Detroit Grand Prix venue change ends tradition in Belle Isle fountain


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Aug 14, 2023

Detroit Grand Prix venue change ends tradition in Belle Isle fountain

A tradition Detroit Grand Prix drivers missed out on this year as a result of

A tradition Detroit Grand Prix drivers missed out on this year as a result of moving the race off of Belle Isle to downtown was taking a victory dip, the equivalent of a Gatorade bath, in the cool water of the marble James Scott Memorial Fountain.

"There's just no jumping in the fountain, though, because we are not there," WDIV-TV's (Channel 4) Jamie Edmonds teased winner Alex Palou, while interviewing him live Sunday, after the race. She added that going into the nearby Detroit River would be an awful substitute, a "a no-no."

"Is it cold or what?" Palou asked. She replied: "Freezing!"

For a while, the 1923 monument — a bequest by Scott "for the enjoyment" and "adornment" of the city — had served as a backdrop for the race's closing ceremonies, adding to the acclaim of a fountain many already regarded as among the best in America and a "must-see," despite its controversial past.

This year, the massive fountain — which is 510 feet around with 109 water jets in the form of turtles, lions, horns, and other figures — also became a meme, as Detroiters took to social media to debate whether or not the race's venue change was a good idea.

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Some who supported the race's move back downtown posted a photo of it with the words: "Marked Safe from the Grand Prix Today," a jab at drivers and the event, which they considered to be a threat to the island's wildlife and tranquility.

Others fired back: "Try living in the middle of all this," adding that they wanted the event to go back to Belle Isle, complaining about the crowds, noise, and most of all about how it disrupted city traffic flows, including passage through the tunnel to Canada.

From its start, the fountain was the subject of intense debate.

James Scott, who the fountain is named after, was a scoundrel and playboy.

The Detroiter was born with money and made even more of it by speculating and developing real estate. When he died, in 1910, he left about $500,000 to the city with instructions to use it to build a fountain on Belle Isle, along with a life-size statue of himself.

But before plans could be drawn up, prominent religious and business leaders spoke out against its creation: Why, they argued, let a man who did little for the city in life, buy himself honor in death? The critics were overruled. And a contest was held for the fountain's design.

Cass Gilbert — who also designed the Detroit Public Library, U.S. Supreme Court, and Woolworth Building — won.

Near the fountain, cast in bronze, Scott is seated in a chair, looking over the fountain. An inscription summarizes how the monument had come to be and ends with these words: "From the good deed of one comes benefit to many."

For Detroiters, the water flowing through the fountain is a sign of summer.

And for lovers, an area near the fountain can be reserved in two-hour blocks for up to 150 guests through the state's Department of Natural Resources for wedding ceremonies and photos, with a one-hour rehearsal, for $150 from mid-June through Labor Day.

Still, over the years, the fountain's upkeep has been expensive — and a challenge.

When a DTE Energy employee first started working on the fountain in 2007, the company said it was in such a "state of disrepair" it was "red with rust" and the water was green. Union workers restored of parts of it. Masons ground and replaced the mortar seams. Electricians and plumbers updated the wiring and pumps.

The next year, thieves scavenged copper pipes from the fountain, which reportedly caused about $100,000 in damages.

The Belle Isle Conservancy — a group that aims to "protect, preserve, restore and enhance" the island in the middle of the Detroit River — is trying to raise money to restore the Pewabic tile mosaic that originally could be seen around the fountain's basin.

Still, the Detroit Grand Prix winner's bath had put the fountain in the national spotlight with NBC broadcasts and other major news outlets filming, photographing, and writing about the winners, and their crews, gleefully rushing into it.

Last year, cameras caught former IndyCar and Detroit Grand Prix champ William Power — this year's runner-up — in the fountain. He turned around and lifted his right arm in triumph just before he was joined by other members of his team, who rushed in, whooping and splashing around like kids at the pool.

It was a moment Power had said he hoped for. Just two years before that, Power had been quoted on calling the fountain "one of the coolest podiums in motorsports," adding that he'd relish the chance to get in if he got it.

Perhaps Power treasures that moment even more now, knowing he was the last race winner to do it.

Contact Frank Witsil: 313-222-5022 or [email protected].

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