Ride along with David Freiburger and Mike Finnegan on Roadkill, as the duo go in search of their next gearhead adventure! The latest episode is now streaming on the MotorTrend App, so sign up today for and start binging!
"This is crazy," I mumble to no one as I waited in line to enter Tucson Dragway. Just four years ago, the Zip-Tie Drags—sponsored by Panduit—began as a way to round out Roadkill's event calendar in the Western United States, and to bring fans of the MotorTrend App's most popular TV show more face time with the show's hosts. After a lukewarm inaugural year, the event has grown into a right-sized event for the Tucson facility—"right-sized" meaning filled comfortably to capacity, and on this brisk Friday evening, that meant waiting in line for almost an hour.
Just through the gate, the light of a huge bonfire cast a ghoulish glow on the assembled cars and fans. It's not a big-ticket NHRA event, but an automotive "Burning Man" with bitchin' home-brewed machinery. The SRT Charger Widebody Hellcat I drove (borrowed from the FCA press fleet) was like wearing a tuxedo to a backyard tire fire—but still a safe choice, as there were enough late-models in evidence that jaundiced eyes pegged it as a "back-up" car.
Zip-Tie Drags is an event given over to the joie de vivre of the hot-rodding life rather than outright power. The brainchild of Roadkill host David Freiburger, the Zip-Tie Drags' name is a tongue-in-cheek reference to one of Freiburger's oldest projects, a Plymouth Duster built on the pages of Car Craft magazine decades ago that gained notoriety for having some of its components attached by the ubiquitous fastener. Actually, "zip-tie" isn't its real name. Called "Pannies" by parent company and event sponsor, Panduit, they've become a cherished panacea for Roadkill hosts and fans alike.
What struck me as I walked through the pits: these cars weren't the typical sea of 1969 Camaro bracket racers or cookie-cutter late-model Mustangs. Those cars were absent almost entirely. Rather, it was a refugee camp from a 1980s junkyard, as well as a patch quilt of older but less valuable stick-welded and zip-tied "classics." Within minutes, I spotted three Studebakers, a Nash, a couple of four-door Fairlanes, multiple AMC Gremlins, a used-car lot full of 1991-1996 GM B-bodies, and all manner of Franken-truck.
Bundled against the desert cold and geared up with my trusty cigar, I trudged toward the bonfire. A track worker tossed a fresh pair of wooden shipping palettes into the pit, showering sparks everywhere. I spotted Roadkill Garage and Engine Masters host Steve Dulcich jawboning with a fan by the fire. Freiburger was nearby, gesticulating, Solo cup of beer sloshing, as he joked with another fan and his young son. In very un-TV-star-like fashion, Freiburger, Dulcich, Mike Finnegan (host of the MotorTrend App's new show, Faster with Finnegan), and HOT ROD Garage host Lucky Costa were holding court in their element—and loving every minute.
Drag-racing activities were designed to be really simple and with few choices. Replacing hours of sleep-inducing brackets were three simple choices: open grudge racing, Roadkill vs Fans, and the $3K Hooptie Challenge—a minimal-rules, fan-driven throwdown. If all this sounds beautifully chaotic, it is.
In Roadkill vs Fans, racers signed up to race against one of the Roadkill project cars, which were piloted by their respective host/owners. On the menu was the "Draguar" (Finnegan's 6-71 supercharged, small-block Chevy-swapped Jaguar), the "Disgustang" (Freiburger's 1969 Mach 1), the "Nascarlo" (Monte Carlo body on a used-up dirt-track racer chassis), and "Vanishing Paint" (Dulcich's faded 1970 Challenger R/T). Fans pitched the hosts on what they brought and who they wanted to race, and let the cards fall where they may in one-on-one grudge matches.
The $3K Hooptie Challenge was the main event, with a giant bucketful of Panduit goodies going to the winner. Here, the idea was to bring a car that has $3,000 of value or less, including all modifications (not including safety gear, of course). Competitors raced each other heads-up in elimination format until just two cars remained. It was the selection process of the cars that really rocked the house, with Frieburger, Finnegan, and Dulcich poring over the candidate vehicles with live mics in front of a crowd numbering in the thousands.
As cars rolled up to the judging area in front of the stands, the hosts debated the pros and cons of every car over the PA system, with Freiburger often going to the crown for a final verdict. Freiburger often called to the fans for a thumbs-up/thumbs-down verdict, reminiscent of a scene from the movie Gladiator. The idea was to weed out the wringers from the real, and the fun from the boring.
Some of the rejected wringers received good-natured jeers from the crowd. It was little consolation for those candidates to make the long drive of shame in front of the fans in the stands. (It's much better not to bring a fake wringer to the $3K Hooptie Challenge!) Alternately, some cars made it into the $3K Hooptie Challenge on the virtue of their oddity or rareness, in spite of having a value over $3,000. Nobody in the house was going to brush off the rare but rusty 1963 Studebaker Lark L2 (with its original junkyard-patina'd Paxton-supercharged 289ci Studebaker V8).
Timothy Samford (39), an inventory analyst from Lubbock, Texas, won the finals in the $3K Hooptie Challenge with his 1993 Chevy S-10. One of the many Franken-trucks in attendance, the white S-10 was finished just the day before the race, and had been fortified with a junkyard 5.3 LSequipped an intercooled "Chinese turbo." A shift-kitted 4L80E fed torque to an out-manned 10-bolt rear for a winning e.t. of 10.61/128.
Samford was pitted against Amos Garcia (32), a power company lineman from Sahuarita, Arizona. Garcia's 12.70-capable 1978 Toyota Cressida wagon had been wowing the crowd all day with credit-card wheelies via a mild 496ci big-block Chevy/Turbo 400/9-inch Ford rear combo. In the end, his Toyota wagon won big style points, but missed out on the Panduit swag with a slowing 18.68/51 e.t.
Johnny Hunkins - Author - Hot Rod Magazine & Roadkill 2020