Another giant in the world of drag racing has left this mortal coil. “Broadway” Bob Metzler the man who opened Great Lakes Dragaway in 1955 and built it into one of the most famed and well known strips in the country passed away today at the age of 83 years. Metzler was an innovator in how he drew crowds to his strip and was truly one of the first in the field that understood people came through the gates to see a show, hence his creation of events like the wheelstander nationals, and other “outside the box” thinking during the golden age of the sport in the 1960s and 1970s.
Metzler’s flamboyance in promotion was not limited to just his ideas on how to put people in the seats. He got the nickname “Broadway” due to his wild wardrobe. It was not uncommon to find the guy strolling around the track at big races in everything from crushed velvet suits to stuff that looked like pajamas, complete with flamed pants, as seen below.
Metzler operated Great Lakes Dragaway from opening day in 1955 until he sold the place in 1996. Some say that it has not been the same since and it would be tough to refute their claims. Metzler was a once in a lifetime type guy. He loved drag racing and was inspired by his visits to California strips in the early 1950s while stationed there as a US Marine. When he came home from his service, supposedly with a wad of cash he had earned as a gambler, he hooked up with a group of hot rod clubs in the Wisconsin and Illinois area and decided to spend his money on a big plot of land in Union Grove, Wisconsin. That plot of land became the legendary Great Lakes Dragaway.
Metzler started running a major league match race at Union Grove in the 1950s called the, “Olympics of Drag Racing”. That race quickly launched the star of the track nationally and it didn’t take long for Bob to figure out ways to keep his place in the limelight of the sport’s small but determined media base of the era. It wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to say that for many years, people across the country were just as well informed about what was happening at Union Grove as they were about what was going on at the California strips which normally dominated the headlines. There isn’t a “name” racer of the era that didn’t make laps, and lots of them at Great Lakes Dragaway. The Olympics of Drag Racing continues today as the third longest running event in drag racing history.
Finally, the image below depicts a scene that happened many times over the years. It is Metzler sitting on the nose cone of a jet dragster, in this case the Green Mamba of Doug Rose. The first time he did it was on the nose of Fred Sibley’s USA-1 machine in the 1960s. We’ve heard a million versions of it, but the one we have heard the most had the track down for a rain delay. In a bid to keep people entertained, Metzler sat on the nose with a beer in his hand while Sibley did burner pops and fire bursts down the track at low speed. Understandably, people went completely ape shit and Metzler performed this act hundreds of time thereafter.
“Broadway” Bob Metzler is a member of the International Drag Racing Hall of Fame, the Jet Car Hall of Fame, and is one of the men who turned drag racing from a niche activity that scared churchgoing grandmothers into a part of the cultural fabric of America and a national craze for several decades. He was much loved by racers, fans, and media people as well. Although he has been away from Great Lakes Dragaway since 1996, he is still revered in that region of the country and by drag racing history lovers like us.
Here’s to hoping that the Budweiser is cold and the burner pops are hot wherever Bob is now.