O Opinions & Commentary

An Appreciation of Michigan International Speedway

An Appreciation of Michigan International Speedway
I went to the recent NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Michigan International Speedway (MIS) after an absence of a few years. I was pleasantly surprised by the fresh new face this older racing facility presented.

This race track was built during the flurry of construction in the 1960s. The first race at MIS was a USAC indy car race in October, 1968. The first NASCAR race was held the following June. The original owners suffered financial problems and sold out to Roger Penske in 1972. Penske is a shrewd business manager and ran the track in a no-frills style that made it a profitable venture. In 1999 Penske sold all his speedway interests – Michigan, Fontana, Nazareth, Rockingham, and Homestead – to the France family’s International Speedway Corporation.

Since then, the speedway business has seen boom and bust – a huge growth in attendance and then, in more recent years, a drop back to more modest numbers. At first MIS added a lot of seats along the turn 1-2 chute and back from the frontstretch grandstands right around into the third turn. With the decline in attendance numbers, they have removed some of the big grandstands in the turn 3-4 area and they have rebuilt the frontstretch grandstands to provide wider seat allocations. Some of these grandstands have reappeared at turn one at the Glen.

In addition, above the grandstands across from the pits, they rebuilt the suites, and other race facilities (race control, broadcast booth. press box). All this is serviced by a big new elevator, a significant upgrade over the old arrangement. I used to bypass the lines for the old elevator by sprinting up the grandstand steps – no more.

The area behind the main grandstand has been rebuilt – opened up and paved to make a large area where fans can congregate before going up to their grandstand seats – buy food and souvenirs and visit various sponsors’ displays. In addition, there are large areas set aside for hospitality tents where sponsors and others can feed and entertain their guests.

In the infield, the whole pit lane complex has been rebuilt. I had access to the much-expanded and improved media facilities which had well-appointed areas for writers, photographers, PR reps and an actual dining area with nicely catered meals. In the former era, we had a small tent out behind which tended to feature easy-to-handle food choices like pizza. The rest of the pit row building is devoted to hospitality suites and track management offices.

The last time I was there, the track debuted its new infield scoreboard. Frankly, I hated it because it was a computer nerd’s nightmare of graphic displays that did a poor job of telling you what you wanted to know – the position of each car on the race. Since then they’ve worked on it and now, during the track action, it gives a useful display of the key information. Despite my initial disappointment, I must admit that the new graphics scoreboard now does a better job than the old one from the Penske days.

In addition to the upgrades mentioned above, it seemed like the management has worked hard to make the track infrastructure work better. This includes the parking arrangements and the provisions to make the traffic flow in and out smoothly. Years ago, it there was a big crowd, it could produce horrific traffic jams on the limited road system serving the race track – especially after the race when everyone wanted to leave at once.

They have been working on this for several years and, in my experience this year, it went the best ever. I wasn’t everywhere, but it seemed like the traffic was flowing well even a few minutes after the race ended. Admittedly, I used my ‘secret’ escape route to supplement the official route I had to follow for the first two or three miles, but I was completely clear of traffic within 15-30 minutes of firing up my car in the infield.

Tastes vary. Different race fans may favour different race tracks and the styles of racing they produce. For my part, I like the style of racing we see at Michigan (and at the similar tracks like Atlanta and Fontana). These are wide-open, high speed tracks where race strategy and drafting can play a big part in the way the race plays out. Perhaps you need to be patient to wait and see how it is going to work out in the end, but, to me, that’s like watching a baseball game where all the action culminates in the final inning. That’s the essence of NASCAR racing as well.

Others say they prefer a restrictor-plate track like Talladega where they see the whole field roaring around in one big pack inches away from each other – and, when something goes wrong, most of the cars are caught up in the big wreck. Others prefer a short track like Bristol where the slam-bam racing is more like the racing they watch each week at their local short track.

So be it. But I still contend that MIS is great value for race fans – especially ones who live in Ontario. It’s a neat track that does a good job of accommodating the big crowd of fans that turn out for each race and it’s fairly easy for us to get there. From the Toronto area it takes about five hours to reach the track; for those in southwestern Ontario, less than that. I had no problem booking accommodation in nearby Ann Arbor and it looked to me like you could still find rooms the week of the race.

If you are a race fan – even if you think you’re not a fan of NASCAR racing – you should treat yourself to at least one of each type of the NASCAR races you can get to easily. There is a second MIS race on August (18th), a Sprint Cup race at Watkins Glen, NY (Aug 11th) and, of course, the inaugural NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race at CTMP (aka Mosport) on September the 1st.

Written by George Webster | Photography by Ramesh Bayney

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