nice to see that (the grand prix) had an impact.”
The rigor of the Belle Isle track has also stood out to Newgarden over the years, and to Penske teammate Will Power, who was challenged by the course in qualifying Saturday and finished 16th.
Power will definitely have his work cut out if he hopes to win Sunday and tie Scott Dixon as the only three-time IndyCar winner on Belle Isle, but his love for the Belle Isle pavement remains all the same.
“I reckon this place is one of the coolest race tracks there has been simply because of how hard you have to drive to be fast,” Power said. “Like, there’s no other place where you feel like you’ve done the best lap of your life and you’re like p-20 or something.
“But whatever it is, I’ve certainly enjoyed my years here. I really have. It’s kind of a bit sad, it’s sad to see it go.”
After chairing the race for the last 13 years, Penske Corporation president Bud Denker is proud not only of Belle Isle’s rebirth in revamped landmarks like the Scott Fountain, Flynn Pavilion and island casino, but also the bright future of the race in downtown Detroit.
There’s particular satisfaction in the heightened access the new course will provide. Over 50% of the 1.7-mile, 10-turn circuit spanning Jefferson Avenue and Atwater Street to Bates and Rivard will be open to the public for free.
“Nowhere else in the world does a racetrack allow the public half your circuit to come on for free,” Denker said. “Can you imagine the people we’re gonna have down here, the tens of 1000s, hundreds of 1000s of people we’re gonna have in downtown Detroit next year?”
Newgarden already envisioned the fan engagement when he whipped a Corvette through the circuit during a test run in November. Bob Dufour, who attended a Formula One race in downtown Detroit in the 1980s, is also excited for the return to city streets.
For the final weekend on Belle Isle, chalet and reserved grandstand seats sold out for the first time and few general admission tickets went unclaimed, providing a glimpse of the audience the move to downtown Detroit could cultivate.
“When you do it right and you get the community and the city really pumped up, the response can be quite awesome,” Sebastien Bourdais said. “So I think there’s obviously that big thought about reviving Detroit and downtown in general, and it’s happening.
“So, if that can be another stepping stone to just creating that excitement and then showing the best of Detroit, I think it’s just a win-win situation, and it’ll be really cool to be a part of it.”
Contact Mason Young: MEYoung@freepress.com Follow him on Twitter: @Mason_Young_0