There are folks who say hot rodding originated on the West Coast, and while those folks have a good point, it doesn’t mean gearheads in other parts of the country didn’t have a few ideas of their own. Drag racing certainly had its hotspot in Southern California, but other states had plenty to offer as well.
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As we move eastward on the map, this chapter focuses on tracks located in the Midwest. While not as centralized as the West Coast drag racing scene, Midwest drag strips were quite popular with local racers and spectators, and offered lots of variety. The mostly flat landscape of the Midwest promoted the building of drag strips, as it required minimal ground work, and after all, that is the most important part of a drag strip, right? Owners soon learned that timing equipment, spectator amenities, and racer conveniences cost the most, but in the early days, Midwest drag strips were hardly more thana strip of pavement on a vacant piece of farmland, so none of those factors came into play.
Although simple by nature, Midwestern tracks eventually caught up in terms of creature comforts. Bigger restrooms, timing towers, and safety equipment brought the tracks up to date, and new classes kept the action interesting year in and year out.
Whether talking about the racing surface, the general atmosphere, or the racers, each track had its good points and bad points, but all four tracks in this chaper allowed racers to do what they do. In the end, that’s all that matters, regardless of the reason for closing the doors. Most of the tracks featured in this chapter were sanctioned by the AHRA, which was a heavy-hitting sanctioning body, and the NHRA’s only real competition until the IHRA stepped into the picture in the early 1970s. With Midwest track owner and promoter Ben Christ having a large stake in the AHRA, all of his tracks were AHRA-sanctioned until a falling out in the late 1970s.
Many Midwestern tracks opened in the late 1950s and early 1960s, but the next two decades were not kind to the area and its drag strips. Several Michigan tracks closed in 1978, and Oswego Dragway in Illinois shut down the following year. Many others closed in the early 1980s, especially after the AHRA shut down for good in 1984, leaving many tracks without a sanctioning body. A tough economy, increased population, and blossoming noise ordinances caused much of the dismay for drag racing enthusiasts, and it was a losing battle for racers to go up against the local governments.
There has always been a glimmer of hope for many of the tracks featured in this chapter to be revitalized, but through various ownership and governmental changes, progress has been minimal.
The Midwest is a large region of the country with numerous remaining drag strips, but the ratio of closing tracks to brand-new tracks is certainly unbalanced. Historic racing facilities are closing at an alarming rate, due to the same reasons drag strips closed in the 1970s and 1980s. A poor economy and expanding communities are still almost always the culprits for the closure of these rural area tracks. A big Midwest track that saw unfortunate times is Gateway International Raceway in Madison, Illinois. Its oval track was NASCAR sanctioned, its quarter-mile drag strip was NHRA sanctioned, and it had a great infield road course, but that didn’t stop the owners from nearly killing it. Dover Motorsports Inc. owned the property and decided to pull the plug after losing profits on the facility. In late 2010, it was announced that the track would be closed indefinitely. However, after no events in 2011, the track reopened for the 2012 season, under a short-term lease agreement made by Curtis Francois.
The fear of losing your local drag strip is all too real, and it happens all the time. For the Midwest racing crowd, it seems to happen in spurts, but hopefully it doesn’t become a common occurrence. The Midwest has always had cool drag strips, and the region is packed with car guys, so regardless of the recent politics involving several tracks, it should remain a great place to race for years to come. For the less fortunate facilities that didn’t stand the test of time, it’s important to keep the memories alive and pay respect to these historic Midwest drag strips.
While many of the drag strip features in this book involve tracks that were built in the early days of the sport, Motion Raceway tells a different story of the evolution of drag racing. There is little doubt that increasing safety precautions, outrageous insurance prices, and a slightly dwindling crowd discouraged folks from building new drag strips during the 1970s, but it seemed to have been a good move for this Midwestern track, located in Assumption, Illinois. Positioned near the center of the state, Motion Raceway catered to a number of racers in the surrounding counties, and offered more than a decade of exciting action for racers and spectators.
You’ll quickly notice that Motion Raceway was never intended to be a mega track. However, to the folks who raced there every weekend, it was as good as drag racing could get. The rural location didn’t keep it from attracting big names from time to time, including Ronnie Sox, who occasionally rented the track for testing during the week. Special events also drew lots of well-known racers to the track, which was surrounded by farmland.
