Remembering 15 years ago when Muhamamad Ali was grand marshal at MIS
It was on this day 15 years ago that the great Muhammad Ali served as grand marshal for the NASCAR Premier Series race at Michigan International Speedway.
Ali, the boxing champion and civil-rights activist, passed away one week ago after a long battle with Parkinson’s Disease.
But on June 10, 2001, photographs of Ali were prominently displayed on the hood and rear quarterpanel of the No. 9 Evernham Motorsports Dodge that future NASCAR Hall of Famer Bill Elliott drove in the 2001 Kmart 400 at MIS. Elliott started ninth and finished sixth in the race.
Among the many race fans Ali greeted that day was a young Chase Elliott, Bill’s son who now drives the No. 24 Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports in the Sprint Cup Series. Chase remembered the day with a Twitter post recently.
— Chase Elliott (@chaseelliott) June 4, 2016
How did Ali come to be at the track and on the hood Elliott’s car? Well, for starters, not everyone realizes this but Ali actually lived in Michigan for the better part of his life after retiring from the ring, including at the time of the 2001 race.
While still boxing in the mid-1970s, Ali purchased an 80-acre estate previously owned at one time by renowned gangster Al Capone in Berrien Springs, Mich. Renamed Muhammad Ali Farms, Ali bought the property for a reported $400,000 and reportedly used it for training and sparring while still boxing — but he made it his primary residence in 1986 and lived there most of the time until moving to Arizona in 2006.
That and the fact that Ray Evernham, owner of Elliott’s car, is a huge boxing enthusiast didn’t hurt.
But the real reason was that Ali and NASCAR were partners in a promotion of the Special Olympics. The paint scheme also was designed to support a new diversity scholarship program that Dodge had implemented and NASCAR was supporting.
Ali earned a standing ovation from drivers, NASCAR officials and dignataries in attendance alike when he unexpectedly walked into the drivers’ meeting before the race. He even said a few words.
"If I had a fast car, I’d be out there racing against you," Ali said, according to a 2001 report in the Daily Press (Virginia) newspaper. The legendary boxer later gave the command to start the race.
Check out this NASCAR YouTube video commemorating the day Ali came to the Michigan track: