The Detroit street circuit was a temporary track laid out in the downtown core of Detroit, Michigan. The track was laid out around and through the heart of downtown Detroit, the home of the automobile industry in the US. With the demise of the United States Grand Prix at Watkins Glen, this became the de facto United States Grand Prix for seven years.
Ironically, if one travels due south across the river, they wind up in Canada.
Stealing the concept from the Long Beach race, which had triggered a renaissance of the formerly moribund downtown area, the organizers had thought that this could assist in efforts to counteract the decline of Detroit. The track ran for roughly 2.5 miles around a new high rise tower complex called the Renaissance Center, which was also used as race central as well as providing the hotel for the teams and space for the media.
The original circuit officially had 18 corners, but there were more than 24 actual changes in direction, with greater than half intersection corners of approximately 90 degrees. The main straight and pit lane were laid out in a parking lot along the shore of the Detroit River. At the end of the 3⁄4km straight, the course made a long left turn that added up to more than 180°, exiting onto a local street known as Atwater. The radius at the end of the long left was slightly tighter than the beginning, and combined with a lack of runoff room helped create the situation where an accident early in the Grand Prix required a red flag for almost an hour.
The cars head west on Atwater for not quite 1⁄2 km, before making a tight 90° right on St. Antoine, then starting uphill gaining about 10m in elevation. At the top of the ridge, there was another sharp 90-right onto Jefferson Avenue. A gentle left-right stretch leads to an absurdly tight, left hand 180° hairpin, designed to be as tight as the Station Bend at Monaco. The drivers were almost unanimous in their condemnation of this very slow and contrived corner. They went back about half a block on Jefferson, then a 90-right onto Chrysler Service Drive. After another block, there was a wide, sweeping left into one of the fastest parts of the circuit. A gentle S bend and short straight on Congress Street led the cars into a tighter 90-left on Beaubien, then a 90-right onto Larned Street, which was a four block straight with a short tunnel. This ended at yet another 90-left (onto Woodward) followed by another 90-right back onto Jefferson.
A three block stretch on Jefferson led to the most interesting part of the course. Jefferson ended in a "T" intersection at Washington Boulevard, and just beyond was the Detroit Convention Center. This huge structure was used for paddock space for all of the Formula One and support teams, and the large, glassed in foyer was set up with padded chairs on risers, where well-heeled fans saw the race both live and on TV, while eating a catered buffet meal.
But just outside the glass, the drivers were about to have a rough time of it. After crossing in front of the convention center, the cars passed over trolley tracks (the last time a track has ever had that "feature" in Formula One history), then made a tight left onto a sharp, downhill parking access ramp. At the bottom of the ramp (which was not quite two cars wide and had no room for runoff) the cars made another tight 90-right, onto a little lane called Civic Center Drive. The reason for the name was never explained, as the Detroit civic center was over a mile to the north. A kink to the right led to a 135° left, back onto Atwater. But almost immediately, they entered a gently curving tunnel that was almost 300 meters long. The S bend in the tunnel meant the drivers could not see out until almost the end, but they still needed to keep the gas down the entire length. A bit beyond the tunnel exit was a fairly quick right-left S bend, and then the main straight was in sight. But there was one last hurdle, so to speak; just after pit in, there was a left-right-left chicane, to keep the cars from building up too much speed on the front straight.
The architects of the course had calculated the distance at about 3.95 km/2.45 miles. But the feeling among the teams was that figure was significantly off, and would affect their fuel calculations. An engineer with Renault was quoted as saying that they were using 4.17 km/2.59 miles as their track length, and a report from BMW said their numbers were very close to that.
The teams returned in 1983 to find one major revision, and a number of detail changes. Gone was the absurdly tight (and unpopular!) hairpin on Jefferson Street. The cars now made fast, sweeping left turn with multiple apexes, and the drivers were saying that the track now had a legitimately interesting section. The sharper left onto Congress Street was still there, but the cars were reaching that point at roughly twice the speed as they were the year before.
The 180 left after the pits had also been revised. The corner was now tighter, with a revised alignment that gave the course more runoff room. Ironically the runoff area at that corner was never used again in the history of the race. Detail changes included several leveled and resurfaced streets, including some major work where the course crossed the trolley tracks. And pit in had been moved so that it was actually on the outside of the chicane before the start, instead of the cars negotiating the entrance before the chicane. And in conjunction with an FIA measuring crew, adjustments had also been made in various corners to bring the lap distance to exactly 4.023 km/2.500 miles. The official records were never changed, but the track officials were now saying that the 2.59 mile track length of 1982 was accurate.
Subsequent events saw nothing but detail changes, until the first CART event in 1989.
The race continued on the street circuit for three years with the CART series. Other than removing the chicane just before the start (because of the longer pit lane needed) and a couple of corners with increased radii, the track was pretty much unchanged.
In 1992 the race moved three miles east, to the Belle Isle location that Formula One said was unworkable. With fewer logistical issues than the street circuit had initially, the "unworkable" circuit has been a success ever since.
The following is a list of Formula One World Championship events held at the Detroit Street circuit:
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