The informal tire-warming water box on Detroit’s Woodward Avenue offers continual raucous ambiance, but when Matt Hagan’s widebody Hellcat funny car races past, a cloud of smoke worthy of the Old Testament blankets the informal dragstrip. Eyes and nose alike sting in the nitrous aftermath of Hagan’s burnout—and the crowd packed atop the bleachers and on the mulch beside the street loves it.
The two-day, 2019 iteration of Roadkill Nights Powered by Dodge featured burnouts from Hagan and Leah Pritchett, nearly 7000 thrill rides drifting around Pontiac, Michigan’s M1 Concourse private road course, 47,000 spectators, and much smoke and horsepower from the prepped drag strip along Woodward Avenue.
Roadkill Nights doesn’t simply let racers revel in legal nostalgia; it brings law enforcement and emergency services together with the automotive industry and the competition-hungry public to all witness to the resonance of American muscle.
Donny Walsh steps out of the carbon-fiber-bodied SpeedKore Hellcat he’s been hired to smoke down the Woodward strip. “I was pretty much forced into racing,” he chuckled—his whole family is connected to racing and the automotive industry. On other weekends, he races his own pro-mod 4000-horsepower beast, and brings his own 16-year-old daughter whenever he can. “I like her to see the camaraderie here.”
Along with the sense of community and low-lying risk of hearing damage, the enthusiasm surrounding high-horsepower creations attracts both drivers and informal pit crews of friends.
Bill Gill pats the fire-engine-red door of his replica Cobra, its hood angled skyward to show off the 427 big-block between the front wheels. “This is a lil’ sweetie right here.”
The Cobra sits on the non-blackened, camp chair-lined side of Woodward’s grassy median. Gill nods in the direction of his informal pit crew, which includes Greg Reefer, who owns a Peterbilt dealership. “He’d rather come and help me out,” Gill says gratefully.
Reefer not only drove to the event for his friend, but gifted him another set of tires —“as a birthday present,” Gill smiles—after the Cobra burned through two full sets.
With appropriate disregard for efficiency in the quest for smoke and horsepower, the Cobra chews through rubber almost as fast as it sucks down fuel. The Cobra dynos at 650 hp, and during the 3000–4000 miles Gill puts on it yearly, he sees “a lot of 7 mpg.” Gill laughs: “Here, we burn a half-gallon in an eighth of a mile.”
Helmets and fire-resistant outfits rule this stretch of Woodward among both paying and hired attendees. The car culture permeates the air right along with the noise, smoke, and fumes.
Leaning across from the water box on the diamond-plate front bumper of a hulking fire truck, Pontiac fireman Scott Covarrubias says, “I’m not really a car guy and I didn’t grow up in Michigan, but I like all the pride they take in these cars.”
He, along with the local fire marshal (and another marshal who’s standing in as fire chief after a recent retirement) are on deck for a Mustang’s brake and ’chute failure—in which the chief injured parties are a chain link fence and the Mustang’s front bumper.
Like most potential accidents, the Mustang’s doesn’t turn into disaster, but Covarrubias says he’s attuned to the one-percent of accidents that do turn ugly. “Those are the ones I see,” he says.
When he saw starter Jason Rueckert hand-on-hips in between the squirming, smoking dragsters behind the starting lasers, Covarrubias was incredulous. “The guy’s just standing there! I had to ask somebody, ‘Is that normal?’ They said, ‘That’s his job, he’s comfortable with it.’ I’m like, ‘Oh my God.’”
Despite a gasp-inducing stumble earlier in the day, the first words out of Rueckert’s mouth when a red GTO’s snapped planetary pauses the action show his absorption in the event.
“It’s taking rubber like a real drag strip,” the midwest regional manager of VP Racing Fuels says. “Cars are 0.07–0.12 faster than they were this year. We even had one 4.99.”
Flanked by a fire extinguisher and a bottle of lime green Gatorade, Rueckert’s right at home facing a lineup of drag-happy Mopar coupes, Jeeps, and one very junky Caddy.
“It’s all junk,” says Andy Koehler with a giant grin, immediately following a handshake. His 5600-pound, 1947 Series 62 Cadillac lumbers along on a partly hand-built, Frankensteined frame. “This is its first time out with second gear—it was running 11:20 just first to third.”
Koehler says he built the Caddy “to embarrass all the Mustangs” and the rusty chunk captures the humorous juxtaposition that is the soul of Woodward.
Dave Schroeder and John Ens’ wild C2 rumbles down to the staging area past Elam Brothers: Fish, Chicken, Shrimp, while Avon Donuts witnesses what is likely the noisiest-ever gathering of cars in the general vicinity of coffee and baked goods.
“Two minutes!” somebody calls out as the swath of Woodward after the staging lines and before the water box clears—with remarkable speed. Covarrubias points to a white Explorer around the curve of the train tracks tracing across Woodward. “That’s the railroad police,” he says. A cargo train looped with graffiti rushes through the intersection.
A slate blue Amtrak train briefly interrupts the action an hour or so later. Before Leah Pritchett’s dragster kindles all 11,000 horsepower, a short chain of engines crawls across Woodward.
From families to local firefighters, from Drag Week winners to rust-bucket wrenchers, Roadkill Nights celebrates the visceral fun of fast American muscle—and the community it creates. We can’t wait to grab our keys, forget our earplugs, and head back to Pontiac next year.