US-12 goes right past the Michigan International Speedway, a massive structure located in what otherwise would be the middle of nowhere, but which on summer weekends can attract enough visitors to become Michigan’s fourth largest city. It’s worth pointing out that not only does US-12 go right past this cultural anomaly, its two paved lanes constitute the only road that goes anywhere near the place. I used to live in Saline, some 25 miles East of the speedway, and on race weekends I’d see bumper-to-bumper traffic headed West on Fridays and East on Sundays, all campers with lawn chairs strapped to the back, colorfully adorned with the paraphernalia of auto racing enthusiasm. I’ve never gone in for that sort of thing myself; never seen the appeal of it, really, but I’ve lived within a couple of miles of US-12 pretty much my whole life, so I guess something like the misadventure I had on Sunday was always in my stars, or cards, or entrails, or whatever. In any case, I should’ve seen it coming. It was a Sunday morning, though. I thought if anything, the hordes would be departing, a weekend’s revelry behind them, but no. At first, I mistook the roadblock for some kind of construction –related traffic control, an assumption which, in most other parts of the state during this time of year, would be fairly safe. All I saw was that my way was blocked by a multitude of state troopers and orange barrels. They would simply let me go once a backhoe or some such machine had finished working in the road, I thought. I was a fool, still whistling the fool’s optimistic tune to himself, oblivious to the cacophonous scratch of Nero’s fiddle. Sure enough, after a ten minute pause, they let me go forward, though barrels had been used to route my path onto the shoulder (which I thought nothing of at the time), and with the same having been done on the opposite side of the highway, all four lanes were sent to the West. I was beginning to wonder what they would do to accommodate the people who may want to go East, when I passed a sign which said “All Lanes Race Parking.” Sure enough, my makeshift lane was being diverted off the highway, and into one of the massive grassy fields used as parking lots for the Speedway. Not one of the lanes was left going Westward, towards my intended destination. I pulled up next to a state trooper who was directing me into the parking lot.
“You can’t stop here,” he said. He was all business, and his business was not courtesy.
“But I don’t want to go to MIS,” I said, ignoring the hand gesture with which he was waving me on, “I want to go West.”
“Well, you can’t. Move along!”The line of cars behind me began to honk their horns in unison. It was clear I had no choice. Once in the parking lot, I pulled up to a yellow-shirted attendant, who was attempting to wave me into a parking space.
“Do you have a pass?” he asked.
“No,” I said. “I would like to leave.” He looked puzzled.
“Oh. Well, just head that way,” he suggested, waving his hand vaguely, and without giving the impression that he was at all confident in his prescription, “they’ll help you.” I ventured off in the direction indicated, closer to the speedway, and, I imagine, the more expensive parking, wondering who “they” might be. Having gone nearly a half mile, I pulled up to another attendant.
“Do you have a pass?” he asked.
“No,” I said. “I would like to leave.”
“Oh.” There was a long pause. Evidently, no one had wanted to leave before. “Ok. Um, go up to those campsites, and take a left, and that’ll get you back out to 12.” Perfect. I didn’t see any campsites, but I guessed that must’ve been his quaint, parking attendant term for RV parking spaces. I found a driveway and took a left, and saw US-12 in all its glory, some hundred yards ahead. There was a booth at the end, probably only for checking people in, as it seemed that no one had ever tried to leave before. I drove right past it, waving at the attendant. I was through with his ilk, and would not be needing his assistance, thank you very much. I took a right at the end of the drive, and was on my way.
More barrels, and a police car barricaded the road ahead. A cop waved me to the right, back into the speedway. I pulled up to the first attendant.
“Do you have a pass?”
“No, I would like to leave.”
“Oh. Well, you can’t go that way without a pass.”
“I don’t want to go that way. That cop sent me here.” I gestured behind me with my thumb.
“Well, you can’t go that way without a pass.” Apparently, whatever this guy’s job was, the training for it involved only one very brief session. He then suggested that I head East a half a mile through the parking lot, take a right, and the driveway would take me back to US-12.
“I already did that,” I said. “That’s what I was doing when the cop sent me this way. It’s a loop.”
Another cop approached the car. I thought about how they all had matching sunglasses.
“What’s the problem here?” He seemed like the kind of guy who takes being in charge very seriously, but in fairness to him, context might have colored my perception somewhat.
“I want to go West.”
“Ain’t gon’ happen,” said the parking attendant, in a tone that suggested he thought he was being helpful. His drawl seemed to deepen as he spoke. The cop nodded in assent.
“The road’s blocked. You can’t go West on 12.” I wondered if he used that tone of voice with his friends. I concluded that he must not, because no one who did so could have any friends to speak to.
“Well, what should I do then? I can’t go back East, either. Are you suggesting that I spend the day at MIS?”
“Not without a pass,” offered the attendant, smiling. I was enraged. I wanted to kick his teeth in.
“Not my problem,” said the cop, stepping away from the car, and waving me in the direction the attendant had indicated. He was ending the conversation on his own terms. He had no idea how to help me, so obviously the best thing was to tell me to piss off.
“Gee, thanks” I muttered, rolling up my window and heading for the driveway again. Once again at the start of the loop, this time I took a left, and headed towards the back side of the blockade at which my ordeal had begun.
Fortunately, before I got there, I noticed a small dirt road cutting off US-12 to the South, blocked by two cops, who were in the process of telling the driver at the front of a short line of cars that they couldn’t get to MIS that way, and had to take the long way around.
“Let’s pretend I’m an ambulance,” I said, rolling down my window. “How the hell do I get out of here?”
“I want out.”
“Where do you want to go?”
“Well, you can’t take 12.”
“Uh huh. Figured that out on my own.” I regret the tone I took with him, because he actually seemed sympathetic to my plight (for a cop). Either that, or I should have been more hostile at the beginning of the ordeal, because hostility gets results. In any case, he was the first person I’d met who seemed to be able to wrap his mind around the fact that I might not be interested in staying at the racetrack.
“Well, you can head South, and when you get to a T-intersection, turn right, and that’ll take you back up to 12.”
“Will it still be blocked off up there?”
“Well, thank you very much. Have a good day, officer.”
I rolled up my window and he stepped out of the road to let me through.
On the winding dirt road, going through what I believe to have been the Ozarks, and barely avoiding being run off the road by a near-constant stream of North-bound (and soon to be re-routed) race fans in (without exception) large pickup trucks, I called the state police office in Lansing.
“Hello,” I began, “I’ve just been stuck at Michigan International Speedway for an hour, while trying to drive West on US-12. I’m going to be traveling the opposite direction this evening, and I would like to know if the road is going to be blocked again.” The voice on the other end, who had identified himself as Lieutenant so-and-so (I’m terrible with names), sounded exactly like Ben Stein.
“Michigan International Speedway typically accommodates between fifty and a hundred thousand people on race weekends.”
“So, will the highway be closed?”
“Between fifty and a hundred thousand people will be leaving Michigan International Speedway this evening.”
“So, you’re saying I should take an alternate route?”
“Between fifty and a hundred thousa—“
“Thank you, Lieutenant” I interrupted. “You’ve been very helpful.” I hung up the phone.