Great Lakes Dragaway green flags family fun
"Sunday, Sunday, Sunday – and Saturday, too!" This famous racing advertising tagline, which aired on WRIT and WOKY radio for years, was originally coined by a Chicago radio announcer for the Great Lakes Dragaway, which reopens for its 2012 season on Friday, March 31.
A day, hour, minute and second counter ticks away the time until the opening on the Great Lakes website.
The Great Lakes Dragaway, 18411 1st St. in Union Grove, is a one-quarter-mile track built for speed demons in 1955 by "Broadway" Bob Metzler and a few local car clubs.
"It's the most known, best recognized track in the country. In its 50 years, millions of people have come out to the track. People whose dads brought them now bring their kids," says Randy Henning.
Henning heads a group of owners who purchased the Dragaway in 1994 from Metzler.
"I started drag racing at 16. It took me all that time since then to save up the money for a down payment," says Henning, who also owns Mofoco Enterprises, 102 W. Capitol Dr.
Henning, who turns 63 next month, met celebrity drag racer Don Garlits when he was a 12-year-old aspiring to become the "king of dragsters" (Garlits' nickname) himself.
Anyone who has a driver's license can bring a car down to the track and see how fast it goes. Generally speaking, any car legal for the street can also go down the track. Those who want to race their cars pay according to a sliding scale, beginning at $30 on Tuesdays and going up in $5 increments until Friday when it costs $45 and stays that rate through the weekend.
There are some specific requirements, of course, but those not already initiated into drag racing culture and have a genuine interest will be received with open arms.
People with questions about racing or about the track in general can find answers at the Great Lakes website and on its Facebook page.
"We actually answer questions people send to Facebook, unlike other businesses with a Facebook presence," says Henning.
Henning and Mike Angeli, who also handles some of Great Lakes Dragaway operations, including its web presence, also maintain an email list with over 7,000 subscribers.
Great Lakes is open 200 days a year, from the first weekend in April through November, although the track has been open into December some years. Various special events are scheduled throughout the season, with themes such as the Olympics of Drag Racing on Memorial Day weekend and special nights when jets, wheel standers, funny cars and micro drag racers from all over the country appear.
Great Lakes is an "import-friendly" track, meaning people are comfortable bringing all car models to race, unlike at some tracks where unless you have a Ford or Chevrolet you aren't exactly welcome.
"I worked hard to make it that way," says Henning, who's been in the import business for 40 years at Mofoco, which specializes in air-cooled Volkswagens.
"We race everything that goes fast," he says.
Great Lakes is closed Mondays during the season. On weekdays the track gates open at 5 p.m. and close at 10 or 11 p.m., depending on the evening's activities. Saturdays and Sundays the track opens at 8 a.m. and closes Saturday at 11 p.m. and Sunday at 6 p.m.
Spectator admission is $15 Tuesday through Friday and on weekends it's $20 or $25, depending on whether there's a special event. Henning says there are also some $15 Saturdays planned throughout the season.
Great Lakes has a concessions stand and a bar.
"It's a racetrack bar, which means we have beer, brown and clear," says Henning. "But we also have clear and clear, brown and brown, clear and brown and so on."
A Jack Daniels and Coke would be an example of a "brown and brown" drink served at the track.
Henning says the concession stand offers "bar food – better than McDonald's."
On average, 10 percent of Great Lakes' racers are women. In addition to the nights when celebrities on the various race circuits appear, Great Lakes has a junior racing league in which kids from 8 to 17 years old race specially built dragsters. But most nights its just men and women with a fast car who want to test its speed and the driver's mettle going down the track.
Great Lakes is overall a kid-friendly place. Henning says it didn't always have that reputation, but making it so was one of his priorities when he took over 18 years ago.
"There's a lot of room for kids to run around and have fun. Anybody who's old enough to walk can go up and ask any of the racers a question and get an honest answer," Henning says.
The famous racers who come for special events, such as the funny car weekends, all have handouts. And a lot of the regular racers bring their kids every night.
Tim Urbik was at an event last October to support his brother Tom, a regular track racer who has a '79 Corvette.
"It was fun to see his car race. If you're into cars, it's definitely an interesting experience, but there's really good people watching there, too," says Urbik.
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