The man behind the drag strip is John Jones. A car guy and former street racer, Jones owned a sizable piece of land just outside Assumption. Fresh out of the military, John wanted to provide a safe place to race, so he decided to build a drag strip on his property. It was a flat piece of land requiring very little preliminary work to be ready for a fresh strip of pavement. The original plan was to have a coin-operated gate, making the track available to racers at any time. This was a perfect scenario for street racers, as it offered a safe place to race, without the risk of getting in trouble with the local law enforcement. As Jones continued to ponder the possibilities, he visited other drag strips to get ideas.
Jones surveyed the land himself, and drew up the plans for the drag strip. Long gone was the idea for a coin-operated gate—Motion Raceway was a full-fledged drag strip. During the planning stages, Jones also considered building an oval track next to the drag strip, but the idea never materialized. Jones had a 3,000-foot expanse of asphalt laid on his property in 1970, and outfitted the facility with guardrails, bleachers, a timing tower, and other buildings. Jones went the extra mile to cater to his racers, installing rollers for the cars that required push-starting, which was certainly considered a luxury by most racers. The rollers opened the door for fuel dragsters and funny cars to run at Motion Raceway, which always attracted a big crowd.
Finished in late 1970, the track’s first official event was held in early 1971. Jones sought help from his brother, Paul, and the two successfully ran the track until 1979. With an entry fee of $6 for a car and its driver, Motion Raceway was a budget-friendly drag strip with a great surface and racing program. Although many of the tracks featured in this book opened much earlier than this Illinois drag strip, it landed in a great era of drag racing.
During the early 1970s, the development of Modified Eliminator, Pro Stock, and many other classes made for diverse fields of cars, and match races were always welcomed as well. Other attractions, such as the always popular exhibition cars, made Motion Raceway a favorite for many spectators. Bill “Maverick” Golden attended the track with his Little Red Wagon, as did many other wheelstanders of the era. Jet cars were also a big hit at Motion, with big names such as Lee Shockley and Art Arfons making ferocious passes down the quarter-mile.
Motion Raceway was eventually converted from a full quarter-mile track to 1,000 feet for safety purposes, but the racers adapted and continued to support the track. From 1980 to its final season in 1983, Jones ran the track without the assistance of his brother, and kept his program fairly simple. At the end of the 1983 racing season, rumors swirled about the continuation of the track, but due to several conflicts, Jones closed the doors for good. According to local sources, there were often rumors that the track would reopen, but it never materialized.
When Motion Raceway closed, the stands were torn down and hauled away, as was the in-ground roll starter, but the timing tower lived to fight another day. It was actually moved to nearby Macon Speedway in Macon, Illinois.
Until 2008, the property was used for grain storage by a local farmers’ co-op, and when it was no longer used for storage, there was once again a slight glimmer of hope for racing at Motion. Greg Clayton of New Covenant Performance made big plans to rejuvenate the track, allowing for streetstyle racing to take place on the once-abandoned track. His plans involved low-key, run-for-fun drag racing, but it would certainly be a wake-up call to the property, which hadn’t seen any real action since 1983. Unfortunately, the plans fell through and the strip of pavement continues to sit unused.
MOTOR CITY DRAGWAY
While the West Coast’s hot rodding crowd thrived during the 1950s, it wasn’t the only part of the country that had the fever. The Midwest, especially the Detroit area, was a hotspot for fast cars, and that led to the founding of the Michigan Hot Rod Association (MHRA) in 1951. Multiple Detroit-area car clubs made up the MHRA, with the number growing each year. By the mid 1950s, the MHRA boasted participation from more than forty car clubs. The group organized and promoted the Detroit Autorama Rod and Custom Car Show in 1953, which continues to be one of the largest indoor car show spectacles each year.
During the early days of the MHRA, there were no official drag strips, although the formation of the group certainly encouraged young car guys to meet up with other young car guys, which can only result in one thing—racing. Informal drag racing started soon after the MHRA was founded, and it was 1954 before it was legitimized to a certain degree.
