News & Media

Michigan's one 600-mile race Gillett's big moment

August 19, 2011, Mark Aumann,

Race in 1969 completed just 165 of 300 laps and was never that length again

The announcement that Pocono Raceway will shorten its traditional 500-mile races by 100 miles beginning in 2012 brings to mind a number of similar circumstances in NASCAR history, but none more unusual than the 1969 Yankee 600 at Michigan International Speedway.

Pocono follows the lead of tracks like Dover and California, which have reduced the lengths of their races in an effort to make the overall racing more exciting. But the opposite is also true.

The July 4th race at Daytona was originally 250 miles, but starting in 1963, it was lengthened to 400. The distance didn't seem to bother hometown hero Fireball Roberts. He won the 1962 Firecracker 250 and the 1963 Firecracker 400. And Atlanta's fall race expanded from 400 to 500 miles in 1967.

Sponsorship obligations have had an effect on race lengths as well. The 2009 race at Las Vegas was extended to 427 miles to pay tribute to Carroll Shelby's 427 Mustang. An additional 63 laps were added at Phoenix for the 2010 Subway Fresh Fit 600. And New Hampshire attempted to run a 301-mile race for sponsor Lenox Industrial Tools in 2008 but rain washed away the final 17 laps.

But in August of 1969, track officials at the brand-new 2-mile track in south central Michigan had a brainstorm. Why not host a 600-mile NASCAR race for race fans up north, similar to Charlotte's World 600?

Mel Gillett was a talented local racer from Howell, Mich., and had just turned 40 when the new MIS was opened. He had backing from Lansing's Air Lift Corporation and was driving a car built by Rod McLane, who had manufactured cars for some of the sport's top names in the 1950s and '60s.

Now 72, Gillett remembers what turned out to be his only Cup start.

"I had run Daytona Beach three times prior to that," Gillett said. "I run in the ARCA race once and Permatex [Sportsman] twice in 1968. And then I ran MIS in 1969 and didn't do nothing."

Gillett said his effort seemed doomed from the start.

"We blew an engine trying to qualify and coasted across the finish line and started last," he said. "Then we put a stock engine back in it, because that's all we had, and I think we finished last in the race.

"We blew an engine -- it didn't have enough power to get out of its own way -- but when you're poor people trying to compete with millionaires, it's pretty tough. NASCAR was a wonderful thing but it was out of my financial reach, for sure."

Gillett actually finished 40th out of the 44 cars that started the race, which was continually hampered by rain. Even with Michigan's long summer days, NASCAR officials ran out of time to dry the track. As darkness fell with just 165 of the scheduled 300 laps completed, David Pearson was declared the winner in what had been a very competitive event to that point -- 26 lead changes among 12 drivers.

In 1970, track officials set 400 miles as their official race distance, and it's been that ever since.

Gillett remained in racing for more than 20 years, and was inducted into the Michigan Motor Sports Hall of Fame. But if not for a bet with his brother, Gillett may have never taken up the sport.

"He was younger than me by a year and he started racing," Gillett said. "He said, 'I'll bet you $30 that you don't built a race car and race.' And that's how I started. I won the bet."

"We blew an engine -- it didn't have enough power to get out of its own way -- but when you're poor people trying to compete with millionaires, it's pretty tough. NASCAR was a wonderful thing but it was out of my financial reach, for sure."


Gillett said he had a lot of help along the way.

"There was a gentlemen named Wilson Fedewa -- Gary and Butch's dad -- he said to me, 'If you'll change something under your car, you can win the feature tonight,' " Gillett recalled. "I said, 'I don't even know what you're talking about.' So he said he'd go under the car and fix it for me, so he crawled underneath that car and I was racing against Butch and Gary and I won. They were going to kill him."

Another of Gillett's benefactors was John Marcum, who co-founded ARCA.

"I had raced for him at Flat Rock and Toledo, and he talked me into going to Daytona the first time," Gillett said. "He used to walk by us in the infield, and one time we had the car loaded up in Toledo. He said, 'Did you blow an engine?' I said, 'No, I blew a tire and I don't have enough money to buy another one.'

"He walked right over to the tire supplier and said, 'Get him a tire.' That's how we ended up racing that night. It was $100 for a tire, but $100 was a lot of money back then and we didn't have it, and he took care of it."

Then there's the story of Gillett's second son, named Cale.

"My wife was a Cale Yarborough fan," Gillett said. "In fact, Cale came down to Toledo one night and raced with us. He got to talking with her -- this was before my wife delivered the baby -- and when she got back in the car, she said to me, 'I'm naming my kid Cale.'

"Cale was a class-act guy, I tell you what."

The day Susan Gillett was ready to have the baby, Gillett was supposed to be racing in a town about an hour away.

"My wife was delivering our second child, but I waited until I knew everything was OK," he said. "She yelled out, 'It's a boy! Go!' So I got in my car and drove to Owosso.

"A local guy named Johnny Benson [father of Truck Series champion Johnny Benson] qualified my car. And he qualified second. Had never been in my car before and made me look like an idiot. But that's what happened. We ran the race that night, and I don't even remember what position we finished, third or fourth."

There's a bumper sticker that says "We interrupt this marriage to bring you the racing season." For Mel Gillett, racing was never an interruption, just a passion, even if it only meant getting into a Cup car for a fleeting moment in time.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.