The Raceway on Detroit's Belle Isle, located on an island parkland in the Detroit River, has been host of the city's Grand Prix since 1992, when it switched from the downtown area.
Promoted by Roger Penske since 2007, the circuit is created from existing roadways in the park and proved an improvement over the bumpy circuit around the Renaissance Center, even if racing wasn't always the best. Improvements came in 1998 when the course was extended to create a better overtaking opportunities.
The circuit hosts the annual visit of the IndyCar Series and the IMSA WeatherTech Championship, though 2022 will be the last event at the track as the Grand Prix will switch to a new downtown street course in 2023.
Motor racing first came to Detroit's Belle Isle in 1992, moving across the river from a bumpy and largely unpopular course which wound around the Renaissance Center. While the concrete canyons which greeted first Formula One and Indycar drivers in downtown Detroit were still present on Belle Isle, the new course did at least offer better viewing facilities for spectators and TV audiences alike. Teams were slightly less impressed with paddock facilities, which could turn into a muddy mess in inclement weather, while drivers found a tight and twisty course which offered few opportunities to pass.
Shortcomings aside, the Detroit Grand Prix established a firm place on the CART calendar, with Roger Penske promoting the events. The initial course stretched for 2.1 miles around the existing parkland roads and was used until 1997. For the 1998 event, an extended straight took the cars further down Central Avenue to a newly-built link road, which returned to the original course at the old Turn 7 (though approaching from the opposite direction). This opened up a new and much-needed overtaking opportunity, though passing still remained a tricky proposition. This layout was used by the CART series up to 2001, after which the event died away with Penske's switch of codes to the then all-oval Indy Racing League.
Racing engines fell silent on the island for the next six years, but in 2007, the race was once-again revived for a double header weekend featuring the now unified Indycar Series and the Amercian Le Mans Series. As with the following year's event, the race once again utilised the shorter original course, the link road having fallen into relative disrepair in the intervening years, while Turn nine had also been modified to create a tighter and slower entry. A 2009 event was scheduled, but eventually cancelled, a victim of the downturn in the Detroit automotive industry and the city's economic struggles.
Roger Penske always remained open to the idea of racing making a return to the Island and, after a four year hiatus, the Indycars returned, this time in partnership with the Grand-Am Series. Proceeds from the event have been used to fund improvements to the facilities on Belle Isle. Once again, the short course was utilised in 2012, with a sealed-surface paddock area the only major change. A resurfaced link road allowed for the use of the longer course once more from 2013 onwards.
The island itself has a much longer history beyond that of the Grand Prix. Covering 982-acres in the centre of the Detroit River between the city and Windsor, Canada, it was first settled by French colonists in the 18th century, who named it Île aux Cochons (Hog Island). It gained its present name in 1845, possibly in recognition of physician Henry Bélisle.
Landscaped in the 1880s by Frederick L. Olmsted, the highlights of Belle Isle are the aquarium (the oldest such facility in the USA, having first opened in 1904), the Scott Fountain and the botanical garden in the Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory. The conservatory and the 1908 Belle Isle Casino were constructed by Detroit architect Albert Kahn, well-known for developing open-floor plan concrete factories. The casino building is no longer a gambling facility, but it is used for public events. Belle Isle also was home to a large herd of European fallow deer for more than 50 years. A few remain as exhibits at the nature center, but the last of the 300 animals was captured in 2004 and relocated.
Various entities beside the Grand Prix call Belle Isle home, including the Dossin Great Lakes Museum, the Detroit Boat Club Crew, the Detroit Yacht Club, a municipal golf course, an aquarium and a Coast Guard post.