There were so many diners and restaurants and fast-food places up and down Woodward Avenue back then that the more deliberate racers could make one pass northbound, line up six or seven races ten minutes apart, and easily make each one of his appointments.
Substantial sums of money were wagered on the outcomes of these races, night after night, summer after summer, both by the racers themselves and by the crowds who chased them at close range or waited for them to fly by, up and down The Avenue. This was where you showed off your hardware, your quick reactions when the light turned green, your clutching, shifting and driving skills, and your balls. Just how many times on any given night would you risk your father’s car, your license, a budding relationship, and the ire of your parents?
When the factories started building more and more powerful cars starting in 1960, the whole Woodward Avenue thing changed radically. The professional mechanical engineers who were in charge of developing the Dodges, Plymouths, Fords and Chevys with their 426- to 460 cubic-inch racing engines and heavy-duty suspensions gradually replaced some of the kids, racing each other for the greater glory of the factory and the newest, hottest product. The factories were proving the drag racing prowess of their big-engined prototypes right there on Woodward Avenue as well as Detroit Dragway and Motor City Dragway and Ubly and Lapeer, which were not open on weeknights, cost money to enter, and were far away. Besides, drag-strip racing was legal, and this wasn’t, providing that little extra edge to the proceedings.
On any summer weeknight, you’d see hundreds of gleaming cars playing cat and mouse on The Avenue, clusters of bedenimed teens with their heads all stuck under the same hood in the drive-ins, guys changing spark plugs or adding oil between races, and gorgeous girls just waiting for the quickest, fastest, handsomest guys to pull up next to them. On Woodward, it seemed, parents, rules and regulations didn’t seem to exist. Run whatcha brung, then go home.
Woodward Avenue was close to work for the young engineers, and on it beat the pulse of horsepower-hungry American youth who turned out to race against each other as well as the factory cars. This was market research, racing against and talking to their future customers, as well as a fulcrum for spontaneous word-of-mouth advertising. “Did you see that? That 421 Pontiac just got royally smoked by that Barracuda! What the hell’s IN that thing?”
People got hurt, occasionally. People got arrested, frequently. Cars with more power than brakes or handling got bent, occasionally.
The engines got bigger and more powerful every summer, and every manufacturer in town had a fistful of quick, fast, loud V-8 cars to offer, even the more staid divisions like Oldsmobile and Buick and Mercury. Even American Motors, for crying out loud! Two four-barrels! Three two-barrels! Giant camshafts! Fresh-air induction! Hood scoops! Fiberglass hoods! Aluminum fenders! Slick tires! It was nuts.
This continuous escalation in street racing and drag racing led directly to the introduction of a whole new professional class in drag racing when the tube-framed-flip-top, fiberglass-bodied race car, burning alcohol and nitromethane fuel, the funny car, was born, in 1965.
Still of the night
Much of the very serious factory and amateur street racing took place long after most of the kids were home in their nice, suburban beds. At one or two o’clock in the morning at locations far from Woodward Avenue where there were no cops and no spectators, there was the most serious kind of street racing. Interstate 696, which runs from Lake St. Clair on the east side of the city to West Bloomfield on the west side, between 10 Mile Road and 11 Mile Road, was under construction for years, and for many of those years, the racers used the brand new concrete of the unfinished freeway to race on.