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Detroit Dragway: remembering “the Ditch”

This flyer dates to Detroit Dragways 1963 opening day. It depicts the Tasca Ford Thunderbolt and a front engine rail. It would be another three years before my first trip to the ditch.

This flyer dates to Detroit Dragway's 1963 season opener. It depicts the Tasca Ford Thunderbolt and a front engine rail. It would be another three years before my first trip to "the ditch."

We called it “the ditch.” I’ve heard other slang names for Detroit Dragway bandied about, including the “Dirty D,” but I don’t recall anyone using that term when I was active at the track. For my friends and I, it was always the ditch.

We used that term for Detroit Dragway, because that is exactly what the track was. To create Detroit Dragway, they excavated an 8 foot deep, half-mile trench between Sibley and King roads in Michigan’s Brownsville Township. The big ditch left about thirty feet of clear area on either side of the asphalt track,

I’ve often wondered why more tracks weren’t built this way. For spectators, the Detroit Dragway model is far and away superior to the more popular design that lines the track with armco guard rails. Even when I attended other tracks with full press credentials, I would sometimes climb into the stands in order to get a different photographic perspective. I was amazed how the guard rails obscured a view of the near lane cars. With the ditch method, the crowd is on an embankment with nothing to obscure the view of the action.

Most of the time, the sunken track design benefited drivers and cars as well. I saw numerous cars careen off into the grass area, sustaining no damage other than collecting a little dirt. These cars were able to return for the next round. If the track had been lined with armco, however, these same race cars would have been destroyed on contact.

Of course, a sunken track isn’t perfect. While the grassy area on either side of the track could be a blessing in dry whether, it was a driver’s worst nightmare after prolonged rain. After a protracted storm, the ditch would live up to it’s nick-name and the grass would become a field of mud. The track itself could be dry and safe, but if a race car left the asphalt, bad things would happen. Usually the speeding car would hit the mud and bury the front axle up to the spindles in the soft stuff. This would immobilize the front end of the car. The rest of the car was still traveling at high-speed however, creating a vivid lesson in physics imbalance. The car would either flip or slide sideways before rolling over. I never saw anyone seriously injured in these mud rolls, but I did see mud claim a lot of nice race cars.

The legendary Detroit Dragway radio spots

Almost anyone living in the Detroit area back in that era could tell you exactly how to find Detroit Dragway; even if they had never been there. From April to September, the radio waves were filled with the famous Detroit Dragway radio spots. In the days before FM dominance, the two most popular radio stations in the Detroit area were WKNR (Keener 13) and CKLW (AM 800). Listeners to either of these stations would be treated to the unmistakable tones of Ray Charles, followed by the legendary “Sunday, Sunday, Sunday” spiel from the announcer. In the summer, the announcer would shift to “Saturday Night…” but the rest of the commercial would be basically the same.

Whenever we heard the opening notes, my friends and I would stop whatever we were doing and listen breathlessly to the announcer’s dramatic description of the match race scheduled for that particular weekend. There was no subtlety here, as the commercials were designed to ignite passions and rivalries. The spots would invariably end with the tag line “Sibley at Dix. Be there!”

There was only on problem. My friends and I had no car, no driver’s license and no money. These wonderful racing events were happening almost weekly, but we had no way to get there. No matter how much we wanted to “be there,” we couldn’t.

To add insult to injury, the local papers seldom bothered to report on the results of those incredible match-races. Those wonderful commercials would make each week-end’s event sound like the most exciting thing ever to happen in Detroit. Then because we couldn’t get to the track, we couldn’t get any information on what went down.

Phoning the dragstrip: not much help

For the more important races, we resorted to actually calling Detroit Dragway on the Monday after the race. Those calls usually went something like this:

Voice on the phone: Dragway…

Me: Ah, could you tell me who won on Saturday?

Voice on the phone: Ahh just a minute. Hey Ray who won on Saturday? (sound of mumbling)

Voice on the phone: I think it was Al Eckstrand.

Me: You think? You aren’t sure?

Voice on the phone: No, sorry.

Me: Would you know the elapsed times?

Voice on the phone: No. Look kid I have to get back to work.

Me: OK, thanks.

Unbelievable. My friends and I read every racing magazine we could find. We complied elaborate lists of race cars and their best elapsed times. We knew all about the big races at Lions, Irwindale or Fontanta in California. But we couldn’t get any information about what was happening a few miles away at Sibley and Dix.

In the spring of 1966, things improved dramatically. I convinced my parents to take  several of my friends and I to an “invitational meet” at Detroit Dragway. This time, we wouldn’t need to phone the track to see who won. This time, we were going to watch the race in person!

And that will be the subject of my next post.

 

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One Comment

  1. Mike Bieke
    Posted March 18, 2010 at 8:29 pm | Permalink

    Great website you have! I used to live in Detroit and hung out at Detroit Dragway taking photos from about 1978 on. I also liked the ditches, since I could get some great pics! You mentioned the radio ads.. a few years ago, in Phoenix, I picked up a celebrity for a Detroiters reunion. His name was Robin Seymour and on the way to the event we started talking nostalgia. He was a radio host at CKLW in the 60’s, and it turns out HE was the voice that did those great dragway commercials!

    Mike

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