A beginner’s guide to fast street-car racing

drag racing at Roadkill nights

Wanna start a fight? Tell people you’re into fastest street-car racing. The first reaction is folks are horrified to hear you’re illegally racing on the street, and upon explaining that no, these are street-legal cars that race on sanctioned tracks, well, then you’ll get into an argument about what defines a street car.

Is it turn signals? 91 octane? Factory body panels? These arguments are extremely boring and a terrible waste of time when you could instead be discussing the history and technology of these road and track warriors. Last weekend brought the full tire-smoking, turbo-spooling glory during the 2018 running of the Roadkill Nights Woodward Avenue street race. Calm down, it’s a legal street race hosted by Dodge and Motor Trend’s Roadkill Show.

Corvette drag car at Roadkill nights
Steven Pham

The history of racing street cars—and arguing their streetability—goes all the way back to the first formal drag races. That’s a story all its own, but it’s enough to know that the NHRA was founded by Wally Parks in 1951, and people were racing their stock and modified machines well before that. By 1953 there was a class intended just for stock cars, but stock cars didn’t stay stock long, which gave tech inspectors plenty to do. “All through racing, the cars get too radical to drive on the street, and people try to make rules to bring them back down to a stock, or at least stock-appearing level,” says David Freiburger, host of Roadkill Show and former editor of HOT ROD magazine. “Stock cars start running race fuels, become Gassers, then Altered Wheelbase, Funny Cars, Pro Stock, and as the racing ramps up in cost and complexity, there’s always an underground scene racing on the street or with alternate sanctioning bodies, and that’s what we noticed at HOT ROD in the late ’80s and early ’90s.”

Roadkill nights drag car
Steven Pham

In 1992, the staff at HOT ROD joined forces with the National Muscle Car Association (NMCA) to give these outlaw cars a chance to show off on the track. At the time, the quickest cars were running high 8-second passes, and when you realize that the quickest production car of the time was a Ferrari F-40 which took 11.8 seconds to run the quarter-mile, you start to see the scale of performance. From the NMCA Fastest Street Car Shootout, organized streetcar racing started adding tests of the “street” part. After all, it’s one thing to say your car is streetable, it’s another to run pump gas or actually drive any great distance in traffic and through the city. In 2004, the Pump Gas Drags asked participants to run 91 octane and drive 30 miles to the track. That turned into HOT ROD Drag Week, which makes competitors drive 1000 miles over a series of five days, racing at a different dragstrip each day. “Drag Week is a torture test,” says Tom Bailey, who has won the event in two different 6-second Camaros. As fire hardens steel, long drives and hot-lap turnarounds test engines, transmissions, axles, cooling, fueling—every component of a car, in fact, including the driver. The cars that make it through become stronger and faster, and many were on display at Roadkill Nights.

drag race camaro engine
Blown out Camaro SS 615
drag race car
ultra tech racing engines

The two highest horsepower cars we saw were Bailey’s 1969 Chevrolet Camaro and Bryant Goldstone’s 1973 AMC Javelin. Both cars are great examples of the far end of defining streetable. Bailey’s car is Camaro-shaped, but no GM plant ever stamped out this tube chassis or its golden fiberglass panels, and no assembly line UAW man or woman torqued the head bolts on its 3500-horsepower, 615-cubic-inch twin-turbo big block Chevy. Goldstone’s Javelin can brag steel panels and glass windows, but it’s been a long time since this Jav sported an AMC 401. Like Bailey’s car, Goldstone is bowtie power, a double-turbo Dart-block 572-cu-in Chevy, which put down 2313 hp at the wheels on a portable dyno the evening before the Woodward race. Radical as both cars are, they cruised around Detroit all week, idling at stop lights and getting 11 mpg. Likely better than your stock big-block muscle car.

Roadkill nights drag racing
dragstrip car show
Roadkill nights
Steven Pham

The final runoffs got rained out, but the Quick 16 included James Pranis, 1968 Dodge Charger; Peter Bokedon, 1972 Dodge Dart; Gary Box, 1965 Chevrolet Corvette; Craig Groebner, 1971 Chevrolet Nova; Leon Hudson, 1965 Plymouth Barracuda; Jimmer Kline, 1966 Pontiac GTO; Jim Kline III, 1996 Chevrolet Arcadian; Mike Mislivec, 1982 Pontiac Trans Am; Bryan Rosario, 1972 Chevrolet Camaro; Mark McGill, 1978 Chevrolet Camaro; William Gill, 1966 Shelby Cobra; Adam Hodson, 1973 Chevrolet Camaro; Kenny Laflower, 1970 AMC Javelin; John Lopez, 1988 Ford Mustang; Justin Spiniolas, 1991 GMC Sonoma; Carl Stancell, 1984 Chevrolet S10 Blazer; and Rick Steinke, 1967 Chevrolet Chevelle

