Death Week USA 2023

Somewhere between Heaven and Hell, Death Week was a nine-day American drag-and-drive event with a little bit of racing among all the sightseeing

Photographers: Luke Nieuwhof, Matt Reekie

Death Week was one of the craziest things ever attempted with street cars. Too crazy to ever be attempted again.

Most American drag-and-drive events go for five days; this one went for nine. Most cover roughly 1000 street miles; this one tallied around 2000. Most are held in the Midwest, or at least in places east of the Mississippi River; this one dared take it to the west side, where quite a few internet experts had predicted we’d have to run the gauntlet of the California Highway Patrol to avoid impounded cars and imprisoned humans.

First published in Street Machine Yearbook 2023

Needless to say, this kind of crazy adventure is liable to attract a crazy breed of participant. Some were local to Arizona, California and Nevada, while others had come from all across the country and as far away as Canada and the UK – there were even a couple of maniacs from Estonia in a rented Yukon Denali.

There were many first-timers taking on the challenge, as well as a few drag-and-drive vets daring to try something a little different. Everybody seemed perfectly tuned in to having this collective experience with fellow adventurers. We all shared in some kind of crazy spirit, and the tight-knit group tightened further with each passing day.

“A snowflake would never have made it on this trip,” is how Tom Bailey summed up his one-off, never-to-be-repeated-because-it’s-so-insane event. As you probably know, Tom’s a multi-time Hot Rod Drag Week winner and the face of the Sick empire that organised the event. The route for Death Week was basically his bucket list of west coast tourist spots, with eighth-mile racing added on four of the nine days to break up all the sightseeing. “The idea was, get a bunch of car guys together, and yep, we’re going to go down the track, but this was really about the adventure,” Tom said.

Among other things that made the event unique was that there were no racing classes, and each finisher was awarded a replica human skull with ‘I Survived Death Week’ on it. There were only two actual awards – one for Overall Winner, the other for Top Tourist. Both were hotly contested.

Racing began at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park near Phoenix, Arizona, where New Yorker Jason Rousseau ran quickest, going 5.42@131mph in his turbo LS-powered 1980 Malibu. The first driving leg then took competitors into California and along the Mexican border wall, through some mountainous desert terrain and past the Imperial Sand Dunes to San Diego. The incredible scenery was just a taste of what was in store. At the risk of sounding cliched, photographs can’t do justice to the beauty of the mountains and oceans and skies out in those parts, and you quickly run out of superlatives to describe it all.

Day Two of the event began with coffee and doughnuts at the Gear Vendors headquarters in El Cajon, San Diego County, followed by racing at the picturesque Barona Drag Strip, where Tom Bailey ran quickest with a 5.41@136mph in his next-level 2021 Dodge Durango. Basically a four-seater road-going Pro Mod powered by a blown Gen III Hemi, the SUV seemed to be enjoying its first-ever drag-and-drive outing and was leading after the first two days. But a street burnout near the host hotel in Buellton, California opened up a crack in the block and sent water gushing into places it ought not gush.

Tom, with his co-pilot and son Aydan, threw the car on a trailer and hauled it to Steve Darnell from WelderUp’s place on the outskirts of Las Vegas, Nevada, where they spent the next two days swapping in a new block and waiting for the rest of the Death Week cavalcade to arrive.

With the Durango down and out, Jason Rousseau in the Malibu inherited the Overall lead. He raced strongly for the rest of the week to outpace Canadian Chris Hein in his stick-shift 1933 Ford coupe. Neither of those guys took the easiest route, either.

You see, two of the most treacherous stretches of road had been made optional for competitors after Tom Bailey and fellow event organiser Luke Nieuwhof had driven the proposed route several weeks prior. The Sequoia National Park was deemed to be too twisty and mountainous and the roads too narrow to safely accommodate breakdowns, while the infamous Death Valley National Park had been closed for road repairs due to recent flash flooding. It was open again by the time we arrived, although roadworks were still ongoing. Both Jason in the G-body and Chris in the hot rod elected to take on these optional legs, as did most of the other competitors – seeing incredible sights was prioritised over running incredible numbers.

Days Three and Four were drive-only days, starting with a run up the gorgeous Pacific Coast Highway, stopping at checkpoints including Neptune’s Net restaurant in Malibu, which featured in The Fast and the Furious, and Stearns Wharf in Santa Barbara. As long as competitors hit all the checkpoints, they were free to explore other places at their leisure, and there were reports of folks going everywhere from the Hollywood sign to Disneyland. From there, it was up to Fresno via tourist sites such as Morro Rock and the James Dean Memorial Tree on Highway 46, near where the actor crashed and died.

