Hellcats are dying, but Roadkill Nights lives on
During the height of the muscle-car era, American automakers used Woodward Avenue as a makeshift drag strip. The multi-lane road—an eight-lane boulevard in some stretches—runs more than 24 miles from downtown Detroit to Pontiac. Often under the cover of night, Big Three engineers raced high-horsepower ringers stoplight-to-stoplight in order to test new performance parts. One of their more formidable feats of engineering, a 1967 Plymouth Belvedere GTX known as The Silver Bullet, was good for a 10-second quarter mile on Woodward’s asphalt.
It’s fitting then, that in 2016, Mopar was back to racing on the streets of Woodward, but legally. The event, called Roadkill Nights, was a promotional collaboration between YouTube sensation Roadkill Garage and Dodge. Spectators were treated to head-to-head racing on a shut down, eighth-mile stretch of the famous Michigan boulevard as well as ride-alongs in a new Hellcat or Viper. It was a hit, and 30,000 people attended.
But this year, for the eighth running of the event (the first Roadkill Nights wasn’t held on Woodward), there was an elephant in the room: The Hellcat Challenger and Charger, the impetuses of the Roadkill collab, are going out of production at the end of 2023.
“It’s the end of one generation and it’s the ushering in of a new generation,” said Tim Kuniskis, currently chief executive of the Dodge brand and a longtime champion of SRT products. The “new generation” was on display in the form of the Charger Daytona SRT electric muscle-car concept.
It was, we must say, not the main attraction for the hoards of drag-racing fans who attended—some 42,000 this year. The event had to move from M1 Concourse to downtown Pontiac in order to accommodate everyone. Lines for the Hellcat drift demo were about as long as ones for a new ride at Disney.
Clearly, even if the Hellcats are being put out of production, they’re far from out of the picture. Performance vendors were displaying wares for the venerable 6.2-liter supercharged V-8s, Dodge was still giving people sideways ride-alongs in the soon-to-be-discontinued cars, and Mopars and other makes of all sorts were hitting the makeshift drag strip.
The drag racing, like other years, is the main draw. More than 120 racers from around the country flocked to Pontiac for a chance at cash prizes totaling $30,000 and for bragging rights as the fastest street car on Woodward.
Granted, most of the competitors—from GTOs to GT-Rs—took a liberal interpretation of the term “street car.” Sure, they were plated and registered, but the roll cages, racing seats, bead-lock wheels, and bumper-dump exhausts hinted at something more serious than the average street-strip ride.
Morning rains delayed the proceedings, but by late afternoon, the makeshift drag strip was jet-dried and prepped with around 200 gallons of VHT, a sticky substance used to give drag strips more bite, and the cars started making passes.
Just like an illegal street race, the rules to win were pretty simple: The car to reach the end of the strip first would advance to the next round of the tournament. There was no Christmas tree or timing equipment. Drivers had to anticipate a hand drop, à la American Graffiti or The Fast and Furious. Like sanctioned drag racing, however, there were classes. Cars will split into two categories: Big Tire (over 275mm width) and Small Tire (275mm width and under). Each class winner earned $5000, with the fastest Mopars in both classes taking home another $5000 each.
Despite the extra traction, the eighth-mile track was still an imperfect Michigan road, which made for close, exciting racing. Some competitors found it was all too easy to flub the launch or lose control mid-run and wind up in the opposing lane. According to Moe Zakaria, pilot of a turbocharged Fox-body and Street Outlaws racer, it came down to the tires, which had to be DOT approved. “Street tires made it tough to hook up. This car will do wheelies on the street with slicks.”
At the end of the day, Mikael Borggren, a veteran of drag-and-drive events like Hot Rod Drag Week, took the overall win in the Small Tire class with his LS-swapped, turbocharged 1987 Volvo wagon. For Big Tire, Jim Kline in big-block, nitrous-fed 1966 Pontiac Acadian, squeaked out the win in a close race against a twin-turbo Tri-Five.
The future of production muscle cars from Dodge or otherwise is at this moment clouded. In addition to the Hellcats, the sixth-generation Chevrolet Camaro will also be leaving production this year. But the enthusiasm on display in Pontiac this week indicates that Roadkill Nights and the legend of Woodward Avenue is alive and well.