The year was 1932. It was the bottom of the Depression. More than a third of Americans were unemployed. Banks were failing and people were lined up in bread lines to get something to eat. If there was ever a time not to start a business, the fall of 1932 was it. So, how did it happen that a new auto racing speedway came to be built at Eight Mile and Schoenherr Road in Detroit?
Here is the story of Don and Carson Zeiter and their "dream speedway"; one that would have many names; but ultimately became the legendary Motor City Speedway.
Most of us don't remember 1932 but we know times were hard. After the crash of 1929 there had been three years of unrelenting bad news. In the summer of 1932 the Republicans renominated Herbert Hoover and the Democrats selected the former New York governor, Franklin D. Roosevelt in a contest to see who could lead the country out of what was by then called the Great Depression.
In June, 10,000 WWI veterans and their familes, dubbed the Bonus Army, were camped out in a shanty town in the Washington, D.C.,asking for early payment of the bonus they had been promised by a grateful nation a decade earlier. Infantry and cavalry troops commanded by Douglas MacArthur attacked and scattered the veterans killing two babies and filling local hospitals. People were discouraged. To learn more, go to Bonus Army.
So, it is no surprise that Don and Carson Zeiter were depressed as they drove back to Detroit in early September, 1932 after a disasterous auto racing program at the Fort Miami dirt track near Toledo. They had been sure that this program, touted as the first under the horse track's lights, would draw a big crowd despite the Depression. They were wrong. The people did not come. So after the purse had been paid and the fair board got the rest of the gate, the Zeiter brothers headed home with only a hard lesson as payment for their efforts.
They talked on the way home; agreeing that somehow they needed to build a track rather than renting from fair boards that didn't like auto racing anyway. As Carson tells the story in an article written years later, they were driving past the corner of 8 Mile and Schoenherr roads on the edge of the City of Detroit when suddenly Carson shouted, "That's It! That's It!" Looking across the road he saw what he knew would be an ideal site for a race track. It turns out the owner of the property, Mrs. Beste, was about to lose the property on back taxes and was willing to sign a lease based on a percentage of the profits. Beginning with that "no down payment" lease the entire new speedway was built "on the cuff".
In his article Carson Zeiter says, "During those black days of 1932, lumber was piled high in the mills and dealers were jumped with supplies and equipment that no one had money to buy. So, it was easy to promote these needed materials on credit. The merchants were willing to take a chance on the percentage of gate receipts. At this point construction was ready to begin except for one thing...NAILS. Lo and behold, they just couldn't be had without the cash. The assets on hand were $30 and a Model A coupe. So the car went and the nails were bought." (from" Motor City Speedway" by Carson Zeiter)
Construction began immediately on the original half-mile track, 60 feet wide with banks on the turns about 8 feet high and the straightaways banked about 3 feet high. The surface was oiled clay. The contour made it very fast with its 320 foot-long straightaways. The contractors worked with a will to complete the track in time to hold at least a few races before the Michigan winter began.
Just three weeks after construction started, the New Detroit Speedway opened for its first race on October 2, 1932 with A.A.A. Contest Board Sanction Grant No. 2675. A field of 22 race cars and drivers had been announced and everything possible was done to promote the race. Here, from that original program is the starting field including some names that would become very famous in years to come like Al Miller, John Wohlfiel, "Carmie" Frazzini, Howard Dauphin and a driver already famous from Anderson, Indiana by the name of Bob Carey.
But the most famous racer on the track on that day was not a driver. The Zeiter brothers took the unusual step of recruiting Gar Wood to be the starter for the race. A boat racing legend, Wood had won the prestigious Harmsworth trophy race for the 8th time on the Detroit river that summer before an estimated 1 million spectators. In winning the race and defeating his English rival, Wood shattered the world's record with a speed of 124.915 mph. He did it in what was referred to as "a madman's dream" by engineers. His craft, Miss America X was a 59 ft long monster powered by four 1800-horsepower, 12-cylinder Packard engines. His passion and reputation for speed made him a perfect fit.
The Zeiters hoped that having a sports superstar like Gar Wood would help bring in even people who were not familiar with the attraction of the high powered race cars that would be competing that day. Gar Wood photos courtesy of the archives of the Detroit News.
The question: Would the people come? The answer: YES.
The race was a big success and the track was on its way. I don't have a photo from that first race in 1932, but here is a 1934 shot by Al Blixt at the new speedway to give you an idea of what it felt like. Imagine coming to a race track where there had only been fields a month before and seeing spectacular action on a lightning fast half-mile dirt oval! There were four races on the program: 3 10-lap Elimination Races and a 40-Lap "Final Race". The feature that day was won by Bob Carey.
Bob Carey won the feature race on October 2nd. In doing so he set a world's record qualifying time of 23.57 seconds. He and went on to win the other two features at the New Detroit Speedway on October 9th and 16th. By year's end Carey had won the 1932 AAA Championship.
Carey started racing in 1921 at age 17. After three years he moved up to sprint cars. He was regularly upstaging his team mate, Mauri Rose, so badly that Rose broke up the team. In his only appearance at the Indy 500 in 1932 he placed fourth. Tragically, Carey was killed April 16, 1933, cutting short one of the most promising racing careers between the two World Wars, possibly by a throttle jammed full on, at Legion Ascot Speedway in Los Angeles, California. Photo credit: unknown. For more on Bob Carey see Motorsport Memorial.
Footnote to History:The original program: I recently discovered the program that was in inspiration for this feature and I found it fascinating. Even the ads were interesting.
Two of the contractors that hurried to complete the speedway, Ray Kebbe, Inc and Restrick Lumber Co., ended up as advertisers in the program for the first race that was held just three weeks after work began. Kebbe and Ed Apel took over operation of the track a few years later and eventually sold the lease to Andy Barto after the war (the topic of another story coming soon).
The other advertisers included Jaekel Bros. Ambulance ("Everybody's Favorite" says the ad), Fronty Sales Co. ("Watch the Fords in Today's Races"), EHMS, "Little Joe"Brand Grade A Meat Products ("Served exclusively at this track"), the ever-present Coca-Cola Bottling Co. ("Refresh Yourself")and, my favorite, the Essex Terraplane from Raynal Bros. "America's Lowest Priced Sedan - 6 Cylinders-5 Passengers-4 Doors". Their ad notes, "The Essex Terraplane won the 1932 Pike's Peak Hill Climb and established a new record for that event."
Stay Tuned: More on the history of Motor City Speedway coming soon.
copyright Al Blixt 2006