Day Five began with a drive back south through the iconic Sequoia National Park, which involved an ear-popping 7000-foot (2km) climb up twisty mountain roads. We stopped to marvel at the largest tree on Earth, a sequoia named ‘General Sherman’, then it was down the other side of the mountain via even twistier roads and on to Famoso Drag Strip in Bakersfield for some night racing.

Jason Rousseau’s Malibu enjoyed the cooler night air and track temps as it rattled off a quickest pass of 5.38@131mph. Unlike Ken Riddle’s Dodge Dart, which blew the heads off its 408 stroker, forcing Ken to spend the next three days patching it all back together using borrowed heads, intake and carb just to get back to Phoenix and put in one final ceremonial pass.

After Bakersfield, we got a slight breather with three consecutive non-racing days, which proved to be some of the most memorable. First was a drive through the notorious desert wasteland of Death Valley to the bright lights of Vegas, where Death Weekers enjoyed exclusive parking in The Orleans Hotel & Casino lot. A few tried their hand at gambling, but stories of big wins were scarce.

The next day was arguably the cruisiest of the tour, as many of the entrants attended the NHRA Nevada Nationals at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, where we took in qualifying for Top Fuel, Funny Car and Pro Stock. In the evening, the majority of the field met up downtown to cruise the Vegas strip together. Although heavy traffic and the inordinate amount of time it takes Vegas traffic lights to go green conspired to separate the group, it was still a memorable experience for all who partook.

The next morning began early for most, as it was a massive 400-mile hike back down to Phoenix via checkpoints such as the surprisingly impressive Hoover Dam and the unsurprisingly impressive Grand Canyon.

When the survivors limped into Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park for the final day, the general feeling seemed to be one of elation mixed with exhaustion. The previous eight days had been gruelling, torturous, frustrating, exhilarating, and above all fun, and there was an acknowledgment both spoken and unspoken that what we’d all just done was something special.

Jason Rousseau quickly wrapped up the Overall win by laying down a 5.50@130mph in the Malibu, then went back out and made a few more licks just for kicks. “I was just making passes because when we go home it’s going to be cold,” said the New Yorker. “We wouldn’t come out here to this part of the country if it wasn’t for this event. It was pretty cool to get to see everything out of the window of a hot rod and do all those miles with your buddies.”

The battle for Top Tourist was fought tooth and nail by several intrepid explorers, including Daniel Grubaugh in his AMC Hornet wagon, who added 2000 additional miles to the journey by driving from Vegas to Seattle, Washington to work a shift before heading back and rejoining the route! Alas, his exploratory efforts were trumped by David Williams, who hit a total of 100 spots over the course of nine days in his 1984 Chevy Suburban (read more, below).

“We went everywhere, from the USS Midway aircraft carrier, to a Catholic mission that had been there since 1772, to an ostrich and emu farm,” said David. “If there was a tourist attraction on the route, like even remotely within a 50-mile radius, we probably hit it.”

Death Week was too crazy to ever be attempted again, but there’s a plan for a similar eighth-mile event based around driving Route 66 next year. Tourists, get yer passports ready!


David Williams took possession of his turbo LS-powered 1984 Chevy Suburban five-and-a-half months ago, and he’s since put more than 28,000 miles (45,000km) on it! Its first big outing was going from Key West, Florida to compete at Alaska Speed Week. Look on a map; that’s a bloody long way!

The truck continues to serve David well, carrying him, his dad and two of his pals to 100 notable places over the nine days of Death Week to claim the Top Tourist award.

“I’m a grossly, ridiculously competitive person,” David said, “and while I knew that I couldn’t compete and take top ET, once there was a tourism award, I was like, ‘We’re getting that.’”

As you might expect from car guys, they hit up multiple locations from films like The Fast and the Furious and Gone in 60 Seconds, and they recreated the tyre-changing scene from Two-Lane Blacktop. “Just in LA alone, we put 270 miles on the truck, not counting the route!” David said. “Every ‘World’s Biggest Rocking Chair’, every ‘Biggest Ball of Twine’ – nothing was safe!”


1. Another Canadian competitor to take on Death Week was Bryce Nicolson, who made the 2000-mile round trip quite comfortably in his ’72 Nova thanks to Duramax turbo-diesel power. “The car was just cruising along, enjoying life, relaxing, having a holiday,” said Bryce, who posted an eighth-mile average of 6.73@106mph.

2. Jim Forbes’s blown ’62 Chevy II gasser has long been a regular sight on the drag-and-drive scene. Based in Arizona, Jim was happy to have an event held in his neck of the woods for once. “Death Week is about doing something really stupid that’s a real challenge, which makes it a lot of fun, because when you’re done and you make it back, you know you did something,” he said.

