FEBRUARY 25, 2008
of an era: Old drag strip in pathway of development
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.
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.
Photo by Mike Brown
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.
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.
was really something in its heyday," said Deese. "People
came from all over the country to race at Lakeland."
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
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.
is, the two-lane quarter-mile run will be repaved.
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
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.
racers and the bellowing, running-out-of-air announcers on WHBQ-AM enticed
people to make the trek:
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. ..."
Godman, who was 25 at the time, opened the track after two years of
construction, on July 4, 1960.
had to turn people away," Godman said.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
raceway's) a flashback to a real piece of history in Memphis," Deese
said. "It truly was international. All the big-name racers came
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.
the nearest house sat a half-mile away. But in the late '70s Lakeland began
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
you grew up in Memphis or lived in Lakeland before the city's 1977
incorporation, the track remains a hidden jewel.
was unaware of it until I got involved in politics," Carmichael said.
"It was one of those really surprising things to me."
who were involved, however, remember the good times.
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.
great thing about Lakeland was it was a fantastic family-type
atmosphere," Coleman added.
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."