5 July 2011

Woodward Street Racing: The facts behind the legends

Everybody knows George Lucas' movie, American Graffiti (1973). Some people think the story, the 1932 yellow Ford known as The Milner Coupe and the street racing were real. The truth is, Lucus and his screenwriters made everything up. American Graffiti is just a story.

Woodward Avenue, on the other hand, is organically real. The people, cars and racing were as bona fide as the Sunoco 260 that flowed from the station where Maple Road crossed the famous thoroughfare.

In today's sanitized, safety-obsessed and litigious world, the tales you've heard about Woodward Avenue may seem too fantastic to believe. While decades have dimmed details or embellished accomplishments, the stories about Woodward are grounded in fact.

Looking at the big picture, Woodward Avenue holds the official road designation as M1 (Michigan 1). The multi-lane road — an eight-lane boulevard in some stretches — runs more than 24 miles from downtown Detroit to Pontiac. Then and now the road functioned as a main trunk connecting Detroit and its suburbs such as Ferndale, Royal Oak and Birmingham, the latter of which remains a tony district favored by successful auto industry executives.

Back in the 1950s and ’60s, drive-ins and restaurants lined Woodward, attracting business from across the area. It was only natural that patrons cruised up and down Woodward between popular hangouts such as the Totem Pole and Big Town at the south end of Woodward and Ted's at the north end.

The wide road, traffic, stoplights and testosterone proved a combustive mix.

The first racers were ex-GIs with hotrods and average Joes in family cars. But as the racing scene grew, it attracted the attention of The Big Three's engineering and executive communities, not a surprise given that many employed by GM, Ford and Chrysler lived in the suburbs reached via Woodward.

Michigan 1 became an easy place for engineers to test a new camshaft or carburetor setup. Executives could see the reaction of potential customers as they pitted their latest ideas against their competitors. As the ’50s turned into the ’60s, marketing departments learned that performance could help move sheet metal off dealer lots, causing corporate focus on Woodward Avenue to intensify.

"On a Saturday night we used to sit on the grass north of Hunter going Northbound on Woodward. The racing was as good as you could see at any drag strip," recalls Detroit's Mike Koran.

Koran owns Specialized Vehicles, Inc., a high-tech engineering firm located just a few blocks off Woodward in Troy, Mich. His easygoing demeanor belies the fact that he often raced on Woodward and later became the manager of the legendary Motown Missile pro stock drag-racing team.

"I still remember getting a $500 drag-racing ticket in 1964; it was during one of the first official police crackdowns. I had just gated a guy in a Plymouth Satellite in a friend’s new overhead-cam Pontiac Tempest. My excellent launch performance was observed by one of Birmingham's finest, much to the dismay of my father, who had to accompany me to court," recounts Koran. The biggest disappointment? “I lost the race,” says Koran.

"Guys from GM and Chrysler seemed to focus more on Woodward," says Koran. FoMoCo employees tended to race on roads west of Woodward such as Telegraph.

One particular 1967 Plymouth Belvedere GTX provides physical proof to back the multitude of M1 anecdotes. Known as The Silver Bullet, this Hemi-powered car was the undisputed King of Woodward. The stock-looking hardtop could rip off blistering 10.5-second quarter-mile runs with a trap speed of 132 mph. Fielded by Jimmy Addison out of Ted Spehar's Woodward-facing Sunoco station, Chrysler engineering supplied Addison with numerous go-fast parts and insider knowledge. It was said that Addison never lost a race.

Addison and his GTX were Chrysler's 1967 version of social media relations and arguably played a vital role in Chrysler's huge success during the muscle car era.

Decades after street racing became a public menace and anathema, Detroit muscle car collector Harold Sullivan tracked down and restored the GTX, documenting the extent of clandestine factory involvement. The Hemi displaced 487 cubic inches, up from the factory's original 426. Lightweight components cleaved 500 pounds from the Plymouth.

Addison's victories on Woodward weren't just because he was a good wrench and lucky at timing the stoplights. And that's the truth.

