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Grand Prix, Belle Isle dressed to impress for this weekend of fast cars and burning rubber

5 - city view

Belle Isle is beautiful – especially at 110 miles per hour.

At least, that’s how it seemed when we whipped around the 2.3 mile race track in one of the race’s Pace Cars on Thursday. Ask me any other details and you’ll get a vague answer.

3- pitsIt took complete concentration just to sit in that loaded Cadillac, air conditioning blasting, gaping as professional race-car driver Stefan Wilson worked the steering wheel around tighter-than-tight curves. Beyond that, everything was a blur.

And when the 23-year-old Brit tells you to put on your seatbelt, I’d recommend you do so.

So that was my moment in the spotlight. The real drivers in this weekend’s Chevrolet Detroit Belle Isle Grand Prix will see our fair islet zoom by even faster as they scream around the turns and twists of the racetrack centered there. The official event, which starts today and runs through June 2, promises to be a grand event in every sense of the word: Loud, crowded, colorful and impressive to all five senses.

A select number of promoters (us media types) and lots of friends of the local car companies got to take a turn on the course for a few hours on a hot, humid morning. Seeing the change on the 982-acre island alone was worth the trip. The view of the city, Windsor and the changes there are awe-inspiring – our sleepy Belle Isle was a testosterone-laden fantasy land, all squealing tires, machines and movie-quality views.

4 - pace carsSome background: This weekend, the cars of the IZOD IndyCar Series, the GRAND-AM Rolex Sports Car Series, the Pirelli World Challenge Touring Car Series and the Firestone Indy Lights Championship will battle wheel-to-wheel on the temporary street circuit constructed on Belle Isle.

It will feature the Chevrolet Indy Dual in Detroit presented by Quicken Loans IndyCar doubleheader – that’s the big noise on Sunday. Today is Free Prix Day with the practices and qualifying races, and I highly recommend checking out the sight if you can get onto the island.

The beautification is impressive – there are freshly painted white-picket fences around the paddocks and elsewhere. Red, white and blue flowers have been planted along Belle Isle’s established walkways, adding warmth to an otherwise harsh landscape of tires, engines and high-performance vehicles.

The track has been repaved. They’ve added a half-mile straightaway that means more speed, more passing and more drama. There will be kids’ games, live entertainment, go-carts and tons of sights to see. More than 40 companies, including Quicken Loans and Chevrolet, are sponsoring the event, which will help raise funds for not only Belle Isle but for the city in general.

6 - welcomeSome of the best things you’ll see aren’t necessarily on the track. Those white barrels all over the place? Those are from Next Detroit, and they represent the efforts to keep downtown, the city and Belle Isle clean. Everyone from out of town who sees even ONE piece of trash on the ground will tell others that Detroit is a wreck. These barrels will, hopefully, stop that from happening (as much).

Those flowers and other Belle Isle improvements? Those are here not only for the race and the summer. I hope they are here for long into the future. There is so much to love on Belle Isle: the koi, the fountain, the views, the long stretches of grassy relaxation, the epic play areas. The place should always be loved and maintained like this.

As for the track itself – the ride was fabulous. Anyone with a secret fantasy of racing should try something like this, even if you have to pay for it (and don’t get a free pass because you have an awesome blogging gig – thanks, Marge!).

wilsonHere’s what I learned from my two-minute ride. I am not fit to be a race-car driver; my nerves were wrecked just getting from my car to the track. Those curves are MEAN. Don’t chat with your driver – he’s trying to keep you from crashing, and your so-called pithy comments are superfluous. Appreciate American made cars (already got that one down, natch). And hold on tight because there is nothing like going 110 miles per hour on Belle Isle…it sure beats the normal 20-miles-per-hour standard.

It was easy to drive home Thursday afternoon. I had my speed rush for the day. I had a sunburn. I was dehydrated and blissfully happy. It was amazing to walk among such giants, and to ride beside these talented drivers was the stuff of legend. I will never look at Belle Isle the same.

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