PONTIAC, Michigan — It seems a misuse of a good bunch of curves. Woodward Dream Cruise spectators are getting “thrill rides” in Dodge Vipers and Challenger and Charger Hellcats on part of the 1.5-mile M1 Concourse raceway where a couple of weeks ago we took laps in a new Mazda MX-5 Miata Cup racer. A line of people at least a quarter-mile long is waiting for their chance to sit in the passenger seat as a professional driver mashes the loud pedal.
The line for free thrill rides in Vipers and Hellcats is so long, we can’t see the end of it. People in the crowd tell us they’d wait all damn day for a chance to sit shotgun. Those psyched about the upcoming Demon have the chance to get inside one and drive on a virtual track or drag strip, surely offering a video game experience more authentic than a PlayStation controller. Down at the skidpad are tons of booths to buy gear, or just admire the sweet cars piling in.
Then there’s drag racing … legal drag racing … on a quarter-mile strip at the eastern border of the M1 Concourse, on Woodward Avenue. Enthusiasts and local engineers have drag raced not quite so legally along Woodward since the late 1950s, and some 22 years ago, the Woodward Dream Cruise codified the culture into a sort of slow, mostly legal roll in which there’s no room for more than a quick burnout when the cops aren’t watching.
The cops are watching all-day Saturday at this event sponsored by Dodge and The Enthusiast Network, publisher of our siblings Roadkill and Hot Rod. They’ve closed off a section of Woodward from south of downtown Pontiac to South Boulevard, where spectators can watch from bleachers on the edge of M1 Concourse property.
Already in its second year, the M1 Roadkill Nights legal street drag races threatens to become to the Woodward Dream Cruise what The Quail is to the Pebble Beach Concours, though without losing any of the Metro Detroit events’ blue-collar, no-trailer-queen vibe. Roadkill Nights gained extra prominence for Dodge this year, as Fiat Chrysler lost a display lot it used for many years at 13 Mile Road and Woodward in Royal Oak because Beaumont Hospital next door is expanding onto the lot’s land.
People walk around the M1 wearing their Mopar, Chevy, Ford, Hot Rod, and Roadkill gear proudly. Local Detroit food vendors sling Coney dogs and BBQ to hungry horsepower-junkies. It’s a bonanza for the senses, but particularly a treat for your eardrums, which are subject to a constant combination of high-revving engines and screeching tires, and even the occasional Dodge Charger funny car demo with pros Leah Pritchett or Matt Hagan at the wheel.
Amateur drivers who sign up for the races bring whatever they have, from a Hemi-powered 1966 Chrysler New Yorker, to a vintage Lotus-bodied Tesla Roadster. During qualifying Saturday afternoon, a new Dodge Challenger Hellcat with a trap time of 8.02-seconds beats a classic original Challenger Hemi, at 9.27 seconds. A Chevy Silverado Duramax’s turbodiesel torque is good for an 8.63-second quarter, to a Hemi-powered Dodge Dakota’s 8.85. A Humvee diesel’s 8.71 trumps a last-generation Camaro’s 10.61.
The announcers talk up an altered-wheelbase 1965 Dodge Coronet Hemi, expecting a wheelie, but the car blows its transmission upon launch.
Of course, racing of any sort has its risks, and one racer crashes after completing the quarter, turning in the car’s lane onto South Avenue, perhaps the result of a stuck throttle. No one is injured. Another driver is ejected for consuming an adult beverage before the driver’s qualifying run, the announcers say. But extensive fencing and barriers everywhere make spectating a safe family activity.
Seeing people get so excited about a more approachable and democratic form of racing is refreshing, and no doubt the ten-thousand bucks going to the first-place winner sweetens the pot. Watching Mustangs face off against Camaros, old Chargers against AC Cobra kit cars, Corvettes lining up next to Trans Ams—it’s easy to let your problems fall to the back of your mind and just enjoy the simplicity of a winner, a loser, and a crowd enjoying the show.
Then we spot Ralph Gilles, Fiat Chrysler design chief, and suggest to him the M1 seems like a track better suited for a Fiat 124 Spider Abarth.
“I’ve got a garage here, and I’ve driven it in my Viper ACR,” Gilles counters, adding something about how easy it is to drive the big V-10 sports car quickly, and that he holds a track record of some sort. [The drag racers on the track a few hundred feet away make it hard to hear everything he says.]
A favorite part of the day is the Viper parade, in which 200 Vipers form a train of V-10 madness onto the track, led by police escort. Seeing all the different paint styles, wings, and stripes is a real delight, although these are not cars that enjoy going slowly. A wild bunch of 200 Vipers is something you want to keep a close eye on, and there were of course thousands lining up along the parade to watch their favorite snakes go by.