14 Reader Comments

  • 1
    Larry Bush Mart. ind. September 27, 2013 at 19:27
    Used to own 1970 GTX 440 super cammando ran up & down Madison Ave in Indpls. Years ago around tee pee restaurant And back.
  • 2
    Jeff Tundra MIchigan November 13, 2013 at 14:11
    The car in that picture IS NOT the Silver Bullet. It might be silver and have the American Flag on the bottom of the front fender but has the wrong engine, wheels, quarter panels, trim, etc, etc, etc....
  • 3
    tex oklahoma February 19, 2014 at 19:42
    How can one get a $500 ticket in 1964 when they didnt make a satellite until 1965?
  • 4
    rpmitchell midwest July 10, 2014 at 20:16
    Silver Bullet often called a GTX---NOT!! It was a Satellite. Ran 4 (four) Cadillac mufflers to quiet it down. A true sleeper!
  • 5
    sbell Texas September 24, 2014 at 19:05
    The Pontiac overhead cam 6 first came out in 1966.
  • 6
    Kerry Birmingham, MI December 31, 2014 at 12:13
    Jeff is correct, the car pictured is not the original "Silver Bullet". I lived a few blocks from the Sunoco station where Jimmy Addison and Ted Spehar kept and worked on the car. I myself got a drag racing ticket on Woodward south of Square Lake with my red 1962 Falcon and it was a $100 fine plus 10 days in jail. Luckily I beat the ticket in court with Judge Alice Gilbert presiding. It was not a stock Falcon as I built a 289 small block Ford and ran low 12's at Detroit Dragway. I knew better than to try and challenge the "Silver Bullet" !
  • 7
    Garo Kachadourian Binghamton,New York October 5, 2015 at 17:58
    I had the fastest Camaro on the street in this area and was well know from Syracuse to Scranton in those days. I have a simler Camaro now same engine and would take on the Silver Bullet even now you boys Game for next year? I'll even come to you!
  • 8
    Rick Dentry Rochester hills michigan November 27, 2015 at 18:09
    I raced an older guy he had a 1971 Boss 351 ram air Mustang. I had a 1970 351 c WITH HIGH RISE DL PT DIST. 4;56 REAR.. i AM STILL LOOKING FOR MY OTHER REAR END. iI beat GTOs Road runners. 6 car lengths talk about being embarrassed. 45 y/o guy says wanna race for some $$$ i went home in disbelief. July 1972 on Woodward n. of Maple.
  • 9
    chuck P. Mich. December 31, 2015 at 08:32
    The car in the photo is not the Silver Bullet.The real car is currently on display at a McDonalds in the front window,at 13 mile and Woodward ave.It was nicely restored as well as updated a few years ago.Find a'71 Car Craft magazine to view a detailed article,photos of the car and Jimmy Addison.He had many friends and was a local hero.
  • 10
    Todd SoCal November 24, 2016 at 11:45
    I remember reading bits and pieces about The Silver Bullet in various car mags during my high school days. Nobody ever really pegged it beyond a hush hush Mopar-backed street machine.
  • 11
    Todd SoCal November 24, 2016 at 12:41
    I remember reading bits and pieces about The Silver Bullet in various car mags during my high school days. Nobody ever really pegged it beyond a hush hush Mopar-backed street machine.
  • 12
    dan detroit December 8, 2016 at 22:12
    Rpmitchell..actually it was And is a GTX. An old buddy of mine used to own the car. I've personally seen it and the VIN.
  • 13
    Detroit Ghost FL April 12, 2017 at 13:13
    I wrote a novel that was all about Detroit called Detroit Ghost: Origins. The backdrop had to be Woodward, there was high drama there every night.
  • 14
    smackin United States May 6, 2017 at 20:47
    @sbell, I know you posted 3 years ago, but if you get back. The overhead cammer in The article was NOT the OHC6 that later came out. It was a test mule 421 SOHC that put out hideous horsepower, hence the reason he lost the race to that Poncho. Sadly, that motor never saw the light of day.

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