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End of an era: Old drag strip in pathway of development

By Clay Bailey

The remnants of the quarter-mile blacktop track have surrendered to chest-high weeds pushing through the cracks. The side walls that kept cars from careening into the bleachers are crumbling and covered with graffiti.

But look closely and there is enough evidence of the old Lakeland International Raceway that, with a little imagination, you can almost hear announcer Jimmy Deese beckoning racers to the start line, see the smoky clouds pouring from squealing tires and feel the rumbling engines shaking the ground between Canada and Monroe Road.

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Photo by Mike Brown

Marks left by spinning tires are among the few signs left that the cracked and weedy pavement was once the Lakeland International Raceway. Raymond Godman opened the track on July 4, 1960.

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A weathered and worn sign still graces the now- cracked wall that ran along the side of the drag track at the old Lakeland International Raceway.

"It was really something in its heyday," said Deese. "People came from all over the country to race at Lakeland."

The lingering signs of the old track, hidden on the south side of the Belz Factory Outlet Mall, may soon disappear just like the racing at the old track.

Belz Enterprises has filed an application to develop the 128-acre site for mixed uses, which is certain to mean demolition of much of the old drag strip. Gone will be everything from the concrete walls to the walkover that provided a down-the-track observation point for officials watching cars pushing speeds of 200 mph.

Word is, the two-lane quarter-mile run will be repaved.

"Now that main drag strip is going to be the main street for a bunch of houses," said Lakeland Mayor Scott Carmichael. He expects the new driving speed will be considerably lower than those clocked by the old dragsters.

It was the 1960s and '70s, when fast cars and AM radio were part of life. Lakeland was so far out in eastern Shelby County, it took a major journey to get there, especially in the days before Interstate 40's trail to Nashville was carved from the rural landscape.

Big-name racers and the bellowing, running-out-of-air announcers on WHBQ-AM enticed people to make the trek:

"Sunday, Sunday, Sunday. Lakeland International Raceway. I-40 and Canada Road. You will see Nitro-burning funny cars. Top Fuel dragsters. TV Tommy Ivo, the Tennessee Boll Weevil, Big Daddy Don Garlits. ..."

Raymond Godman, who was 25 at the time, opened the track after two years of construction, on July 4, 1960.

"We had to turn people away," Godman said.

Over the years, the track attracted some of the biggest names in drag racing. Garlits, Ivo, Shirley "Cha-Cha" Muldowney, "Dyno Don" Nicholson, "Jungle Jim" Liberman, Bill "Grumpy" Jenkins and Raymond Beadle -- all Hall of Fame drivers -- laid down rubber on the Lakeland asphalt.

"It was a nice little track," Garlits wrote in an e-mail to The Commercial Appeal. He recalled he once had a record run at Lakeland.

In 1969, the U.S. Automobile Club held a 200-mile road race on the site, integrating the drag strip's straightaway and return road into a 1.7-mile course.

Hall of Fame driver A.J. Foyt won the pole, Roger McCluskey won the race and the heat won the day with 100-plus temperatures baking some 13,000 fans.

In 1971, the strip grabbed a sliver of immortality when it was featured in the movie "Two Lane Blacktop," starring late Beach Boy Dennis Wilson and singer James Taylor.

"(The raceway's) a flashback to a real piece of history in Memphis," Deese said. "It truly was international. All the big-name racers came there."

Through the years the track also gave some not-so-big-name racers a place to rev their engines. On many a date, young men who thought their cars would outrace any others could pull up to the Lakeland line to resolve the debate.

Then the nearest house sat a half-mile away. But in the late '70s Lakeland began to change.

The mall was under construction, the city had incorporated and the old amusement park that was developer Louis Garner's unfulfilled dream to rival Disneyland had closed. Houses were being built and the area was transforming into a residential community.

Bill Taylor, 77, who was part of the final ownership group, said when the mall was being built, developers didn't think racing mixed well with shopping.

The mall owners terminated the track's land lease in 1978, Taylor said, and that ended the era.

"... It went the way of many tracks, a victim of urban sprawl," Garlits wrote.

A stroll along the drag strip today provides a glimpse of what racers and spectators saw at the Lakeland track and a window to the city's automotive market.

Trees sprout from the edges of the track, fighting under the concrete walls still adorned with old hand-painted advertisements for RHS Racing Head Service, Bill Taylor's Transmissions and Eddie's Speed Spot on Summer Avenue. You were invited to listen to 56 WHBQ Radio or WMPS 68, and you could Swim, Camp, Dine and Fish at Lakeland Park.

The center yellow line is still visible as are some white splotches at the finish line. The staging area leading to the crosswalk and starting line has plenty of pull-tabs from aluminum cans mixed with the gravel.

Unless you grew up in Memphis or lived in Lakeland before the city's 1977 incorporation, the track remains a hidden jewel.

"I was unaware of it until I got involved in politics," Carmichael said. "It was one of those really surprising things to me."

Those who were involved, however, remember the good times.

"Our lives revolved around racing," said Larry Coleman, president of Coleman-Taylor Transmissions and a former co-owner of the track. "Once you get into it, it is there for life. It's your hobby and you kind of keep it balanced out where it doesn't get into your pocketbook. But when the motors fire, that makes your day.

"The great thing about Lakeland was it was a fantastic family-type atmosphere," Coleman added.

"The kids could play and be safe. Families worked in the concession stand. Life was simple then. It wasn't about money because nobody had any."



The preceding article is Copyright The Commercial Appeal, Memphis, TN.  

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