Michigan’s Milan Dragway is on the ropes

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Cameron Neveu

Southeast Michigan, the home of three domestic car companies, is the center of the auto universe to millions who live and work there. But as a place to take your favorite ride for a Sunday afternoon blast of legal speed, the Detroit area today ranks near the bottom of the hospitality list. Though amateur drag racing was nurtured if not invented here, drag strips struggle making a go of it. Milan Dragway, located 35 miles west of the Motor City—and less than 20 miles south of Hagerty’s editorial offices in Ann Arbor—is the latest quarter-mile track to keep its gates padlocked long after warm weather’s return.

In 1957, Motor City Dragway, one of the country’s first paved tracks, opened at a rural site 35 miles northeast of Detroit. Before electronic timing equipment was created, racers were hand flagged at the start and finish lines. So many cars came to race that aircraft spotting lights were used to stretch running deep into the night. But after 21 years of competition, civilization closed in and noise complaints shut Motor City down. Though the place has been abandoned for decades and grass grows through cracks in its asphalt, retired racers still come to pay their respects.

Detroit Dragway, located only 16 miles south of downtown Detroit, followed in 1959. This time it was industrial growth that shut the track down after 37 years of racing in 1996. Today, GM assembles electric car battery packs in the quiet manufacturing park that replaced Detroit Dragway’s sound and fury.

Milan Dragway race action
Cameron Neveu

Milan Dragway opened in 1964 on repurposed farmland unlikely to be plagued either by civilization’s creep or noise complaints. Entrepreneur Bill Kapolka bought the facility in 1989. Over the years, Milan hosted both NHRA and IHRA national drag racing events as well as frequent swap meets, car shows, and rock concerts. A pond on the property supported marine drags and corners of the facility were groomed for mud racing and motocross events. Both Car and Driver and Automobile magazine rented access to Milan for occasional car tests.

Kapolka survived one brush with bankruptcy in the early 1990s. More recently he was tardy repaying funds borrowed from Les Gold, a Detroit pawn shop owner and reality TV star known as the “street-level economist.”

This March, Judge Daniel White of the 38th Circuit Court in Monroe, Michigan, placed Kapolka and the American Jewelry & Loan pawnshop in receivership. Proprietor Gold claimed to have a buyer approved by the International Hot Rod Association (IHRA) ready to assume ownership and operation of the drag strip. Such a sale would relieve Kapolka of bankruptcy and, hopefully, restore Milan Dragway racing sometime this summer.

Milan Dragway action
Cameron Neveu

In spite of Milan’s distress, the drag racing sport is thriving. The largest organizer, National Hot Rod Association, claims 40,000 active competitors. The second largest International Hot Rod Association’s reach extends to Australia, Europe, South America, Russia, and other foreign countries. Recently, boutique organizations such as the National Electric Drag Racing Association have sprung up to support the growing popularity of motorcycles and cars powered solely by electricity.

The beauty of drag racing is that any participant’s skills are highly portable.  Once the nuances of the starting line’s Christmas tree are learned, successful procedures can be taken from one track to the next. In spite of the various lengths are now in use—1000-feet and 1/8th mile in additional to the traditional quarter-mile—the racing game is the same track to track. This sport’s fast pace and accessibility also helps keep the spectator stands packed during major weekends. Television coverage of the major national events has also prospered over the years. Four-wide competition supported by the top tracks is, in the eyes of many, far more exciting to view than any NASCAR race.

Milan Dragway racers ready
Cameron Neveu

While Milan competitors and spectators are surely disappointed about their home track’s current closure, ample opportunities for them to scratch the racing itch remain. There are two active drag strips—Lapeer International and Ubly Dragway—located in Michigan’s “thumb” 100 miles north of Detroit. The Mid Michigan Motorplex in central Michigan offers test and tune sessions, junior dragster classes for kids as young as seven years old, and cash payouts for winners in several classes every summer weekend. US 131 Motorsports Park, 165 miles west of Detroit, which claims to be Michigan’s fastest track, operates every weekend from April through early November.

We can only hope Milan’s setback is temporary and that a new owner/operator with better finances and an upbeat vision rises to the occasion. Anyone interested in exploring this opportunity further should get in touch with Les Gold at American Jewelry and Loan in Detroit.

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