The MHRA received permission from the city of Livonia to drag race on a newly paved section of Amrhein Road, just behind a new General Motors manufacturing facility. It was a big deal for the Detroit area, and the NHRA quickly jumped on board to support the drag strip in Livonia. It was a 3/4-mile strip of brand-new concrete, and it was perfect for drag racing. Unfortunately, racing in Livonia didn’t last, so the next step was to try the Michigan State Fairgrounds as a new venue. That didn’t work out either, so the group pressed on to find a solution for their drag racing needs.
With money raised from the Autorama and MHRA members, the group put a down payment on a piece of property on Meldrum Road in New Baltimore, Michigan. For more than a year, MHRA members spent evenings and weekends working on the property to get it ready for action. The members did nearly everything themselves, trying to save as much money as possible. The finished product made its debut in May 1957 after thousands of man hours and MHRA-raised dollars.
Through the years, the track enjoyed lots of success as it proved to be a major attraction to Detroit car guys, even if they were not associated with the growing MHRA. Bob Larivee was an MHRA Board Member and he had also been the manager of the drag strip before he moved on to promoting the Autorama. Later, Al Dortenzio managed the track, and then MHRA President (and the track’s former flagman) Lee Lasky took a stab at the management side of drag-strip life.
During the track’s early years, it had a fully pneumatic timing system, consisting of air hoses that ran across the racing surface. Originally, there was only a hose at the start line and finish line, but they later added a hose to calculate the speed of the vehicle. The timing system certainly wasn’t state of- the-art, and the unpaved pits didn’t offer the cleanest environment, but the track served its purpose.
A few short years after the track opened, the MHRA began running eighth-mile drags, but racing eventually went back to a full quarter mile by the 1960s.
Although it was originally known as MHRA Drag Strip, the name eventually changed to Motor City Dragway, which is how many folks in the area remember it. As the drag racing scene grew rapidly in the 1960s, the wow factor of Motor City Dragway decreased, which led the MHRA Board of Directors to sell the property and get out of the drag racing business. Gil Kohn purchased the property and the business in 1968, adding it to a list of tracks that he owned and operated during his drag racing days. Kohn also owned Detroit Dragway, a competing drag strip on the other side of town.
Both of these Detroit-area drag strips offered great events on a regular basis and provided car manufacturers with a nice place to test their vehicles. Modern timing equipment and a good racing surface meant auto manufacturers got the very best out of their new machines. Motor City Dragway saw its share of fame with several major magazine covers. The most popular was the December 1965 Car Craft magazine cover, featuring Pontiac’s new 1966 GTO, which had the famous Motor City Dragway timing tower in the background.
Although wildly popular for quite some time, Motor City Dragway had to deal with the abundance of drag strips in the Detroit area, but that didn’t cause its ultimate demise. Township ordinances regarding noise were the major blow that knocked Motor City off its feet, and the fast-spreading population didn’t help matters. It is rumored that attendance and racer participation was also down because of a fish fly infestation in the area. When the track closed, there was no hope to reopen it, as the noise was far too much for local residents, even though the track was in place long before the new houses.
The closure of Motor City Dragway meant that local drag racers had to resort to other area tracks, making it nothing but a memory. Making matters even worse for Michigan drag racers, nearby Tri-City Dragway and Onondaga Dragway also closed in 1978, bringing an end to the days of drag strip barnstorming in the area.
Many of the tracks built during or before 1955 were simply repurposed runways on the site of abandoned airports. The surplus of military airfields after World War II made it easy for gearheads across the country to go fast in a straight line without fear of local law enforcement. Purpose-built drag strips were few and far between, but a once-quaint piece of farmland in Oswego, Illinois, will go down in history as one of the first purpose-built tracks in the United States.
Opening its doors in 1955, Oswego Dragway became a go-to hangout for the youth in the greater Chicago area, but increasingly fierce competition made it much more than a hangout for diehard racers.
The track got its start after Dale and Darold Cutsinger encouraged friends and fellow car guys Dan and Wally Smith to build a drag strip on their piece of property just outside Oswego on U.S. Route 34. The Smith brothers had inherited the farmland from their parents. Little motivation was needed to get started on the drag strip, but Oswego Dragway certainly didn’t start out as a glamorous race facility. In fact, the first few gatherings involved drag racing on dirt, which was plenty of fun, but it was quickly decided that a paved racing surface would be a lot more consistent and offer higher speeds.
