Dirt track days: Frank’s memories of the Whittemore Speedway in the 1970s


For me, there are certain significances that shape a child’s appreciation of the simple, visceral  pleasures of innocence, their mind’s eye for fond memories forged and cemented into their sub-conscience, as not only life lessons learned but an internal love and appreciation of a kid’s driven spirit everlasting. This could be an impromptu game of catch in the backyard, the spectacle of fireworks blasting in the darken night sky, that confident moment of learning to ride a bike, the first dollar honestly earned on a paper route. There’s that twinkle in the eyes of any parent basking in the pure joy responses of a child’s glee to all things anew.

That was my youth growing up in the Tawas Area in the 1970s.  My memories are always heightened with euphoria looking back at that time to any given Saturday. They were a day off breather from grade school,  with me parked in front of the Hi-Fi console TV with a huge bowl of Fruit Loops, slurping away while watching my favorite cartoon programs, plotting out the afternoon with the neighborhood gang of scallywags to find that one (or perhaps five) acts of pre-teen holy merriment and innocent rebellion.

There was nothing more anticipated than the weekly ritual of dad and mom loading us and our choice snack provisions into the wagon queen family truckster, then we’d bear course west on M-55 into the sunset, on our way to “the races.” 

The Whittemore Speedway started racing operations in 1948 when a traveling carnival was unable to make it into town that summer. The four-tenths of a mile track was laid out using tires to mark the turns, and on the loud speaker, a boisterous voice echoed “let the races begin!” In 1951, the track was redesigned to its present shape and sized out to be of a quarter mile distance and since that first checkered flag way back when, this mighty track has raced on Saturday night continuously every summer from late May into early September and it is affectionately known as Michigan’s Oldest Speedway.

As a precocious, free spirited 11-year-old, the track’s back story and history didn’t really mean diddly to me (at least at that time), all I wanted was to experience all five of my senses being sent into hyper drive by the sights of the beefed up, brightly painted metal jalopies, the sounds of the roaring, maxed out tuned up V-8 engines, the smell of the gasoline rich, exhaust fuming, rubber burning evening air and the taste of that gritty dirt racetrack dust pluming overhead.

I was touched with a relentless enthusiasm walking thru the main gate into the grandstand, this was my Nascar and the last names such as Flanagan, Schroder, Issac, Avram, Lutes and Fagen rolled around in my itty-bitty head like a fishbowl. Everybody rooted for their favorite to win features such as the four-car dash and the Australian Pursuit and every race concluded with the track announcer Perry Shellenbarger’s signature call “Here they all come!”

Those were the days indeed, with the stench of gasoline and concession stand hot dogs still lingering, I’d wake up the next Sunday morning to hurriedly recreate the prior night’s race action using my Hot Wheels die cast cars, my commentary right down to the racer’s names, the drama of each feature race and my loose interpretation of the trash talk between the various driver’s in the pit area. 

But certain ambitions and attitudes change, and with that, my enthusiasm for the races dwindled as I became a teenager. The oval racetrack was paved with asphalt in 1988. It was in the name of modern progress but a distinct atmosphere and personality about those races vanished for me, but there’s still certain sensory triggers nowadays that will take me back to that golden time in my youthful life when all seemed right with the world on a Saturday night and it places a warm smile on my face.

That said, please take a moment to enjoy all that is summer; sun, BBQs, fireflies, a starry night, a freshly mowed grass, feet in the pond, bonfires, lemonade, the Whittemore Speedway and any time spent at the cabin or on the boat and all the blessings of great memories forged while with family, friends and faith in heart. There is this certain air that bestows to all of us when it comes to this celebration of our grand land. It’s life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness and posterity. It never gets old. I still hold my pledge of allegiance as if still reciting it in grade school back in the day. May you all have a very safe, fun and eventful Independence Day!

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