Nostalgic straight-line racers keep Detroit’s drag strip flame alive

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For decades, Detroit and drag racing went hand-in-hand. The Motor City made cars and people raced them. As the city boomed, the racing scene followed suit.

Funded by proceeds raised by Detroit’s Autorama, Motor City Dragway sprang from soil in the late 1950s to become Michigan’s first purpose-built paved strip. On into the ’60s, muscle cars street-raced down Woodward Avenue and “Sunday, Sunday, Sunday!” fizzled from AM radios advertising the Detroit Dragway, another Michigan strip and staple on the National Hot Rod Association tour. Big Three employees formed drag teams, like the Chrysler-affiliated “Ramchargers.” Other auto workers simply punched out at five and went to work on their personal race cars.

Names now synonymous with drag racing have roots in Detroit. Dick LaHaie, Connie Kalitta, and the Logghe family, all legends from southeast Michigan. Fast race cars and top-notch drivers rolled out of the area practically on an assembly line. And the cars, oh, the cars were supersonic works of art. The Bounty Hunter, Super Camaro, Motown Missile, Motown Shaker—some capable of cresting 200 mph down the quarter-mile.

With such a rich and vibrant drag racing history, you’d think there would be numerous strips peppering the Detroit area. Not the case. Detroit Dragway closed for good in 1996, and now, (aside from an annual rip down Woodward) the closest track to the “D” is an hour southwest in Milan, Michigan.

Milan Nostalgia Drags Willys Truck Gasser
“The Haymaker” Willys gasser. Cameron Neveu

As a millennial, I completely missed the heyday of Detroit drag racing. Lucky for me, Milan Dragway does an excellent job honoring Michigan’s racing history. Several times throughout the season, the strip hosts nostalgia meets where vintage drag racers, from gassers to funny cars, come out in droves to rocket down the quarter-mile. Famous, local race cars like the Detroit Tiger Monza take center stage, and most competitors hail from the Mitten State. Some do, of course, haul their rides from Ohio, Illinois, or farther. I’ve attended twice this year to check out the altereds and inhale the nitro.

For those of you with an appetite for classic Detroit drag competition, this photo gallery should hit the spot. Milan Dragway’s nostalgia events are a reminder that at one time, the heart of drag racing beat not in southern California or in the fields of western Indianapolis, but pumped with fervor in the Motor City.

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