Support swarms for a return of the Detroit Belle Isle Grand Prix

If the Detroit Belle Isle Grand Prix should return in 2012, much of the credit should go to Scott Atherton, president and CEO of the American Le Mans Series.

Atherton has been banging on doors for the relaunch of the race since its demise following the 2008 event, when the Motor City and Michigan economy spluttered to a halt and the Indy Racing League left for other parts with its IndyCar Series.

Atherton spent the past few days at the North American International Auto Show at Cobo Center visiting with car manufacturers and suppliers from Detroit and around the world, talking racing, technology and Belle Isle.

He talked with racing icon and Birmingham businessman Roger Penske as well as Bud Denker, executive vice president of Penske Racing and chairman of the Detroit Belle Isle Grand Prix.

Atherton, whose ALMS sports cars were the supporting act to the IndyCar Series race at Belle Isle in 2007-08 when the Grand Prix returned to the island after a six-year absence, was bullish in his thoughts that it is time for racing to return to Detroit.

"Our fingers are crossed and breath held," Atherton said about the chances of the ALMS returning to Belle Isle within the next couple of years. "We had a brief conversation with Roger (Penske) and Bud (Denker). They are committed to resurrecting the Belle Isle event. For us, it's a home game. When you look at all the manufacturers we have (in our series) and all the natural ties to the Motor City, it's a no-brainer that we come back."

The ALMS, which is being sponsored again in 2011 by the Patron tequila brand, races throughout the United States and Canada. The series starts the season with the 59th Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring on March 16-19 in Florida. Manufacturers competing in its four classes include Chevrolet — which runs the Corvette — Dodge, Ford, Ferrari, Acura, Porsche, BMW and Aston Martin.

With its emphasis on "green racing" and the development of cleaner fuels and new clean technology, racing is an important proving ground for ALMS and its competitors.

"The rapid recovery the economy is experiencing now — and, touch wood, it continues — bodes well for the race on Belle Isle being relaunched," Atherton said. "When that occurs, count us in."

As for the Detroit Belle Isle Grand Prix's future, Atherton said: "Our primary conversation about the event was with Bud Denker, who is Roger's top lieutenant. His focus is on 2012, and a decision will be determined in the not-too-distant future because you just don't turn on a switch."

Denker says he is fortunate to have people like Atherton drumming up support for a return of the Detroit Belle Isle Grand Prix.

"We'd love to bring back the GP to Detroit — hopefully in 2012," Denker told the Free Press. "Of course, it depends on the economic climate in the state and the city, and sponsorship as well, but it would be great to have IndyCar and the ALMS here." Detroit free Press

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