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May 15

Detroit Drag Way

Like most late-1950’s American teenagers in Detroit, I fell in love with automobiles and began tinkering with our family’s grocery-getter sedan with the help of friends. My best friend’s father had a brand new 1956 “Rocket” Oldsmobile with a relatively-high 202 horsepower for the time. I couldn’t figure out why my friend’s dad bought it, knowing his son’s sometimes wayward inclinations. Does anyone buy a hundred dollars worth of steak, put a dog in the same room, and tell it not to eat it? On many a late night my friend would put it in reverse and floor it until we hit 30 mph. Then he’d shift into drive and the tires would spin in a haze of burning rubber as we screeched forward a half-block. Years later, only after receiving an engineering degree, did I realize how durable that Oldsmobile was. Amazingly, nothing ever broke but his father always complained about his lousy GM rear tires wearing out so quickly.

Michigan’s first National Hot Rod Association drag racing facility, Detroit Drag Way, opened downriver near Dix and Sibley. This was a big event; even families were talking about drag-racing as adventurous outings. One Saturday night, my Olds-friend had been granted the privilege of taking me and another guy out for hamburgers. He had a surprise for us; instead of burgers and milkshakes, we headed to the Detroit Drag Way to race the Olds without his father knowing. I couldn’t believe I was involved in something so obviously wrong, more dangerous than drinking stolen Mogen David wine at a drive-in movie. If the car was damaged in any way, we were dead meat, trust and credibility were gone.

Nearing the drag strip, the night sky was lit by roving searchlights, blaring loudspeakers, bellowing cars, and screaming race fans. It was pandemonium, with howling cars streaking away in the distance every few minutes. I ran to the grandstand area near the starting line to watch. Sure enough, there it was, the two-tone Oldsmobile in line moving up to race into the night. My friend and I cheered mightily as the car’s tires spun with a burnout perfected late at night on neighborhood streets. As the starting lights blinked down to green, Olds-friend gunned the engine and the poor sedan, never built for something like this, howled wanting to lunge forward. Lights were flashing. Race spectators were screaming. A flash of raw fuel and burning rubber flowed over the stands. Focused on the starting light, I didn’t feel a nudge in the ribs at first.

Glancing rearward, I froze. Both my parents and Oldsmobile friend’s parents were sitting two rows up in the grandstand, probably the first and last time they would be attending a family adventure together. Our totally respectable, middle-aged, mid-American parents had decided to visit the drag strip this particular night to see what everyone was talking about. My friend and I, two sets of stunned parents, and a thousand-plus spectators watched as the starting light flashed. My unknowing Olds- friend timed it perfectly, the car gathering its flanks and lurching forward, gaining speed, screaming down the quarter-mile track, loud speakers finally announcing a great run. His speed flashed on a large board at the end of the quarter-mile, a respectable 84 mph, and we ran to meet him on the return road. After excited laughter and congratulations, we told him about our parents in the stands and his wide grin became a wide-eyed grimace. There wasn’t much talking on the drive home. Later, my own parents didn’t seem to think much of the incident, assuming my Oldsmobile friend had his father’s permission.

A few days later, fearing the worst, we three met at a local soda fountain to find out what happened. Olds-friend said when his father returned that night, he thought he would be maimed for life by a sound belt-whipping. But the night’s transgression was so great, apparently, his father just asked what his elapsed time had been before telling him he should go to bed, and that it had been quite a night. I don’t recall his father ever mentioning his GM tires again.

2 comments

  1. Kelly Bixby

    Downriver girl, Delta ’88, Michigan Ave near Schaefer. That’s all I’m saying.

  2. Yibbity

    Loved the story. I was almost there for the race as I read your description. Years ago, I did go to the Detroit Drag Way to watch the races.

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