It takes skill, passion and the right touch to groom any track surface to handle the constant pounding of high-horsepower machines. Run after run, pass after pass, the starting line at any drag strip will take a beating, but that’s what these tracks were designed for. Now, try doing that on a paved public road that sees extreme weather year-round, including large doses of salt during winter’s icy grip, and the intense heat of summer with the sun’s laser-like rays beating down on the blacktop, baking the roads and driving the surface temps to over 120 degrees Fahrenheit. Over time, the street becomes riddled with cracks and can even resemble the surface of the moon, but that’s Woodward Avenue. It’s the main circuit that runs from the heart of the Motor City up to Pontiac with numerous suburbs sandwiched in between. Welcome to Roadkill Nights Powered by Dodge, the only place on the planet that has legalized drag racing on a public street. And while this is a controlled event with many safety protocols in place, it still presents a challenge for the many competitors trying their luck and putting the hammer down on the infamous avenue that was the epicenter of Detroit’s muscle car movement beginning in the 1960s. Getting off the line without shredding the tires in a mushroom cloud of smoke is an equalizer among the numerous vehicles that race for the all the glory and bragging rights.
Once again, the important task of making sure the starting line on Woodward has bite will fall to Kurt Johnson. This is his third year preparing the street surface, ensuring it is groomed and ready for competition. He knows a thing or two about preparing various tracks around the world, giving them the right grip so racers can mash the gas and put down all the power their engines churn out. “I started managing and preparing the surface at Lucas Oil Raceway in Indianapolis in 2010. Before that, I worked for Don Schumacher Racing on the NHRA Full Throttle tour where I studied track prep procedures carefully. In 2015, I formed Total Venue Concepts with Rollie Miller at ProMedia. We currently provide equipment, track preparation and management consulting to over 140 racetracks in over 12 countries,” said Kurt. If you’ve ever raced your car at an NMCA Dodge//Mopar® HEMI® Challenge event, chances are Kurt and his staff prepped it. He knows the right amount of “glue” that needs to be sprayed down and how “tight” the starting line surface needs to be, whether it’s a nine-second Dodge Challenger SRT® Demon or a Charger Scat Pack going down the drag strip. But when it comes to preparing a public street for serious drag machines, adjustments need to be made in the preparation of the surface. “On a true competition surface, it’s always challenging. On Woodard Avenue, which is a true heavy traffic street that has not been repaved in years, there are many other issues,” noted Kurt. With only six to seven hours in the middle of the night to get Woodward Avenue prepared, groomed and ready for Roadkill Nights, the clock is ticking for Kurt and his crew. The first thing they do is clean the area on Woodward Avenue where the drag racing will take place. “The street sees tens of thousands of cars and trucks a day. All those cars are dripping oil, antifreeze, other contaminants that are not conducive to the rubber and traction compound we apply that needs to adhere to street surface. It’s very difficult to clean the street completely in that amount of time for the contaminants that are laid down in 365 days of heavy traffic. We use many truckloads of water and a whole bunch of Tide laundry detergent. Wash, rinse, repeat,” laughed Kurt. But cleaning the street is only the first part. The second largest challenge is repairing the asphalt as it wears over time and exposes the large aggregate (rocks) as the binder is worn away with traffic. As Kurt told us, “It’s very difficult to get traction compound to stick to a rocky surface. On a racetrack, you have a flat surface that allows the rubber and traction compound to grab. At Roadkill Nights, we do not have that luxury, so we must mix the glue much differently to promote rubber and traction compound to bond to the asphalt surface. If we get the surface of the rubber too sticky and it becomes stickier than what is attaching it to the asphalt, the tires pull it off the surface. A racetrack is built to accept the bond of rubber and traction compounds, the street is not. It takes easily three or four times the effort to make a street perform. On this type of a road, it’s nearly impossible to replicate a drag strip. We can, however, create a safe competition surface that will safely help high-horsepower cars compete equally in each lane.”
To throw a wrench into the mix, this year, the starting line for the racing at Roadkill Nights has been moved from its original spot due to a safety mandate from the city of Pontiac. Now the launching point is 80-90 feet further south on Woodward. For Kurt, he’s once again ready to make it the stickiest and safest street surface on the planet. “The move puts the starting line on asphalt, and it will be more difficult to provide traction. Regardless, me and my staff will do the same prep we’ve done in the past that will allow participants to tune their cars and driving styles to the road conditions. Woodward will have bite during Roadkill Nights and the fans will see some awesome side-by-side racing action!”
Kurt also has this advice for competitors at this year’s Roadkill Nights: “Try to line up in the groove. Generally, this area will give you the optimum performance. With that said, there are exceptions. If the car in front of you spins the tires to the point it exposes the bare concrete, don’t line up directly in his wheel path, move slightly left or right. Also, if running true drag radial slicks, don’t be afraid to move left or right of the groove. More often the glue is stickier in these areas, something a drag radial tire likes. Also, make sure your car is completely straight in relation to the racetrack. A small degree of being crooked can send you to the centerline or wall, remember your front end is barely on the ground under severe acceleration and your rear end is locked up; where the car points, it goes. Also, if you have the opportunity, stand around the starting line watching the fast classes, watch procedures and routines, watch how other drivers line up and where. A little time studying can pay off and the starting line is a fun schooling session!
So come on out to Roadkill Nights this Saturday to see some radical street and racecars lay rubber on the fabled Woodward Avenue!