The Great Lakes Dragaway and the Brothers Who Helped Build It

Sep 1, 2016

The Great Lakes Dragaway is a dragstrip in Union Grove, just south of Milwaukee. It opened in 1955, and is now the oldest continuously operating dragstrip in the United States.

In the early 1950s, drag racing was all the rage throughout the country, and Union Grove was no exception. But they didn't have a track, and without one, teens were left to race on the street, which was illegal.

They needed a solution to keep people safe. Enter, Harlyn Herriges. "The idea of the drag strip came from Harlyn," says Sue Herriges, Harlan's widow.

Harlyn was working with police officers in Cudahy when the issue of street racing came to light. He met with the local sheriff and organized the first official drag race held in Wisconsin at Timmerman Airport.

It was a one time race, and officials knew they needed a more long-term solution to eliminate street racing. So they looked to the east side of Mitchell Field to build a dragstrip, but when Union Grove announced their own plans to build a strip, the Mitchell plans were abandoned.

Herriges and his brothers welcomed the new development, and decided to help them build it. "I remember going out on Saturday mornings and digging ditches and laying drainage pipes, and things like that, just to make sure the land was clear," says Russell Herriges, Harlyn's brother. "The dragstrip opened and we just felt great about it."

"Of course the dragstrip needed to have an announcing tower," says Sue. "Harlyn and his brother Dave and Russ built the announcing tower. I don't know where the wood came from, but knowing Harlyn, he may have scrounged it up."

Harlyn's involvement didn't stop once the Great Lakes Dragaway was built. Harlyn drove his own dragster called the Lucky Ladybug, his brother Russ did safety checks on the vehicles and they all worked as announcers at the field. His wife, Sue, even drove in one of the races. "It was an exciting race, and I came in second," she says.

The family continued working at the Great Lakes Dragaway for years. They started families there; Russ remembers his wife, Claudette, climbing into the announcing tower while pregnant. "I felt very proud of what I was doing," says Russ.

But then, a man died in a car that Russ had inspected and okayed. For him, and the family, their time with the Dragaway was over.

Harlyn Herriges and his family turned to musical theater, and founded the Franklin Players, which became the Suburban Players. To Sue's knowledge, Harlyn never returned to the Great Lakes Dragaway. Neither did Russ.

Still, they say they don't regret their time with the Dragaway. "I'm pleased to see that it's still going... I'm glad that that happened, because that dragstrip made a lot of people happy," says Sue.

The Great Lakes Dragaway is still in operation, and is considered one of the most historically significant dragstrips in the country.