BROOKLYN, Mich. -- It could not be more quintessentially Detroit. On the eve of NASCAR's race at Michigan International Speedway, 50,000 classic automobiles caravanned down a long avenue of the Motor City that at one point boasted the first mile of paved highway in America. They call it the Woodward Dream Cruise, and what began as an homage to the carefree days of rolling down the boulevard in Detroit steel has evolved into an event that attracts more than one million spectators every year.
It seemed appropriate, then, that race car drivers unofficially kicked it off. Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon began their Michigan weekends on Detroit's Woodward Avenue, the five-time champion driving a Chevrolet Volt down the parade route, and the four-time champ piloting a 60th anniversary Corvette borrowing a white and silver paint scheme from 1953. Manufacturers are always a presence in NASCAR, where the nose of every vehicle carries the insignia of its carmaker. But nothing quite emphasizes that bond like a trip to Michigan, which is clearly the domestic manufacturers' home track.
"I can remember coming here in the late '60s, when I was still in high school -- out for the summer, obviously -- and Ford would always have a big presence," said Eddie Wood, co-owner of a Wood Brothers team that's long been affiliated with Ford. "That's when you'd see most of the executives, because it's easy for them to get here. They're really, really busy. They were really busy then, and they're super busy now. I'm just speaking for Ford Motor Co., but they've always had a lot of people out here. And not just on Sunday, all week long. This is a really big deal for them, because it's right here."
On Michigan trips the Woods stay 66 miles away in Dearborn, where Ford is headquartered. One wall of the Michigan media center features a large mural of the Detroit skyline including the towers of Renaissance Center, where General Motors -- parent company of Chevrolet -- is based. This has been an era of upheaval for domestic car manufacturers, with Chrysler and GM both filing for bankruptcy in 2009, and Dodge announcing earlier this month that it would withdraw from NASCAR competition after this season. As recently as three years ago, on the heels of cutbacks that affected the Nationwide and Camping World Truck circuits, there were real concerns over how much longer manufacturers might remain on the scene.
While the manufacturers didn't emerge from that period unscathed -- Chrysler's shotgun marriage to Italian carmaker Fiat may very well have played a role in Dodge's looming pullout -- times have clearly changed. Thursday, Johnson drove his Volt to the plant in the town of Hamtramck where it was manufactured, a facility that was idled for a month in 2009 during the lowest depths of the recession, and once seemed in danger of being shut down completely due to lagging sales of the Cadillacs it used to turn out. Now it's operational 10 hours a day.
"It was a great experience, and there are a lot of dedicated race fans in the whole plant," Johnson said Friday. "There was a lot of cheering, and there were people in there everywhere. I could hear them yell and cheer and scream, and I signed a bunch of autographs. It was a great experience. And as I talked to the other drivers [Friday], everybody was up here doing stuff. So, a lot of people and the other manufacturers were taking advantage of us being here in town, too. So, it's good. I'm glad to have Chevrolet working us up here and using us to boost morale."
Ford rolled out the red carpet for its drivers and owners Thursday, turning them loose in new vehicles at the manufacturer's proving grounds. Carl Edwards and Trevor Bayne messed around on an autocross course. As part of the annual event -- which typically precedes the first Michigan race, but was moved to August this year because of a test held at the track in June -- the company's NASCAR contingent also toured manufacturing plants, with some checking out the Dearborn factory where F-150 trucks are made, and others viewing a facility that assembles four-cylinder engines.
Even men who work around cars and engines every day were impressed. "I think they kick out about a thousand engines a day," Wood said. "The building was about as big as this race track. You walk forever. It was like Henry Ford's assembly line back in the early 1900s. It was a moving thing."
Such visits haven't always been so inspirational. Prior to one Michigan race in the middle of the recession that hammered domestic automakers, Ford vice president Jim Farley spent 20 minutes outlining the gloomy situation at hand. "It was a very sobering meeting," Edwards remembered. The time is thankfully in the rearview mirror now, but memories of the period were still evident Thursday, when Edwards toured a plant that now produces 377,000 F-150 trucks each year.
"We were standing up there on the walkway looking down, and the gentleman that was in charge of our tour said he remembers very vividly times when there were no trucks being produced right there," Edwards said. "He said that was very scary."
At the race track, conversations typically revolve around more positive subjects. Wood said Ford executives are often in the garage right when it opens in the morning, rather than waiting for on-track activity to begin. And if you want to do a little business with a domestic carmaker, well, a Michigan race weekend usually presents a pretty good time to initiate it.
"You don't want to really bother them too much, because it's really their day to be here, but sure, stuff gets done," Wood said. "I'm not talking about sitting down and having a full-blown meeting, but my version of a meeting is talking in between these two haulers, propped up against it. You cut to the chase pretty quick. There's no formalities. That's one thing the race track kind of brings -- you get down to what's going on or what you need. If they have needs, they'll tell you. ... A lot of things happen in between these haulers, especially this time of year. You watch who eases back there. Someone will go around the front, someone will go around the side. Just kind of watch and see who goes around to the front of the haulers, and see what happens next. It's kind of seeing the future."
The immediate future, at least, involves Sunday's Sprint Cup event at a Michigan track roughly 75 miles from the heart of the Motor City. In some ways, though, that distance is closing -- 2013 brings the launch of new cars in NASCAR's top divisions that will more closely mirror the passenger models of the sport's respective manufacturers, which are rebounding after a few tough years. And in Victory Lane, there surely will be handshakes and congratulations over the manufacturer support that helped produce a winner in the industry's backyard.
"There's a lot of pride on the line for this race," Gordon said. "This is a big track. Aerodynamics and horsepower really play a big role here and so I think that when you're building street cars, there's a lot of pride that goes into having the most power and the best car and the fastest car and the one that wins the race; or the most efficient car, that can be done on fuel mileage. So, this is a big race to them. We certainly recognize that. And it puts a little bit more extra pressure on us, as well, to go out and perform for them."
The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.