Air race to roar over Detroit River
Christine Ferretti / The Detroit News
DETROIT -- Motown could get more bragging rights as Sports Town USA this spring, when the world's top acrobatic airplane pilots bring their death-defying series of slaloms, stunts and slides at speeds exceeding 250 mph to skies over the Detroit River.
The Red Bull Air Race World Series, an international race that features planes zigzagging through 65-foot-high inflatable gates, is coming to Detroit on May 31 and June 1. It's one of two North American cities selected for this year's series of races from April to November in 11 nations including Sweden, Australia, Hungary and United Arab Emirates.
Red Bull and Detroit officials expect to announce the event this week, which they said would attract at least 100,000 spectators and pump $64 million into the economy -- about as much as last year's big return of the Belle Isle Grand Prix. Along with the Gold Cup Hydroplane Races, it's yet another sporting event that would showcase the Detroit River.
"The Motor City loves racing of all kinds," said Christopher Baum, senior vice president of the Detroit Metro Convention and Visitors Bureau. "We have the Grand Prix, hydroplane races on the water and now over the river. Cars, airplanes or boats, you can watch it in Detroit. It's exciting, and lot of folks who enjoy any type of vehicle race can come and see it up close and personal."
The announcement follows several other blue-ribbon international sports events in Detroit -- from the Super Bowl, Ryder Cup and World Series a few years ago to this month's NCAA Men's Midwest Regional Basketball Tournament and the upcoming PGA tournament in August.
But the Red Bull air races are a different bird altogether.
'NASCAR in the air'
Regarded by organizers as "NASCAR in the air," competitors navigate air gate obstacle courses within 500 feet of crowds that annually exceed 4 million worldwide.
Until now, San Francisco and San Diego were the only U.S. cities to host the daring, high-speed races that feature pilots in high-end aerobatic planes competing individually in timed runs. San Diego is the other North American city to nab a tour stop this year.
The selection of Detroit follows extensive lobbying from Jon Rimanelli, a self-proclaimed "airplane freak" and pilot. He first began campaigning for a Detroit stop in November.
"It occurred to me this would be a perfect town. The Detroit River was a turn-key venue when we compared it to all the venues (around the world) and next thing you know we starting pulling it all together," said Rimanelli, CEO of Detroit Air Racing Inc., a Detroit-based company of pilots and aviation enthusiasts.
"This is a great vehicle for the city to show all these folks around the world that we're not a rusty, dusty city, and all the improvements that have taken place. It's going to be really great for the city long-term."
Red Bull officials said Detroit became the natural choice because of its international reputation as the automotive city and as an aviation beacon. Besides cars, Detroit is still renowned for producing nearly 5,500 B-24 bombers in World War II at Ford Motor Co.'s Willow Run plant.
Runway to be built
Less than two weeks before the race, Red Bull staffers will build a temporary runway at Coleman Young Municipal Airport for the event, said Al Fields, the deputy chief operating officer of Detroit. The planes will take off from the runway and navigate through 13 gates about 10-30 feet above the river.
The program, which originated back in 2001 and made its debut in the United States in 2005, is broadcast in over 139 countries to about 400 million viewers, Red Bull officials said.
"The economic impact will be substantial," Baum said, adding Red Bull staffers and production members alone will account for about 5,000 hotel room nights for the Detroit Marriott at the Renaissance Center.
"Airplanes cover a bit of territory and can be seen from many vantage points. You don't have to be close to see this. You can watch the entire course from wherever you are."
To complete the steep turns, pilots must approach speeds of 250 mph and fly about 10 to 30 feet above the water and sometimes maneuver 90 degree turns just to clear the zigzagging routes, said world aerobatics champion and American commercial pilot Kirby Chambliss.
"It's really exciting. The turns that you can make blow you away. I've never seen anyone turn like this," said Chambliss, 48, the 2006 World Series champion. "It's all the things I love -- speed and airplanes and aerobatics. It's extremely dangerous and every track is different."
Fields said the event will be a great way to show off the city.
"We're a cool place and a lot of fun things are happening," he said. "We like having that (reputation) and want to keep it going."