Why the Detroit Grand Prix is the wrong race to capitalize on Indy 500 interest

Elizabeth Blackstock
The No. 45 RLL Honda of Christian Lundgaard crashes on top of Romain Grosjean's No. 77 at the 2024 Detroit Grand Prix

Christian Lungaard crashes on top of Romain Grosjean during the 2024 IndyCar Detroit Grand Prix

Ultra-tight street circuits have popped up on motorsport calendars around the world, but the narrow Detroit Grand Prix course is the wrong follow-up for the iconic Indianapolis 500.

From Formula 1’s newly proposed Madrid track to NASCAR’s first-ever Chicago street course, it’s impossible to escape the lure of a well-located motorsport facility — but those narrow circuits have faced ample criticism for causing uninspiring racing and boring battles. If IndyCar is looking to capitalize on a growing fanbase around the world after the build-up of the Indy 500, the two-year-old street course in Detroit, Michigan is the wrong track to encourage long standing viewership.

Detroit GP: A messy IndyCar event

The 2024 Detroit Grand Prix was something of a let-down after the pomp and circumstance of the Indianapolis 500. Nearly all of IndyCar’s 27 Detroit GP entrants crashed into something — each other, walls, tire barriers, pit equipment, and more — as 47 of the event’s 100 laps ran under caution.

Chip Ganassi Honda racer Scott Dixon managed to pull off another masterclass in fuel savings to win the race, but unfortunately, the veteran’s performance wasn’t the primary talking point of the day.

No; instead, we’re talking about how the Detroit GP might be better renamed the Detroit Demolition Derby.

A crash on the very first lap saw an immediate yellow flag for the first three laps of the race, but the field simply couldn’t make the circuit work for long. Seven more cautions would fall throughout the race, with the longest green-flag stretch lasting a mere 13 laps. 

The issues largely come down to the layout of the track. The street circuit takes advantage of a slew of 90-degree corners that are already built into the city plan — effective for road cars, but not so much for race cars.

It was almost impossible to overtake without making contact, and any unexpected move could easily result in a multi-car jam. As a result, the racing felt clumsy and amateurish, making it a painful comedown from the hype and action of the Indy 500.

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The never-ending street circuit onslaught

Temporary street circuits are instantly appealing in the modern motorsport era. The easiest way to get fans at your track is to place that track close to the fans. The city-center strategy has worked well in helping younger series like Formula E gain dedicated audiences, and it has helped long-lasting sports like Formula 1 grow exponentially.

NASCAR introduced its first-ever street course in Chicago in 2023 to great fanfare, and IndyCar has also relied on a strong slate of city streets.

Street circuits inherently come with issues. They’re narrow, tight, and only as well-maintained as the city decides they’ll be. Viewing and overtaking opportunities are limited, and there will almost inevitably be some local backlash regarding road closures.

Formula 1, though, has truly begun rectifying many of those issues with its latest street circuits. While the Miami Grand Prix course may not be the most inspired, its location in a parking lot of a stadium allows for some more creativity in the layout.

The Las Vegas Grand Prix layout received ample backlash thanks to the congestion its road closures caused, but it provided some of the best racing of the 2023 season. Singapore, Monaco, and Jeddah all also benefit from the fact that they simply look great on television. F1’s modern slate of street tracks are organized so well that they don’t feel quite like street circuits at all.

With far less money in its coffers, IndyCar doesn’t have the money or the influence to enact wholesale renovations of the cities it stages street races in — and that was obvious watching Detroit this weekend. Patchy pavement repairs, abandoned buildings, parking garages, rough-looking barriers, and poorly secured trackside signage gave an aesthetic impression that the event we’re watching is less of a spectacle and more of a hastily thrown-together event.

That’s a poor look, especially coming off the back of the Indy 500. IndyCar’s biggest race benefits from ample care of its facilities and massive amounts of promotion.

If you tune into the subsequent Detroit Grand Prix, you’d be forgiven for thinking the race was nothing more than an afterthought.

The Detroit Grand Prix: a brief history

As with other events like Long Beach, IndyCar’s Detroit Grand Prix initially began as a Formula 1 event.

Between 1982 and 1988, F1 hosted seven Grands Prix in Detroit, boasting winners like Ayrton Senna, Keke Rosberg, John Watson, Nelson Piquet, and Michele Alboreto. The races were known for the track’s horrible bumps, poor organization, and the mechanical punishment each car was subjected to.

When the city of Detroit announced that it was unwilling to make wholesale upgrades to improve racing, Formula 1 departed and IndyCar moved in. The event used a modified version of F1’s track for three years before the track was shifted to Belle Isle, an island park. The track was still narrow, but it was smoother for the drivers and more enjoyable for the fans.

In 2023, IndyCar announced that it would be returning to a new downtown street circuit — one that only utilized a small section of the former F1 track. The event also retained its slot as the first race to take place after the Indy 500.

Other post-Indy options

Detroit makes sense as an Indianapolis 500 follow-up. The track is a short drive from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, so it’s a convenient location for Indy-based teams, and it means a race can take place in the immediate aftermath of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.

Detroit’s reputation as an automaker haven means automotive executives are able to immediately satiate any Indy-related interest they’ve developed in the series with a race in their own backyard. It also introduces any brand-new fans to the fact that IndyCar isn’t just an oval series.

Unfortunately, in Detroit, the racing is just bad thanks to the narrow, angled nature of the street circuit. In fact, it would make sense for the series to head just about anywhere else.

One venue in particular stands out to me as the ideal post-Indy event: Road America. The four-mile road course located in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin is close enough to Indianapolis that it wouldn’t require a massive cross-country jaunt, and the gorgeous, historic track always puts on a great race.

It’s also almost guaranteed to be an instant favorite of the modern Formula 1 fans that crave a return to the Nürburgring or a more untouched Spa-Francorchamps.

While many longtime IndyCar fans reason that the best way to build on Indy’s momentum is to follow the 500 with another oval race, I disagree.

IndyCar’s strength is in its circuit diversity; it remains the only series in the world that hosts compelling events on ovals, road courses, and street circuits. Let’s follow up the series’ greatest oval event with one of its greatest events at a road or street circuit. 

Detroit retains an important logistical touchstone in IndyCar’s annual schedule, but with its current track layout, the Detroit Grand Prix does the sport no favors.

The circuit desperately needs an overhaul — and until the racing proves otherwise, it should not shoulder the burden of further building on the international interest generated by the Indy 500.

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