Detroit’s lost dragstrips
When modern V-8s trickled down from Cadillac, Chrysler, and Oldsmobile to the Chevys, Fords, and Pontiacs that any kid with willing parents and job could afford, drag racing took root in the Motor City. Twenty clubs cropped up under the Michigan Hot Rod Association (MHRA), established in 1951. Thankfully, Robert Baumgartner, a local police lieutenant, realized something had to be done to avoid street racing carnage. In 1953, the area’s first legal drags were held on a temporary strip located at a General Motors manufacturing site under Baumgartner’s protective gaze.
Credit MHRA’s first president, Dick Stickley, for advancing the cause with a permanent drag facility. To raise funds, he and his associates founded Detroit’s Autorama Rod and Custom Car Show in 1953. Following four years of success, the MHRA had the cash to purchase land 35 miles northeast of Detroit near New Baltimore, Michigan. Club members pitched in to prepare the quarter-mile track, which opened in 1957 as the Motor City Dragway. It was the nation’s first member-owned strip. The entry sign boasted that it was “Built, owned, and operated by the youth of Detroit.”
Flag men started each race and signaled the winner at the end of the run. A pneumatic hose placed just ahead of each racer’s front tire triggered the timing clock and was expeditiously yanked out of the way of the spinning rear tires. Later, the finish line official was replaced by hoses capable of identifying the winner and reporting trap speed.
Motor City’s success did not go unnoticed. Sensing money to be made at the home of the muscle car, promoter Gil Kohn purchased land on the opposite side of town, opening the Detroit Dragway in 1959. Thanks to Kohn’s ties with the National Hot Rod Association, the Dirty D, as it was nicknamed, hosted the NHRA’s prestigious National event during its first year of operation. It drew 783 entries and some 30,000 spectators.
Art Arfons’ Green Monster II set the top speed of the meet—172 mph on gasoline—armed with way too much power from its V-12 Allison aircraft engine. Connie Kalitta, Shirley Muldowney, Dyno Don Nicholson, Don Prudhomme, Tom McEwen and countless other drag demons came to town to earn their living with bursts of smoke, noise, and speed. Radio ads wooed crowds with howling engines, screaming tires, and the hypnotic “Sunday! Sunday! Sunday at the Detroit Dragway!” battle cry.
Also in 1959, a few clever Chrysler Corporation engineers formed the Ramchargers team to race on weekends. With two local tracks in full swing, the ‘60s muscle cars—Pontiac GTOs, Hemi Road Runners, Boss Mustangs—rolled off assembly lines into eager customer hands. The Ramchargers and corresponding teams backed by GM and Ford advanced the speed chase professionally and served as role models for every teenager with a tool box, a garage, and a set of slicks. In 1963, Ed Eaton, the veteran racer who managed Gil Kohn’s New York National Speedway strip on Long Island, invented the Christmas tree. This vertical array of yellow, green, and red lights removed flag men from harm’s way and gave driver’s champing at the throttle a visual countdown to their race start.
Factory-built muscle cars lasted only 10 years before rising insurance rates and the arrival of emissions controls and lead-free gasoline doomed the era. When angry neighbors railed against the horrific noise generated every weekend at the Motor City Dragway, club members lost interest in the fight to keep their sport alive and moved on. After a two-decade run, Detroit’s first drag strip closed in 1978. To stop trespassers from enjoying one more run, a deep trench was cut across the entrance road.
The professionally managed Detroit Dragway initially prospered as the only straight-line racing game in town, but by 1991, fewer than 500 spectators came on Sunday. The gates were finally locked at the end of the 1996 season.
Mother Nature has wreaked havoc on the abandoned Motor City track. While a half mile of asphalt can still be found after a trek through the dense vegetation surrounding the strip, weeds are gradually having their way with the racing surface. The once proud timing tower, which made Car Craft’s December 1965 cover, is dilapidated and rotting. The cinderblock concessions stand is a silent monument to the glory days of cheese fries. A recent web post lists Gilbert Kohn, now 82, of Delray Beach, Florida, as the property’s current owner.
Located only 16 miles from downtown Detroit just off Interstate 75, the Detroit Dragway grounds enjoyed a kinder fate. Recycled as the Brownstown Industrial center, this property became an auto industry logistics base. In 2009, GM outfitted one 479,000-square-foot building to assemble battery cells into packs for its growing fleet of hybrid vehicles. Backed by more than $100-million of investments in lithium-ion technology, this is one of the world’s largest battery-making facilities. Cells produced by partner LG Chem in Holland, Michigan, are built into packs for GM cars and trucks.
So, where car fans once gathered to worship their noisy sport, silent bundles of energy are now manufactured. Someday, when hybrids face off to race on Woodward Avenue, the circle of speed will be complete.