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Original Issue

Pedal to the metal In Motown

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

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.

The money went to the English firm of Cosworth Engineering, where Keith Duckworth designed a V-8. It won the first Grand Prix in which it was entered. Since then it has won 146 more (worth 11 world championships). Ferrari, with 81 Grand Prix wins is a distant second. The Cosworth constitutes one of the most remarkable achievements in racing, variants of it having won the Indianapolis 500 and the 24 hours of Le Mans.

So almost everyone had something to be positive about, if he looked. Even the drivers. The circuit turned out to be so tight that it bordered on the ridiculous, but most of them bit their tongues. "We want Detroit to happen one way or another," said Alexander. McLaren driver Niki Lauda griped and moaned, as is his wont, but at the same time offered constructive suggestions and initiated many safety improvements during the hectic final week of preparations. Lauda's teammate, Ulsterman John Watson, was possibly the most diplomatic. Asked how he liked the place, he replied that Motown music was his favorite. Said the fast Finn, Keke Rosberg, with a stoic shrug, "It's got corners and it's got straights and it's bumpy. It's no different than any other racetrack." Cheever actually liked it. "At least the circuit has a feeling to it," he said. "Some of the places we race are so boring. They just go round and round. I really do like this circuit. I like racing between the buildings and walls and people."

Basically, most of the drivers described the course as "a joke" to one another but "interesting" for the record. Indeed, it was silly in places. It had 20 turns crammed into its 2.59-mile length, 16 of which were right angles or tighter—an extreme number even for a street circuit. Turn Five, in front of Christ Episcopal Church, was a hairpin akin to a U-turn at a stoplight; the Formula I cars, designed to work best in 150-mph sweeping bends, had to brake nearly to a complete stop there, the drivers throwing their steering wheels to the left in a full lock, their right elbow stuffed into the crook of their left. "I had a hard time getting my Escort rental car around it," said Alexander.

Detroit had the distinction of being not only the tightest course on record, but also the bumpiest. It seems the City Council didn't get its money's worth in the repaving. "Just look at it!" declared Alexander, pointing down the front straight. It was as ripply as the Detroit River it borders. "I mean, if I had hired a contractor to build me a level road, I wouldn't have paid for that."

The course may have been tight and bumpy to the drivers, but it was wonderful for the spectators. There were excellent views of corners and straights from well-placed grandstands. And surely the circuit had a character that only the inner city could provide. The Renaissance Center was the backdrop to nearly every turn, reflecting the sun and sky and river and even the speeding cars in its silver-green glass facades. Nearby was Hart Plaza, where spectators could take respite from the racing, with its festival atmosphere, Close Encounters fountain, outdoor amphitheater featuring the Teen Angels, smell of simmering shishkebab, chess players concentrating as cars screamed all around them and little kids wearing bobbing antennae of silver stars. No other American circuit has the same character; not Long Beach, a maze of dead ends and do-not-enters, and most certainly not Las Vegas, with its Caesars Palace parking lot course.

It was a good thing the drivers were patient with Detroit's first-time glitches. They had hoped for practice to begin Thursday morning; instead, because of safety modifications they themselves had insisted upon, they didn't get going until 4 p.m. Friday. They had one qualifying session Saturday morning. During a second one that afternoon it rained, precluding fast laps. It amounted to the shortest preparation time in memory for a Formula I race.

Fastest on Saturday morning was France's Alain Prost, driving a turbo-charged V-6 Renault. Prost also led in the point standings for the world championship, with victories in the first two of the six races run theretofore. The second-fastest qualifier was Andrea deCesaris, an Italian driving a V-12 Alfa Romeo, but Prost's main threats figured to come from the second row of the starting grid, where Rosberg in his Williams-Cosworth and Didier Pironi of France in a turbo Ferrari, qualified.

All things considered, it was predictable that on the first lap someone would find trouble in the Turn 5 hairpin. That someone was Arrows driver Mauro Baldi. He shot into the corner too fast and used the March of Raul Boesel of Brazil as a ski ramp, putting them both out of the race. Prost had sprinted into the lead followed by deCesaris, Rosberg and Pironi, but deCesaris' Alfa Romeo lost its shrill song on the second lap.

As the seventh lap began, Roberto Guerrero of Colombia tapped Riccardo Patrese—winner at Monaco in the rain this year—in Turn 1, and both cars became airborne, flying into barriers built of tires. Patrese's Brabham caught fire, but he wasn't injured. Although the fire was quickly extinguished, the red flag had already been thrown, stopping the race to permit wreckers to remove the cars. Other street circuits use cranes, or "cherry pickers" to remove disabled cars without bringing the race action to a halt.

Prost's plan had been to jump to an early lead and try to stay there, pacing himself because he knew the bumps would prevent full-out racing for very many consecutive laps. He was driving with a badly bruised right heel, the result of a crash at Monaco, and was also worried that if he got stuck in traffic he would have to use his brakes too much and overstrain his foot. He needn't have worried about that. At the restart—one hour and three minutes later—he ran off again, the singular dull roar of his Renault turbo all the more recognizable because there were no cars around him. After 13 laps Prost led Rosberg by eight seconds, with a stirring battle for third among Pironi, Cheever and Bruno Giacomelli in an Alfa.

But then Prost's fuel injection system began to falter. Rosberg quickly passed the favored Renault. As Prost dropped back, Watson continued a charge that he had begun from the 17th starting position, after a "bloody awful" qualifying session that included contact with the wall when he misjudged the space he needed to pass another car. But now he was the fastest car on the course, daringly weaving through the field. There was a tense passing and repassing duel with his teammate, Lauda, just before he set out to take the lead from Rosberg. The Williams driver, now only seconds ahead, was apparently experiencing gearbox problems. Watson hauled him in on the 42nd of the race's 62 laps and never looked back, afraid to slow his pace for fear it would upset his rhythm on this relatively unfamiliar, and certainly unforgiving, circuit.

There were no changes among the leaders for the final 13 laps. Watson won his second Grand Prix of the year by a comfortable 15.72 seconds, having averaged 78.2 mph, and took the lead in world championship points after seven of 16 races with 26 points to Pironi's 20, Prost's 18 and Rosberg's 17. Cheever, inheriting second when Lauda tangled with a slower car, brought his shrieking V-12 Talbot-Ligier into second place 12.35 seconds ahead of Pironi. It was the best Grand Prix finish of Cheever's career, especially satisfying for him because it came in the country of his birth, especially satisfying for the promoters because it provided them with a "hometown" hero.

Afterward, Pironi, the president of the Professional Racing Drivers' Association, was asked for an assessment. "It's quite impossible to have good organization the first time for a Grand Prix," he said. He added that the bumps would have to be smoothed, that certain runoff areas at the end of the straights would have to be lengthened and that cranes would have to be acquired to lift disabled cars off the circuit so the race wouldn't have to be stopped for breakdowns.

There were no ifs, ands or buts about the crowd, which was estimated at 100,000. With that kind of interest the Motor City clearly has a future in Grand Prix racing.


First lap, first crash: Baldi gets out of shape while the rest of the field hangs a left.


Watson charged from 17th to a win, and the lead in world championship points.


Cheever, the only American in the race, pleased the promoters by finishing second.