Editorial

CART needn't get stuck in Detroit political battle over race venues
 
by Mark Cipolloni and Dan Maldonado
June 20, 2000

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It's a Republican vs. Democrat issue.  It's a state vs. city issue.  It's a rich neighborhood vs. poor neighborhood issue. But it need not be a CART issue.  Since CART informed race promoter IMG that Belle Isle was no longer suited for a Champ Car race, a fight has been brewing over the new location of a racetrack in Detroit, and it looks like what started out as a smolder is about to erupt into an all out rage.


Another muddy paddock at this years race underscored the need for CART to race elsewhere.

Perhaps this weekend's race was evidence enough as to why Belle Isle is an inappropriate venue for a world class racing series. Sunday morning rains turned the infield and paddock areas into great mud pits. For the average fan, part of the excitement of going to a CART event is getting to watch the teams prepare their multi-million dollar racers. Who wants to tramp around in the mud?  And the team members don't like working in it.

Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer, a Democrat, visited Belle Isle over the weekend and fired a few warning shots across the brow of the Republican State officials who want to move the Detroit Grand Prix to a new oval located at the Michigan State Fairgrounds in a nearby Detroit suburb.  The Mayor threatened a lawsuit to block the project if any construction begins at the Fairgrounds site.  When Detroit Pistons owner Bill Davidson attempted to build a racetrack at the fairgrounds in 1996, the Mayor opposed the plan on the grounds it would harm the nearby neighborhoods quality of life.  The opposition was so strong, the plan died quickly.

In addition to the City threatening a lawsuit, the Madison Heights City Council passed a resolution opposing the track and the town of Ferndale is considering a lawsuit of its own.


Belle Isle is a beautiful park setting for a race, but it would require extensive modifications to make it suitable to keep the race there.

A ban on racing at the fairgrounds may mean that Detroit loses its CART race unless another suitable site can be found.  The Mayor was secretly meeting with race officials over the weekend at Belle Isle trying to figure out a way to either keep the race on the island, or move it to another nearby location.

CART's Hal Whiteford stated over the weekend that CART won't grant the fairgrounds a race date if there is controversy involved.  CART does not want to get stuck in the middle of Detroit's political battle, especially when so many other venues want a CART race, ones that have no political turmoil.  Adding to our doubts that a race at the fairgrounds could be possible, is the fact that the new track will only seat 40,000 fans.  With CART's sanctioning fees on the rise, and with oval tracks only drawing fans on Sunday, the potential revenue generated from ticket sales won't even cover the sanctioning fees.  Over the last several years, oval track attendance for Indy cars has been in a steep decline for both CART and the IRL.  One questions whether track officials would be able to fill the stands, even if they only seat 40,000 people.  Milwaukee, a traditional stop for Indy Cars after the Indy 500, has struggled to fill its 40,000 seats in recent years

Suit won't stop State
State and Fairgrounds officials both stated that a lawsuit by the City won't stop them.  They feel no other suitable site exists in Detroit.  They have retained the services of Mario Andretti to help design the track, likely to be a Milwaukee replica since Mario feels the best oval track racing for open wheel cars is a flat 1-mile oval.  Milwaukee allows for good side-by-side racing and, because the turns are so flat, corning speeds are kept in check, making the racing safer.

State and fairground officials are baffled by the opposition since they feel the construction of a new track would spur economic redevelopment in that rather poor, neglected part of the City.  Supposedly the plans call for the track to be the economic anchor of an estimated $200 million development in the area that includes three hotels, six theaters and renovations of the rundown fairgrounds site.

As far as the citizens in the surrounding areas, make them partners. Offer them free or reduced priced tickets. Let them come out to see a demonstration of what the Champ Cars are about. 

Project divides rich and poor neighborhood groups
The poorer neighborhood towns favor the new track because they see it as a way to spur economic redevelopment.  The rich neighborhoods, such as Palmer Park, oppose the project for fear the noise from races and testing will lower their property values and quality of life. The opposition is a small, well-funded group.

