Though Belle Isle was the first of his many NTT INDYCAR SERIES wins and he has claimed victory three times in Detroit over the course of his career, Helio Castroneves never really stopped to enjoy the beauty of the James Scott Memorial Fountain.
Castroneves was always so busy during Detroit race weekend, moving from appearance to engineering meetings to autograph sessions as one of the drivers racing for the “hometown” team in Team Penske. He never had the opportunity to slow down and appreciate the true work of art with cascading water that has created special memories for so many Detroiters for nearly a century.
That is until a couple of years ago. Castroneves arrived early for race week in Detroit, driving right from Indianapolis after the Indy 500. The evening he arrived he took some time to take a stroll around the fountain, and he was amazed.
“It was just so beautiful and so peaceful, listening to the water,” said the three-time Indy 500 champion. “The marble throughout the whole fountain and the craftsmanship on all the fixtures and sculptures, it was amazing. What an incredible piece of history.”
Castroneves is certainly not alone in his appreciation of Scott Fountain. Belle Isle’s unique landmark turns 95 years old Sunday, and though the birthday party will be much more reserved this year without the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix presented by Lear serving as its annual backdrop for the celebration, there is still reason to rejoice. The grand fountain will flow for the first time this year on Friday, just in time for its cool waters to extinguish the candles on its birthday cake and to bring some hope and optimism to a city that’s been hit harder than most by COVID-19, the global pandemic that also forced the cancellation of the Grand Prix for 2020.
Each year during Friday of Grand Prix weekend on Belle Isle, Scott Fountain has its summer coming-out party. Grand Prix partner DTE Energy and its longtime engineer, Robert Carpenter, typically spend weeks getting the fountain up and running from a long winter hibernation, cleaning its bowls, servicing or replacing any damaged parts and testing and re-testing its systems to ensure they’re ready for a summer full of long, hot and humid days on the island.
With the pandemic affecting everything, including staffing of personnel on Belle Isle, the fountain wasn’t scheduled to be activated for at least another six weeks. But Grand Prix organizers called on DTE and Carpenter, and with their help and support from the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, the tradition of the first running of the fountain during Friday of race weekend will continue, even when there are no cars on track or fans in the stands to cheer them.
Much like the Grand Prix itself, Scott Fountain has a fascinating history in Detroit, filled with starts and stops that illustrate a story of ultimate perseverance and the ability to overcome challenges. The fountain's first obstacle was clearing the hurdle to get built in the first place.
James Scott was a native Detroiter born in 1831 who became one of the city’s most wealthy residents through shrewd dealings as a real estate developer. When he passed away in 1910, he bequeathed approximately $750,000 of his fortune to the City of Detroit for the purpose of building a memorial fountain in his honor on Belle Isle. However, there was a contingent in the city that was opposed to granting Scott’s wishes. Eventually, the City Council approved the construction of the fountain, but it wasn’t until 15 years after his death, on May 31, 1925, that the James Scott Memorial Fountain was officially unveiled.
While the fountain has been a summertime mecca in Detroit for decades, serving as the backdrop for thousands of weddings and other special events on Belle Isle, there were also periods where it remained dry. The fountain did not operate from 1973-78, and it was down during a restoration period from 1987-89. The Grand Prix helped with its latest restoration in 2010, and in 2018 the event dedicated $400,000 raised at the annual Grand Prixmiere Charity Gala for the Belle Isle Conservancy on race weekend toward long-needed maintenance and repair projects to keep the fountain running.
“Scott Fountain is just such a special destination on Belle Isle,” said Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix presented by Lear Chairman Bud Denker. “It is so important to keep the fountain flowing so many more people can enjoy its beauty and its history for years to come.”
The Grand Prix felt so strongly about embracing the fountain and its heritage that the event relocated its Winner’s Circle area to the new location in 2018. The move was widely embraced by race competitors, fans and media, who all welcomed the opportunity to celebrate after each Grand Prix race at the picturesque and iconic landmark on Belle Isle. Drivers even began a new tradition of taking a dip in Scott Fountain after the victory podium ceremonies, harkening back to the early days when the fountain was also used as a wading pool by Detroit residents.
“It’s become one of the coolest podiums in motorsports,” said Team Penske driver Will Power, a two-time INDYCAR winner on Belle Isle who celebrated at the previous podium location but would relish the opportunity to take a cool dip in the fountain after his next trip to Winner’s Circle.
"The beautiful James Scott Memorial Fountain, an architectural treasure on Belle Isle in Detroit, has borne witness to countless moments of significance in the lives of Detroiters,” said Michele Hodges, president of the Belle Isle Conservancy. “Since 1925, it has served as the backdrop of choice when chronicling some of life's most momentous occasions. We are proud that it also serves as a worthy spot for drivers celebrating a pinnacle career moment, triumph at the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix presented by Lear."
Though no drivers will celebrate on Belle Isle this weekend without the annual race, parkgoers and residents of Detroit can enjoy a small victory as the fountain is back and flowing again for what everyone hopes is a summer of healing in the Motor City.