Now for something completely different: my Garage Magazine #15 interview with my friend and mentor "Broadway Bob" Metzler, who at 80 years young still enjoys guzzling beer while riding on rocket cars - and having fun with the ladies.
Cross-posted at Bolus -- along with Chicago flood fun, kickass vintage garage rock, rocket cars, lowriders, backbreaking labor, and fist(fight)ing in San Francisco. And, as always, fresh balls daily!
In the rolling prairies of southeast Wisconsin, just north of the Bong Recreation Area (no, I am not making that up) and the Mars Cheese Castle (no, I am not making that up either), sits a institution: Great Lakes Dragaway. For over 50 years the strip has served as permanent hot rod carnival, attracting generations of Midwest gearheads with weekly spectacles of rockets and jets and car-crushing, metal-melting Dragonators.
Ringmaster of this quarter mile circus: the legendary promoter, partier, womanizer, wild man, and all-around bon vivant “Broadway Bob” Metzler, who built the track in 1953 with a stack of poker winnings and became the only track owner ever inducted in the Drag Racing Hall of Fame. At 79, Broadway remains lord of the domain, and still holds court trackside with his two dogs Punkin and Cupid. I stopped by for a visit recently and found Broadway as crazy – and randy - as ever.
1. Where’d you grow up?
I was born in the little town of New Franken, about 10 miles out of Green Bay on Highway 54. My ma and pa grew up on separate farms about a mile apart. I had five sisters. But I really didn’t grow up there. My dad had two sisters and seven brothers, all with many kids, and there’s no way the farm could support all of them. So my folks moved to Milwaukee when I was a baby. But I went back there all the time to work on the farm, and funerals, and so on.
2. What was growing up in Milwaukee like then?
You have to remember this was in the Great Depression, and we were really, really poor. My pa had a factory job at Seiman body, which is now called AO Smith. They did big frames for cars, mainly Nash in Kenosha.
Whoa! Hi there young lady! You’re lookin’ good!
(A stacked brunette has just strolled past our picnic table. “‘Hi Bob!” she waves. “Your puppies have gotten so big!”)
(the brunette blushes.)
Whenever they hug me, I squeeze ‘em and say “you’ve left a lasting impression.” And they love it! Anyway, my dad was lucky if he made 25 cents an hour. It was tough to make ends meet, so he’d send me up to the farm every year. There wasn’t always enough food, so I came down with Ricketts disease. So I was behind two years in high school. So I was almost 17 by the time I finished my second year and I joined the Marine Corps in late ’44.
3. Did you see action?
I didn’t get overseas because the war was over in ’45. I was sent off to Parris Island for boot camp. Camp Le Jeune and Cherry Point in North Carolina. Terrible duty bases in small little towns like Newburn and Kingston. I had enlisted for 2 years. At the end of my first stint in ‘47 I was a corporal. I re-upped later on.
4. When’s the first time you got interest in racing?
In between my two stints in the Corps, - in ‘47-’50 - I drove modified stocks and sprint cars. Sprint cars for Andy Granatelli at 87th Street Speedway in Chicago. But mostly I drove stockers on quarter and fifth-mile dirt tracks. Cedarburg had a track, and State Fair Park in Milwaukee. Man, I was a lousy driver, I had a lousy car. Stock cars were really stock -- they'd stick a roll bar in. No fire extinguishers. It didn't have the correct steering, we couldn't afford that.
Ever hear of Dick Trickle? Dick and I were at a banquet about 5 years ago. The emcee said, 'Dick, you accomplished something no one else has ever done. You won 87 races in one year.' I said, 'I have to be honest, I bettered that record. In one year I lost 93 races!' In fact, I don't think I actually ever finished a race.
5. When did you re-enlist in the Marines?
In 1950, during Korea. I went back in the inactive reserves. They made me a sergeant and I went back to the West coast. Pendleton and Oceanside.
(“You were in the Corps, Bob?” asks a burly passer-by with a big white fu Manchu. “Me too, '64 to '67.”)
I don't know what was worse, Korea or Vietnam.
“Korea!” says the fu Manchu ‘Nam vet. “Those guys froze their asses off.”
I suppose so, but I never got shipped to Korea. I was a mess sergeant. They needed someone who could get up early - not to cook - but to make sure all the food was out. It left a lot of time for gambling. When I wasn't going up to LA, watching the drag races up there, I would gamble.
