It was surreal then and it seems even more so now. Donald Trump’s helicopter hovered over Brandywine Park and when it landed the man himself stepped from it and into an awaiting limousine. And climbing into the limo with him – and, frankly, fawning over him – were members of Wilmington’s mayor’s office, all staunch Democrats.
That was back in 1989, when Trump’s name was attached to the biggest bike race in America, the Tour du Trump, which later became the Tour Du Pont and one of the biggest sporting events to ever hit Delaware. It also brought the world to our little city and our little state.
Those city officials – the late Dan Frawley was mayor at the time — took Trump on a whirlwind tour of the Wilmington Riverfront, which was just starting its rebirth after decades of neglect, and they were obviously hoping that Trump would consider investing in their project and their city. So, all of those Democrats enthusiastically rolled out the red carpet for the man who appeared to have the Midas touch and everybody was as chummy as could be.
The Tour de Trump/DuPont left town years ago, but some local promoters are doing their best to bring back that big-race vibe. The 10th Wilmington Grand Prix, which runs from May 13-15, is now the eighth stop on the USA Cycling Pro Road Tour, which gives this annual event more clout than it had before. There are more than 2,500 road races in the country that are sanctioned by USA Cycling and only 26 races in 19 states are part of the Pro Road Tour, which concludes Sept. 17 in Boston.
For more information on the race go to http://wilmgrandprix.com.
Laura Van Gilder, who has won this race twice among the 400-plus victories in her 26-year career, will have double duty this week – she is once again the race director and a racer.
“The Wilmington Grand Prix is one of my favorite criterium events of the racing season,” Van Gilder said in a press release. “I have been a participant every year since its inception and last [as race director] offered me a unique race-side experience with the community and riders.”
The promoters were smart enough to make sure that Monkey Hill is a key part of the race, just as it was for the Tour Du Pont’s time trial that ran through Wilmington. The race kicks off on Friday night with a 3.2 mile time trial through Brandywine Park, and, of course, Monkey Hill is the featured part of that. It’s also a potential nightmare for the riders because of its steep grade and slippery cobblestone surface.
Naturally, that also makes it a great spot to watch the race, just as it was the most popular spot to watch the Tour de Trump/DuPont. And, let’s face it, the reason it was and is a great spot to watch the bike race and why so many people camped out there before was the same reason so many watch auto races — the accidents.
That’s something sports fans in Wilmington learned as they became cycling experts, or at least they knew the names of the sport’s elite riders. As a sportswriter I covered every Tour de Trump/Du Pont and, frankly, I didn’t enjoy it very much, for two reasons. One, I knew or cared little about the sport – to me, riding a bike meant pedaling along on my old Huffy that had no brakes. Two, many of the elite riders were foreigners who spoke little or no English, so I’d end up interviewing people I couldn’t understand about a sport I didn’t understand – and that’s assuming I could run them down after the race, because they’d just peddle away after crossing the finish line.
There were highlights, of course, including have a one-on-one interview with Lance Armstrong before he was famous and, of course, infamous. This was when he was just an up-and-coming rider and before his string of (now-tainted) Tour de France victories. Armstrong won the Tour DuPont twice and that got him rolling towards infamy. Other top riders who competed in Delaware included two-time Tour DuPont winner Raul Alcala and Greg LeMond, who won the Tour de France three times (and, as far as we know, he did so cleanly).
The Tour De Trump/Tour DuPont existed during an exciting time for sports in the First State. We also had one of the LPGA’s four major tournaments, the McDonald’s LPGA Championship, at DuPont Country Club and that, too, brought an international cast to our state. Delawareans got to greet and meet some of the greatest names in the history of the sport, including Nancy Lopez, Annika Sorenstam, Karrie Webb, Se Ri Pak and Beth Daniel.
The era was also a golden one for NASCAR and Dover Downs International Speedway. NASCAR was emerging from its backwoods roots to become one of the most popular sports in America, and in keeping up with that explosion in interest Dover Downs greatly increased their bleacher capacity for the NASCAR circus that rolled into town twice a year and filled the state’s coffers with tourist dollars.
Plus we had the Blue Rocks, and the local interest in them made the Rocks one of the best drawing teams in the minor leagues and a starting point for future All-Stars like Johnny Damon, Mike Sweeney, Carlos Beltran and Zack Greinke.
Then, as well know it fell apart and the Tour DuPont was the first to leave, in 1995. Then a real blow fell on The First State, as the organizers of the McDonald’s LPGA Championship decided they had mined the Wilmington market bare and moved the tournament to an exit off of I-95 in Maryland. And, as the years rolled by, interest in NASCAR and the Blue Rocks waned. They still draw decently, but those golden days are gone and will probably never return.
But at least the promoters of the Grand Prix are trying, and they’ve managed to get Wilmington back on the map of competitive bike racing. How well Wilmington supports that race will decide whether it stays there.