Stories From The Last Grand Prix on Belle Isle
Photography and writing by Niki Williams. Learn more about Niki and his work on his website and Instagram.
If there is an event that serves as an overview of Detroit’s economic revitalization it is perhaps the Grand Prix on Belle Isle. On Sunday June 5, Indycar racers took their final laps around the course, which returned to Belle Isle in 2012 after being postponed for 3 years during the height of the automotive economic crisis and 2008 recession.
In 09-11, when I was in highschool, Belle Isle was sort of like the wild west. It felt free and without any oversight. Friends and I would hop the fence into the abandoned zoo and smoke cannabis where lions once roamed. I once filmed a music video in one of the animal enclosures for a girl from the suburbs who later asked me to photoshop out the graffiti. Next to the bridge on the Detroit side, skateboarders from all over south east Michigan would gather and barrel down into a deep crusty concrete drainage ditch. The James Scott Memorial Fountain, stripped of its copper by thieves, was as dry as a bone. To get wet we would venture to the so-called “Hipster Beach,” a hidden cove on the end of the island by Lake St. Clair, which attracted a wide range of characters, from East Side kids playing hooky to photographers from the suburbs with massive Tumblr followings. To me, Belle Isle represented everything beautiful about Detroit in all of its unguarded and anarchistic glory.
The years following the Grand Prix’s hiatus, great change seemed to sweep the isle. The island became a state park in 2013 after which the State of Michigan invested $32 million into renovations and improvements. The fountain was fixed, the zoo was afforded security and made impossible to access, the beaches were filled with a lot more pale folks. Things began to feel supervised. The Grand Prix had a lot to do with the economic investments on the island. It also precipitated an annual 60+ day terraforming and track laying which shut down much of the Detroit facing side April through June.
In Detroit, money and bodies typically pour in from the suburbs for just a few reasons. Mainly athletic events, concerts or higher end restaurants. This creates a hierarchy that is clearly on display downtown, and is visible in terms of class and creed. The same hierarchy was created at the races. Sure, everyone from every class and creed was there, but to get good seats above the chain link fences and barricades you would need to pay more. The best seats were virtually inaccessible even to the media. Nonetheless, the mood was celebratory.
As I walked around snapping pix, most people were willing to pose, taking a break from milling about eating fried food, drinking, and looking at various pieces of high octane machinery. Drivers whizzed to and from their races on electric scooters and smiled at their fans.
The U.S. Military, never missing a moment to coerce young mechanical types into its ranks, had recruitment tents set up. When I got on the shuttle bus to schlep into the island, I found myself next to a soldier with a Space Force patch, who told me he was literally a “guardian.”
“Of the galaxy,” I asked? Eliciting some chuckles from our fellow riders.
I began grilling him on whether or not the US was controlled by a deep state, after all it was established in 2018 by Donald Trump, and is currently the only independent military space operation on the planet. He, to my surprise, responded in the affirmative, couching this disclosure in the assurance that “they are the good guys.”
“What about Project Blue Beam?” I asked. He never heard of it. I explained the fringe theory that claims the US Government is involved in a plot to use a faked alien invasion to bring about a new global religion. He did not bite, but did I detect a knowing twinkle in his eye as we rolled across the bridge?
Finally, I asked his thoughts on the likelihood that we might get smashed by some comet or meteor we don’t detect fast enough in the Taurid Meteor stream. He said the military was mainly interested in Chinese satellites and other terrestrial “enemies.”
To my surprise, as we exited the bus, despite my strange questions, he asked for my card and said that the Space Force needs photographers. Although now that I think about it, I suspect he has ulterior motives.
Overall, people seemed to be enjoying themselves at the race. Ryan Allen, a lifetime Detroit resident said he had been coming since he was a little kid, “ever since then I have been a racing nerd. I love it, I love motorsports. I grew up here and have been to every race since ’96. I love the straight away that no one sees in the back part of the track, its where the cars hit the highest speeds of about 185mph”
Martin Shellhorse, who traveled to the island all the way from Europe, Holland to be exact, told me for him it was all about “The excitement! The speed! The smells! You hear it. You feel it, in your body, everywhere.”
Next year the Grand Prix returns to the streets of downtown Detroit. I have a feeling it will be much more accessible, as there is not only one bridge in and out. The Island will be spared weeks of set up and tear down and the Automotive Capital of the World will have a race on its streets. One that for once, is not targeted by the Detroit Police.
Vroom Vroom baby.
Photography and writing by Niki Williams.
Learn more about Niki and his work on his website: https://www.nikimidwest.com/
and on Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/niki_midwezt/
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