3. The lowness of Cali native Cody Flowers’s ’72 Datto 510 caused two oil pan ruptures during the journey, one on train tracks on the first road leg, and the other on a cattle guard on the very last. With the help of fellow competitors, the little turbo LS-powered beater was patched up and finished the event with an average of 8.09@96mph.

4. AJ Sims broke the transmission in his ’66 VW fastback while making a pass on the first day. He was behind the eight-ball for the entire trip and finished last overall, yet he refused to give in. “It was an adventure; every day we got 10 stories to tell,” AJ said. “And honestly, the last thing you think about is how fast the car is; I just wanted to make it!

5. Chris Hein drove his stick-shift Factory Five 1933 Ford coupe – along with a home-built camper trailer – down from Alberta, Canada. Chris’s kit car is powered by a twin-turbo LSA backed by a T56 Magnum six-speed, and the things it can do are impressive. It finished Death Week second overall with an average of 5.60@133mph, which was the fastest average mile-per-hour of the event.

6. Josh Metivier’s 1946 GMC off-road truck looked like it was ready to take on Death Week and a zombie apocalypse at the same time. But looks can be deceiving. The truck chewed through three diffs during the event, which kept its occupants busy buying and installing second-hand parts, and the transmission started playing silly buggers on the long drive from Vegas to Phoenix.

7. Austin Hart brought along his 6.0L LS-powered ’72 Pontiac LeMans, albeit in a milder form than he’d hoped. “We put an M122 supercharger on it, but a week before [the event], I took it to the dyno and it blew apart the power steering pulley, took out the pump, and I couldn’t finish the dyno tune,” he explained. Running apso instead, Austin averaged 8.41@85mph over the event.

8. With its rusty steel pipework and roof racks rammed with doomsday prep, Brock Dvorak’s turbo LS-powered ’86 Monte Carlo could pass as an outsider art piece. A drag-and-drive first-timer, the Nebraskan young gun knocked more than two-tenths off the car’s time over the course of the event and finished with an average of 7.64@88mph.

9. Joe Leone and co-pilot Mike put in long hours to get Joe’s 1960 Falcon gasser through the nine days. They broke rockers and pushrods on subsequent days and had some rear-end trouble down the line, but they never stopped smiling. “I built it when I was 18-19, and it’s gotten me to this point, doing cool shit with cool people,” Joe enthused.

10. Rovic Ahuja is a drag-and-drive devotee of the highest order, driving his ’67 Oldsmobile 442 great distances at great speeds and cutting more laps than anyone. He finished Death Week eighth overall with an average of 6.40@109mph, and also completed several quarter-mile licensing passes that will free him up to run quicker than ever.

11. Tom Bailey was hot favourite to win his own event in his 2021 Dodge Durango. But a street burnout on Day Three revealed problems with the supercharged Gen III Hemi set-up – namely, the block was cracked. Bowing out of competition, Tom and son Aydan spent two days on an engine swap, and the Durango returned to run a 5.37@132mph exhibition pass on the final day – the quickest time of the event!

12. Canadian drag-and-drive veteran Rich Guido had his dad Mike in the passenger seat, who celebrated his 82nd birthday during Death Week. Rich’s stick-shift ’65 Pontiac GTO looked awesome eating up the road miles, until it ground to a halt on the way to the Grand Canyon and needed the rear end welded back up. It struggled for traction on track days but still managed a respectable 6.26@122mph average and a fifth-place finish.

13. Oklahoman Dustyn Caudle does drag-and-drive events with his dad Don in his 1978 Isuzu/Chevy LUV pick-up, which packs a turbo LS backed by a 4L80E, Gear Vendors overdrive and 9in rear. The little truck ran violently at every track and finished third overall with a four-day average of 5.96@120mph.

14. Drag-and-drive regular Jeffrey Moll brought his son Tyler along in Jeffrey’s tried-and-true four-door 1967 Nova, which started Death Week running low sixes before cracking into the fives on the final day. Father and son were suitably stoked with a best time of 5.93@118mph and a fourth-place finish – almost as stoked as the day they got to go to Disneyland!

15. At Famoso, the 76mm turbo in Ken Riddle’s freshly rebuilt ’69 Dodge Dart tried to throw 38psi into the 408ci stroker (up from 26psi), causing an explosion at three-quarter track that blew the heads off, broke the centre of the carby and seriously warped the radiator. Ken spent three days cobbling it back together using parts from his son’s truck, and made it back to Phoenix for a final exhibition pass.

16. Jason Rousseau drove his 1980 Chevy Malibu across the country from Long Island, New York and was rewarded with the Overall win. Jason took no shortcuts along the way, taking his trusty G-body through the optional Sequoia and Death Valley National Park routes. He was quickest on three of the four racing days and finished with an average of 5.49@130mph.