Detroit is the automotive capital of the world
While Detroit is not considered the motorsports capital of the world, Detroit is the automotive capital of the world, hence, many think a race in the City is a natural.  In fact car racing first began in Detroit as early as 1901 when a horse race track in Detroit hosted an automobile race, dirt track of course.

When Formula One came to the streets of Detroit in 1986, it marked the beginning of a new era of automobile racing in Detroit.  However, interest waned, the track was bumpy, and eventually Formula One left and CART moved in.  CART raced on the streets for several years until the race was moved to its current location on Belle Isle.  Neither venues have been a huge success, whether due to poor promoting, lack of interest by the locals, or both.

Should CART abandon Detroit?
Regardless of what happens, Belle Isle can no longer host the CART series without serious modifications. We can't imagine the city is willing to put up the dollars necessary nor do we think the city will be willing to put up with the environmentalists who want to preserve the beauty of the natural park. Either way, both sides think it is important to keep CART coming back to Detroit, it gives the city much needed recognition to a worldwide audience.

However, historically Detroit fans have not been bonkers over auto racing as they have not supported the races with their checkbooks, choosing instead to stay home and watch it on TV.  Even this latest poll being run by the Detroit News indicates only 25% or so of Detroit's residents even care if CART returns.  Given all the political turmoil in Detroit, given CART has too many Midwest races, and given places like beautiful San Francisco want a CART race, CART may decide to drop this hot potato after the 2001 race and reconsider it when the fire dies down.  If they do, we can't say we blame them.

Here are some recent articles in the Detroit news about the project:
June 19, 2000  Belle Isle Prix doesn't belong in the middle of the Detroit River
June 19, 2000  Grand Prix fans back track at fairgrounds
June 18, 2000  Other tracks head off trouble
June 18, 2000  State Fair's race track is liable to run into dead end
June 18, 2000  Racetrack divides state, Detroit and neighborhoods
June 18, 2000  Race noise negligible near course
June 18, 2000  Racing's first laps turned in Detroit (History of racing in Detroit)
June 17, 2000  CART president's resignation leaves questions
June 16, 2000  Andretti to design disputed track
June 16, 2000  Fairground track controversy should be viewed from all sides
June 15, 2000  Fair racetrack gains another foe
June 12, 2000  State Fair chief touts new study to bolster case for racetrack
June 6, 2000    IMG says Grand Prix won't be going anywhere
June 5, 2000    Engler's help with riverfront may make track easier to swallow
June 4, 2000    A look at the track proposal
June 4, 2000    Racetrack a go despite protest
June 4, 2000    Racetrack at state fairgrounds will proceed, despite protests
June 1, 2000    SEMCOG will evaluate plan for Detroit fairgrounds
June 1, 2000    Race track critics await findings of new study
May 31, 2000  What's so bad about a racetrack?
May 26, 2000  Local comment:  Fairgrounds input is public's right
May 22, 2000  At State Fair, common ground can be found
May 21, 2000  Fairground racetrack plan has crashed and burned
May 20, 2000  Ask area residents about racetrack plan
May 19, 2000  Local comment:  Raceway plan shafts Detroit
May 19, 2000  Racetrack benefits everyone
May 19, 2000  Other options eyed at fair site
May 18, 2000  Rally battles racing at fairgrounds
May 17, 2000  Neighbors were against vacant homes, prostitutes; now track
May 17, 2000  Peace rules in University District
May 16, 2000  Backers, foes rev up over racetrack plan
May 15, 2000  Objections to racetrack shouldn't kill an important opportunity
May 13, 2000  Should fairgrounds have racetrack?
May 13, 2000  Speedway battle as heated as ever
May 12, 2000  Neighbors revved up against racetrack
May 12, 2000  Racetrack still a hot fairgrounds topic
April 28, 2000 Listen to community on racetrack
April 26, 2000 Bus trip planned in track battle
April 20, 2000 Racing track foes want study of noise
April 14, 2000 Opposition doesn't diminish Nederlander's fairground plans

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