I stood on a small strip of asphalt that remained of the Grand Rapids Speedrome which was commonly known as the Drome. This was several years ago and now even that small strip of pavement is gone and nothing remains of this great racetrack. It was located on North Park St between the North Park bridge and West River Dr NW in Comstock Park, MI, a suburb of Grand Rapids.
As I closed my eyes, my mind drifted back and my senses picked up the deep roar of racing engines, the smell of alcohol fuel and my eyes could pick out all of the colors of the rainbow on the neatly painted race cars. The Drome was another defunct race track which started out in 1950 and ran till the track was sold to the state in 1966 for the 131 expressway to run through the property.
For 63 years, off and on, the thundering race cars had roared around the track. My personal recollection went back to 1950 when at fourteen years of age, I saw my first auto race. It was at the Grand Rapids Speedrome and it was love at first sight and since then Ive been hung up those four wheel beauties and will be forever. Somehow it doesnt seem right for the Drome to slide into history without telling its story.
Our story begins before most of us were ever born, for the first auto race was held at the site on September 26, 1903. At that time the track was a one-mile dirt track with long straight-aways. The turns were slightly banked and the backstretch was only ten feet from the Grand River. For this was the original West Michigan State Fairgrounds which was closed in 1937 when the State Fair was moved to Detroit. Some of the biggest names in racing ran back there. The Grand Rapids Racing Club was formed on September 12, 1903 and the first race drew 1900 paid admissions which allowed the club to break even. The promoters were W.S. Daniels and a Mr. Morse. Carl Fisher was the winner of the first event over Earl Kiser.
The next year the winner was none other than the world famous Barney Oldfield, who ran the mile in 56.6 seconds, which was close to the worlds record for a one-mile dirt track. He also went on to win the race with a time of 9:17 for the ten miles from a standing start with an eighty horsepower Peerless racer.
A large crowd of 4,000 filled the grandstands, lined the fences and gathered on an exhibition stage. The following year, the local paper said, "Fifty deputies have been engaged to watch fences and the gates, the Automobile Association is determined to make those pay who see the expensive race cars of this years meet."
From 1906 to 1908 no races were held. 1909 saw the appearance of two champion drivers, Louis Chevrolet and Ralph DePalma, who was to go on and win the Indianapolis 500 in 1915. Barney Oldfield set a new track record of 52.4 seconds in 1910. Louis Arms, a writer for a local paper wrote about Oldfield this way, "The magic of the name Oldfield brought thousands to Comstock Park…..when it was fashionable to bang through fences and climb trees at a sixty mile an hour clip, Barney always insisted on making the biggest hole in the fence and hanging from the highest brough!"
In 1911 they talked about 200 horsepower cars and a $500 purse. Wild Bob Burman set two track records breaking those of Oldfield and DePalma. Fifty-one seconds for one mile. Fred Pantlind was the referee of the meet held during the fair.
Teddy Tetzloff in a 300 horsepower Blitzen Benz set a new track record of fifty seconds flat and won the fifty miler that was run in 1914. Five thousand spectators turned out for the race. In October of that year, auto polo was introduced and it was called the "Undertakers Delight".
1916 found Depalma , driving a Mercedes, beating Ralph Mulford. DePalma being billed as "one of the speed marvels of the world". A fatality struck in 1923 when Bernard McCale, a 22 year old driver from Detroit drove a Frontenac to his death on June 17th. 3,500 spectators looked on that Sunday afternoon. There were five others injured in the three car pile up, which went through the fence. McCale went end over end and was fatally injured.
The Grand Rapids Speedway Association was formed in 1924 and Sid Haugdal was the victor. Racing programs sold for ten cents in those pre-inflation days.
There were twenty-two entries for a 100 mile race with a $3,000 purse in 1925. But the big news was when Sheriff W.L. Smith stopped the Sunday races at Comstock Park. A quote from the local paper said, "Three separate petitions from congregations of local churches have been presented to Sheriff Smith requesting him to halt all similar Sunday exhibitions and he stated his action is partly in accordance with these demands." "As a result of these protests, raised from many sources, I have ordered against any more Sunday racing. The law makes it a misdemeanor for anyone to stage such exhibitions on a Sunday. The expense to the promoters, participants and also spectators is punishable by a fine of ten dollars, and costs. If someone should disobey my orders, I would be forced to arrest all racers, promoters, judges, time keepers and spectators as all are equally guilty under the law as I understand it."
