NASCAR in Detroit – Way back in 1951
Back in 1951 Bill France, the President of NASCAR, decided to bring racing to Detroit for the cities 250th birthday. Thus the Motor City 250 was born at the Michigan Fairgrounds – stock car racing on a one mile dirt oval.
France knew he needed to put on a show for the auto manufacturers, so pre-race entertainment had everything from fireworks, balloons and even a “feigned” dogfight between mini model airplanes. Over 16,000 people turned out to see the spectacle.
A field of 58 — FIFTY EIGHT — cars started off (the top ten qualifiers on the inside). Four hours and 21 minutes later it was Howard “Tommy” Thompson of Louisville, Kentucky who to took the checkered flag in his Chrysler V8.
What kind of race was it? This piece in the Detroit News described it best:
Trouble on the track
Before the race, the southeast corner of the race track was smooth.
That evening, after four hours, 21 minutes and 28 seconds of raucous, repeatedly violent racing, the ruts and holes dug into the perilous turn by careening, braking, accelerating, crashing, flipping, catapulting race cars made it serrated.
A reporter for The Detroit News described the deteriorating, increasingly risky conditions during the race.
“The turn was rougher than the Detroit River with the wind blowing hard upstream,” Harry Leduc wrote. “It looked from the press box as if the cars were driving on seas, instead of soil.”
The ensuing mayhem was, at times, extreme, almost like the old newsreels of humans’ first attempts at flight.
“There were five leaders,” Leduc wrote. “The lead changed 12 times. There was one seven-car smash up and one five-car crash. There were numerous solo events with machines rolling over, plunging into fences, throwing wheels, blowing tires, boiling over.
“Spectators were alternately aghast and cheering, infield fans racing hither and dither to scenes of destruction with police on horses and on motorcycles checking the concentrations.”
When drivers wrecked, fans would leave their seats or positions in the infield to sprint to the scenes, often arriving before ambulances and wreckers, driven by a mixture of curiosity and compassion.
Among those rolling his car that day was Lee Petty, NASCAR great Richard Petty’s father. He did it on lap 90, losing his windshield.
But Petty drove his Plymouth 160 miles through the dirt and dust, wiping his goggles with his handkerchief, to finish 13th, 17 laps behind.