Michigan Int’l Speedway is a sweeping two-mile, high-banked race track located in the beautiful Irish Hills region of the Wolverine State.
Reigning Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion Martin Truex Jr. loves the area and the track.
“There is a good fishing pond down the street I like to hit,” Truex said. “It’s just the speed. This place is so fast, it is crazy. I like the bigger, faster race tracks. It has been such a great track for us over the years, especially since I have been at Furniture Row (Racing).”
Celebrating 50 years, there was a time when the outlook wasn’t so cheerful and sunny for Michigan Int’l Speedway. In the first years of operation, heavy financial storm clouds threatened to close it forever. Thanks to changes in ownership in 1973 and again in 1999, the track has been known for decades as one of the most fan-friendly showplaces on the NASCAR schedule.
The speedway boom began with Daytona Int’l Speedway in February 1959, followed by Atlanta Motor Speedway and Charlotte Motor Speedway in 1960, Bristol Motor Speedway in 1961, Rockingham Speedway in 1965, Michigan Int’l Speedway in 1968 and Talladega Superspeedway and Texas World Speedway in 1969.
Land developer Larry LoPatin formed American Raceways Inc. and used $3 million worth of public stock along with $3 million of his own money to build MIS.
After the groundbreaking on Sept. 28, 1967, more than 2.5 million yards of dirt were moved to form the D-shaped oval designed by Charles Moneypenny, who previously designed Daytona Int’l Speedway.
LoPatin was a visionary and ARI bought interests in the road course at Riverside, Calif., and the track known at the time as Atlanta Int’l Raceway with options to control.
LoPatin chose the location of MIS because of its geographic proximity to Detroit, ground zero for the big-three automakers — Ford, General Motors and Chrysler. Also, the Chicago, Indianapolis, Cleveland and Canadian markets could be served.
The first race, the Michigan Inaugural 250, was an Indy car event run on Oct. 13, 1968. Ronnie Bucknum won the race with a reported 55,000 fans in attendance, but LoPatin paid only a $75,000 purse. That didn’t sit well with USAC’s competition director, Henry Banks, with whom LoPatin sought to sign a long-term agreement.
LoPatin made predictions that seemed far out of reach.
“Our organization (American Raceways Inc.) will have 20 to 25 major races by 1971,” LoPatin said. “There are just so many Sundays in a year, so securing dates is most important. Long-range contracts with sanctioning bodies will enable us to operate a more stable program.
“Dates are a very precious commodity in the racing industry. I want all the dates I can get.”
NASCAR founder “Big Bill” France was at MIS for the Indy car event and liked what he saw. Within two days of the checkered flag, France and LoPatin announced a jaw-dropping 10-year deal with two NASCAR Cup Series events at MIS each year through 1979. Further, the 1969 season finale would be run at LoPatin’s two-mile Texas World Speedway.
While things looked good on paper, they quickly unraveled. Disputes over low purses and sharp public criticism about the management of NASCAR prompted France to drop LoPatin’s dates from the schedule.
Even though MIS enjoyed steady revenue, problems at the other tracks caused American Raceways to file for bankruptcy in 1971. In 1972, ARI went into receivership.
In 1973, motorsports icon Roger Penske purchased the deed to MIS for an estimated $2 million. Massive restoration work began and over the next 25 years, Penske continued to improve the facility.
“It all began because we had a partnership with American Motors when we bought Michigan Speedway in 1973,” Penske said. “We leased the track back to AMC for 340 days a year and did their emission certifications so we had a business partner. We also won Cup races in Matadors with Mark Donohue and Bobby Allison. It was a great relationship.”
A second purchase of MIS closed in July 1999 with International Speedway Corp. acquiring Penske Motorsports, which included MIS, California Speedway, Nazareth Speedway, Rockingham Speedway and Penske’s 45 percent interest in Miami-Homestead Speedway, for $623 million.
Since day one, MIS has showcased many memorable events, such as the inaugural Motor State 500 NASCAR Cup Series race on June 15, 1969. It was won by Cale Yarborough after a classic duel that’s still talked about today.
Yarborough raced fellow driver LeeRoy Yarbrough door to door for more than 150 laps. They touched twice entering turn one after taking the white flag, with Yarbrough brushing the outside wall. Exiting turn four, Yarbrough spun and crashed 300 yards from the finish line, giving the victory to Yarborough.
Eight-time championship crew chief Dale Inman remembers that Petty Enterprises and driver Richard Petty had a strong finish that day.
“We finished third in the first race there at Michigan in 1969,” Inman said. “They had a good smooth race track, which we weren’t always used to. … Michigan was good for us.
“Michigan was also good for me personally. I remember going there in August of 1979 and winning with Richard. The thing was I was 43 years old that day (the 19th) and that was our car number. So that’s still special to me.”
Another classic battle came on Aug. 18, 1991, between Dale Jarrett and Davey Allison. The two ran side by side for the final four miles with Jarrett squeezing past Allison in the final 100 yards. Jarrett’s margin of victory was about 10 inches as he and Allison reached the start-finish line. Allison remained side by side with Jarrett for the final four miles.
“The tires we had on Dale’s car at the end we had on earlier in the race,” Eddie Wood said. “Dale really liked them. When the late caution came out, we stayed out because we didn’t have a better set of tires. Davey came in and got tires. Davey’s car ended up being too tight and Dale won by less than a foot. Dale knew we won the race.
“We have always had good luck at Michigan with David Pearson, Neil Bonnett and all the way back to Cale winning the first one there in 1969,” Wood recalled. “Donnie Allison always ran well there for us. We had a lot of good runs there. David always had a great knack for getting around that place.”
Heading into this year’s schedule, 266 races, featuring NASCAR, ARCA, USAC, CART, IROC and Indy Lights, have been run at MIS since the track opened in 1968.
No doubt, LoPatin wanted MIS to become one of the country’s premier motorsports facilities, but he would hardly believe the prosperous path it has taken since the first green flag was waved 50 years ago.