6. What kind of gambling?
In Pendleton, it was all blackjack. The dealer took all pushes. One out of eight hands was a push, so I always bought the dealer. I figured this out. I had enough money to back up everything, it was a no-limit rule. There wasn't five decks and all that bullshit. The dealer always took both cards down, so whenever anybody had a 12 or 13 or 14, they'd take a hit. Half of them would bust. I ended up sending $17,000 back in the two years I was at Camp Pendleton, which is probably $200,000 or $250,000 in today's terms.
7. Was LA the first time you saw drag racing?
Oh, no. In the interim between my stints in the Corps, drag racing was already big around Chicago and Milwaukee. There was a strip at Half Day, Illinois, north of Chicago. It was and old WWII airstrip and we raced on that. In Milwaukee, at Curtiss-Wright Airport -- which was Timmerman Field at the time. A couple of times, and they barred the place. There were no guardrails, insurance no nothing.
“Who we got here? Broadway Bob! I used to watch you on the TV.” A lanky older black man stops to shake Broadway’s hand.
Well hi there!
“Mississippi Otis. I do a little corn, now you go out and eat some of my corn, Broadway. I got a little machine I do it on. You ain’t eat no corn till you eat some Mississippi Otis corn.”
I promise you, I’ll be over there, Mr. Otis.
“I sure will appreciate it,” says Mississippi Otis. “I’m gonna try to get just like Mr. Broadway Bob. I’m doin’ some things to move through the world. ”
True to his word, Broadway Bob and I stop and head for the concession area for some of Mississippi Otis corn. And true to Mississippi Otis’ word, it’s some damn good corn.
8. So how did you start Great Lakes?
I got home to Milwaukee in ’52. There were a lot of clubs at the time – in Chicago, Waukegan, Kenosha, Racine and Milwaukee. They had about 35 or 40 clubs, basically, and they formed the Great Lakes Timing Association. They had all kind of names like the Schlitzers, the Eager Eaters, the Torque Twisters.
My brother-in-law was president of one of the clubs, Milwaukee Motoring Association, or MMA. I hung around with these guys. He told them that I had the money, all that poker profit. They wanted a place to race after Half Day and Curtiss-Wright were closed. I told them that 'I'll build the track, if you guys find the right place to build it.' They found this place, which was a farm at the time. The owner's name was Paul James. I bought the land in '53. I told the clubs that if I was going to do this I would need their help, so I gave them each a couple of shares of stock in the track, and 4 or 6 season passes to each club. That's how Great Lakes Dragaway got built.
There was a lot of work involved, digging and excavation going on. All the clubs helped out. Twice, when I was down in the backhoe ditches, the walls caved in and I almost got buried. They reached down to pull me out, and my pants came clean off.
My first set of bleachers here came from Andy Granatelli. He had closed 87th Street Speedway out, and Andy said I could have all the seats for free if I took them all out of there. It took three semi loads, but we erected them all again up here.
9. When did you start hosting big events?
In ‘57 I went down to Florida, to see Big Daddy Don Garlits, at the Golden Triangle in Seffner where he lived. He was really getting a big name. I made a deal with him to come up here and race against Chris “the Golden Greek” Karamesines from Chicago in a match race and they tied. ET wasn't important then, it was all top speed. They tied at 187.50 mph, which is faster than any drag cars had ever gone.
To capitalize on it I promoted them as the world's fastest two dragsters, in a match race for the Labor Day weekend. They were already going to be in the midwest for the World Series of Drag Racing anyway. I had a huge crowd, then Prudhomme heard about it, McEwen heard about it, Shirley Muldowney, Kalitta -- you name it, every big name in drag racing wanted to come. That became the Olympics of Drag Racing, which we still do today.
10. Where did the name “Broadway Bob” come from?
In the 60’s I used to go to California in the off-season to the Winternationals in Pomona. I would also do walk-on parts for TV shows; 20 or 30 of them, JAG, Murder She Wrote, can’t remember all of them. Somebody told me I was like PT Barnum, and even then I was wearing wild clothes, jewelry, colorful stuff. The track announcer at Pomona saw me and said “wow, look at the way that guy’s dressed.” He invited me up to the booth, and said ‘folks, who we have here is Broadway Bob, looks like he came straight from Broadway.” Doris Herbert at Drag News printed the story, with the headline “Broadway Bob Goes to Hollywood.” and the name stuck. Now most people don’t even know my last name. All my mail comes addressed as ‘Broadway Bob.’
