This Is Thunderdrome

Madness On the Concrete

WORDS: Ryan Rowley PHOTOS: Christie Materni

In 1969, the Dorias Velodrome opened on Detroit's east side. The world-class bicycle racing facility featured an ultramodern, 250-meter banked oval track that provided a local training venue and a site for prestigious races such as the 1969 National Cycling Championships. For two decades the Velodrome produced racing champions even as track conditions deteriorated. During unguarded periods, locals ran their cars around the steep banks of the concrete oval, cracking and shifting the once-smooth surface. By 1990, the track was damaged beyond repair and it was, for all intents, abandoned by the city of Detroit.

The Velodrome sat dormant until 2010 when the Mower Gang, a group of self-motivated stalwarts of Detroit's forgotten parks, rediscovered it. Group leaders Andy Didorosi and Ben Wojdyla saw the track's potential. They got to work, countering two decades of decay with trash bags, lawn mowers, and quick-dry cement. They repaired the track and organized an inaugural event in late 2010 to bring two-wheeled racing back to the Motor City. Thus was born Thunderdrome. By 2013, it had morphed into a two-day annual event. Alongside the bicycles, for which the track was originally built, mopeds, scooters, mini-bikes, go-carts, and motards joined the fray. On the last weekend of summer, Thunderdrome gathers disparate participants on small-bore machines to chase grass roots racing glory.

I was a Thunderdrome virgin; a first timer. I'd seen pictures and video of the old track online, but these all understated the steepness of the banks and the size of the pavement gaps. As I contemplated the damaged tarmac from the empty track's starting line, I wondered exactly what I'd gotten myself into.

Back in my pit area, I unloaded my daily driver, a ratty 1987 Honda Spree. The engine is from a late '90s Honda Elite 50 with a Malossi big-bore kit atop a stroker crank for a grand total of 77cc. It's fairly quick (for a spree), running in the mid 12s at more than 50 mph at my local eight-mile drag strip. Yes, I drag race my scooter.

I rolled up to tech inspection where workers contemplated each machine before it entered the track, mostly to ensure the brakes worked. After passing tech, I lined up in the staging area. A race official quickly pointed two adjacent riders and me onto the racing surface. Go!

Anticipation gave way to mania, and I bombed the banking with all the speed I could muster. Intensity ensued for a good 20 laps. After the session, I returned to my pit. I tried to remove my helmet, but my hands were useless and shaking uncontrollably. My heart was winding down from its hummingbird pace. My legs were weak. I was breathless.

I was in love.

For my second practice run, I collected my thoughts and searched for a line. The steep banks made each terrifying turn feel as if I was defying the laws of physics and at right angles to gravity. As I bounced onto each short, shallow straightaway, a massive corner loomed immediately ahead like a wall. The track was a mess, too. The concrete dropped 2 inches in places where the foundation had failed. Rough, still-soft asphalt patches covered the bigger cracks. The fast racing line was littered with obstacles.

The staging area filled with everything from beautifully restored vintage mopeds and rattle-canned beaters to pressure-washer-engined mini-bikes. Hundreds of spectators gathered in the infield: business professionals, bumpkins, hipsters, and hardworking autoworkers. The Gods of Speed called us all together. The atmosphere was electric but also friendly.

Each racing class ran separately. Preliminary heat races saw battles between four to six competitors. The fastest and slowest entries in each class continued to the A and B main events. Starts were LeMans-style. Racers ran to their machines, kicked or pedaled frantically, and then careened forward at full throttle. Faster bikes would lap slower ones several times over each 10-lap race. The speed differentials made for tense moments as back markers were passed within inches and just before the steep, bumpy turns.

The Mini-Bike class was by far the largest, with three-dozen racers on an assortment of modified, child-sized machines. With no suspension and tiny tires, they seemed constantly on the verge of catastrophe. Soon after one mini-bike start, a red flag halted the action. A tiny bike had flown off the track and out of view. As the racer stumbled back into sight, pushing his stalled machine along the track's rim, the crowd gave a wild cheer. Then the madness resumed. Throughout the heats, more red flags sprung up as machines broke or drivers lost control. The racing continued into the night and finished, much to my surprise, without any serious injuries.

I needed to go faster, but I was still learning how. As other classes took their turns, I spun in circles to follow the action. My eyes recorded the lines of the fastest bikes in each class. The motards were quickest overall. They passed each other deep in the rough corners at seemingly incredible speeds, and their suspensions soaked up bumps that jolted my tiny scooter beyond my control.

My race in the Moped class was about to start. I had only done a few dozen laps in practice. I was terrified.

Green flag! I sprinted to my Spree and it started on the second kick. I shot down the short straightaway into the first banked turn. I was in second place and aimed for the Honda Aero ahead of me. I gave it everything I had, but the Aero kept pulling away. He didn't seem to slow down in the corners. Ten laps of late braking and hard acceleration later I finished second, almost a full lap behind the winner. Something had clicked while I chased that Aero, though. I found a nice line and dived deeper and deeper into the corners. I had improved, but I knew I could still do better. And tomorrow would be another day of racing.

After some restless sleep, I returned the next morning. Practice was once again thrilling. I eventually tightened my lines and barely touched the brakes at all. A few laps later I ran full-throttle through the whole track. Even on a lowly Spree, I felt like a MotoGP racer. I pushed the bike's skinny tires to the absolute limit, knocking a full second off my previous day's time. I won my first heat with this new line and some newfound bravery. I'd made it to the "A" main against other first-round winners.

In my final race, I made a good start and got the holeshot, leaving a large gap behind me. I barely let off the throttle for the first four laps. Then I heard a buzzing over my shoulder. It was a 70cc Yamaha Zuma. The rider got ahead as we crossed the line, marking the halfway point. I was high on the banking as he went past. I dropped down to draft him. Sparks flew from his kickstand as he dived into the next corner. I held the throttle wide open through the rest of the race, but he slowly pulled away. He finished two seconds ahead of me.

Even though I finished that race in second place, I still felt like a winner. Big smiles, hugs, and back pats between all the competitors cemented my suspicions. I went to Thunderdrome with no racing experience, naively chasing victory. Now I know the glory of Thunderdrome lies in conquering the old, neglected track and in pushing yourself and your machine to the limit. Everyone who made Thunderdrome happen is a winner.

Thunderdrome.com

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