There's a sports success story brewing on the border of Hamtramck and Detroit, and it's like nothing you've ever seen on television. It's a sport created by fans of automobile racing, but it has nothing to do with motors. It involves throwing a football, but no player is the receiver. The goal is to knock down 10 pins, but there's not a bowling ball, lane, or gutter in sight. And the prize for the championship is a can of sauerkraut.
It's called "fowling" (pronounced FOAL-ing) and its chief aficionado, organizer, and historian is Chris Hutt, proprietor of the Fowling Warehouse in Detroit.
The sport involves teams throwing a football at an array of pins, trying to knock down as many as possible. And, as you might guess, a sport this fanciful involves plenty of beer-drinking. Getting together, drinking, and doing something inventive is how the sport was born.
Hutt, 46, is happy to tell the story. Taking time out behind the Fowling Warehouse's inventive bar (it's made from an old bowling alley lane), he pours us a beer and explains. See, he's part of a group of people from across the Midwest and South that attends the Indianapolis 500 every year, and has annually camped and tailgated in Lot 1A for the last 20 years. If that sounds like a long tradition, Hutt tells us, "Some of the Indiana folks, they've been in the same spots for 80 years. Like, 'This is Grandpa's spot.'"
Every year, the group's members meet at the speedway, park their buses and RVs, circle the wagons to make a courtyard in the center, and embark upon a project to try to impress their neighbors. It sounds something like Burning Man without the drugs. "Everybody has their thing," Hutt sats. "One year, we make an octagonal tiki bar — that was a winner. We built Plinko one year, you know, from The Price is Right, 13 feet tall. ... We're a creative bunch. We're good with our hands."
In 2000, the project turned out to be a bit too challenging. The group decided to build a bowling alley, with six risers bolted from end to end, creating a regulation 48-foot lane. But when it came to designing a backstop that could halt a standard bowling ball at the end of the lane, nothing seemed to work. The ball kept bursting past their barrier of rebar and snow fence, rolling into adjoining campsites. And, even at Lot 1A, people have limits on how much of that they're willing to take.
"We took the bowling balls and locked them up in a trunk and gave ourselves an F," Hutt says. "Then, the day before the race, a couple guys were playing catch with the football and someone made a bad pass: It wasn't caught. It rolled and went right into the pins and knocked some pins down."
It was a magical moment when a mistake becomes an inspiration, as when Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin in a contaminated petri dish, or when Archimedes saw his bathtub overflow. "We had another box of spare pins and set them up at the other end of the lane and spent the rest of the day making up rules as we played. By the end of the day, we had our basic rules, which are still used today."
After a few years of fowling at the speedway, the lane made of risers had become something of a nuisance, so the crew took the six risers apart and made it into a game involving two platforms, driving to a local bowling alley to buy 40 pins. It was a good thing too as people might endure a three-hour wait for a chance to play the winners; with three setups going, wait times dropped considerably.
"After a full day of fowling," Hutt says, "we decided, we've got to have a tournament. Everybody signed up, 24 teams with goofy names for the inaugural Superfowl Saturday. This past year was our 11th Superfowl Saturday. And our 10th drew 120 teams in three hours at $40 and a case a beer a team to enter."
Before long, Hutt brought the sport back to Detroit, setting up in various places over the years, including an empty warehouse in Troy, behind the Stonehouse Bar in Detroit, at River Bends Park in Shelby Township, and at yet another warehouse space in Detroit. While the Indianapolis Superfowl remains a key event, Detroit hosts a tournament on the Saturday after Thanksgiving dubbed by one wag the "Turkey Fowl."
Hutt recalls, "Two guys won and said, 'Where's our trophy?' Well, I ran onto our bar bus to find something I could give these guys as a trophy, and all I could find was a can of old sauerkraut from an old tailgate on top of the beer cooler. So, every year, we go to GFS and buy two of those. We call it the Kraut Cup. Some people get to eat their trophy and some just put it on their mantel."
It's easy to see how the sort of weird, creative brainstorming Hutt embraces became infectious. Hutt has done "rock 'n' fowls" with live music, birthday parties, corporate events, and league play, always as what he describes as a "word-of-mouth, knucklehead-free" thing.
And now that creative spirit finds its expression in a 34,000-square-foot space that's actually one of the coolest makeovers using Detroit's hulking architecture. Hutt shares the 90,000-square-foot facility with Andy Didorosi's Detroit Bus Co. Hutt's part, the Fowling Warehouse, is a series of fowling lanes set off by netting to keep errant footballs from flying out of the play area. Toward the back is the bar, which includes an inventive, magnetic beer-dispensing system that fills glasses from the bottom up (you have to see it to believe it). It also has a very loud horn used under certain circumstances. Off to another side is a lounge made of industrial-sized wooden spools, as well as a a 400-square-foot stage (with a 40,000-watt sound system on the way). There are even locker rooms.
The makeover cost six figures, because, as Hutt puts it, "It was not Tiffany blue with a red ribbon, no. It was Marathon black with free refinery smell. The second I came here, even though it was totally full of shit and a disaster, I knew this was it."
There's no food, but Hutt is amenable to people bringing their own, noting that several Hamtramck spots deliver to the warehouse. He says plans are also in the works for food trucks and pop-ups. Setting up a kitchen would be another six figures, and, besides, the ultimate DIY sport shouldn't be so ... swanky. Not quite yet.
"We're a little rough around the edges on purpose," Hutt says, with a laugh. "It's industrial. People like it. The bar isn't mahogany, it's bowling lane. This is the only place you can do fowling in the world."
The Fowling Warehouse is open 5 p.m.-2 a.m. Monday-Friday, noon-2 a.m. Saturday, noon-10 p.m. Sunday, at 3901 Christopher St., Detroit; 313-264-1288; $10 a head for unlimited games. For more information, see whatsfowling.com.