Curbside Musings: Playland Park – The Drive To Drive

Playland Park. (Flint suburb) Grand Blanc, Michigan. Wednesday, August 25, 2010.

Long before I had enrolled in drivers’ training as a teenager, I had gotten my first taste of piloting a motorized land vehicle behind the wheel of a go-kart at Playland Park in the southern Flint, Michigan suburb of Grand Blanc.  It was intoxicating.  I was in the second grade and had tagged along with my six-years-older brother and his friends to have a fun couple of hours at the video arcade and on the track.  It was one recreational activity with my brother where I didn’t feel like he was babysitting me.  We played Atari at the house, but that was his gaming system and he guarded that expensive toy very carefully and limited my use of it before he outgrew it and basically gave it to our younger brother and me.  That fateful day at Playland, though, I felt like a smaller, younger version of one of his friends.  I can hang, I thought to myself.

Air hockey at Playland Park. (Flint suburb) Grand Blanc, Michigan. Wednesday, August 10, 2011.

I still love air hockey, to this day.

Arriving at Playland when its front doors were open was the most thrilling aural combination of the electronic bleeps of the video games inside, voices of other kids having fun, and the blatting motors of the go-karts as they raced around the track behind the complex.  Once indoors, the bells of the pinball games, clanking of the token machines, and rock music over the speakers added to the sensory experience, along with the stale smell of the funky, industrial-grade carpet and fresh popcorn wafting through the air.  What follows in this account happened over forty years ago, so I’m slightly shaky on some of the specifics, but I can give you the gist of it with what I’ll estimate to be at least eighty percent accuracy.  I don’t think we went straight to the go-karts, but it didn’t take long before we got there.  They were the main attraction at Playland.

Playland Park. (Flint suburb) Grand Blanc, Michigan. Wednesday, August 10, 2011.

My brother, his friends, and I got our go-kart tickets from the stand.  Always one to want to do things correctly, even at that young age (I was born to be an insurance underwriter), I wanted to make sure I had the whole driving process down… accelerator on the right, brake on the left.  I had played arcade games before with this set-up, but I was about to do this for real and wanted to make sure I had it.  My heart was racing, but somehow with my brother’s enthusiastic endorsement, and since he and his friends were going to be riding as well, my bravery shut down the risk-averse part and let my excitement rule the moment.

Playland Park. (Flint suburb) Grand Blanc, Michigan. Wednesday, August 10, 2011.

Racing a go-kart was going to be the closest thing a seven-year old kid would get to driving a car, which I knew I wouldn’t get to do for years and years.  At elementary school age, even the barely-twenty-something student aide in my second grade classroom, Miss Kari, seemed like an old, adult lady, and there were many things that fell into the “not until you’re older” category.  Growing up in a General Motors factory town all but guaranteed that I would take more than a passing interest in cars and driving, so it was going to be go-karts or nothing until the 1990s, which seemed like an eternity away in the early ’80s.

Playland Park. (Flint suburb) Grand Blanc, Michigan. Wednesday, August 10, 2011.

I’m sure my mind has protectively blocked some of the rest of what happened out of my memory because it was that traumatic, but there are parts I remember with crystalline clarity.  The low driving position inside the go-kart and the proximity to the pavement below gave a visceral thrill.  The cars at Playland also had a three-point safety harness system and buckling yourself in made you think that danger was possible behind each curve of the track.  There was the smell of exhaust and rumble of the two-cycle engine, as it shook and sputtered behind the seat.  It felt just like Atari’s “Pole Position”, but in real-time, as the attendant ran down the rules in front of all the cars and drivers, stepped out of the way, and then dropped the checkered flag…

Playland Park. (Flint suburb) Grand Blanc, Michigan. Wednesday, August 10, 2011.

Just like that, I was off, along with every other driver in the queue.  I honestly didn’t know what to expect in terms of how seriously my brother, his friends, and everyone else on the track were going to take the competition aspect of winning the race.  Knowing myself, I probably didn’t care at all about “winning” (still true today), but was just happy to be driving and part of this experience.  However, I also don’t like to lose or be last, either, and was used to being teased – sometimes good-naturedly, sometimes not.  Before too long, my brother and his friends had zoomed far into the distance on the track, and I was lagging far behind everybody.  Starting to feel more confidence with my newfound familiarity with the placement of the gas and brake pedals, I started to floor it, laughing with the fun and sense of power that doing so gave me.

