This Detroit-Area Factory Ruin Is Now a Racetrack

Forget speeding tickets on Woodward and head to M1 Concourse instead.

byLawrence Ulrich|
Culture photo

In Detroit, shuttered factories tend to hang around for decades, blighting both the landscape and further deteriorating the city’s tattered image.

But in Pontiac, a tough, working-class town linked to Detroit via the famous Woodward Avenue, an ambitious racetrack is sprouting on top of the grave of a century-old General Motors assembly plant. This Detroit native, with a hat tip to Leonard Cohen, can only say "Hallelujah."

Motown car enthusiasts might be pinching themselves over M1 Concourse, a sprawling private-membership road course that will ultimately bring up to $100 million worth of “car condo” loft garages, retail, a corporate event center and a restaurant overlooking the track. Developer Brad Oleshansky says that M1’s 1.5-mile road course—named Champion Motor Speedway, in sponsorship with Champion spark plugs—is the first new road course in a major American metro area in more than a half-century. And this isn't just any metro area, but the Motor City, with 4.3 million area residents, global automakers, thousands of suppliers, and a love for cars that survives every boom-and-bust industry cycle.

“It’s been a whirlwind,” says Oleshansky, a Detroit native, lawyer, entrepreneur, and car guy who moved home after several years in Los Angeles. “We’re the largest car condo club in the nation already, and Detroit has the biggest concentration of classic, muscle, and exotic cars in the country.”

The track occupies a manufacturing site that dates to the 1800's. General Motors began building here in 1905—everything from cars and buses to World War II vehicles and pickups—before the facility was finally torn down, in 2008. Oleshansky acquired the 87-acre property when a bankrupt GM hit rock bottom, resulting in a federal fire sale of bad GM assets.

More than 60 auto factories have closed in the Detroit area since the late Seventies, including several in Pontiac, and barely half the sites have been repurposed for other uses. (On a personal note, I once owned a Tudor-style home in Pontiac’s Seminole Hills, a bravely and beautifully preserved historic district surrounded by some of the “ruin porn” that’s made Detroit so grimly famous.)

Demolishing the old Pontiac West facility left two million square feet of concrete that developers crushed and buried below the track and new buildings. Champion Motor Speedway was designed by Martyn Thake, the former director of circuit development for CART and Champcar, whose work includes several temporary street courses in American cities.

More than 100 club members have already taken delivery of garages, valued at $27 million in total, with about 250 scheduled for completion by 2018. They range from no-frills garages at barely $100,000 to an elaborate, 4,800-square-footer at $1M. Many will feature hoists to boost cars to second-floor mezzanines, or rooftop patios for entertaining. Members, with decorators in tow, are adding designer touches like see-through glass floors and fantasy man caves.

Members include groups of friends who chipped in money to acquire a single garage; car dealers; and automakers and suppliers with an eye toward corporate socializing. One member drives a Pontiac Fiero, another a stable of vintage VW Beetles, both drivers taking to the track alongside million-dollar Ferraris.

“They’re not all super-rich guys; they don’t all own a lake house or belong to a country club,” Oleshansky says. “And the big audience will be the general public. How do you create a gathering place where they can feel welcome?”

To that end, M1 is fast becoming a hub for enthusiasts of all interests and income brackets. The complex is already drawing between 600 and 1,500 autos for weekend Cars and Coffee events, where you'll see everything from Edsels to Lamborghini Countachs. Oleshansky himself covers the spectrum with a ’51 Pontiac low rider and a Porsche Cayman GT4. He managed to acquire the hotter-than-hot Porsche from a 918 Spyder owner who had first dibs on the Cayman, but couldn’t fit inside comfortably.

“It’s perfect for this track, just a little go-kart,” he says of the GT4.

Compared with middle-of-nowhere private tracks such as Spring Mountain, in Nevada’s Mojave desert, M1 Concourse is in the heart of a big city, a 10-minute drive from the area's ritziest suburbs that are home to car-collecting auto executives, entrepreneurs, pro athletes—you name it. That unmatched convenience could be a major draw and business advantage in the capital-intensive world of private tracks.

“It's location, location, location," he says. "If you own a garage and want to come every weekend, this is the place. And this is the culture here; it’s not New York with [its] theaters. You want to hang out with other car guys.”

In October, Champion Speedway hosted an open track day, where 65 guests could run hot laps for just $275, along with a get-together for Shelby and Mustang fans. Plans include teen and high-performance driving schools, with Dodge already serving up Hellcats and Viper ACR’s to members. Car clubs are welcome. There's a 2.5-acre skidpad, and M1 is designing an off-road course for winter events.

The track also sits on the north end of Woodward Avenue, home of the annual Woodward Dream Cruise, one of the nation’s preeminent car gatherings. The legendary cruising strip actually helped birth the American muscle car in the Sixties, when Pontiac chief engineer John DeLorean and compatriots began doing late-night market research on Woodward, including stoplight racing in their mighty new GTO.

And M1 Concourse should also help lure more cruisers north to Pontiac, rather than pulling a Michigan left (look it up) in the suburbs of Birmingham and Bloomfield Hills. Pontiac officials and residents have long felt a bit left out of the festivities. This summer, M1 Concourse opened just in time to host Dodge’s Roadkill Nights. With the blessing of Pontiac and state transportation officials, the event closed down a portion of Woodward for surreal, street-legal drag racing on a strip where police have handed out untold numbers of speeding tickets since the Sixties—and in recent years have cracked down even on innocent cruising or loitering in parking lots.

Oleshanky watched the racers, including a parachute-equipped Camaro, blast along M1 with his father, whom he describes as “an old-time hot rod guy.”

“My father said, ‘I can’t believe what I’m seeing, a full-blown, legal drag race on Woodward, without a cop to stop them. You're making my dream come true.'"

For the like-minded, dreaming of unfettered speed, Oleshansky agrees that between onerous enforcement, regulations, and the rise of autonomous cars, race tracks like his may become our last sanctuary.

“Someone from Google visited here and said, ‘In 10 or 20 years, this will be the only place you can actually drive your car.’”