US 131 Motorsports Park

By Jim Luikens

John Grivins raced a series of Ford Stock Eliminator cars during 1958, 1959 and 1960 at midwestern drag strips like Stanton, Michigan and Osceola, Indiana. Bitten by the drag racing bug, and with access to an ideal location, he decided to build his own drag strip in 1961. He opened US 131 Dragway in 1962 while still attending Western Michigan University. Forty years later John sold the facility to Alec Pinsonneault who engineered one of the most thorough overhauls ever seen of a motorsports complex. This is the story of the birth and rebirth of one of the most famous and successful drag strips in America.

As a racer himself, John understood the opportunity attached to the new fangled sport of drag racing in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. Although the sport had begun a decade before on the West Coast, it had taken a while for it to reach middle America. Simultaneously at this time a new divided highway was being built that connected Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo, Michigan. The new road was built through open farm country approximately a mile west of the previous two-lane road.

The new roadway created some unusual parcels of leftover land when it was completed. One such parcel was a 198-acre property with more than a mile of frontage on the new highway. Although it was conveniently located near the Martin, Michigan exit, the large parcel was long and narrow by a farmer’s standards. To a young John Grivins however, the layout appeared to be perfect for a drag strip.

After beginning to move dirt with his father, Voldamer, during 1961 the new track opened in mid-1962. When it opened John was the youngest track operator in the country. From the beginning however, the track was a family affair with not only his father, but his mother and brother involved. His mother, Martha, ran the concession stand while his brother, Gunnar, helped out in a variety of roles. John recalls that admission prices were as cheap as one dollar and that the crowds were good right from the start.

As the track grew John realized that the next level of success could be reached by booking in the touring pros of the day. In addition to being halfway between Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo the track was also conveniently located halfway between Detroit and Chicago. This fortuitous location gave him access to all of the emerging drag racing stars that were based in those two cities.

From Detroit came drivers and teams like the Ramchargers, the Golden Commandos, Al Ekstrand, Doug Nash, Al Bergler, Pete Seaton, Dave Koffel, George Delorean, Jay Howell and many, many more. The Illinois area contributed an equal number of early day touring pros and teams like Chris Karamesines, Arnie Beswick, Don Schumacher, the Guzzler, Ed Rachanski, and the legendary Chi-Town Hustler team of Farkonas, Coil and Minick.

To augment this feast of nearby talent John was not shy about booking in the big names of the day from the east and west coast. Obviously the fans at Martin US 131 were treated to some of the best drag racing anywhere and US 131’s fame spread nationwide. The next important step in the evolution of US 131 Dragway came in the late ‘60s when John met Lee Kelly and George Elliot of Popular Hot Rodding Magazine.

John was eager to continue his track’s growth while Lee and George were equally intent on growing their magazine. A handshake agreement led to the creation of the Popular Hot Rodding Championships, one of the most famous early day, big time drag events. Always held during the second weekend of August, the race began in 1969 and continued for twenty years. The highlight each year was the Saturday night fuel funny car show when the very best flopper pilots of the era battled until well after midnight each year for the PHR crown.

It’s important to remember that when the PHR race began in 1969 the NHRA only had three national events themselves. Thus the PHR Championships became the place to see all the then-current heroes during one weekend. NHRA expanded their national event schedule greatly during the two decades that the PHR Championships ran. When the NHRA dropped their Montreal event and developed a western swing instead, it took the touring pros far from the Midwest during early August. That forced the end of an era and the last PHR Championships were contested in 1989.

During the ‘90s John, with the assistance of his wife Nancy and son Peter, was content to run primarily a weekly bracket program. He typically had one major show each month like a Night of Fire, Super Chevy, UDRA Nationals or NHRA Points Meet to augment the bracket racing. The lone exception was 1992 when he switched to the IHRA and held an IHRA national event for one year. A difference of philosophy with Ted Jones, then head of IHRA, limited the event to one year. 1993 found Martin back under the NHRA sanctioning umbrella.

Time has a way of changing things however, and Martin US 131 Dragway was not immune to the passage of time. In 1988 Nancy, John’s wife of 36 years succumbed to cancer. Nearly simultaneously, his son Peter graduated from Michigan State University. Trained in medical technology, Peter really had no interest in the family drag strip. Thus John was forced to consider selling his beloved baby, his very reason for existence during the previous 40 years.

Several potential buyers emerged but in the end it was Canadian Alec Pinsonneault that signed the papers to purchase the complex. Along with Alec came an extensive revitalization plan. Originally conceived as a less than one year project, it ended up taking 18 months and more than 12 million dollars. By the way, that’s not Canadian dollars we’re talking about here.

Everyone that is familiar with the original Martin US 131 Dragway can’t believe their eyes when they see the new facility. Literally everything but the address was changed and nothing remains today of the original complex. With the reopening came a change again to the IHRA sanctioning body. The newly renamed US 131 Motorsports Park reopened in mid-2002 and hosted an IHRA National Event in 2002 and 2003.

In 2003 the event was moved to the PHR’s traditional date of the second weekend in August. Michigan fans proved they remembered the glory days of the past by turning out in record numbers. In fact the event sold out and more seating and parking is planned for 2004. Also new for 2004 will be the change to a Thursday thru Saturday format with Sunday reserved as the rain date. Despite the additional seating fans should plan to get there early on Saturday as another record crowd is anticipated.

John currently serves the track on a year-to-year basis as its general manager. Track owner Alec Pinsonneault, track manager Joel Thompson and office manager Lenna Ouding make up a formidable team and good things are expected for years to come. Ever the innovators, the team already has many ideas for next season and is looking forward excitedly to the challenges ahead. Many people have contributed to the success that the US 131 complex has earned over the years but none more than John Grivins.