'The perfect race': Racers compete for thrills, cash as Dodge's Roadkill Nights returns
Pontiac — Performance enthusiasts got their fix of high-octane thrills and a bit of drama on Saturday as legal drag racing returned to Woodward Avenue for the first time in two years.
After a pandemic-induced hiatus, MotorTrend's Roadkill Nights powered by Dodge came roaring back for its sixth year. Kicking off Dream Cruise week, more than 120 racers from across the country hit the eighth-of-a-mile drag strip in Pontiac under a blue sky to compete for the adrenaline rush — and the top prize of $5,000.
In a photo-finish ending, Nick "Nicky Bobby" Taylor, 27, of Fort Wayne, Indiana, championed the small tire category in his green-and-white 2000 Mustang nicknamed "Mountain Dew."
"It was the perfect race," said Taylor, owner of the Mid America Kustoms shop. "We test it a lot and compete in this style. To finish at the top place and in this setting, it doesn't get better."
He added twin turbos and Les Schwab tires, but Taylor says his secret to the victory was teamwork.
In the big tire category, Jimmer Kline, 53, of Wyoming, Michigan, took the win in a 1966 Pontiac Acadian for the Grand Rapids-based Go Fast Production car club.
"This car was totaled in October," Kline said, noting the vehicle is actually a friend's. His own vehicle was totaled, but the motor was functional. They combined the parts, and it was the Acadian's first race day. "We worked hard to get it done. It turned out to be a great show."
Prizes totaling $10,000 are granted in each category. Another $10,000 is split for the fastest Dodges in each, too.
In place of a traditional celebrity showdown, the event introduced the Hellcat Grudge Match, having Eric Malone, star of MotorTrend's series "Fastest Cars in the Dirty South," take on five car influencers. Competitors were given a Hellcat Redeye, $10,000 in cash and six weeks to do as they saw fit to their vehicles.
In the end, Alex Taylor, an Arkansas drag racer, mechanic and content creator, bested Malone, but it was on a technicality. Malone jumped too soon, and Taylor won without moving at all.
But unsatisfied having not made it down the track, the duo raced again. Although they both crossed the line in the low 5 seconds, Malone crossed it first.
"If only I had stayed the first time," he said. "That's the thing about racing, you never know. She outsmarted me."
The vehicles are destined for the crusher, but Dodge CEO Tim Kuniskis said he's letting Taylor and Malone keep their cars for next year.
"The idea was: Which is faster? TV or online?" Kuniskis said. "Maybe we have to do this again with a bigger, deeper deck. It's TBD until next year."
Taylor is all for it: "My heart would hurt to see the car crushed. There's so much we can do with it in a year."
Throughout the day, 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.
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.
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 included drift rides in Dodge Hellcats, Dodge Demon drag race simulations, air-brushed 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."
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."
Waterford Township Fire Chief Matthew Covey and Bill Grubb, CEO of Pontiac's Star EMS, also competed in a first responder showdown. Dodge lent them two Durango Hellcats.
"I'm a rookie, but I'm going to come out strong," Grubb said.
Covey has had some racing experience, but not on Woodward. Still, that didn't stop him from making a wager: "The one who loses buys the winner dinner."
It looks like Grubb got a free meal from Johnny Black's Public House after besting Covey in a practice and real run.
"It's much faster" than an ambulance, Grubb said. "This is just a great event for our community and Pontiac businesses and a fun family event."
Christina Mominee, 23, of St. Clair Shores came with her father, Ron, who ragged race when he was younger: "We came the last time they had it, and we're glad to see it back. I enjoy it, too."
Racing also often is a family affair. Jeremy Bonnett, 50, of Litchfield, Ohio, with his family turned a 1928 Pontiac sedan that had sat in a Wisconsin field for 40 years into a racecar. It made it to the finals in the big tire category.
"We love the people here," Bonnett said. "It's all friends whether you win or lose. It's always a good time."
But the drag strip does have its own challenges. 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 in Brownstown Township.
"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 others like Lenny Melton, 42, of Salisbury, North Carolina, who won the event n 2017 and drove his 1968 Dodge Dart this year, its the chance to experience that history: "You grow up hearing about Woodward and the car culture of the '60s. To be able to get a chance at that, why not?"
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