Just a few years ago, critics said Fiat Chrysler’s Dodge brand was spinning its wheels as it struggled to find an identity amid a lineup that stretched from muscle cars to minivans.
Now those spinning wheels — and the thick smoke they generate — are drawing tens of thousands of visitors as Dodge embraces its muscle-car heritage with successful experiential marketing events such as Roadkill Nights.
Next month, Dodge will host its second Roadkill Nights in suburban Detroit — and third overall — as part of the annual Woodward Dream Cruise. The free, daylong Dodge festival at the new M1 Concourse in Pontiac, Mich., Aug. 19 will feature thrill rides in Vipers and Hellcat-powered muscle cars, amateur drag racing, live music, food, fireworks and giveaways.
An inaugural event last year held in the parking lot of the Silverdome, a dilapidated former sports arena in Pontiac, drew an estimated 10,000 people. A similar event June 18 in Kansas City attracted an estimated 12,000 people.
Both were shepherded by Dodge brand head Tim Kuniskis, a man who revels in the muscle-car culture and sees it as the key to keeping Dodge relevant in an era when car sales are down dramatically.
“The key to the growth of anything is conquest — you have to grow beyond your own market,” Kuniskis said. “So we opened up the event to every brand, to every customer who wanted to come, and we made it free. That was the key — bring everybody in and let them experience Dodge on their own and see what it’s all about.”
Dodge needs the boost. Through the first half of the year, sales are up 5.7 percent, but all on gains reaped by the Grand Caravan minivan and Dodge Durango crossover. Sales of the Viper two-seat sports coupe are down 15 percent, while the Challenger is off 7 percent and sales of the Charger are down 1 percent.
But Kuniskis is on a brand-building mission. Although he is responsible for the Chrysler and Fiat brands as well, Dodge is where Kuniskis’ passions lay. Roadkill Nights events are one way to keep Dodge relevant and growing.
He says this year’s Roadkill Nights in Pontiac will be an even bigger boost for Dodge because of improvements his team has made to the formula. For instance, this year’s drag racing will take place on a closed-off section of historic Woodward Avenue, while the Viper and Hellcat thrill rides will occur on the new M1 course. Last year, both events were crammed into the parking lot of the former Pontiac Silverdome.
“Last year was [put together] very fast and we didn’t have enough time to really promote it,” Kuniskis said. “This year, we’ve been through two, so we think we’ve got the model down.”
The amateur drag racing at this year’s Roadkill Nights is open to vehicles from all brands. Dodge will award $19,000 in purse money to the quickest Dodge vehicles, and another $1,900 in prizes will be available for non-Dodge vehicles.
As Dodge does with Roadkill Nights, celebrations of muscle-car culture are something dealers could do to help their own marketing efforts, Kuniskis said.
“We used to do premiere nights. When we would come out with a new car, we would put together packages for our dealers to bring in customers to see the new car in their showroom,” Kuniskis said. “Dealers could do this themselves very easily, and our dealers are very successful at it.”