Sunday, June 21, 2009

Road Trip: Driving to Sonoma (part 1)

To Sonoma and back, an American Saga

Most of the larger NASCAR teams get their Infineon Raceway road course racecars to Sonoma via Michigan in a “double,” a transporter that can haul 4 cars compared to the usual two. First leg is Charlotte to Detroit then turn left to Michigan International Speedway where the cars for MIS are dropped off while the two remaining cars destined for California continue on to the coast.
The track now known as Michigan International Speedway was dreamed up in the mid-1960’s when America was best described by the song lyric,…”we are the champions,…of the world” (written 25 years later by Queen, 1991).
Construction on the Michigan track was started in 1967, and the first race season began in October of 1968 with a USAC Indy car race. The track at Sears Point (Sonoma) was also started in 1967 and its first race was a SCCA Enduro, held on Dec. 1, 1968; twins separated at birth?
In 1967 we were the biggest, wealthiest, most powerful industrial society the world had ever seen. We produced the most, the best of nearly everything, from steel, to cars to movies, to telephones, and oil, too. In 1967 we were also one of the world’s largest oil exporters. We had it all.
The Michigan track measures a full 2 miles around one lap, and banked at 18 degrees in the turns.
Our cars in 1968 were great land yachts made of steel and iron, and there seemed to be no end to the engine size race from Detroit; comics of the day lampooned the Big Three for producing cars such as the Behemoth 11, with room for your entire football team (along with the cheerleaders), powered by the new V32 BelchFire 9000 engine (available only in Texas because you needed a private oil well to fuel the thing). It was funny because it was almost true.
The mascot for the Michigan International Speedway should be the Big Block.

The Big Block, 8 cylinders, 3072 cubic feet of displacement, made of solid American—by god—Iron.

MIS is an interesting track, 75 feet wide (equal to 5 standard Interstate lanes), huge sweeping turns and banked at 18 degrees which is steep by Indy car standards, although by NASCAR measure rather flat (Atlanta and Charlotte are 24 degrees, Daytona is 32 degrees, and Bristol is banked at 36 degrees).
There’s a trend line of banking and turn radius for the vast majority of tracks in the USA, shown here as a red fuzzy line, from Bristol to Milwaukee, nearly every track fits this pattern, with a few exceptions, Michigan being one and it is way off the trend: much steeper banking for tracks with a comparable turn radius.
As a result, the world’s record for a car on a closed course was set by a CART racecar (234 mph) on the Michigan track.
“C'mon and turn it on, wind it up, blow it out—GTO” (1966, Ronnie & the Daytonas); we were all going to California on Route 66 with the Beach Boys playing on the radio.

But 1969 was also the year of Woodstock, the hippies in Haight-Ashbury (San Francisco), and my father bought a VW beetle.
Only the morning sun rising in the west would have been more shocking, as Bob Dylan would sing, “the times are a-changing.”
Indeed, and today General Motors is bankrupt.
I grew up in a household where the idea that “what’s good for General Motors is good for the USA,” was a gospel fact; the universe revolved around Detroit and its center was built of American iron.

In 1968 the top 50 GM executives made more (including stock options) than the President of the USA, the Vice-President, the military Joint Chiefs of Staff, 9 Supreme Court Justices, 435 members of the House of Representatives, 100 Senators, and the Governors of all 50 states—combined.
The year is now 2009, not 1969, and it was great fun to watch Mark Martin win another race, but he’s fifty years old. And my personal hero for aging interestingly if not quietly, Paul Newman, drove racecars until he was in his 80’s.

The recollections, however, just made Michigan a poignant and profoundly sad weekend. The story of what America once was, and unfortunately Mark Martin is the image of racing past, not racing future.

Detroit now has half the population it did in the 1970’s; vast areas of the city look like pictures of Berlin in 1947, and the 11th largest city in the country (almost 800,000 people) doesn’t have a single brand name grocery store. Wayne County (Detroit) is the poorest county in the country, it is a veritable wasteland.
The half hearted attempt by the Detroit Three to pretend they were still in the race seemed more like a wheezing 70 year-old trying for his last hurrah by playing street hockey against a bunch of teenagers. It isn’t a pretty picture.

After Michigan it is on to California; the trip feels like the American saga as told by the NASCAR schedule, we left the cold winters of Michigan to move to the sunny west coast, allowed our essential manufacturing capability to rust away while we dreamed that we’d all build computers in Silicon Valley, write clever software, go surfing everyday and get dot-com rich. Instead we find ourselves hedge-fund screwed
America, which is to say California, in the 1960’s and ‘70’s was the zenith of the car age: TV shows such as Sunset Strip, and the movie American Graffiti captured the era with Norman Rockwell clarity and pathos. Your car defined your station in life, and your car came from Detroit.

Part 2 after the checkers wave at Infineon.


  1. Makes me want to take a road trip.
    Thanks for the images, Jeff.

  2. Annon,
    Thanks for stopping by to read my blog; actually I think all of the tracks are more interesting than the way they're described in TV coverage. Understanding race tracks and their history is the history of transportation.
    Prof pi