Gear: Re-Live the Forgotten History of Formula 1 in Detroit

Re-Live the Forgotten History of Formula 1 in Detroit

By Benjamin Shahrabani
June 3, 2015

The book: Postcards From Detroit

Author: Roger Hart

Pages: 96

Purchase: Click here

When one thinks of Formula 1, one might not naturally associate it with the city of Detroit, home of the “Big Three” manufacturers General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler. For seven years, however, from 1982-1988, Formula One races were held on a two and a half mile street circuit that snaked through areas in and around Detroit’s city center. Roger Hart, a managing editor at Autoweek magazine, but once a reporter and photographer, captures all of the drama and atmosphere of this now long-gone American Grand Prix through evocative photographs he took as a freelancer for the Associated Press in period.

In short: Hart’s lens captures the thrills associated with one of motorsport’s greatest spectacles in one of America’s greatest manufacturing cities.

Created largely to improve the city’s international image, the original course would wrap its way around the GM Renaissance center, the Cobo convention center, and also parts of Woodward Avenue. While the track would borrow much of its features from the famous Monte Carlo circuit, which was the only other track to also feature a tunnel, the narrow, treacherous Detroit course would soon gain a reputation for being difficult and demanding on drivers and cars alike, often producing races where a swath of the competing field would retire through mechanical failure, or crash damage. Hart captures all of the personalities, drama and danger that took place well within the city limits of America’s “Motor City”. Aside from an introductory text about the history of the race, there isn’t a tremendous amount to read this fairly short book. Instead, Hart chooses to engage the reader by giving them a slightly better than front row seat through evocative black and white photography.

The drivers, the teams, the paddocks, and the spectators—the effect and layout of the book is such that turning the page is akin to watching sportscast highlight clips, albeit narrated with short detailed captions that tell you all of the who, what, and when that were present.

Detroit was removed from the Formula One schedule after seven years, in 1988. The FIA, motorsport’s governing body, declared the pit area wasn’t up to scratch for a World Championship race. That’s a shame. One other shame is that Hart’s cameras were born too soon soon, well before the advent of digital photography. In today’s digital world, perhaps we are spoiled with high-definition zoom lenses, because Hart’s photographs at times look a little distant.

One other critique is that Hart decided to exclusively utilize black and white photography—but this was the era of when F1 was still dangerous, when the cars, teams, drivers, and fans were loud! It would have been great to see these events depicted in bright, beautiful colors—all the better to see those flames.

Maybe one day, F1 will return to Motor City. Until then, consider this book as a postcard reminder of a Detroit’s motorsports past.

Purchase Postcards From Detroit

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Michael Stoops
Michael Stoops
8 years ago

As a native of SE Michigan I have fond memories of attending every one of the Grands Prix in downtown Detroit, and my excitement at the initial announcement that F1 was coming to the Motor City at all. The team garages, such as they were, were set up in a parking garage of the Renaissance Center and I remember running into a bunch of the Lotus mechanics in a public bathroom of the garage during the inaugural running of the Detroit GP. I always purchased a “general admission” ticket so that I could walk the entire venue and take in the sights and sounds from a variety of vantage points. The food vendors were always top notch as well, thanks to Detroit being known back then for it’s great variety of “Ethnic Festivals” held at Hart Plaza and the international flavors always available. This was, I thought, a perfect compliment to the obvious international flavor of Formula 1 in general. Yeah, all this in Detroit. Who knew, huh?

Jaime Yu
Jaime Yu
8 years ago

Its a pity that Mr. Hart had limited his photographic resources to his own archive. I clearly remember many beautiful photographs published by Road & Track when they featured the Detroit Grand Prix. I distinctly recall John Watson’s remark in amazement of Ayrton Senna’s talent in an article about the Detroit GP; “Senna was doing four things simultaneously as he passed me.”

Stephen Ferguson
Stephen Ferguson
8 years ago

Good memories of bombing down to Detroit from Toronto for the ’87 GP, our 19-year-old selves not seeing any problem with pushing a rented Jetta to the top of its scale on the 401. Sleeping in the car across the river in Windsor, up early to cross over for each session, brushing elbows with Mansell and Piquet (try to get that type of access these days), and then watching those ridiculous cars rocket through the streets, down the hill, under a bridge, into the tunnel. Shooting Senna’s Lotus head on through a hole in the chain-link face. Wow. All for something silly like 20 bucks general admission, and closer to the track than any modern grandstand seat.


Guitar Slinger
Guitar Slinger
8 years ago

I’ll comment on a couple of things here ;

1) Despite the fact that Detroit at this time was already in a serious state of decay the circuit , the setting and the event were to say the least spectacular . Many of us in the US calling it the Working Man’s Monaco . Many speculate that the real reason F1 was pulled from Detroit was F1’s desire to pull completely away from any connection to the working class as well as a heck of a lot of dirty politics on the part of the FIA and the city of Detroit ; a city all too well known for its dirty politics and corruption . Truly for the fan and especially the US fan though : due to Detroit’s more centralized location and accessability etc the demise of the Detroit F1 race was a great loss indeed

2) Digital vs Film ; Though I hate to be disagreeable here I must due to the misinformation presented . The simple fact is if Mr Hart’s photos are not clear that is due either to his abilities , the darkroom printing of the photos or the reproduction quality of the printer for the book . The hard core reality is ; Print Photography and especially B&W print photography has up to a 40\% higher level of resolution than any digital format currently in production : that is a scientific and verifiable fact . As in music Digital Photography is only capable of recording 0’s and 1’s and no matter how high the resolution is completely incapable of recording all the ‘ grey ‘ areas in between which is what gives especially B&W film photos such depth , detail and resolution . As far B&W vs Color in general ? B&W and especially film B&W gives a much higher level of detail and resolution than any color format available . All color photography being a compromise at best

Which is to say in closing . Analogue Lives ! As well as get yourself a film Leica M series and find out just how good real ( film ) photography really is . Because as with recorded music . If you’re only seeing / listening in the digital domain . You’re missing a good 40-60\% of what was originally there . Guaranteed !

BTW ; This looks like a book I may have to add to my library : of print books that is .

Douglas Anderson
Douglas Anderson
8 years ago

This article makes me kind of sad in a way, I’m a Detroit born boy, a car guy for life, and an F-1 fan since back in the 60’s. I was working for an Ann Arbor based Pizza chain during the time mentioned in the article and sadly missed all the action in Detroit as i was usually traveling on Pizza business to the far corners of Europe, Central and South America ( and various other local’s).
I caught a few F-1 races in Europe and a lot of Moto GP but missed the action at home. Wish i had had the sense to video record it 😉

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