Entrepreneur’s vision launched Michigan International Speedway 50 years ago.
Above: Pace cars from other tracks drive laps before a race at Michigan International Speedway. Mark LoPatin is driving the car at the top.
Fifty years ago, just three days after our Detroit Tigers basked in the glow of their dramatic come-from-behind World Series victory over the St. Louis Cardinals, another 1968 sports milestone was being celebrated in Brooklyn … Brooklyn, Mich., that is.
It was the opening of the Michigan International Speedway (MIS) on Oct. 13, 1968, the brainchild of Detroit entrepreneur and a true visionary, the late Lawrence LoPatin. Before a sold-out crowd, the innovative new track hosted the Michigan Inaugural 250.
Imagine a race so long ago there was no sponsorship tacked onto its name; unlike the race this past Aug. 12 that commemorated the golden anniversary of the track: Consumers Energy 400, part of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series.
The inaugural race had to share headlines with several other major sports stories that October weekend in ’68. The summer Olympics opened in Mexico City, the University of Michigan broke a three-game football losing streak to their rival Spartans, Al Kaline was honored with a World Series parade in Franklin Village, and his manager, Mayo Smith, was awarded a $20,000 raise with a new $60,000 two-year contract for winning the championship (about what Miguel Cabrera makes for one plate appearance).
For LoPatin, the idea for MIS came from his exposure to an entirely different kind of racing horsepower — harness racing. He was one of the original developers and executive vice president of Windsor Raceway.
It wasn’t a passion for pacers that drew LoPatin; it was strictly his passion for promoting. “He could have developed any number of entertainment venues,” said his son Mark LoPatin, who still runs the family’s Farmington Hills-based real estate development company, LoPatin & Company. “It just so happens a cousin of ours in Windsor wanted to open a racetrack, and my father was drawn to the promotional aspect of it. As a developer, he helped raise the funds to make it a reality.”
However, because the geographic area was already supporting three summer harness raceways — Hazel Park, Detroit Race Course and Northville Downs — Windsor Raceway was licensed to run only a winter schedule. Looking to monetize during the summer months, LoPatin began pitching the idea of building an auto race track in Windsor; a proposition the Windsor Raceway Board rejected.
If not Windsor, then surely the Auto Capital of the World would support it, right? Not so fast. Said Mark, “My father was always frustrated the Detroit area didn’t have a first-class, high-speed track; especially with auto racing reaching a fever pitch among fans in the 1960s.”
But there were no takers in the Motor City and LoPatin’s plans were running on fumes — until he headed for the hills, the Irish Hills nestled on the borders of Michigan’s Jackson and Lenawee counties. Actually, the hills came calling on him.
Political leaders in the south-central part of the state, hearing about LoPatin’s failed attempts to bring auto racing to Detroit, saw the potential economic boon it could bring to their rural community. A deal was consummated. LoPatin sold his interest in the Windsor Raceway, formed American Raceways Inc., and MIS was, well, off to the races.
Learning About Raceways
Overnight, the LoPatins became an auto racing family. “My husband didn’t know the first thing about cars,” said Florence, 90, of West Bloomfield, who continues to serve as LoPatin & Company’s comptroller. “But he knew instinctually that imperative to having a successful raceway was creating the best viewing experience for the spectators.
“He would take our two sons, Mark and Norman, on trips to all the major raceways from coast to coast to draw upon the best design concepts,” she said.
Stops included the famed Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Darlington in South Carolina, New York’s Watkins Glenn, Daytona International in Florida and Riverside Raceway in California.
LoPatin ended up drawing upon the expertise of legendary track designer Charlie Moneypenny, who, at the time, had just finished creating the raceway at Daytona. Racing great Stirling Moss was brought on board to design the road course for Formula One-style racing. Estimated cost: $4.6-$6 million.
I suppose it’s only fitting that Michigan International Speedway, the newest, fastest racetrack in the country would be built at breakneck speed. It took only 13½ months from groundbreaking on Sept. 28, 1967, to the first green starter’s flag being waved on Oct. 13, 1968.
Driver Ronnie Beckman took the checkered flag in the Michigan Inaugural 250 and a check for $20,088; at the time the second largest purse next to the Indy 500.
Witnessing the building of one of the nation’s premier sports venues created a lifetime of memories, especially for LoPatin’s sons. As teenagers, Mark and Norman sold programs and souvenirs on race day.
Among one of the more unforgettable experiences was when Stirling Moss grew tired of a MIS board meeting, left the gathering, grabbed a then-15-year old Mark LoPatin and gave him a chance to test his pre-driver’s license skills through the chicanes of the MIS road course in his father’s Lincoln Continental.
From 16 to 19, Mark was given a pace car to drive for a year, each identified on the side as the Official Pace Car for MIS; turning the vehicles in a week before each race at the speedway. “I always took the pace cars out on Woodward,” Mark said. “Everyone wanted to race me, but I couldn’t because every cop knew who I was.”
The MIS experience now spans four generations of LoPatins. While at college and grad school at Michigan State, Mark and Jennifer LoPatin’s son Jonathan and his buddies would camp out in the infield of the track on race weekends. He’s had the racing bug ever since.
Jon, who lives in Nashville where he works for Taubman as an owner’s representative, says MIS holds a special place in his heart. “I have a great deal of pride knowing that my grandfather played a pivotal role in changing the history of automotive racing in the state of Michigan.”
Lawrence LoPatin left the racing business and returned to his real estate development company in the early 1970s. Since then, MIS has been owned by two heavy players in the racing world. Roger Penske bought the racetrack in 1973 and, 16 years later, the auto racing powerhouse France family, current owners of NASCAR, took over the reins of MIS, which they run to this day.
On Aug. 12, just prior to the Consumers Energy 400, the LoPatin, Penske and France families were all recognized at a ceremony commemorating the 50th anniversary of MIS — a red-carpet affair that included the unveiling of three plaques in their honor.
Four generations of LoPatins were on hand for the festivities including Lawrence LoPatin’s wife, Florence; their son Mark and his son Jon; daughter Sarah, her spouse, Eric, and their 2-year old daughter Lily; daughter Hanna and her husband, Steve.
“My father-in-law would have cherished the celebration,” said Jennifer LoPatin, Mark LoPatin’s wife. “He grew up poor on 12th Street and was raised by a single mother. To him, family was everything.”
If not for the vision of Lawrence LoPatin over 50 years ago, the Auto Capital of the World may still, to this day, be on the outside looking in on the world of auto racing. That’s a fact Mark LoPatin doesn’t want lost on his granddaughter, Lily, who he told with great pride, while traveling fast in a pace car around the oval at the 50th celebration, “This is the track your great-grandfather built.”
Mark’s not sure Lily grasped the significance of the moment — she was too busy yelling “yay!”