Playland Park. (Flint suburb) Grand Blanc, Michigan. Wednesday, August 18, 2010.

Needless to say, the motor skills of a seven-year-old are underdeveloped compared to those of a young teenager, but no one had told me that.  I just knew I wanted to keep up with the crew I had arrived with.  Nearing a particularly tricky corner, I failed to decelerate, steer, and properly navigate the curve, and I plowed sloppily into the row of tires lining the side of the track.  I immediately felt terrified, embarrassed, and defeated.  The next thing I remember with certainty is seeing my brother and one or two of his friends running toward me, on the track, with urgency and concerned expressions.  The attendant yelled at them, “HEY… Where are you guys going?!”  “We’re going to help our brother!”  “You guys get back off the track, and I’ll handle this.”

Playland Park. (Flint suburb) Grand Blanc, Michigan. Wednesday, August 18, 2010.

That attendant surely looked old to me at the time, but in retrospect, he was younger than some of the interns or young professionals I currently work with.  He had bushy, reddish hair and glasses.  Sensing I was going to be in big trouble, I lied and told him my go-kart’s steering gear had gone out.  As he helped me out of the harness, he said, “Don’t ever, EVER come back here again!”  That was in 1982.  I didn’t go back to Playland until at least 1990.  I lived for years in irrational fear of running into that guy.  I avoided activities with my friends that involved going to Playland, all the way up through the beginning of high school.

Playland Park. (Flint suburb) Grand Blanc, Michigan. Friday, May 18, 2012.

Where was my hypothetical therapist to tell me later, say, around the eighth grade, that this dude had very likely gotten another job somewhere else years ago?  Where were any adults to tell me that mistakes happen, and that sometimes we just need to be just a bit more careful?  And that I wasn’t a bad person?  I have long forgiven young Joe for messing up that day, so he and I are good.  It’s so important to recognize that making an error, even something as trivial as driving a go-kart too fast for our abilities, shouldn’t keep us from wanting to take chances in the future.  I digress.

The Earthshaker at Playland Park. (Flint suburb) Grand Blanc, Michigan. Wednesday, August 10, 2011.

The Earthshaker, as photographed on August 10, 2011.  It was still the same after twenty years.

When I finally started going to Playland again by the early ’90s, it was a wholly different experience.  I was among the last of my friends to get a drivers’ license, so I was still a passenger when we’d all arrive at Playland.  I still couldn’t drive a car by that point, but I could still drive a go-kart.  Suddenly, at age fifteen, all of the pent-up fear and judgement I had felt having cracked up in spectacular fashion when I was just a young kid was gone, as I’d race around the track against my friends, pretending my go-kart was a Camaro, Aspen R/T, or some other car du jour that I had found in the pages of the most recent Auto Trader.

It was at Playland that my love of driving had been born, and where it was reborn almost a decade later.  When I had finally gotten my drivers’ license, I would sometimes go to Playland by myself when I couldn’t find a friend or just needed to be somewhere that wasn’t my house.  I would never ride the go-karts solo, but would find comfort in playing some old-school video games or my favorite pinball machine, the Earthshaker.

Playland Park. (Flint suburb) Grand Blanc, Michigan. Wednesday, August 10, 2011.

Years later and as a working adult, my trips to Flint would often include ducking back into Playland for a few minutes to buy just one roll of tokens and play until I had used them up.  These pictures were all taken on three separate dates between August of 2010 and May of 2012.  It’s hard to believe that Curbside Classic is now up to reruns of original content that had first gone live back in 2018, which is now six years ago.  That was the year that Playland closed for good, with the land sold to the city of Grand Blanc.

The park has all been leveled for years now.  I haven’t found the courage to drive along that particular stretch of South Dort Highway since then, and I’m not sure I’m ready.  I hope I will always remember the sights, smells, and sounds of what it felt like to be behind the wheel of a miniature race car at Playland Park, which would be but a small foretaste of what I would experience in 2017 as a spectator at the Indianapolis 500.  It was truly a happy place of my formative years, one that would help solidify the joy of being behind the wheel, at any speed.