Matt Kenseth entering the garage area after practice at Michigan International Speedway August 18, 2007.
Photo Credit: Bob Ellis from NASCAR Ranting and Raving (www.4ever3blog.com)
Each week I kind of poke through the internet- through Racing-Reference, through the track’s individual sites and through my bookshelf and Racing Bible (Greg Fielden’s multi-volume set) to see if I can find some interesting history to share with you.
I was thinking about writing on Cale Yarborough, who won the first race at Michigan International Raceway in 1969. Or that he only won one other race that whole year (at Atlanta) in his Mercury.. It took awhile for things to fall into place for him to become the first three in a row championship. I thought about writing about how there were a whole heck of a lot more races in those days. The NASCAR Grand National race season had a total of 54 races during the year. That number includes five races on dirt. Thinking of tonight’s Prelude, I thought I might write about the dirt tracks that were still around then. But I found a little interesting tidbit about the building of Michigan International, and I thought that I would touch on that
MIS was built in 1968 by a man named Lawrence LoPatin. He wasn’t a racing enthusiast; he was much more interested in seizing the opportunities that the Motor City was offering up in the heyday of the American automobile manufacturing boom. He was interested in turning ideas into money and saw “a chance to make millions in the auto racing business.”
This says an awful lot about the way that Bill France was running NASCAR. I think that even in 1969, there was probably a lot of stereotypes about who was involved in or interested in stock car racing. For someone to be able to look past that and to see the future of the sport is pretty interesting. It probably helped a lot that 1969 was the year that Bill France was building Talladega and that Dayton International had created a successful model of a super speedway track. In fact, it would appear that LoPatin was unimpressed with race tracks in general, excepting Daytona International. He saw a future which moved away from the smaller tracks to “super tracks… that they will be designed, developed and constructed with the idea of accommodating, attracting, and servicing the fans.”
No wonder he and Big Bill got along so well! LoPatin was looking for a long term, multi-year investment in his race track and originally approached USAC. LoPatin knew what all race fans know, that there are only so many Sundays and he wanted as many of them as possible for his race tracks.
USAC was uninterested even when the first race at the track was fairly successful. (The gate brought in $500,000.00) but lo and behold, you’ll never guess who was at the inaugural event for the track or who heard that LoPatin was interested in something he called “franchise racing” .. oh! You can!? You all are so smart! Little NASCAR historians! That’s right. Bill France stepped up and signed a ten year, two races a season contract with the Detroit investor who wanted to build his own little race track empire. No track before 1968 had signed anything like that with NASCAR but it set a precedent, not only for future contracts with race tracks, but perhaps in the ways in which the tracks became aware of the increasing popularity of the sport and how their own facilities could remain a part of NASCAR.
PS. Not everyone has a Bill France success story. In 1971, LoPatin’s corporation went bankrupt. A fellow you might have heard of bought the track in 1973. Roger Penske.