(Photo by Al (Ace) Blixt) Zooming around the track in a midget car, back in '63, is Chuck Rhodee, as part of the United States Auto Club midget program. The USAC was the sanctioning body for the Indy 500.
Mount Clemens Race Track was a gem for racers and families
Unless you're a historian or grew up in the city, you might not know about the Mount Clemens Race Track.
"It had the most gracious grounds you can imagine, much more architecturally elegant than most auto race tracks," said Al Blixt of Ann Arbor, who attended the track as a youth, tagging along with his father, a journalist and photographer who covered auto racing for a national magazine from the 1920s until his death in 1961. Bitten by the racing bug and wanting to be like his dad, Al worked at the race track as its official photographer while attending college to become a lawyer. He didn't get paid and it did nothing for his career, but his and his father's work is a marvelous tribute to the area's racing heyday.
"On any given night there might have been 50 to 75 cars in the pits," said Blixt. "That meant there could be anywhere from 50 to 75 families or girlfriends coming out to see their local hero race. The last time I was there was around 1968."
In those days the open-wheel sprints and stock cars buzzed around a dirt track, which was originally built for harness racing some time around 1919. After World War II, the track had become overgrown with brush and Dr. Clayton Stubbs and his wife Ruth purchased the land for use as a pheasant hunting preserve.
Still, the track remained and when local drivers discovered the gem it became a hotspot for practice runs. In 1950, the excitement of the races and egging by the drivers prompted the owner to develop the track for auto racing and the Mount Clemens Race Track was born.
Its first public race was held Sept. 3, 1951, and attracted 5,000
fans who watched all manner of machines from sportsman stock car racers — former junk yard heaps equipped with a roll bar — to standard race cars.
Among the big name drivers fans went to see were Benny Parsons, who drove car No. 98, and Danny Byrd, who drove car No. 08.
"These were two of the hottest drivers in the Super Stock division in 1963," Blixt said. "Super Stocks were highly modified stock cars that reached very high speeds and offered excellent racing action."
Byrd raced a 1958 Edsel. He crashed a few, too.
"(Yet) the next week there would be a new one painted just the same," Blixt said. "The public may not have liked the Edsel, but they made great race cars. Parsons later became famous as a NASCAR driver. He won many races including the Daytona 500 in 1979 and went on to become a racing commentator for NBC and TNT, until his passing at the age of 64, in 2007."
Besides great racing, Mount Clemens Race Track was a venue for family entertainment. It had the half-mile, quarter-mile and figure-eight tracks along with a cool lagoon, concessions and a beer hall. The grandstands accommodated 5,500 fans, while a playground and picnic area adjacent to that accommodated the families among them.
On opening day one year, the track hosted the Tommy Bartlett Water Show on the lagoon, plus a boat race. The event was marred by an accident involving one of the skiers, and while the performer recovered and the water show went on to draw good crowds during the summer, it was not repeated the following year.
In the late 1970s, the track was purchased by Dr. Henry Winkler and his wife, Cynthia, who continued to operate it in much the same manner as the Stubbs.
At one point, Cynthia Winkler was one of only two women in the country operating a racetrack. But while the crowds never stopped making the trek up the beautiful tree-lined entryway, the business became a burden. In 1986, Walker sold the track to the city of Mount Clemens for the sum of $725,000, and things like the old green refrigerator and track turnstiles, left over from its nostalgic past, were auctioned off. The city in turn sold the property to private investors on the site that eventually became the Gibraltar Trade Center.
For 36 years, the track entertained families, drivers' egos and racing dreams. "There are, as far as I can tell, 18 active auto racing tracks (left) in Michigan," Blixt said. "They are located in Flint, Lansing, Flat Rock, Kalamazoo, St. Sault Marie, Owosso, Muskegon and other smaller towns."
Why go to the races?
"People who go to the race track go for the same reason people go to a high school football game or the ballpark; it's an opportunity to cheer on somebody they know, to see them test their skills against others, for the thrill of it, and to succeed at something they love," Blixt said. "There's a lot of attitude and testosterone involved in auto racing, but it's fun. It reflects the love affair that Americans have with cars, competition and speed. It's a family activity and about as Americana as you can get."
To find out more about Michigan's racing roots visit: http://alblixtracinghistory.typepad.com/
For the list of active race tracks in Michigan visit the Michigan Auto Racing Fan Club website at: www.marfc.org/index.php?option=com_gmapfp&view=gmapfp&id_perso=0&Itemid=55
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Provided by The News Herald