By Tom Shaw
If you ask me, I think the landmark movie American Graffiti would have been better had it centered around the amazing eight-lanes-wide circuit of Detroit’s Woodward Avenue rather than Modesto, California. From Ferndale north to the famous turnaround at Square Lake Road,these dozen miles were the socio-automotive center of the universe. Plenty of cheap high-test gasoline fueled a cornucopia of cars: family four-doors, entry-level beaters, amped-up big-cube powerhouses, ’50s-era power-pack cruisers, carloads of girls, and a few oldsters wishing all the noise and commotion would just go away so they could have their quiet suburbs back.
The oldsters eventually got their way, passing anti-cruising ordinances that killed off the nightly rumble, but not before a few legends were born.
The biggest race ever spawned on Woodward didn’t actually take place on Woodward. Did it take place at all, or was it just folklore? A reliable source I interviewed years ago gave me the details. It was an epic showdown between the skunkworks of the Big Three–Ford, GM, and Mopar. The story goes like this.
It was fall 1967 or 1968, and certain representatives of the major manufacturers had gathered at a favorite watering hole for some afterhours holding forth. The discussion turned to that inevitable topic: Which of the Big Three had the fastest car? All were certain that their company had the hottest thing on wheels. Normally such talk would have concluded with a few snappy comebacks, some sharp barbs, and some well-practiced verbal dissing. But on this night that just wasn’t enough. The group agreed to get their hottest iron and meet on I-696, which was under construction then and the site of races too serious for Woodward.
At the appointed time, the camps from the Big Three arrived with their chariots, ready to do battle. The action was soon intense as the high-powered, next-level iron, warmed up by factory engineers with unlimited budgets and resources, let ’er rip in an unrestrained grudge match for the ages. I didn’t get any juicy details about who brought what, or which was the fastest. It was customary back then if you were running something really wild to keep you hood closed and your mouth shut.
The proceedings were just getting good when the impromptu eliminations were overrun with Metro squad cars, lights flashing. The whole crew was rounded up and taken downtown, assumed to be a gaggle of misbehaving teenagers. The arrests had already been made by the time it was discovered that these were not common street punks. They were executives and sons of executives and connected, influential people with recognizable names and big bank accounts from the hometown’s leading industry. Uh oh.
It was a war that the police would rather not get into — that kind of thing usually got a wink and a nod — but the wheels were already in motion. The Free Press carried it on the front page of the morning edition. From GM’s perspective, it came at a time of whispers of an antitrust action in the making, and Ralph Nader’s hit-job book was making some very troubling waves. Boozed-up folly like this was the last thing they could afford.
The miscreants were quietly released, getting home just in time to leave for work and face the unpleasant music there.
My source was called to GM’s fabled 14th floor, where the suits dwelled in mahogany-lined halls of power. The newspaper was on the desk as he entered the office and was read the riot act in a style that would have made even the most grizzled drill sergeant proud. Many heads rolled that day, but he survived because he was a young hire, and because a certain engineer, renowned for his work on the Camaro and Corvette, pleaded he be spared.
It was a juicy story, to be sure. I stopped by the Detroit Public Library, appropriately on Woodward, and requested all archived copies of Detroit’s morning newspapers. There were two major dailies back then, as I recall. I spent hours combing two year’s worth of front pages and other prominent positions, but came up empty.
Did it happen or was this just myth and legend? I wasn’t there, and I couldn’t find the story in print, but I don’t doubt that it did happen. I asked others who I respect about my source, and it was unanimous that he was a straight shooter, not a windbag.
Partly because of things like this, the rules on — and off — Woodward were changing. It would never happen again.