Shorty Cantlan set a new track record in 1926. 1932 saw the Interstate Racing Association of Lansing sponsor short distance races on Sunday afternoons. Apparently Sunday racing was no longer illegal. Barney Oldfield and Ralph Depalma returned in 1935, but Buddy Callaway won. The end of the State Fair in Comstock Park came in 1937 and everything was shut down.
After World War II ended, the big craze in the nation were airplanes because of so many peoples involvement with planes during the war. One of the many airstrips around the country was built on the site of the old fairgrounds mile dirt track. O.C. Hall took a fifty year lease with an option to purchase on the fairgrounds and built a north-south 6000 foot runway with provisions for a seaplane base on the river.
By 1949 work was started to switch it back to a race track site and plans were laid out for one-half mile and one-quarter mile dirt ovals. Back in 1950, before inflation really hit, $100,000 was spent to build the Speedrome as it was now called. Later, everyone called it the Drome for short.
The opening race was scheduled for May 14th of 1950, but with the Grand River overflowing its banks, it was postponed till May 28th. Hank Heald was the first announcer and later was followed by Big Bud Lindeman. The flagman was Ben Crampton and Jesse Steinway the manager.
Now you must remember the context of auto racing in the late forties. This had been the day of the Mighty Midgets. In those days, midgets were running seven nights a week. This was the hey day of the Kurtis-Kraft Offy. The midgets were king, long live the king. There were a few stock car races being staged around the country, however they were looked upon as a fad which would quickly fade out and leave the racing world to the midgets and their big brothers, the big cars, which were the forerunners of todays sprint cars.
The original intent at the Drome was to run AAA midgets weekly on the quarter-mile and periodically Sunday afternoon big car programs on the half-mile track. The big cars were sanctioned by Interstate Big Car Racing Circuit which also ran at Playland Park in South Bend, Shererville Speedway near Gary, Indiana and Jackson Speedway in southeast Michigan. The open top roadsters of that day ran some races but did not catch on with the spectators. The jalopy stock car races were going to be used as a filler part of the program with a very minor role and a low status.
1950 was a turning point in racing history however, this was the year that racing fans got tired of the midgets for many reasons and were looking for something new on the racing scene. The something new were the old 1930s vintage stock cars.
4,000 fans showed up for the opening stock car race, which saw "Wild" Bill Wiltse win the feature coming from 18th position in a 1932 Ford coupe owned by Chuck Frieburg. The stock car races were on their way and by Labor Day reached a peak for that opening year of 8,000 fans.
To give credit to those who helped initiate the Drome and helped usher in stock car racing into West Michigan here is a partial list of participants for the Drome in 1950: "Wild" Bill Wiltse, Don Green, Johnny Purwin, Jack Cummiford, Gene Farber, Bob Bockeim, Dick Peoples, Bob Knight, Rod Black, Burr Krupp, Willie Wik, Harvey Gibson, Gordon VanderLaan, Jack Sanborn, Duke Melinn, Eddie Olmstead, Howard Newland, Kenny Knoll, Sherm Shimmel, Eddie Anible, Johnny Johnson, Don Nickleson, Speedy Eichorn, Wally Sanders, Glen Rocky, Tommy Lane, Willie Spielmaker, Leon Bocheim, Dick Stoddard, Bill Sherman, Al Witt, Harry Dromela, and Jack Beduhn. We must also make mention of the AAA midgets that ran for awhile, simply because of the stature of the drivers who ran there, such as Neil Carter, Bernie Jacobson, Art Cross, Frank Armi, Vic Carter, Bill Vukivich, Sr., Sam Hanks, Eddie Johnson, Jimmy Davies, Ralph Pratt, Roy Sherman, Joe Sostillio, and Potsy Goacher. Even the AAA flagmen were big names, Bill Mitchell from Detroit and Bill Vanderwater, who also flagged the Indianapolis 500.
The big cars on the Sunday afternoon shows on the one-half mile were pretty much of a bust as they were unable to put together large enough fields of cars to satisfy the fans.
