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Pedal to the metal In Motown
Sam Moses
June 14, 1982
Detroit's ambitious urban renewal picked up the pace with a Grand Prix
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June 14, 1982

Pedal To The Metal In Motown

Detroit's ambitious urban renewal picked up the pace with a Grand Prix

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For 15 years downtown Detroit has been trying to rid itself of the stench of smoke from the 1967 riots. Last Sunday a new method was tried. A fresh scent was sprayed over the inner city, the heady aroma of Formula I racing cars, sweetened by the cotton-candy odor of a festival in the center of it all. Welcome the inaugural Detroit Grand Prix, a world championship race around town, a bold and wild notion paved with good intentions, if bumpy streets. And it may have worked. Depression? Oh yeah, almost forgot. Detroit? Why that's the city where they race those incredible cars around those spectacular glass high rises.

The concept was born one night in 1970, when Henry Ford II and a philanthropist-financier named Max Fisher decided Detroit needed to be reborn. Riots, a high crime rate and streets abandoned at night weren't exactly enhancing the Motor City. A new image was needed. Ford and Fisher may not have imagined anything like a low-slung Formula I racer speeding away from the front door of a space-age skyscraper—the Grand Prix's eventual poster theme—but they were on the track. Detroit Renaissance, Inc., an organization whose board consists of chairmen and senior executives of 29 major Detroit corporations, was formed. A tidy $350 million was raised from private sources, and the Renaissance Center was built in once-blighted downtown Motown. It's a business-shopping-entertainment center consisting of seven glass towers, the tallest being the 70-story Westin Hotel. The developers claim the Renaissance Center is the largest privately financed real estate project on earth. Detroit Renaissance, Inc. is the brain and the Ren Cen is the heart of the city's rebirth.

That would make the Grand Prix at least a leg. The city has attached that much importance to the newest race on the world championship calendar. Desperate but determined, Detroit has been grabbing at its bootstraps hard and squeezing all it can out of events that bring prestige and publicity: for example the 1980 Republican National Convention and the 1982 Super Bowl—albeit 40 miles away in Pontiac. But the Grand Prix is especially significant for two reasons. It seems profoundly appropriate that the automobile capital should host a world-class motor race. And the Grand Prix is a three-year deal with a renewal option, not a one-shot, or at best a once-in-a-while shot, like the convention and the football game. Detroit means to make the Grand Prix a fixture.

Undeniably the race was to be measured more by whom it might feed than who might win it. That may have been disguised by Detroit Renaissance's admission—insistence, even—that the race was a flat-out p.r. function: Detroit showing the world it was still alive, and worth investing in. But the real bottom line, although impossible to read immediately, was never far from any Detroiter's mind: How will the race improve the quality of life in Detroit, where unemployment currently runs about double the national rate?

And so the numbers became important. Cost to Detroit Renaissance: about $3.5 million, all but $800,000, like the money for the Ren Cen, privately raised. The $800,000 was contributed by the City Council to repave the streets that made up the race circuit. Opponents of the race accurately pointed out that Grand Prix racing is an elitist sport of millionaires and that flaunting it before unemployed auto workers who could scarcely afford $15 general admission tickets smacked of let-them-eat-cake insensitivity. But the critics seemed shortsighted. Detroit Renaissance President Robert McCabe pointed out that most of the $3.5 million would go back into the city's economy, and that the race could mean $4 million or more to local businesses. And because Detroit Renaissance, the promoter, is a nonprofit organization, if the race should make money, the city, not private parties, would ultimately benefit. McCabe's feasibility study calculated that it would take 65,000 spectators to break even.

The Grand Prix certainly had the support of the local media. The town's two major newspapers. The Detroit News and The Detroit Free Press, missed nary a story nor angle. Their pages read as though half their staffs had been assigned to this one story; there was so much race information that the purchase of a program was a waste of three bucks. And on TV news, Friday's delayed practice-session report came before the latest from the Falklands, and even the late movies were about racing—every old, grit-the-teeth and wrestle-the-steering-wheel film that could be dredged up.

To be sure, Detroit might have found a more appropriate form of racing to feature. A Grand Prix did appear to be a showcase for foreign cars. And among the 25 starting drivers there was but one American, Eddie Cheever—and he was taken to Italy by his parents when he was two. He still lives there. There was one American team manager, McLaren's Tyler Alexander, who's from Massachusetts. There were no American mechanics. And not one American car.

However, Mr. Ford's interests weren't totally unrepresented: 18 of the 25 race cars used Ford-Cosworth engines. In 1965 Walter Hayes, then based in Britain and in charge of Ford Motor Company's racing efforts in Europe, went to Henry Ford II and asked for £100,000 to develop a racing engine. "What will the engine do when you're done?" asked Ford.

Replied Hayes, "Well, I hope it will win a Grand Prix, and maybe even a world championship."

"Good luck," said Ford as he signed the check.

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