Anoka County History: Remembering Minnesota Dragways

If you turn north from Main Street just west of Bunker Hills Park, at the stoplight between the Animal Humane Society and the new railroad overpass, you’ll find yourself in a quiet residential neighborhood.

On a summer weekend afternoon, there will be children playing in yards and adults mowing grass.
It wasn’t always this way. Fifty years ago, at that same location, a similar afternoon would have been punctuated with smoke and squealing tires and the roars of spectators.

From 1959 until 1976, that now-sedate stretch of Coon Rapids was the site of Minnesota Dragways, a venue where not only local racers but also top pros from around the country tested their skills and their machines in the quarter mile.

The entrance was near the present day intersection of Main and Avocet and as you drive up Avocet you cover approximately the same stretch of pavement that the long-ago racer would have sped through.

The staging area and the tower were on the left and parking on the right. The finish line was near today’s entrance to the county compost site.

On a typical Saturday or Sunday afternoon, the local racers came on first to warm up the crowd.

They faced off using some of the same modified vehicles they drove back and forth on Anoka’s main drag on Saturday nights.

Although there were bleachers, many of the fans preferred to stand along the chain-link fence, as close as possible to the finish line.

It was almost always hot. The racetrack developers seemed to have chosen the flattest, sandiest and most treeless swatch of Anoka County they could find.

The afternoon’s program continued with the professionals in their open-wheeled dragsters, complete with parachutes.

Famous names, such as Don “The Snake” Prudhomme and Tom “Mongoose” McEwen, were sometimes on the bill.

Perhaps the biggest Dragways crowd came in July of 1972, when Evel Knievel put in an appearance to jump three vans and eight cars in his steam-powered Harley Davidson.

This was less than two months before his famous attempt to clear Idaho’s Snake River Canyon. Thirty thousand people packed themselves in.

One longtime Anoka County resident, who was eight months pregnant at the time, passed out in the inescapable heat, and came to in her car in time to hear a loudspeaker announcement about the “lady who needed assistance.”

Moments later, Evel himself appeared at the window to ask if she was OK, and she was, but she was unable to get back inside to see him jump.

Dragways aficionados tell of an hour-long traffic jam at the event’s conclusion, and of people who walked two miles home from the show and arrived before their friends who had driven.

Minnesota Dragways dropped its last flag in 1976, and a few years later Northstar Speedway, just across the border in Ramsey County next to I-35W, also ceased its operations.

For a number of years the Dragways tower was visible from Main Street and gave hope to those who mourned its passing, but it’s unlikely there’ll ever again be another speedway, for either drags or track racing, so close to the metro area.

You can imagine the reaction of today’s residents to the noise from a place like that.

Today Minnesota Dragways exists only in memories and photographs.

There are plenty of the latter on the Internet, along with the wistful comments of racers, spectators, and track workers who miss the things that went on in a less populated suburbia.

Editor’s note: John Evans is a volunteer with the Anoka County Historical Society.

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