11. When did you first start jumping on top of the jet cars?
We first started exhibitions in the 60’s with Walt Arfons and Art Arfons, with the Green Monster, then Doug Rose with the Green Mamba. Those were really popular, so we brought in more jets. Later on we got the rocket cars, like Tony Fox’s Pollution Packer and Ky Michaelson. He was without a doubt, the best man at building and driving rocket cars. He raced here many many times in the two year period when rocket cars were allowed. He had rocket motorcycles, and rocket snowmobiles that he would jump over things. Fantastic talent. The rocket cars were very dangerous because they were light. Whenever they got airborne, it was all over. There were only about 12 cars and in two years, six of the drivers got killed.
The first time I actually jumped on a jet car was in '70, Frank Sibley's car. His son was sponsored by Hooters. He smoked a cigar when he drove, similar to Grumpy Jenkins and Dick Landy and One Armed Willy Borsch. It was the USA-1. I’m standing there drinking a beer, and he motions me over. I said 'what?' and he yells, 'sit down!' and I got up on the nose of that thing, and started rolling down the track. Man, the people start roaring and cheering, I'll tell you what. And that became my trademark, riding the nose and swinging that beer around.
12. Always with a beer?
All the time. Of course you have to be half in the bag to try that, or half the stuff I do. You're not gonna try that sober. It's like smoking pot, which I never... well I guess I can't say I never took drugs, if somebody offered me a hit here and there, hey. And a couple of times I got in with a band called the Booze Brothers and they did one hitters, enough to get a buzz on. Never got a habit for any of it, never carried, never dealt. Just all fun.
I have a picture of me at the strip when we had four cars, two jets and two funny cars, running side by side down the track, not real fast, but with the afterburners on. I was on top of the ‘Chicago Rush’ jet car, when a big gust of wind came in from the east. On top of that, they weren’t supposed to polish the car, and I was slipping all over it. Man, I thought I’d blown into that afterburner wash.
13. Was that your hairiest moment?
Truthfully, the cars never went that fast while I was on them, it was for the spectacle. I did have a couple of scary moments sitting on a car during a car burning, when the chains broke. The most dangerous thing I think ever did was raft down the Colorado River outside Vegas. Bouncing around on that thing, you're hot and cold and wet, and bugs and critters are everywhere. And I paid 2000 bucks to do it! Never again. I'd rather ride on the jet cars.
A cute Goth girl hugs Bob from behind. “Hi Bob! How you doing?” she say in cheerfully punk singsong. “I just came by to say hi. Aww, your doggies are so cute.”
It’s a pleasure! Come back later and I’ll escort you around the track on my golf cart.
Broadway Bob’s golf cart is equipped with array of strategically-placed mirrors to afford special vistas of his female passengers. Goth girl beams and continues petting the dogs. Bob leers happily.
Yes sir, that’s really pretty nice.
14. Your car burnings are legendary. Do you have any favorite stunts?
Oh yeah! We never did just one car. We’d either stack the cars three high, or burn a school bus, or combines. Kenosha has a demolition derby with great big farm combines! Really, every year they have it. The ones that are too much to fix, they bring them here for us to burn with the jet cars. I got a lot of people come in for that.
Before import racing caught on, everybody hated Japanese cars and motorcycles. We had the Honda Drops. We drop them from cranes and helicopters, drop motorcycles into cars. Then we’d take the cars and bikes and stack them up. Then Doug Rose would back up to them and chain it up and burn them.
Oh man, they’d get mad at me with the school bus burns! Once I had a bunch of child mannequins and put them aboard, hanging out the windows, then we flared it up. People started screaming thinking they were real kids!
Now I have my Dragon, Draco the Dragonator. It breathes fire and crushes cars. I ride on it along with my Dragonmistress, who is very very pretty. I was on the Discovery Channel a couple of years ago with it.
15. How did you get together with Evel Kneivel?
I first contacted him in ’72. He had crashed in ’71 at Caesar’s Palace, and was taking the year off to recuperate. That crash really was horrible, but it really made him a household name. He said “I’ll come, but it’ll cost you a lot of money.” $25,000 – a lot of money at the time – but it covered his hotel and airfare. I spent probably $50,000 on advertising. He sent me tapes of the crash. TV stations then liked that kind of thing, for the sports. I took these clips to Chicago, Milwaukee, all over, and people just went crazy for tickets.
I charged $10 per ticket, and the place was packed, 15,000 people a night for two nights. Evel showed up at the track in a limousine, and when he got out he had a cape on and handed a bouquet of flowers to a beautiful girl, a complete production. I forget how many buses and trucks we had lined up, but he jumped ‘em.
