NASCAR fans tame down but still bring quirks

Francis X. Donnelly
The Detroit News
Austin Smith, front, Dawson Gregory and Seth Johnson all of Belding, pedal to pull Bob Huddleston on their bar bicycle.

Brooklyn, Mich. – — Among the sights passing strange Sunday at Michigan International Speedway were rickety wooden platforms built upon the roofs of even shakier looking trailers. One platform held a picnic table.

Fans stood atop these contraptions because they can't see the asphalt track from the ground.

Fifty yards away, dozens of cars zipped by at 210 mph. Conversation was impossible with the roar of the 750-horsepower, V-8 engines.

"You see some weird stuff, good stuff," shouted fan Jim Beaumont of Sault Ste. Marie.

Twice a summer, 70,000 people descend on this rural hamlet, turning Michigan International Speedway's infield into a town within a town.

It sounds like a prescription for drunken revelry and, indeed, the big track once was the rowdiest spot in Michigan every June and August, what with the drinking and watching the race, in that order.

But that was old NASCAR. New NASCAR is much tamer now.

"Everybody's here for the same reason — to have a good time," said Jim Miller, a Holt resident who has been coming since 1970.

Exhibit A of the weird, good stuff Beaumont was describing was something created by Bob Huddleston.

Years ago Huddleston was at the racetrack watching a man drinking from a wheelchair when inspiration struck — a portable bar.

He mounted a table and eight stools onto a trailer and hooked it to a three-seat, three-pedal bike.

"What's more fun than a bar?" he asked.

Huddleston, 43, of Belding has been bringing the bar-on-wheels here for seven years but stopped driving it after the first.

That's a job for younger folk, he said.

Flag-adorned trailers and RVs provide perches for NASCAR fans at Michigan International Speedway in Brooklyn.

Metro Detroit residents traveling here along U.S. Highway 12 passed Pentecost Highway, which is fitting, given the religious-like fervor fans have for racing.

As they arrived last week ahead of the weekend races, they sprawled their tents, trailers and mobile homes over the speedway's 1,400 acres of open land.

The campground inside the two-mile track once was known for its rambunctiousness, even on the rambunctious NASCAR circuit.

People jostled for camping spots. They played music all night long. They fought for any reason at all.

"It got pretty wild," said Greg Lewis, a Grand Haven resident who has been coming since the 1990s. "It was out of hand at the beginning."

Old fans would hardly recognize the joint Sunday.

Sure, folks were still drinking and engaged in high jinks, but their actions were more quirky than illegal.

Among those keeping watch over the hard-drinking horde was Larry Wibbeler.

Wibbeler, the Cambridge Township police chief, said his four full-time and five part-officers worked up to 16-hour shifts over the weekend.

When you apply for a job with the township police, you're asked whether you can work during the race weekends in June and August. If you can't, you don't get the job.

"Everybody works," said Wibbeler, 68, who has been covering race weekends for 21 years.

Stock car racing has an outlaw image because the sport was borne in the running of moonshine in Appalachia in the 1930s.

But the image was quickly betrayed as Wibbeler slowly rolled down the dirt roads of the infield listening to the police scanner in his black SUV.

Fans constantly waved to him or gave a thumbs up.

One asked him to sign a banner in front of his mobile home that had hundreds of signatures.

A pedestrian jokingly turned the tables on the chief.

"Watch where you're driving," warned the pedestrian. "I'm going to keep an eye on you."

After spying the portable bar, Wibbeler said that, even after two decades, he still sees something new every year.

As for troublemakers, he tried to cut them some slack.

Otherwise, he and his officers could spend their whole day ferrying people to the Lenawee County Jail in Adrian 30 minutes away.

Still, some people insisted on getting arrested.

The most common charges were assault, theft, drugs, disorderly conduct and driving under the influence, he said.

"When you get that many people together, you're going to have a few problems," said the chief.

One reason the tomfoolery has abated is heavy security, said police.

Nearly 200 members of various law enforcement agencies and a private security firm patrolled the raceway and surrounding campgrounds.

Capt. Jeff Ewald, who led 30 deputies and reserves from the Lenawee County Sheriff's Office, said the reserving of campgrounds also helped stem trouble.

"It used to be, they just open a field and people would race for a spot," he said.

About 15 to 20 people were arrested over the weekend, said Ewald.

(313) 223-4186

Twitter: @francisXdonnell