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Published: Tuesday, 6/10/2008

Big Four-O weekend for 175,000 fans at MIS

BY MATT MARKEY
BLADE SPORTS WRITER

BROOKLYN, Mich. - When the first few piles of dirt were pushed around in the fall of 1967, Michigan International Speedway was simply a concept. It was a grand idea with a future that was much less than certain.

With Sunday's running of the Lifelock 400 Sprint Cup Series race at MIS, the track turns 40 - with four decades of high-speed highlights accumulating in its rear-view mirror, and a robust and energetic future opening up beyond its windshield.

"As we celebrate 40 years of MIS, we are really proud of where we've been and the place of prominence this race track holds in this region, and in the world of racing," MIS president Roger Curtis said. "And we are even more excited about what lies ahead."

MIS held its first race on Oct. 13, 1968 in front of a main grandstand that seated 12,000 fans. With smaller grandstands on either side, the new two-mile oval could accommodate 25,000, which seemed substantial at the time. As interest in racing surged, the track expanded its seating capacity many times, and in 2005 it boasted more than 137,000 permanent seats.

Michigan International Speedway President Roger Curtis takes us on a 125-mph tour of the track in Brooklyn, Michigan.

Wider seats have since replaced some of the older grandstands, and the official seating at MIS is around 132,000 now, but upwards of 175,000 people will converge on the track this weekend and pack the infield and campgrounds, renewing its title as Michigan's largest sporting arena.

"We're proud of the fact that so many people come to the Irish Hills for our race weekends," Curtis said. "That's a tribute to the setting and the national park-like beauty of this area, a tribute to the high-entertainment value of our product, and a tribute to what has been built here over the last four decades."

Ronnie Bucknum won that first event at MIS, a 250-mile USAC national championship open-wheel race. The first NASCAR Grand National Late Model Stock cars race (now the Sprint Cup Series) was staged on June 15, 1969. Cale Yarborough got the first of his eight career wins at MIS in that race, battling it out over the final 150 laps with LeeRoy Yarbrough in the Motor State 500.

There were 37 lead changes in that race, four on a single lap. On the last rotation around the track, the pair banged into each other several times, with LeeRoy brushing the wall and Cale fighting to pull his car out of a spin. LeeRoy then spun out and crashed 300 yards from the finish.

"That was 500 miles of the toughest competition I've ever seen," Yarborough said about the prolonged joust.

David Pearson was the king of MIS in the 1970s, with eight of his record nine Cup wins on the track coming in that period. In the August Cup race in 1978, Pearson passed a young Darrell Waltrip on the final lap to take the Champion Spark Plug 400.

"Michigan was the best speedway I ever won on," Pearson would say. "It was big enough that you could draft and wide enough that if you got in trouble you could correct it."

Bill Elliott won four races in a row here, sweeping the 1985 and 1986 events, on his way to winning seven times at MIS in that decade.

"I had so much success at MIS," Elliott said. "It was a great place for me during my career, and the track and surrounding communities are still a special place for me."

Bobby Labonte, Mark Martin, Rusty Wallace and Dale Jarrett were the dominant drivers at MIS in the 1990s, while Kurt Busch, Matt Kenseth, Ryan Newman and Greg Biffle have all had multiple wins here in the current decade.

MIS will host the ARCA/REMAX Series race on Friday, with the Craftsman Truck Series event on Saturday, and the showcase Sprint Cup Series race on Sunday.

Contact Matt Markey at:

mmarkey@theblade.com

or 419-724-6510.



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