MIS: A slow start that grew into something specialWritten by Dave Woolford | | firstname.lastname@example.org
It seems so apropos that the first vehicle to set a wheel on the two-mile, high-banked Michigan International Speedway (MIS) oval, even before the track was up and running in 1968, was a horse and buggy.
Horsepower would certainly become the name of the game at what would grow into one of the finest auto-racing facilities in the country.
Dr. Gordon Fish, who has owned a veterinarian clinic since 1965 that is adjacent to MIS property along state Route 50, wanted to be the first to set foot (err, wheel) on the new race track in Southeast Michigan with construction nearing completion in early 1968.
“I knew the track engineer at the time and I asked him if I could put the first vehicle on the track,” Fish recounted. “I had a horse and a cart, and he let me onto the track. We couldn’t go around the embankment because it was too steep (18 degrees) and the horse would slip, so we had to go down to the apron to get all the way around.
“I remember I had a Pontiac Grand Prix a few years later that was a pretty fast car,” and Les Richter, who was the track president at the time, took me, a cousin and my grandmother, who was then 92, for a ride around the track.”
Richter said if you went 80 miles per hour, you could take your hands off the steering wheel and the car would steer itself through the turns. He took his hands off the wheel to demonstrate and my poor grandmother shouted, ‘Put your hands back on that wheel!’ I never heard a woman scream so loud in my entire life. She lived another seven or eight years and that’s something we always talked about.”
The property where MIS resides was once comprised of farms, grazing pastures and wetlands. There was a riding stable on the grounds, and Fish took care of the horses. He wanted to buy some of the 800 acres that comprised the original MIS site, but was outbid by developer Larry LoPatin of Detroit, who had just built Windsor Raceway, a horse racing facility.
LoPatin’s dream was to build an auto racing facility in the proximity of Detroit, the automobile capital of the world, but the real estate visionary ran into numerous obstacles, most of which were angry trustees at the different townships he attempted to make his pitch. One such trustee even attempted to run LoPatin into a ditch on his way back to Detroit following a spirited township meeting.
That was not the case in the rolling hills and resort area of the Irish Hills, where the chamber of commerce extended a welcome hand to LoPatin.
“Zoning proved to be our toughest obstacle,” LoPatin would say later. “It’s hard to believe we could have lived or died by it, but the only time I believed there would be no Michigan International Speedway was when we ran up against zoning problems.”
Fish remembers those times.
“A lot of the people at the township zoning board meetings wanted to preserve the tranquility of the community and didn’t want to see it disturbed,” he said. “The meetings were pretty vocal, pretty emotional, but it pretty much turned out for the best. It was a big deal watching them build the place and we get along with them pretty good now. It’s done a lot for the community. They’re nice people and nice to work with over there.”
Fish, 69, never missed a race from the inaugural event in 1968 to 2003, spending most of his time selling souvenirs from one of the local chamber of commerce booths. He also owns a 130-acre farm that abuts MIS property.
Jim Hubbard also recalls those days of yesteryear when MIS was still an aspiration and not an actuality. He was one of many who went door-to-door with petitions to get the racetrack proposal on a ballot for a vote by township residents.
Hubbard owned a business that bottled honey near the track and was familiar with the property.
“It was a wetland and provided a natural bowl. It was a really good place to build a racetrack,” he recently stated. “The racetrack was a big plus for us coming into our community and it has done more for our township, county and state than anything else built. When I went to township meetings I could see many plusses and very few minuses. The people at MIS are very aggressive and do a good job.”
From its humble beginning, it’s been a horse of a different color for MIS.
The facility has grown to more than 1,400 acres in becoming one of the premier racetracks in the country, catering to almost all of the major forms of auto racing, the most prominent being NASCAR. MIS creates more than $260 million of direct economic activity annually for the state, according to a recent survey, and employs more than 5,000 people at its racing events.
LoPatin, sometimes unduly portrayed as nothing more than a horse trader when he was searching for land to build his dream track, summoned up some serenity a few years ago and said, “We capitalized on the mistakes of others. We looked at other tracks. We listened. With the specialties we had and the experts we employed, we ended up with a great facility. That’s why people keep coming back.”