On paper, it looked like the perfect race. The grandstands were packed. The weather was perfect. And the cars were magnificent. This was the 1955 Detroit Grand Prix—a fitting final race for the premier auto racing event in North America.
But there was one small problem. The cars didn’t want to run. The track was too slow. And the crowd was getting restless. Attendance at previous Grands Prix in Detroit had fallen in the hundreds, even thousands, compared to the millions who had come out to watch the legendary races in the 1950s.
So at the end of the 1955 Grand Prix, the checkered flag was brought out, and officials shut down the track. It was the end of an era.
The reasons behind this historic track’s closure are many and varied. But the bottom line is that it simply never recovered from the huge financial losses it incurred during the height of the Cold War. This was a costly mistake, not just for the track but for the entire city of Detroit.
The Detroit Grand Prix was the last hurrah for the Big Three (General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler) before the industry collapsed. It was also the last hurrah for the city itself. Just one month before this fateful race, the entire city had been paralyzed by a massive blackout. People were losing their minds, and chaos reigned. This was the beginning of the end for Detroit as we know it.
This also marks the end of an era for another reason. This was the last hurrah for the open-cockpit racecar. The big three had forced all engine manufacturers to stop making straight-6 cylinders because they determined that they wanted to move towards V8s or V12s. So at the end of the day, it was the final race for the classic inline-6. It was also the last hurrah for the downdraft strip-track.
The city of Detroit had grown rapidly, due largely to the postwar economic boom. To accommodate all these cars, the city built a second track (Coca-Cola Road Course) and a new grandstand. But neither track was built to the same standards as the original. Because of this, the cars suffered, and the crowds grew restless. It was a tragic ending to what had been a glorious moment in the city’s history.
Change Of Venue
In the 1950s, Detroit was the hub of the auto industry. But now that the three big auto makers had moved their engine manufacturing operations to other parts of the country, the city lost its luster. The Detroit Grand Prix was a one-off event that was heavily reliant on the big three’s participation. The whole industry had changed, and the track didn’t want to keep up.
War & Recessions
The Cold War was also the era of mutually assured destruction—or, as Winston Churchill put it, ‘You will fight them on the beaches, you will fight them on the streets, and you will fight them in the air…’”
During this time, Detroit was at the epicenter of the Cold War. The auto industry was seen as a critical part of national defense, and the city drew upon its car culture to engage with the public in a manner that promoted the Cold War. The auto industry was also a source of great pride for Michigan, as it was for the entire nation. This was especially the case in the aftermath of World War II, when the three big three had single-handedly kept the US automotive industry alive. They represented a vital link to the past, as well as a beacon for the future.
It was during this time that Detroit really started to grow. The city’s population soared from around 600,000 in the 1950s to around 1.9 million in the 1960s. This was helped by the fact that many of the city’s residents had either lost their jobs, or were underemployed. But the main ingredient behind Detroit’s growth was simple: the city had money. Oil was being discovered in the region, and the economy was booming. Unfortunately, this soon proved to be a double-edged sword. The increased funds allowed the city to build some splendid infrastructure. But this also meant that the city was struggling to pay for all its services. The schools were in need of serious repair, as were the roads and sewers. This all added up to a massive financial crisis.
Attendance at the Detroit Grand Prix dropped in the decades following its closure. The former home of the Big Three became a ghost-town. Many of the industries that had helped to fuel the post-war recovery had stalled, and unemployment was rife. The community was also fractured by the rise of the Black Panther Party and the subsequent riots that broke out in the city. This is despite the fact that the three big three had donated generously to the rebuilding of the city, especially in the lead-up to the race.
Racegoers Go Alternative
The closing of the Detroit Grand Prix also marks the beginning of a new era for auto racing. The Fifties was the era of the American classic. And in the years that followed its demise, alternative forms of motorsport grew in popularity. For example, in 1968 Indy car racing was born in Detroit. The same year, the Formula One Grand Prix was also held in the city, resulting in great economic boost for the city. This was made all the more significant when you consider that this was the height of the Vietnam War. Many young men were unable to travel to other parts of the country for the race, and as a result the economy of the city was hugely improved. The track remained open until 1981, when an arsonist set fire to the grandstand, killing four people and injuring about a dozen others. The tracks were never rebuilt, and the city has largely remained stagnant ever since.
Whatever the reason for its closure, the fact remains that the city of Detroit made a huge mistake when it closed down Desoto Speedway. But it wasn’t just a mistake in terms of the short-term financial repercussions. It was also a mistake in terms of the true spirit of the city. The American car industry had largely migrated to the suburbs in the decades following World War II, and the lack of a grandstand at the end of the track represented the end of an era, not just for car racing, but for the entire city.
In the months and years leading up to its closure, the Motor City had enjoyed a period of glorious renewal. The Tigers had just won the World Series. The Apollo Theater was enjoying its second century. And people were finally taking advantage of the city’s burgeoning arts scene, with theatre-goers flocking to see the latest blockbusters and comedians.
The fact that this historic track had closed was a huge blow to the city. It was a blow to the economic recovery. It was a blow to the city’s image. And above all, it was a blow to the city’s spirit. It was as though a weight had been pulled off the shoulders of everyone involved.
For those in the know, the Detroit Grand Prix was always going to be a one-off. The three big three had long since departed the city, and it had never fully recovered from the loss of its premier sporting venue. While the city and its people were disappointed that the track had had to close, the event represented the dawn of a new era. It was the start of a new motorsport era in Detroit—and it all began with an idea, and a dream, that still burns bright today.