Racing The Thunderdrome

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You know the standard race deal. Stand around in the rain, occasionally see some bikes ride past with no idea how Rossi got in front of Stoner somewhere else on the track and you’d better leave your girlfriend at home because she’ll be bored to death otherwise. None of that applied to The Thunderdrome on Saturday. Not only were you likely doing the racing , but so was your girlfriend.

Photos: Eric Merrill

The name of the Thunderdrome’s game is lowering the traditionally high motorsports barrier to entry. Instead of holding the race hundreds of miles from the nearest population center, the track was located in the heart of Detroit. Instead of charging you a couple hundred bucks to watch, it was free. Instead of watching a bunch of freakish 18-year olds battle it out on million dollar machinery, you raced yourself on some old heap of crap you dug out of your basement. Instead of crashes resulting in death and injury, at The Thunderdrome they resulted in applause.

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That’s not to say it wasn’t good racing. The final race, between the winning pit bike and the winning moped, saw 11 changes of first place in just 10 laps and an epic win-by-a-wheel for the moped. It doesn’t get any closer or any more exciting than that, nevermind that the largest bike was a Kawasaki KLX 110 or that top speeds probably didn’t exceed 45mph.

Despite the low speed, riding on the abandoned Velodrome — last officially used 22 years ago — was properly terrifying. The organizers poured 600 4,000lbs of concrete in the week running up to the event in the hopes of making it relatively safe, but cracks were still large enough to swallow your front wheel and even where they were filled in, the surface still varied in height from one concrete pad to the next by up to six inches.

Dan Kastner, from 1977 Mopeds, and I went through three different mopeds before we found one that worked long enough for both of us to enter the racing. Mopeds are surprisingly awesome, as much because the abject lack of chassis stiffness and tiny size makes riding them seriously challenging as the tiny engines deliver surprisingly effective performance, especially on such a small circuit. The hardest thing was figuring out how to access the two-stroke power band without being able to shift gears or have any effect on the motor’s performance beyond opening and closing the throttle. Get stuck in an RPM range before the motor comes on pipe and all the wide open throttle in the world won’t make you go fast. I managed to place third in my race, but Dan suffered a comprehensively shattered exhaust pipe on the first lap of his, we’re not sure if it was him or me that broke it.

This first ever race was such a success that The Thunderdrome’s organizers are already planning a series of events across the country. They may not be able to find abandoned velodromes in other cities (especially not ones that the city with authorize motor racing on), but it’s that low barrier to entry that makes this event unique, not the banked corners. We’re not-so-secretly hoping for a race in an abandoned construction lot in Williamsburg; imagine a bunch of people who would never otherwise have any involvement or interest in motorsports, actually racing mini dirt bikes through the mud. It’d be awesome and we can’t think of any better ambassador for motorcycles to the rest of the world.

The Thunderdrome

  • Mark D

    Besides being totally overkill, would this NSR50 be legal in any class?

    • Wes Siler

      that’d be totally legal in the pit bikes class and yes, also total overkill, but there’s nothing wrong with that.

  • george_fla

    Say the word,name the race and the FLA. ‘necks will descend on “The City” for some shenanagins.

  • Penectomy

    This is freaking AWESOME! Come to Pittsburgh. We have a Velodrome but its not abandoned and the serious pedal bike dorks may take umbrage with this type of shenanigans, but it would be great.

    This looks like tremendous fun and I would buy a sweet moped to take part.

  • nicktp

    My sister and I went and had a wicked awesome time. Andy the announcer did a fantastic job of keeping everything fun and interesting, and watching a man in a hazmat suit race his wife’s pink Honda Elite was about the funniest thing I’ve ever seen. Not to mention the battle cries as men ran across the track to fire up their scooters in a Le Mans style start.

    This is just what Detroit needs. Young people doing cool shit. I live in the suburbs north of the city and don’t find myself downtown very often. This sort of thing will change that.

    It was great to meet you there, Wes, and hope to see you back next year! I’ll be rocking some sort of motorbike next time, that bicycle race killed me!

  • Aienan

    This is just awesome on so many levels. We need this up in Canada.

  • klaud

    Awesome! I’ll look for them to bring the concept to San Diego, on any terrain or track conditions. Dirt would be good…and is plentiful out here in East County! There’s also plenty of old abandoned asphalt.

    Also, note that 600lb. of concrete is, like, 3 wheelbarrows full. I hope they didn’t spend ALL week doing that… ;-)

    • Wes Siler

      Ha, well it came down to me shoveling sod and debris off the track the morning of, so all the work really came down to the wire.

  • g.r.b

    thats really cool, looks like lots of fun.
    i remember you guys did an article about yucatan and the scooter or moped scene over here, its kinda interesting, and i think something like this would be great for this area and all those guys with there scooters would love it

  • MikeD


  • ontheroad

    Excellent! Grassroots at it’s finest. Do this in BK and I’ll try like hell to make it… I’d definitely be down for putting together something here in St Pete, FL.

  • cityag

    Le Mans Starts! FTW!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • Hiwatt Scott

    I can totally see this at dirt track ovals across the country.

    • Wes Siler

      The idea is more city center than some random place outside of town. Think of it from a non-rider’s perspective.

  • Rob

    I’ve got an old Sachs moped (probably vintage mid-70′s?) that a friend customized to resemble the layout of an old cafe racer… I used to turn hot laps around my parents house on it (which lead to several lowsides which really tore up the lawn). I’d love to drag that thing back out of the barn up here near Boston!

  • Rooster

    I’ve raced pit bikes indoors on polished concrete before. There’s a million places you can run races like these and they’re fun as hell. As long as you keep the performance down. Otherwise you’re quickly going to outgrow the majority of places you can run something like this. A claiming rule would be an excellent thing to consider.

    There’s already mini-roadracing all over the place. This looks way more laid back and fun.

  • contender

    This is the best Detroit publicity I have ever seen. Between this and Anthony Bourdain’s trip there I am about ready to book a trip.

    There HAS to be a place in East L.A. or Riverside where this could happen. Could be the LeMons, minus the cartoony themes and stupid prizes, on two wheels. We’d just have to figure out how to keep the L.A. douche-bag contingent from spoiling the fun.

  • thatdetroitandy

    Hey everyone – Andy from the Thunderdrome here.

    Thanks a ton for your support – we couldn’t have done it without all of you.

    If you have any advice on where we should bring the racing series next – or things we can do differently/add, let us know at

    We’ll be adding a couple more classes (heh) and working on our safety/people wrangling. Other than that, let us know how and where we can make TD! as exciting as it can be.


  • Trav

    That’s awesome!

    Sandy Hook Speedway here in MD does scooter racing and such on the regular. I’ve never gone and don’t know the particulars, but a friend raced his chinajunk™ scooter there. I don’t know if they’re too involved to have an outside event hosted there, or maybe a collaboration event.. who knows.

  • SilverbulletLS3

    Amazing video.

    Can someone identify the artist and song that’s used during the intro and first minute or so?

  • elizilla

    I just joined this site, but I am proud to say that I raced at Thunderdrome that day, and it was the coolest thing ever! I’m even in the video, the slowest one across the track in one of the Lemans starts. I was WFO on my (electric!) scooter through my whole race, and I was neck and neck with another scooter the whole time. We kept passing each other, duking it out for third or fourth place. I don’t care that I didn’t make the podium, because I had the most fun of anyone there, and that’s the best race to win!