By 1956, Oswego Dragway was a fully paved quartermile drag strip, and the Smith brothers worked hard to manage the track. When it required upkeep, numerous car clubs volunteered to help, including the Aurora Autocrats, the Traction Masters, and the Bearing Busters, just to name a few.
As evidenced by photographs of Oswego Dragway, the racing surface was the highest point of the property, making it great for water drainage, with an interesting view for spectators. Although no one had any real comparison in the early days, most drag strips’ bleachers were positioned so that the audience looked down on the cars. Oswego’s landscape offered somewhat of a worm’s-eye view, but the lack of guardrails gave spectators a great view of the cars as they motored down the quarter-mile. Photographers didn’t need to crouch down to get a cool shot of a car leaving the line, as the track’s elevated surface did the hard work for them!
The track had great success and many racers remember a certain person who was a staple at Oswego in the early days, Jim “Woody” Woodrow. Oswego’s flag starter, Woody had an unforgettable presence and lots of personality. His enthusiastic flag starts made him popular, but it was his white pants, white shoes, and blue jacket that most folks remember the most. Characters like Woody burned long-lasting memories into the minds of children, teenagers, and young adults who visited the track, while also entertaining the regulars.
As Oswego continued to grow, the cars went faster and drag racing eventually outgrew its roots. The flag starter was replaced by automated lights and the timing system was updated as technology became available. Throughout the 1960s, the track catered to all sorts of drag racers, but Oswego made a name for itself in the 1970s as one of the nation’s premier “doorslammer” tracks. With up-and-coming classes like Hot Rod and Pro Stock, which were very popular in the Midwest and the AHRA circuit, Oswego flourished with bigtime events on a regular basis. While dragsters and funny cars still carried a huge wow factor for spectators, the doorslammers were just as exciting with high-RPM, wheels-up action.
One of the most memorable machines to race at Oswego was Jim Feurer’s bright orange 1957 Mercury, aptly named The Big Animal. Weighing 4,000 pounds, the big sedan had a 427-ci Ford Tunnel Port engine, backed by a four-speed manual transmission. His first time at a serious race, Jim took home the victory in the 1D/Hot Rod class and was later Oswego’s track champion in both 1973 and 1974. “Animal Jim,” as he was known, then stepped up to the Pro Stock class and had great success with a wild Mercury Zephyr. While it’s tough to single out one guy’s car(s), it’s also easy to see how Animal Jim became a household name, and a fan favorite at Oswego Dragway.
Eventually, the Oswego Dragway property was sold to Howard Koch, who closed the track for good in 1979 for unknown reasons. Some say that he bought the property with the intention of closing it, while others say that it closed because of the poor economy and lack of attendance. Either way, it was never again used as a drag strip. Instead, it became part of King Nursery, with trees overtaking both sides of the pavement, which remains intact for the most part. The trees take away from the track’s elevated stance, and a lonely strip of pavement is all that’s left of the old track.
Unfortunately, the property has been annexed into Oswego and zoned for commercial use. What little remains of Oswego Dragway provides a tiny glimpse into the past, but it’s enough to bring back nearly twenty-five years of great memories of one of the first purpose-built drag strips in the country.
U.S. 30 DRAG STRIP
U.S. 30 Drag Strip, named for its close proximity to the highway of the same name, got its start in the late 1950s. Its location was perfect for racers in the greater Chicago area, while also catering to northern Indiana racers, as well as the southern Michigan crowd. U.S. 30 Drag Strip was built just south of Gary, Indiana, and ran alongside the famous Lincoln Highway, also known as U.S. Route 30. Another track with a nearly identical name resided in York, Pennsylvania, but most folks referred to it as York U.S. 30 to reduce the confusion. Unfortunately, neither of the U.S. 30 tracks stood the test of time, but both enjoyed years of great success. The one in York is now an airport, and the one featured here sits abandoned in what is now Hobart, Indiana.
