5 July 2011

Woodward Street Racing: The facts behind the legends

Everybody knows George Lucas' movie, American Graffiti (1973). Some people think the story, the 1932 yellow Ford known as The Milner Coupe and the street racing were real. The truth is, Lucus and his screenwriters made everything up. American Graffiti is just a story.

Woodward Avenue, on the other hand, is organically real. The people, cars and racing were as bona fide as the Sunoco 260 that flowed from the station where Maple Road crossed the famous thoroughfare.

In today's sanitized, safety-obsessed and litigious world, the tales you've heard about Woodward Avenue may seem too fantastic to believe. While decades have dimmed details or embellished accomplishments, the stories about Woodward are grounded in fact.

Looking at the big picture, Woodward Avenue holds the official road designation as M1 (Michigan 1). The multi-lane road — an eight-lane boulevard in some stretches — runs more than 24 miles from downtown Detroit to Pontiac. Then and now the road functioned as a main trunk connecting Detroit and its suburbs such as Ferndale, Royal Oak and Birmingham, the latter of which remains a tony district favored by successful auto industry executives.

Back in the 1950s and ’60s, drive-ins and restaurants lined Woodward, attracting business from across the area. It was only natural that patrons cruised up and down Woodward between popular hangouts such as the Totem Pole and Big Town at the south end of Woodward and Ted's at the north end.

The wide road, traffic, stoplights and testosterone proved a combustive mix.

The first racers were ex-GIs with hotrods and average Joes in family cars. But as the racing scene grew, it attracted the attention of The Big Three's engineering and executive communities, not a surprise given that many employed by GM, Ford and Chrysler lived in the suburbs reached via Woodward.

Michigan 1 became an easy place for engineers to test a new camshaft or carburetor setup. Executives could see the reaction of potential customers as they pitted their latest ideas against their competitors. As the ’50s turned into the ’60s, marketing departments learned that performance could help move sheet metal off dealer lots, causing corporate focus on Woodward Avenue to intensify.

"On a Saturday night we used to sit on the grass north of Hunter going Northbound on Woodward. The racing was as good as you could see at any drag strip," recalls Detroit's Mike Koran.

Koran owns Specialized Vehicles, Inc., a high-tech engineering firm located just a few blocks off Woodward in Troy, Mich. His easygoing demeanor belies the fact that he often raced on Woodward and later became the manager of the legendary Motown Missile pro stock drag-racing team.

"I still remember getting a $500 drag-racing ticket in 1964; it was during one of the first official police crackdowns. I had just gated a guy in a Plymouth Satellite in a friend’s new overhead-cam Pontiac Tempest. My excellent launch performance was observed by one of Birmingham's finest, much to the dismay of my father, who had to accompany me to court," recounts Koran. The biggest disappointment? “I lost the race,” says Koran.

"Guys from GM and Chrysler seemed to focus more on Woodward," says Koran. FoMoCo employees tended to race on roads west of Woodward such as Telegraph.

One particular 1967 Plymouth Belvedere GTX provides physical proof to back the multitude of M1 anecdotes. Known as The Silver Bullet, this Hemi-powered car was the undisputed King of Woodward. The stock-looking hardtop could rip off blistering 10.5-second quarter-mile runs with a trap speed of 132 mph. Fielded by Jimmy Addison out of Ted Spehar's Woodward-facing Sunoco station, Chrysler engineering supplied Addison with numerous go-fast parts and insider knowledge. It was said that Addison never lost a race.

Addison and his GTX were Chrysler's 1967 version of social media relations and arguably played a vital role in Chrysler's huge success during the muscle car era.

Decades after street racing became a public menace and anathema, Detroit muscle car collector Harold Sullivan tracked down and restored the GTX, documenting the extent of clandestine factory involvement. The Hemi displaced 487 cubic inches, up from the factory's original 426. Lightweight components cleaved 500 pounds from the Plymouth.

Addison's victories on Woodward weren't just because he was a good wrench and lucky at timing the stoplights. And that's the truth.

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