The inaugural Detroit Grand Prix, forerunner of today's IndyCar and Grand-Am races at Belle Isle, was run 35 years ago today. It aimed to follow the success of the similar Formula 1 street race in Long Beach – although the California city would drop F1 for CART IndyCars after the following year.
Intended – as had Long Beach's race – to revitalize the downtown area, Motor City's original tight and twisty circuit was laid out on roads around the new Renaissance Center on the Detroit River. It featured 17 turns – most of them slow, to the chagrin of the drivers. Track construction continued up to the last minute, forcing the cancellation of a planned extra practice session on Thursday and delay qualifying until Saturday.
Alain Prost took Renault's sixth pole in seven races to that point in the season with a lap of 1:48.537, an average of less than 83mph. The biggest shock was the failure of reigning World Champion Nelson Piquet to qualify for the race, as his Brabham was beset by engine problems during the brief one-hour qualifying session run in dry conditions – and there was no champion's provisional.
The race initially looked like a battle between Prost's Renault and the Williams of Keke Rosberg, who passed the Frenchman for the lead with a brilliant maneuver in one of the many tight corners on the 22nd lap. But charging up behind them – from 17th on the grid, on a track many had dismissed as being impossible to pass on – was John Watson in his McLaren. Passing three cars in one lap to take second, Watson reeled in Rosberg easily, and when the Williams developed a gearbox problem, breezed past into a lead he would not relinquish.
Watson averaged 78mph over the race distance, meaning that the two-hour time limit was reached well short of the intended 76 laps. Eddie Cheever gave the local fans more cause for celebration by finishing second in his Ligier-Matra – his best F1 finish – ahead of Didier Pironi, who was racing the sole Ferrari in the field as a mark of respect for the late GIlles VIlleneuve, who died following a crash in practice at the Belgian GP the previous month.
The RenCen course would host F1 until 1988, when a planned move to a new circuit on Detroit's Belle Isle was abandoned when F1 and race organizers could not come to financial terms. The Detroit GP then again emulated Long Beach by substituting CART for F1, from 1989-'91, again in 2007-'08 under the Indy Racing League, and now once again this year under the IZOD IndyCar Series banner.