Racing in the Rain: The Undoing of LoPatin's Raceway Dreams
After a weekend of rain for this year’s running of the Chevrolet Detroit Belle Isle Grand Prix, critics questioned IndyCar and the CDBIGP honcho Roger Penske’s decision to schedule the race event in late May, making it the first race in the schedule after the series’ marquee event, the Indy 500. While in most recent years the racing at Belle Isle has experienced picture postcard worthy sunny skies, holding a race on an island during late spring in the Great Lakes region will always carry some risk of rain. Penske should know that. It was bad weather experienced by another racing promoter that resulted in Penske acquiring what would become one of the more successful business enterprises of his exceptionally successful career.
About 90 miles west of Belle Isle, in what travel guides usually call “the picturesque” Irish Hills, is Michigan International Speedway. MIS, or Michigan International Raceway as it has sometimes been called, was the brainchild of a Detroit-area lawyer and developer named Larry LoPatin. LoPatin had a good idea, a national network of modern, fan-friendly racetracks, but ran into a string of just about the worst weather a promoter of outdoor events could experience.
Groundbreaking for the 1,400 acre site began in the fall of 1967. Reports estimate that LoPatin and his backers put between $4 and $6 million into initial construction of the facility. LoPatin hired Charles Moneypenny, also responsible for the high banked Daytona International Speedway, to lay out the D-shaped 2 mile oval with its 18° banking in the turns, 12° banks on the arcing front straight and 5° on the backstretch. A road course, designed with the input of Stirling Moss, was also constructed with a couple of configurations that included the oval’s infield and a section of the course that ran outside the perimeter of the oval.
LoPatin originally tried to locate the track closer to Detroit so he could lease the facility to car companies for testing in addition to holding races, but had difficulty finding a welcoming municipality and settled on the more rural location. LoPatin then hoped putting it 90 miles closer to Chicago would draw some racing fans from Illinois to offset those Detroiters not willing to make the drive. Indianapolis, Cleveland and Toronto were also potential markets. He made deals with NASCAR for stock car racing, hoping to introduce the north to what had been a regional sport in the southeast, as well as for open wheel racers with USAC, which ran the Indy 500. The inaugural USAC race in October of 1968 had a purse that was second only to the Indianapolis race. MIS’ first NASCAR race in June of the following year featured a door-banging, wall-scraping battle between LeeRoy Yarbrough and eventual winner Cale Yarborough, driving for the Wood Brothers.
Having hosted successful events with America’s top two racing series, MIS was making money and LoPatin went forward with what some considered a grandiose plan: a nationwide network of racetracks. Time (and Humpy Wheeler, the France family, and Mr. Penske) has proven that concept to have been worthy. He established a company called American Raceways Incorporated and built a copy of MIS called the Texas World Speedway. ARI bought a 47 percent interest in the road course at Riverside, California, a 19 percent stake in the Atlanta Motor Speedway with an option to take a controlling interest, and an all-new track was planned for New Jersey, where ARI bought 600 acres of land, to serve the New York City market.
Things were figuratively looking sunny for Larry LoPatin and American Raceways Incorporated but there were some literal storm clouds threatening.
The bad weather started with the opening race of 1969, MIS’ second race. The Wolverine Trans-Am was the opening race for the 1969 Trans-Am series that featured American pony cars like the Boss 302 Mustang. It didn’t just rain. It was cold enough for snow and sleet. Some cars that went off the road course got stuck in mud. One car hit spectators, injuring several and killing one.
Later that year, bad weather at Atlanta and Riverside caused postponements and washouts of races at those tracks. A planned 600 mile race at MIS was run half under caution due to rain, then red flagged and called due to darkness at just 330 miles. At NASCAR’s season ending Texas 500 in December, less than 23,000 fans showed up.
Weather wasn’t the only problem that LoPatin faced in 1969. A dispute with USAC kept the popular Indy cars off the MIS track that year.
1970 wasn’t any better. The spring race at the Atlanta track was washed out and rescheduled for the following Sunday, which coincidentally was Easter, resulting in ticket refunds and even fewer attendees than the December race in Texas. It’s not clear if weather was a factor, but the two races that year at Riverside drew small crowds. ARI cancelled a race in June at the Texas track, citing a labor strike at Goodyear’s facility that made racing tires, but it was more likely due to poor advance sales.
If weather and poor ticket sales weren’t bad enough, LoPatin reportedly got into an argument with Bill France Sr over the size of the purse for the December NASCAR race in Texas. That dispute was likely less about the size of the purse than the fact that France, who then controlled just two tracks, Daytona and his new venture at Talladega, saw LoPatin as a competitive threat.
With bad weather and poor gates, revenue dropped. ARI missed a loan payment on the Texas track and failed to post the prize money for the August race at Atlanta. Worried about his management of the company and rapid overexpansion, the stockholders stepped in and fired LoPatin. In 1971, ARI tried to reorganize under bankruptcy provisions, allowing racing events and testing sessions to continue that year, but the company went into receivership the following year.
At a 1973 auction, Roger Penske bid $2 million for Michigan International Raceway. He’d been running American Motor’s racing teams and had a commitment from AMC for leasing the facility for testing. With that revenue guaranteed, Penske began a program of expanding and improving MIS. Over the next 25 years, it became one of the finest (and fastest) racing venues in North America. The last road race at the facility was held in 1984, but the outfield road course continued to be used for testing. In recent years, the infield track has been resurfaced, upgraded and put back into use for testing, though there are no current plans to host road races.
Penske’s business team at MIS was headed by Walt Czarnecki, who had worked for Hurst Performance and later was in charge of AMC’s performance cars, including the wild SC/Rambler and “The Machine” Rebel. Czarnecki left AMC to be Penske’s partner at Roger’s first car dealership and he’s still the #2 man at Penske Corp. Roger Penske may be a billionaire today, but Czarnecki recalls how he and Penske sold tickets out of aprons at the gates for their first event at MIS. Over the years, capacity has increased fivefold from LoPatin’s 25,000 seat grandstand and garages. Luxury suites have been added along with administration and maintenance buildings.
In 1997, Roger Penske formed Penske Motorsports, a publicly traded company that controlled his racetracks and some of his racing businesses (but not the racing teams). In a bit of deja vu, the company that controlled the Michigan track then built California Speedway (a near copy of MIS), bought 45 percent of the Homestead-Miami track in Florida and the following year bought North Carolina Speedway.
Larry LoPatin’s original plan of a national group of racetracks came to fruition when Penske Motorsports was acquired in 1999 by International Speedway Corp., controlled by the France family. LoPatin himself never returned to the racing business. He continued to work in land development, dying in 1993 at the age of 63, while working on a resort development in northern Michgian. Like the racetrack he built in the Irish Hills, the real estate development company that he founded still exists.
Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can get a parallax view at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks for reading – RJS
Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, the original 3D car site.
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