Bailey will be the first to tell you, however, that horsepower isn’t a guaranteed win in street car racing. Unlike NHRA pro events, street car events are often on less sticky or completely untouched race surfaces. If you want to follow a branch of this family tree, check out “No Prep” racing and prepare yourself for some squirrely, wheel-cranking, half-track wheelie-popping action.

Things weren’t quite that extreme on Woodward. The track at Roadkill Nights was an eighth-mile section of a public roadway. Barriers were put down for safety, and some traction compound was laid down at the start, but the road was crowned, uphill, and spiderwebbed with cracks and sealer. Despite being the two most powerful cars in attendance, neither Bailey nor Goldstone made the Quick 16 for the finals. “If the fastest pass is a 5.70, well, I’m bringing a 4.30 car to the fight and I can’t use most of it,” Bailey says good-naturedly. He’s won the event before, but this year each of his passes were a smoke show, just overpowering the surface. “It’s not about the power, it’s about handling the conditions.”

blown out Mustang at Roadkill nights
Steven Pham

If the tracks are bad and the competition torturous, what’s the appeal of building a street car? “I started with street cars because I couldn’t afford a truck and trailer,” says Nick Plewniak, whose Chevy-powered 1930 Plymouth was a crowd favorite during Roadkill Nights. “Street car stuff adds a whole other element to building and tuning, plus you get to use it more. It really sucks only having a race car that you race on Friday and it rains a few Fridays in a row and you can’t use your car. We take it grocery shopping, dinner, ice cream, and just the occasional cruise around town.”

Dirty 30 rat rod
Waiting to race

Every person we asked echoed Plewniak. While going fast is never cheap, street car owners get more time in their cars per dollar spent, and there are more interesting ways to make their cars fast than if racing a more established class, where there are usually strict engine combinations and cookie-cutter methods of dropping E.T.s. Street car racers are still able to get an advantage by being clever, rather than by simply spending more money. A well-built car with less power can end up ahead of a fragile big-horse machine. You have to win the race, but first you have to get to the track.

“Most failures aren’t mechanical. At least, not initially,” Bailey says. “They are burning out a race fuel pump because the tank is too small and the gas heats up, cycling 1000 gallons per minute for 200 miles. Or they don’t have a big enough alternator or cooling system. Some race cars don’t even have an alternator or cooling system. You don’t need it for a single quarter-mile pass, but you can’t get away with that on the street. The street adds complexity.”

Look inside the cars and the creativity becomes even more apparent. Is that a cupholder between the air-shifter and the center bar of rollcage? Figuring out where to charge iPhones, how to fit a sun visor and a parachute handle in the same space, where to put a turn signal indicator… pretty sure Don Garlits never had to worry about those problems.

working on a drag car
Elana Scherr

The challenge of making a car streetable and then getting to enjoy it with friends and family without having to go to a track event is the main reason why owners choose to build. That’s where the commonality ends though. Some folks think that a car that has to be worked on regularly shouldn’t count as a street car, and others think that if you could get a DMV employee drunk enough to slap a plate on a top fuel dragster then it should count, even if you had to rebuild it every few blocks. Folks also can’t agree on where the movement started. Some follow Freiburger’s logic that the first street car racing began with the first street cars. Others think the Pro Street movement of the 1980s gave rise to the cars of today. Tom Bailey credits Rod Sadbury with the first 6-second quarter-mile pass on street tires, but many other racers say Larry Larson built the first truly streetable 6-second car with his Drag Week-winning 1966 Nova Chevy II.

Roadkill nights hot rod
rainbow after it rains during Roadkill nights
roadkill nights burn out
Elana Scherr

It's not an argument we’re going to win here today, but we did touch base with Larson to find out what he thinks of the boom in the street machine scene. “Technology keeps making it easier to go faster,” he says. “EFI and better tuning options, there are more aftermarket parts, more efficient power-adders. I’ve had my Chevy II since 1988, but I‘m still building street cars and race cars.”

If Roadkill Nights is anything indication, a lot of people are still building street cars and race cars, and they’ll keep getting quicker.