Photos: The Speedrome in Comstock Park. John Bensen (in red car), a popular racer at the Speedrome. Gail Cobb's "Big Boy" car that he used for racing (car on trailer).
Drivers who raced at the old Speedrome in Comstock Park recently gathered at Nick Fink’s to reminisce about cars and racing and life. Fink's was the logical place for the reunion, said Comstock Park resident Patsy Ghysels who helped organize the event and produced a CD of photos for the attendees After all, the bar on West River Drive in downtown Comstock Park was a popular watering hole after the races, and Fink’s was an ad sponsor for the racing events that took place at the Speedrome. Pictures of drivers and their cars hang on the walls at the bar. In attendance at the reunion were a couple dozen of the old timers who raced at the Speedrome back in the 50’s and 60’s as well as a hundred or so of their relatives, friends, and fans.
Ghysels noted that many of the men were 16 to 21 years old when they raced, putting them in their 70’s, 80’s, and some in their 90’s now. Gail Cobb was at the reunion showing off his “Big Boy” car that he parked in the driveway beside Fink’s. The car wears the Big Boy Restaurant logo of the “Big Boy” holding a huge hamburger on a plate.
John Bensen Sr., a popular racer at the Speedrome, was at the reunion. Bensen, who scored a final victory for “modifieds” at the last race held at the Speedrome before it closed, was a crowd favorite among those who frequented the races. Bensen has an impressive racing record chalking up numerous wins during his racing career.
Ghysels’ husband Phil had a passion for racing and the Speedrome. Ghysels began years ago collecting photos taken at the Speedrome as a way to share her husband’s interest. Now she maintains a Facebook page called Grand Rapids Speedrome where she posts pictures from the track’s heyday as a kind of legacy. She said her husband is an example of how important the Speedrome was in so many people’s lives.
“My husband’s neighbor took him (to the Speedrome) when he was fourteen,” said Ghysels, adding her husband enjoyed racing all his life. “When he got sick with brain cancer in 2003, he had albums with (Speedrome) pictures in his room that we would get out when he was agitated, and it helped.”
Car racing on the asphalt track first took place in 1903. Previously the track had been a dirt track used for horse and harness racing at the West Michigan State Fairgrounds on West River Drive just south of the downtown Comstock Park area. Some 1900 people attended the first car race on Saturday, September 26, 1903. The following year around 4000 people attended. In the 1920’s attendance dropped off, and the track closed during the Depression and World War II. From 1948 to 1950 Richard De Vos converted the track and used it as an airfield. In 1950 racing was revived again at the track, and it was called the Grand Rapids Speedrome. The races were a popular Saturday night event attended by thousands of fans. The track closed in 1966 when the State bought the property to build the US 131 Expressway.
The drivers and others gathered last year (2016) to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the closing of the track. See the MLive story at: http://www.mlive.com/autoracing/index.ssf/2016/07/grand_rapids_speedrome_still_m.html
History Source: “Comstock Park: Mill Town to Bedroom Suburb” by Dave Wier.