September 28, 2010 at 11:02 am

Laura Berman: Bicycle track gets new life

Renegade rehabbers get Detroit Velodrome rolling

A motorcyclist rides at the abandoned Dorais Velodrome at Outer Drive and Mound, which is being prepped for a revival. (Fabrizio Costantini / Special to The Detroit News)

The gang that mows straight is on the loose in Detroit, where the grass is always on the up-and-up.

Since August, the Mower Gang group of do-gooders has descended on Detroit's public parks with chain saws and lawn tractors, taming the brush, clearing garbage and trying to make the parks safe and playable for children.

Their most visible project is the Detroit Velodrome in Dorais Park, a fabled bicycle track built to host an international competition in 1969, but left to molder and decay for more than a decade. While the mayor was threatening, then backing down, from threats to close 100 parks last summer, the newly formed gang revved their tractor engines.

Now, repeatedly mowed but hardly tidy, the Velodrome on Outer Drive and Mound is being prepped for an ad hoc fundraising, racing event on Oct. 16.

The inaugural Thunderdrome bike-racing event is Andy Didorosi's effort to participate in the new Detroit ethos of free-wheeling philanthropy, born equally of the city's need and the opportunity for whimsy.

Didorosi joined up with the Mower Gang's founder Tom Nardone when he learned -- on Twitter -- of "this group of guerilla reverse vandalizers." It's one more manifestation of efforts springing up in the void left by city budget deficits and tangled bureaucracy.

The Ferndale auto journalist and a few other "gang" members have taken up what began as Nardone's cause, envisioning the possibilities of a fabulous ruin that still allows a smooth 1/5 -mile ride if you choose your circuit route carefully.

Nardone's gang of one evolved to a crew of 25 semi-regulars who can be counted on to show up for events. (The next big mow is an effort to carve a weed-maze Nov. 6 at Rouge Park). The Velodrome site was overgrown with grasses, littered with auto tires, spray cans and a discarded car jack that disabled the mower when Nardone and an employee from his Troy office tried to tame the weeds.

Billing itself on Facebook as "a crafty crew that refuses to let small budgets and bureaucracy stand in the way of a great playground," they set out to do good in a concrete way, without fuss.

Spirit of revival

In Riverside Park by the Ambassador Bridge, the group resuscitated a decrepit play sculpture, saving it from demolition and restoring it as a vivid blue and beckoning climbing toy. By then, Nardone had upgraded to an $800 John Deere tractor -- and a sense that the Mower Gang had a future.

Nardone, 40, the founder of PriveCo, a Troy-based Internet business that specializes in "items people are embarrassed to buy in a store," is a professional generator of offbeat ideas, from adult novelty cake pans to pumpkin-carving bestsellers.

His sensibility is more rule than exception among those trying to create a new spirit of Detroit revival. As the 23-year-old Didorosi says on the Thunderdrome website: "A lot of young people are starting to ignore their parents' warnings and rediscover a lot of great stuff (about Detroit)."

He's eager to get Detroit's road bike, mountain bike, scooter and moped racers back on the big Detroit oval, despite its cracks, fissures and vegetation.

A park fundraiser

The Thunderdrome will be free to spectators, with a $20 entry fee for racers that will be used to fix up the park. "We're also going to donate half the proceeds to the Detroit Department of Parks and Recreation," Didorosi said. The event has not been sanctioned by the city, which observed a furlough day Monday. Efforts to reach city officials were unsuccessful.

Didorosi says he has lined up sponsors offering prizes. A donor gave the group equipment to clear foliage. Entrants can sign up at http://thunderdrome.com.

And while he says he hasn't been able to reach the Detroit parks department, he continues to try.

In the meantime, "reverse vandalism" seems as if it ought to be legal. He's trying to implement his own philosophical strategy: "Ignore the past, ignore the rot, and just do: make, improve, fix."

lberman@detnews.com">lberman@detnews.com (313) 222-2032

Alan Schlutow, 27, of Royal Oak shovels weeds at Dorais Park at Mound Road ... (Robin Buckson / The Detroit News)
The Dorais Velodrome was built in 1969 with a 1/5 -mile track to host an ... (Pictometry International)
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