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.
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.