The original stock car racing season was sanctioned by Chet Mysliwiec and Hank Russ under the name of the Northern Michigan Stock Car Racing Club. At the Labor Day program, the Speedrome management told Mysliwiec and Russ that they no longer needed their sanctioning at the track. Chet Mysliwiec leased the Berlin Fairgrounds to open the 1951 season and built a fifth-mile dirt track for stock cars. Berlin Raceway is in Marne, Michigan about seven miles west of the Grand Rapids Speedrome. Both tracks ran on Saturday nights and a bitter power struggle went on for cars and drivers competing in West Michigan.
1951 was the year that NASCAR came north and ran a 200 lap Sunday afternoon race on the dirt half-mile of the Speedrome. This Grand National race which was the forerunner of the Winston Cup and now Nextel Cup series had all of the top name competitors of that day including Fonty and Tim Flock in the Oldsmobile 88s and Marshall Teague in his famous Hudson Hornet. Lee Petty had his Plymouth coupe there also. Dick Rathmann, who was to later win the Indianapolis 500, finished second. Marshall Teague won the 100 miler easily. Teague was to lose his life at the Daytona International Speedway in an Indy Car in 1959 while practicing for an Indy Car race there. Tommy Lane, from Muskegon, MI, drove his street Buick Roadmaster to the track and put a number on it, strapped the doors shut and qualified fifth and finished tenth. Lane tells the story of how Lee Petty came up to him before the start of the race and said to him, "Hey boy, I got just this little Plymouth coupe and you got this big Buick. Now dont run over me when the green flag drops." Tommy said that when the green flag dropped, he couldnt even find Petty much less run him over.
NASCAR returned to the Speedrome on July 11, 1954 with Lee Petty winning the 200 lap race on the dirt half-mile. Some Michigan drivers who participated were Clare Lawicki, Chuck Neal, Jack Cummiford, Hank Russ, and Irv Atkinson.
After Mysliwiec left the Drome for Berlin Raceway, the Dromes operations were taken over by O.C. Hall, who promoted the 1951 and 1952 seasons. Hall met an untimely death in the Spring of 1953. That year a group headed by Hank Heald took over and ran it through 1954 and then gave it up. Chet Mysliwiec came back and leased the track for a couple of seasons. Then ORA, which was Frank Evans and his associates ran the Drome till 1963. During that period, Evans paved the quarter-mile track.
Midway through the 1963 season Chet Hall came along and became the final promoter of the Drome. Hall paved the half-mile track in 1964, lighted it and brought in the fast super modifieds. This period proved to be the high point of the tracks history. The crowds grew to fantastic sizes as the unlimited supers ran wide open competition. The participants of the Speedrome super modifieds were a virtual whos who of the super modified era.
Some of the drivers in the super modified division that ran the track during that era included Johnny Logan, Jimmy Nelson, Nolan Johncock, Cy Fairchild, Harold Smith, Jack Lindhout, Todd Gibson, Art Bennett, Norm Brown, Dick Good, Eddie VanderLaan, Johnny Benson, Sr., Ralph Baker, Dick Carter, Bob Seelman, Duane Knoll, Wayne Root, Jack Nichols, Casey Jones, and Harvey Lennox.
Just to read these names brings back visions of snarling Chevy racing engines, open wheel monsters hurtling into the turns and bellowing down the backstretch and a deafening roar as they thundered by the grandstands. No true race fan will ever be able to forget the memories of these men and the super mods of that era. The high point of that period was in 1965 when the Air Force sponsored a championship race which drew in excess of 9,000 fans The low point of the track came on August 21, 1965. Just one week prior on the 14th, Dick Carter was fatally injured at Berlin Raceway. Carter was perhaps one of the greatest dirt track drivers of all time in Michigan. On August 21st Jimmy Nelson, a close friend of Carter, came to the Speedrome to race and announced that all of his winnings that night would be contributed to the Carter family. Fate stepped in that night and snuffed out the life and career of Nelson as he flipped end over end, right out of the track into the parking lot.
In 1966 the State of Michigan was bringing the 131 expressway north and bought up the property the Grand Rapids Speedrome was on. The land that had seen auto racing from 1903 suddenly became silent. Who can ever forget her history or forget all of the stars who took her checkered flags. Just running through the list of names raises my pulse and sets my heart beating faster.
The one-mile West Michigan Fairgrounds track and the tracks of the Speedrome were some of Michigans greatest tracks and her memory will live forever in the hearts of race fans. I know that I will never forget her. I sometimes stop near the property of the old tracks and pay silent tribute to all of the men who ran on her tracks.