As is his habit, Roger Penske wanted to see for himself how the work was progressing before he left for Sunday’s Indianapolis 500. So Penske, a well-known race car team owner and Birmingham businessman, drove downtown Tuesday to check out preparations for the Chevrolet Detroit Belle Isle Grand Prix on June 1-3.
He ended up at Scott Fountain, which was empty and being cleaned of yellow water stains. Penske walked around the monument, completed in 1925 from money left to the city by millionaire Detroiter James Scott, checking out hospitality tents that have been erected close to the 2.1-mile racetrack.
The wait is almost over. The Grand Prix, which had been canceled because of the Motor City’s crippling economic situation after 2008, is near, with the sights and sounds of the open-wheelers of the IZOD IndyCar Series and three more support events soon to shatter what has been a deafening silence, race-wise, on the island the past four years.
“The timing of the event returning couldn’t be better, because economic conditions in the state of Michigan are much, much better,” said Penske, collector of 15 Indy 500 victories as an owner and countless other race wins, including NASCAR triumphs.
“Certainly, the motor car companies are on a roll, when you look at General Motors, Chrysler and Ford. To see the commitment from the corporate community — we would not have had that the past two or three years due to the downturn of 2008. Most will be back (at the race), and I think that’s a very positive sign.”
Team Penske driver Ryan Briscoe is on the pole for the Indianapolis 500.
Penske said Briscoe can win it. But, he added, so can either of his other two drivers: Will Power, who starts the race in fifth position, and Helio Castroneves, the three-time Indy 500 champ, who is sixth on the grid.
“I feel good about the 500,” Penske said. “We’ve got to be ready, but we have great engines, great crews. The question now is can we execute at the highest level.”
While Indy is a huge event for Penske, Tuesday’s conversation focused on Belle Isle and what it means to Team Penske and the city.
“For us, from an IndyCar prospective, people like coming to Detroit,” Penske said. “The heritage of racers Louis Chevrolet and Mauri Rose —those guys way back — they came out of Detroit.
“The fact we could return to Belle Isle and put on an event that not only promises good racing but also leaves a legacy of an island that’s been cleaned up and detailed is very positive.”
As Penske looked over the landscape at Belle Isle on Tuesday, dozens of workers continued the job of getting the island and racetrack into shape for a race last won by Justin Wilson.
Crews toiled on refilling cracks in the racing surface, while other workers mowed lawns and edged grass. Electricians wired the Casino building.
“The key thing we have is a three-year agreement we’ve signed with Chevrolet as title sponsor of the Grand Prix,” Penske said of the future of the race. “Connect that with a sanctioning agreement that gives us a three-year opportunity to put on the race and a contract with the city, and it’s very positive.
“What the Grand Prix brings is that connection with Belle Isle, the city, racing and the people who live in the city. Cleaning the fountain, getting the lagoon cleaned up — all these things were derelict.
“The TLC we give becomes the location here. We’ve brought the island back to what it needed to be and the race, too.”