In its day, U.S. 30 Drag Strip was a top-of-the-line track and had a great run until its demise in 1984. This track started life as a project handled by a group of investors who sought to take racing off the street and provide gearheads with a safe, legitimate place to race. It was constructed by the National Timing Association, under the supervision of the Northern Indiana Timing Association.
In an article in the September 21, 1957, issue of Drag News magazine, the drag strip received great praise, including an endorsement from N. Perry Luster, a drag racing insurance executive from the National Racing Affiliates. Luster said that U.S. 30 was the “best and safest drag strip” he has seen, just before its grand opening event on September 22, 1957. According to local racers, the track was actually open before that date, but the grand opening served as the big kickoff event to start regular weekly racing.
The track was built on 138 acres and featured 4,000 feet of pavement, which provided plenty of stopping room. Fosdick timing equipment was used to record the elapsed times and speeds for each racer, and there was even a reward for the first cars to break the 125- and 150-mph barriers. The track reportedly had a seating capacity of 5,000 in those early days, but that number was ultimately expanded when the track really hit its stride in the 1960s and 1970s. Early on, the track also featured two separate strips of asphalt, with a strip of grass separating them. This was later filled in across the main racing surface, but the shutdown area still had the twin strips of asphalt. Without question, it made for some wild rides.
Most folks who raced at U.S. 30 will tell you that the heyday of the track was during the Ben Christ era. Christ operated the track with great confidence, and promoted it in a manner that set the standard for drag strip owners, operators, and managers across the country. Christ exercised his marketing skills to a high degree and the success of his tracks proved that it was worth the effort. Big events brought in thousands of spectators, which helped him make great profits at all of his tracks. He also operated Oswego Dragway for several years, and had a hand in many other tracks’ success.
Christ owned a drag strip management company called The Gold Agency, which helped a number of tracks promote races and attract spectators. This company also created the
Coca-Cola Cavalcade of Stars, which was a big-time promotional event featuring the very best funny cars and drivers in the sport. The Cavalcade events, which were held at several drag strips besides U.S. 30, featured a match-race-style atmosphere with a uniquely structured racing bracket, instead of the standard elimination bracket. The structure of these Coca-Cola-sponsored events catered heavily to spectators, allowing them to see lots of great action, so it was a huge success from its inception in 1969 to its fi nal event in 1976.
During its most popular years, U.S. 30 Drag Strip was sanctioned by the AHRA, mainly because Christ had a large share in the sanctioning body for several of those years. The track was home to AHRA national events, as well as Christ’s big promotional events and match races. He kept the U.S. 30 schedule packed with great action. He even scheduled bigname match races on Wednesday nights, giving folks a great excuse to go to the drag strip more than once a week.
All this success should’ve held some serious weight with the local government, but it didn’t stop them from enforcing a noise ordinance, which was put in place because of complaints from nearby neighborhoods. The ordinance was geared toward jet cars, requiring a special permit to be purchased by the track prior to the event, and only allowed four jet-car events per year. During these four events, a strict curfew of 10:00 pm was enforced. Drag strips have certainly overcome tougher obstacles, but at the end of the 1984 racing season, the land owner did not renew the lease. This led many to believe that the local government had something to do with the owner’s decision.
After the drag strip closed in 1984, it was left untouched for at least a decade, according to Mike Sopko, who visited the track in 1992. The tower, buildings, and track surface remained intact, but the lack of activity had taken its toll on the pavement. In 1994, the property was annexed into the city of Hobart, Indiana, and it eventually changed hands another decade later. The new owners are property developers, meaning that the remains of U.S. 30 Drag Strip may not last forever.
Although all of the buildings and track equipment are long gone, the pavement is still there, with a rapidly fading U.S. 30 AHRA logo painted between the lanes. Telephone poles block the entrance to keep unauthorized visitors from blasting down the decrepit track, while vast overgrowth takes away from the nostalgic appeal of the hallowed grounds. Although several efforts have been made to revive the track, it isn’t likely to happen, based on the increasing number of houses surrounding the property. Eventually it will become yet another subdivision, but for now, it provides a glimpse into the glory days of Midwestern drag racing.
Written by Tommy Lee Byrd and Posted with Permission of CarTechBooks