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Thunderdrome & memories of Derby Hill

All bundled up in full snowmobile suits with clip-on mittens and moon boots, we’d walk across Outer Drive with our sleds in tow to take on the mammoth mountain known as Derby Hill. Sometimes we’d slide down with the speed and grace of an Olympic bobsled team, other times we’d tumble off of our sleigh into the thick, but soft, snow.

My father grew up on Caldwell in Detroit—just south of Outer Drive and west of Mound Road—in the shadows of Derby Hill. Now, it’s more known by the name Dorais Park but I never once heard it called that as a child and my dad gave me a puzzled look when I tried to explain that was the actual name of the park. It was always Derby Hill.

You feel kind of silly telling your dad the name of “his” park. The park where he and his brothers played pond hockey, the park that was a few hundred feet from their front door.

I got the same puzzled look, and a bonus furrowed brow, when I asked him about the Dorais Velodrome track that The Mower Gang dug up in 2010. Granted, the velodrome wasn’t completed until the late 60s and my dad had left his childhood home and was married with one child by that time.

But…my grandparents lived in that same home until they died and this is where my memories stem from. Christmases, birthdays, city chicken, Pfeiffer beer, playing Euchre for money and walks to Derby Hill.

Back in the real olden days, Detroit’s annual soapbox derby took place on this sledding hill—hence the name—Derby Hill. Soapbox derbies AND an unknown, oval and banked bicycle track living side-by-side in the same park? This is one magical urban oasis!

Once, it was home to the bicycling world when the U.S. National Track Championships happened here.

The Mower Gang—a group of good-hearted Samaritans—descend upon abandon parks and playgrounds of Detroit and clean them up. They mow. They weed whack. As mentioned, they found the derelict bike track and brought it back to life. What do you do with a velodrome in the city of Detroit?

Welcome to the Thunderdrome!

Thunderdrome is a full day of racing and pretty much anything on two wheels is fair game. From mountain bikes and fixies to mopeds, scooters and even go karts—they round the banked track with childhood wonder and NASCAR bravado until the checkered flag waves.

As we pulled onto Outer Drive, we noticed it was packed with parked cars. The side streets—including Caldwell—were lined too. The neighborhood and park doesn’t see this kind of action often. Bikes—of all varieties—were plenty, there was food, drink, general merriment and Fowling. What’s Fowling? It’s a combination of football and bowling, of course.

The park looked like a prairie, and I don’t mean that in the ruins-of-Detroit-feral-houses kind of way. Looking at Derby Hill from the track, it was small and docile and pretty. It wasn’t the mammoth mountain of my childhood. The Mower Gang has planted a community garden in a corner of the infield of the velodrome and Greening of Detroit has brought in new trees near the back of the park. It was the natural beauty that drew me in, though. The hill, the trees and some overgrown grass.

To me, Thunderdrome wasn’t just about racing. It was about community. It was about doing. It was about making a difference.

After watching a few races with the sun beating down on our shoulders, we headed back to our car. Before leaving the neighborhood, we did a quick drive-by of my dad’s old house.

Later that evening he asked, “Is the house still there?”

Yep, dad, it’s still there.


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Reader Comments (4)

I lived on Syracuse 2 houses from derby hill, (North side) then on Albany 5 houses from the hill on the (outer drive) south side. Have one gret memories of that hill. Baseball, football, sledding, biking, u name it. Great times.

February 25, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterBruce Barrows

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March 16, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterShantanu Mukherjee

Thanks for the memories! My grandparents also lived on Caldwell Street, in the shadows of “Derby Hill “. I too grew up with the same great memories as did my sister, brothers and cousins. Derby Hill is truly a gem and is treasured both in my memories and in my heart. Thanks again for the trip down memory lane.

February 1, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterShirley Ann

I grew up on Moenart in the 80's. I was talking about the Veledrome and came across your article. It made me very happy to hear about the restoration that was done there. I have amazing memories of bike riding and sledding there are a kid.

September 25, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterAdam Eaddy

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