Pontiac — Legal drag racing returned to Woodward Avenue for the first time in two years as performance enthusiasts from across the country gathered at the M1 Concourse to get their high-octane fix.
After a pandemic-induced hiatus, MotorTrend’s Roadkill Nights powered by Dodge was back for its sixth year with more than 120 racers hitting the eighth-of-a-mile drag strip in Pontiac under a blue sky. They’re competing for one of eight top times in hopes of getting the top $5,000 cash prize.
“Our first two passes went pretty well, I think,” said Lenny Melton, 43, of Salisbury, North Carolina, who came with his 1968 Dodge Dart and family. He won the event in 2017. “You grow up hearing about Woodward and the car culture of the ’60s. To be able to get a chance at that, why not?”
Racers compete in the big tire and small tire categories each with prizes totaling $10,000. Another $10,000 is split for the fastest Dodges in each category, too.
Car clubs and race teams wore their spirit on their tees. Or in the case of Rob Rohe, 46, of Adrian, and his crew support, Frank Poplaskie, 32, of Waterford Township, the pair wore colorful short-sleeve button downs with auto brands and aftermarket supplier logos.
“I saw it on Facebook and said, ‘That’s it!'” Rohe said. As for racing his 2000 Dodge Dakota pickup, he said he struggled to get the proper traction: “It’s not made to be a drag strip,” he said of Woodward.
The scent and smoke of burnt rubber filled the air as an estimated tens of thousands of muscle-car fans gathered on bleachers, some donning masks, to watch the classic, vintage and modern cars speed down the track.
Couple Igor Gorin and Tanya Sadovnichaya of Austin, Texas, were hoping to make the two-day journey the full “Roadkill” TV experience in their 1998 Mercedes, but instead opted for their more reliable Jeep Gladiator pickup. Although the local hotel where they’re staying is out of power following storms earlier this week, they’re making the best of it.
“We’re huge fans of the show and cars,” Sadovinchaya, 32, said. “We’re here to get autographs and really for all of it.”
The festivities include drift rides in Dodge Hellcats, Dodge Demon drag race simulations, air-brush temporary tattoos, wheel standards and flame thrower vehicle exhibitions and more.
“They should have a dealer here,” Jack McDonald, 46, of Chicago, said coming off a drift ride. “I would talk to them. I’m interested. It’s just that adrenaline rush.”
Mike Rossey, 48, of Rochester, who is Dodge’s chief engineer on the $143,485 Drag Pak, has his own Dodge, but he doesn’t drift in it.
“It was nice to do it in somebody else’s,” Rossey said, “so I don’t have to worry about mine.”
Later Saturday afternoon, Eric Malone, star of MotorTrend’s series “Fastest Cars in the Dirty South,” will take on five car influencers in the Hellcat Grudge Match. Competitors were given a Hellcat Redeye, $10,000 in cash and six weeks to do as they saw fit to their vehicles.
Waterford Township Fire Chief Matthew Covey and Bill Grubb, CEO of Pontiac’s Star EMS, will compete in a first responder showdown.
Until then, racers are trying to get their best times. Jay Barnabei, 48, of Belleville was a bit disappointed in his first passes.
“It was OK, not stellar,” the Ford Motor Co. millwright driving a ’69 Mustang said. “The starting line is in a different spot. There’s old, chipped blacktop.”
Michael Lopez, 29, of Amherst, Ohio, also brought a Mustang — the ’88 model that was his first car when he was 15. He put in a new turbo and engine for his fourth year at Roadkill Nights.
“My mom loved Mustangs. My dad had Mustangs,” he said. “Racing on Woodward? That’s iconic.”
Al Keena, 61, of Warren was 16 when his dad took him to the Detroit dragway.
“I was bored watching him,” Keena said, so he got in his 1970 Cadillac DeVille and raced, too. “I won. I’ve been hooked ever since.”
Rocco Oddo, 61, of Davisburg calls himself Keena’s crew chief.
“I grew up on the east side where the plants are and raced on Woodward in the ’70s,” Oddo said. Having Roadkill Nights back, he said, is the chance to relive it all again.
And for young fans like 16-year-old Fred Long Jr., the event feels one step closer to a dream.
“I got a Charger and started learning about it,” he said. “I want to work for them.”