16. Did you ever have any fatalities out here?
Oh yeah. In the first 30 years of the track there were over 30 killed. The cars were not safe for the speeds they were going. John Krannenberg, he took one ride in the Greek’s car –one ride- and the transmission broke and split the car in half and messed him up really bad. Took his balls out and everything. In ’78 Clayton Harris got about 300 feet out in front of the main grandstand and the clutch and flywheel let loose. All those pieces of metal flew up in the stands. There were about a half dozen spectators injured, and three dead. Customers. One was a racer named Bad Bob Voskul, was sitting with his wife in the stands and got hit in the chest by a big piece of flywheel metal and died on the operating table, Another guy had his lungs severed and died before they could get him to the hospital. The worst was a young girl, pretty girl, around 20. The flywheel caught her right here [motions to forehead] and split it wide open. We had a photographer decapitated once.
In the last 20 years, there have only been two deaths. The cars are a lot safer now, drivers have helmets and there are Kevlar shields and blankets. The last death here was about two years ago. A guy flipped over the guardrail and hit a light pole at the end of the track.
17. Do you think Drag Racing has evolved in the right direction?
I go to the national meets, and I enjoy it, but after you see in one day for qualifying every car looks alike every car goes the same speed within a fraction of a second. To me, I like the wheelstanders, I like the jets, I like all those things they don’t have any longer at the national meets because the car companies don’t want them.
It’s also very business-oriented. When I owned the track I used to hang out there by the gate and shake everybody’s hands who came in. Let’s say my price was 20 bucks for a big national meet, and a guy would come in with his wife and a couple of kids, and they’d tell me, we have to leave because we only have $40. I’d say, ‘I’ll tell you what – give me 20, and use the other 20 for food and what not.
18. What’s the best party you’ve been to?
Remember when the rocket cars raced at Bonneville? I went out with Tony Fox who had the Pollution Packer car. He flew about 50 of his friends out there, TV stars like James Brolin and Dale Robertson. Tony paid for all the expenses. Every day – every day – he would bring in a new busload of honeys from California. We’d start drinking martinis at the hotel, all the way out to the Flats. I lost a pair of glasses there, my virginity… can’t remember it all, only that I had a really good time!
I used to do coed jello and mud wrestling, which was fun. There was time when I jello wrestled four women. Let me tell you, when you wrestle four women you reall got your hands full. At my 75th they had a shindig for me at the bowling alley in Union Grove. It started at 8 o’clock in the morning and went till 4 o’clock the next morning. Three thousand people.
Frankly though I think my parties are the best. I usually have three or four bands – country bands, polka bands, heavy metal. I have this saying: "you ain't having fun till you call 911." So I bought a house in Union Grove on 11th Ave., 911. So I changed it to 'you ain't having fun till you get to 911.'
19. Women still seem to be the center of your life. What’s the secret to your horniness?
I’m more of lover than a fighter I guess. Truthfully I never really cared for the Marine Corps because I don't like brutality and fighting and all that. But I always liked girls, and I have two young girlfriends. They’re both pretty blondes, one is 42 and the other is 28. I’ve got a healthy libido, but not like it used to be. I’m in pretty good shape for once a week, maybe even twice a week. Not bad for 80! Like I say, “I love silver, I love gold, but I really love pussy if it’s not too old. I love dancing I love fun. I really love pussy if it’s not too young!”
20. Is there anything you still want to accomplish?
I’d really like to hit 90. They're making a documentary on me, a couple hour thing that ought to be fun, and a book. People kid me I’m getting mellow. I looked it up in the dictionary and it says ‘excessively ripe or half-rotten.’
As far as life is concerned, I’m content. I had a good life. I took the biggest gambles that anybody ever did, and had the biggest promotions. I never hurt anybody, and I never stole from anybody. I get money from three or four tracks, but I’m not really interested in money that much. It lets me take care of my family and my girlfriends. I was a high school dropout and if anyone told me I’d be in a Hall of Fame, and had a million friends, I wouldn’t have believed them.
On weekends, a family will walk in -- a kid, his father, his grandfather, and his great grandfather -- and they talk about what happened here in the 50s, the 70s, the 90s and today. I can't tell you how great that makes me feel.
“Ohhh, are these your watchdogs?”
Another woman, a leggy blonde with a big rack, kneels down to pet Punkin and Cupid. I’m beginning to understand why he loves those dogs. Bob’s eyes latch on to the blonde’s cleavage, and a giant grin takes over his face.
But you know, there’s something new worth accomplishing every day.