Detroit News motor sports reporter Gregg Krupa talks to NASCAR driver Erik Jones of Byron, Michigan about the FireKeepers 400 at MIS on Sunday. Detroit News
Brooklyn, Mich. — As he toured the country in the mid-1960s, visiting tracks to research the development of Michigan International Speedway, a realization struck Lawrence LoPatin.
Neither a car guy nor a race fan, the real estate developer came to understand raceways should be designed for fans.
“It became very clear to him that the race track had to be geared toward the spectator,” said his son, Mark LoPatin, who often accompanied his late father.
“He used the designer for Daytona, who was a guy named Charlie Moneypenny, and Charlie designed a track that had 18-degree banking on wide turns,” LoPatin said.
“It allowed drivers to go through a turn, three abreast. It made it exciting.”
It still does.
The big track at Cambridge Junction in the Irish Hills turns 50 years old Oct. 13, after the two annual NASCAR race weekends — the first one starting Friday. MIS also hosts a NASCAR event in August.
The wide, sweeping corners, banking and long straights still provide racing to support the proclamation, “fastest track in NASCAR.”
Not a bad legacy for a savvy businessman who knew little about cars, let alone motor sports.
One of his father’s favorite jokes, at the time, his son said, involved opening the hood of his economy, rear-engine Corvair, exposing the simple, little motor, and telling friends, “Look, and I don’t even know how it works!”
For 50 seasons, in NASCAR, IndyCar, ARCA and other classifications of automobile racing, drivers have exploited the long straights of MIS and waited, waited, waited before letting up on the throttle, as they entered turns.
Any braking, there, is often minimal.
And after a moment of slack pace, they are right back on the throttle, mustering as much acceleration as they can.
The fans have loved it.
At the height of the popularity of the track, so many attended, it became an onerous public safety task to get them in and out.
Drivers tend to love MIS, too.
“I have some great memories of Michigan,” said Mario Andretti, the only driver ever to win the Indianapolis 500, Daytona 500 and the Formula One World Championship.
“I set a world record there in 1993 of 234.7 miles per hour qualifying for a 500, and it lasted until they paved the track eight years later.”
Andretti won three open-wheel races at MIS.
“A great speedway for us IndyCars to compete in,” he said. “Extremely fast, because of the banking.
“And I loved driving there, I truly did.”
Bill Elliott won the 1988 Cup Championship in NASCAR and two Daytona 500s in 1985 and 1987.
His next biggest career achievement is likely winning four races in a row at MIS in 1985 and 1986, the first driver in the modern era to win four consecutive superspeedway races at one track.
“At the point that I did it, we just kind of put everything together at that time,” said Elliott said of his team. “We were just really good together.
“It’s just like any team, whether you are playing with a stick and ball or in a car.
“When things come together, it works.”
Elliott is one of the drivers enamored with the style of racing MIS affords, the success he had there and the friends he made along the way.
Like current-day drivers Martin Truex Jr., who has a fishing hole in the area, and Jimmy Johnson, who sometimes takes a conditioning bike ride from the track to Ann Arbor and back, Elliott has gotten around the Irish Hills communities.
“Oh, I love the place,” said the 62-year-old Georgian. “The people in the area, from Mary Melling to the Knutsons down in Jackson
“It’s almost like my first home. Michigan’s been so good to me.”
But, without an unexpected phone call Lawrence LoPatin received, Michigan International Speedway almost never happened.
LoPatin, who died in 1993, developed Windsor Raceway.
Seeking year-round employment for its staff, he thought of staging motor sport.
“I really think it was nothing more than the fact that they were both ovals, and my father thought that perhaps they could go into automobile racing,” said Mark LoPatin, who is now president of LoPatin & Co.
“That is where the investigation began.”
For many reasons, it would not work in Windsor.
But Lawrence LoPatin had the whiff of motor sports in his nostrils.
“As big as automobile racing was at the time, and it was the largest spectator sport in the country, there were no high-speed automotive tracks in Michigan, and yet Ford and Chevy and Chrysler dominated stock car racing and there was no facility in the area,” his son recalled.
His attempts at suitable sites in Ann Arbor and Van Buren proved so objectionable to residents, LoPatin began giving up on any plans.
“And then” LoPatin said, “he got a phone call from the people out in the Irish Hills.
“They actually invited him out to build the automobile track, to build the Michigan International Speedway.”
The construction cost $4 million to $6 million.
Brooklyn and nearby environs have hosted racing ever since.
But some early difficulties for the real developer in racing resulted in a friendly takeover by one of the titans of the sport.
"At that point, they didn’t get the fans they had expected, and the thing really ran down,” Roger Penske said. “They got down to where there were probably 18,000 spectators.
“The business had entered bankruptcy, to be honest with you, and I was interested because I lived in Detroit and was close to the track.”
Penske said he traveled to a courthouse to purchase the right of redemption for $2 million. He paid off debtors, and it left him owning the track.
After a series of significant upgrades and additional seating. MIS eventually drew 125,000 to 130,000 fans.
Penske eventually merged with the International Speedway Corporation, before selling his share to ISC, which is now in its 20th season of ownership.
During his 27 years of ownership, Penske financed improvements and expansion, using an ace in the hole.
The story only adds to his legend.
He leased the track to the old American Motors Corporation for 340 days a year. AMC used it for emission testing, for the 50,000-mile pre-certification.
“That gave me the capital and the cash flow to own the race track,” he said. “That’s how we built the track up.”
MIS also holds a special place for some residents.
John Messimer, is now chairman of the board of OSB Community Bank, after retiring as an owner of Bill’s IGA.
One night, years ago, at the grocery store, he received a late evening order from the track for 250 steaks.
Doubting he could fill it, he started counting ribeyes in a storage unit.
“There were exactly 250!” he said.
NASCAR at MIS
FireKeepers Casino 400
When: 2 p.m., Sunday
Support races: ARCA Series, 5:30 p.m., Friday; NASCAR Xfinity Series LTi Printing 250, 1:30 p.m., Saturday