Although commercial drag racing was first popularized in California in the late 1940s and early 1950s, Michigan hot-rodding was quick to follow. Early drag races in Michigan were informal affairs when youngsters, often from Detroit, would head out to the sticks where there was plenty of road space and few cops to interfere with this growing phenomenon.
Like something from the movie Grease or Rebel Without a Cause:, young racers would challenge each other on dirt roads, with no stands or protective walls. It was a dangerous environment and with the advances in auto technology allowing for greater and greater speeds, it promised to become even more hazardous.
Thats when, in 1953, a concerned citizen and local law enforcement officer by the name of Robert Baumgartner stepped forward with a novel idea - Baumgartner, a Lieutenant with the Livonia Police Department, proposed offering a safe site for drag racing for those kids who would normally tear up any flat surface they could find.
Since General Motors had recently built a new factory in Livonia “ the Chevrolet Spring and Bumper plant “ there was a new concrete road that serviced the facility during the work week. Called Amrhein, it ran between Eckles Road and Levan Road and was ľ mile long. With a nudge from Baumgartner, the automakers offered up the road for use of dragsters to compete in a controlled environment on weekends.
Baumgartners brainchild was an immediate success with dozens of roadsters competing in monitored conditions under the watchful eye of the Livonia Police Department. Baumgartner mandated only one rule for competing - any driver who got a ticket would be barred from racing at the new raceway for a month. The concept was so successful not only did car-related accidents decline sharply in the Detroit metro area, but the Livonia site eventually became the venue for professional racers.
Livonia Dragway 1954
The Livonia strip was truly historic, said Tom L. Kuhr, founder and chief hot rod archivist of the Hot Rods of Dearborn racing club. Not only did it provide a safe haven for dragsters to compete, some real pioneers with legendary cars “ like Frank Macks 27 T-Merc -took part in the races.
(A short video of the first legal auto race in Michigan can be viewed by clicking on the following link: http://thehotrodsofdearborn.com/1953Drags.html)
Baumgartners gambit was assisted by the newly-formed Michigan Hot Rod Association (MHRA) that helped the Livonia police Lieutenant organize the weekly races. Formed in 1951, the MHRA consisted of over twenty separate car clubs with names like the Motor City Modified Auto, Drag-Ons, Gear Grinders and Down River Modified and had, in its heyday, more than four hundred members.
The MHRA's first president was Dick Stickley, who is credited with being the driving force behind the creation of the Association. Stickley helped establish the first annual Autorama Rod and Custom Car Show whose goal was to raise enough money through gate receipts and other sources to build its own drag strip. In 1956, four years and four Autoramas later, the MHRA finally had enough capital to plunk down a down payment for a property in New Baltimore on Meldrum Road that became the first association-owned dragway in the nation. The Motor Cities track, as it became known, officially opened in 1957.
Motor Cities Track 1958
Motor Cities Track aerial view
MHRA Drag Strip
In 1956, the MHRA hired an organizer by the name of Don Ridler, who had experience doing public relations for local bands and sporting events, to promote the Autorama. In addition to adding music by such artists as Little Anthony and the Imperials, the Big Bopper, and Duane Eddy to the Autorama festivities, Ridler was able to attract the interest of local media who covered the event for the first time.
That publicity attracted more and more racing fans to the growing sport compelling the Autorama to move into more spacious quarters - first at the Michigan State Fairgrounds and, eventually, to Cobo Center where it has been held since 1961.
Besides Don Ridler, another motor sport trailblazer named Bob Larivee, Sr. helped make Michigan drag racing as popular as ever. Larivee was not only a MHRA board member but became manager of the club's new drag strip before getting into the business of promoting the Autorama, first in Detroit then in cities across the United States and Canada.
Today, the Detroit version of the Autorama has maintained its reputation as one of the most important car shows anywhere. The annual event, held in March, features nearly three quarters of a million square feet of exhibition space filled with just about every kind of car, motorcycle or truck imaginable. Hundreds of autos from all over the motor car spectrum compete for cash prizes and honors in a variety of classes.
In June of 1963, Larivee was instrumental in launching the International Car Show Association (ISCA), an organization set up to create a common set of rules for judging the Detroit Autorama and other ICAS venues. Then, in 1966, the International Auto Show Producers Association (IASPA), an organization whose roster of members included car show promoters from across the nation, was formed with Larivee serving as its first president.
Larivee is still active promoting the Autorama and looks back fondly on the early days of Michigan drag racing. It was an exciting time. We were just a bunch of kids having fun with cars and I never dreamt Id be involved with the sport my entire career. Ive been in the business now for over fifty years and I feel blessed to be able to wake every day to do a job I love.
To keep the strip operational, club member volunteers installed and operated the timing system, recorded the wins and controlled traffic. One member, Lee Lasky, who was an MHRA president and Autorama chairman, served as Motor City Dragways unofficial flagman for many years.
By the end of the 1960s, as more strips opened in the Detroit metro area, fan base for the New Baltimore facility decreased. In 1968, the MHRA board of directors sold the facility and retired from the drag racing business. The Motor City Dragway closed in 1978.
Another track that local, national and international drivers recall with nostalgia was the Detroit Dragway located in Brownstown Township. In its first two years in operation, the Detroit Dragway was quickly initiated into racing by sponsoring the National Hot Rod Association's top event, the U.S. Nationals in 1959 and 1960. During its long history, the strip also hosted races sponsored by the American Hot Rod Association and the United Hot Rod Association.
Ford, General Motors and Chrysler sponsored factory drag race teams at the Detroit Dragway, often run by their employees. The most notable team was the Ramchargers sponsored by Chrysler, a group of 20 engineers from Chrysler's Central Engineering Division, who not only had success at the Detroit Dragway but in strips throughout the United States.
In its glory days in the late 1970s, the most well-known drivers of the era raced. Names like "The Bounty Hunter" Connie Kalitta, Tom "The Mongoose" McEwen, Gary Burgin and three-time top fuel world champion Shirley Muldowney, all competed at the Detroit Dragway for the largest purses in the sport.
Unfortunately, due to a string of misguided managers in the 1980s and early 1990s, the Detroit Dragway, like its predecessor in New Baltimore, shut down. But by no means is drag racing done in Michigan. Today, there are still a number of venues to watch fuel cars, stock cars and funny cars from Lapeer Dragway and Milan Dragway to Northern Michigan Dragway in Bear Lake.
Since drag racing has become legal the fan base has gone up and down, said Larivee. But it always rebounds because people today love cars as much as those in the early days.
The Hot Rods of Dearborn is dedicated to collecting stories and pictures of hand-built hot rods and customs from the 40's, 50's, and 60's in the Dearborn and Southeastern Michigan area. For more information go to www.thehotrodsofdearborn.com.
For more information on our automotive heritage go to www.motorcities.org.