Mark Woodruff needs to go to the dragstrip. That’s what the judge said when a 16-year-old Woodruff was hauled into court to answer for his high-speed antics on I-55 in Festus, Missouri. Yes, it was a judge’s orders that brought Woodruff to the dragstrip as a driver for the first time, but he’s been going back as a more-than-willing participant ever since.
As the son of a mechanic, Woodruff grew up around muscle cars. His father, Mark Sr., specialized in fixing up and flipping GM muscle cars, and naturally Mark got involved too.
[Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared as the cover story in DI #175, the Outlaw Issue, in March/April of 2022.]
“My dad would make a trip to the Chevrolet dealer every six months and buy 10 cowl hoods, 10 spoilers, 10 sets of Z28 emblems, and come home and then we would build ’67, ‘68, ‘69 Camaros, El Caminos, Chevelles, that type of stuff. That’s what I grew up in,” Woodruff remembers.
It wasn’t one of those ultra-cool, classic muscle cars that led to Woodruff’s run-in with the law. If Woodruff wanted one of those, he’d have to work for it and built it up himself, so the newly licensed 16-year-old first hit the streets in a little ’78 Ford Fiesta. It didn’t exactly look like it leapt off the pages of Hot Rod magazine, but that didn’t stop Woodruff and his buddies from cruising it around town like it did.
One day, Woodruff and his buddy drove down to Festus, just south of St. Louis, and what happened next set Woodruff down his lifelong path in drag racing.
“We’re cruising around the town circle and it was kind of lame, so we’re sitting there bullshitting,” Woodruff begins. “I ain’t had my license two weeks, and my buddy’s asking if I think I can outrun the cops. I’m like, ‘Hell, I know I could. I’ve been driving anything on wheels since I was old enough to walk. You’re damn right I can outrun them.’
“Well, we get on 55 and we’re heading north to South County,” Woodruff continues, “and I’m going as fast as this thing will go, and we cross over the top of the hill and sure enough, there’s a sheriff or a city cop sitting in the median. Cherries come on, and he’s like, ‘Man, the cops!’ I said, ‘Well, we’re going to find out if I can outrun them or not,’ and sure enough, the chase was on.”
As Woodruff tells it, he put a couple cops in the ditch playing chicken with them, which did not at all help his case when they finally stopped him.
“The one officer that I put in the ditch, he shows up with his patrol car on a tow truck behind it, and he’s like, ‘Where is this son of a bitch at?’ The arresting officer points to me, and the other officer was like, ‘I’m going to take them cuffs off of you and beat your ass.’ I said, ‘Buddy, it’d be a lot easier than what I’m going to get when I get home. I would take that whipping any day.’ He was mad.”
In fact, the whole town was mad, and his parents were beyond mad. They were scared to death.
“We didn’t have no money – they’ve got three kids, just trying to keep food on the table whenever it was, ’89 or ’90,” Woodruff says. “We go through the process of getting a lawyer, and they go and take a second mortgage on their house to pay for this lawyer. They think I’m going to jail and I’m losing my license for the rest of my life, the whole deal.”
Six or seven months later, the Woodruff family headed down to Pevely, Missouri, for Mark’s court date to determine his fate. All signs pointed to a stiff punishment.
“We get down there to the courthouse and it’s like a wedding,” Woodruff says. “We got one side of the courthouse and it’s all city officials, and then a couple of people on my side. They’re ready to hang me.”
The judge called Woodruff’s name, and his father and their lawyer stand up. The judge then said he wants to speak with the driver, and to everyone’s surprise, he asked to speak with Woodruff in his chambers, away from the rest of the people gathered in the courtroom.
“We went back there and he’s like, ‘I know you’re not a bad kid, you just made a dumb mistake. This
whole town wants to hang you, but I ain’t going to let it happen.’ I’m like, ‘Really?’”
The judge proceeded to tell Woodruff that he was starting a high school program at the local dragstrip, I-55 Dragway. Called the Teen Street Stock program, it would take place on Friday nights as a way to deter high school age drivers from racing on the street.
“He said, ‘You’re on two years’ probation. You’ve got to be there every Friday night and bring a new friend. That’s going to be your probation. If you do that, I’m going to put all this stuff to rest.’”
Woodruff used to go to the track as a spectator before he was old enough to drive, so court-ordered weekly trips to the dragstrip was a dream sentencing. He gladly took the punishment, and even won back-to-back Teen Street Stock championships.
“We were bracket racing with a stick-shift Ford Escort and everybody at school would laugh,” Woodruff says. “I had buddies with fast cars and we would all race. Hell, I ended up getting probably half the school going there by the time it was over with. We’d all go down to the track, hang out, goof off, and do our thing.”
The creative punishment had its intended effect on Woodruff and the local community, but for Woodruff, it did more than take him off the street. It set a hook that keeps pulling him back to the dragstrip more than 30 years later.
“That judge single-handedly probably…well, he started my drag racing career, for sure,” Woodruff says. “It was the dumbest smart move I’ve ever made in my life. But, I wouldn’t recommend it to anybody. Especially in today’s day and age.”
Woodruff’s fixation with drag racing escalated after those high school drags, as he bought a ’69 Nova that started out with a 406ci small-block motor with a nitrous plate on it. He drove it back and forth to work every day, but it eventually outgrew that task. He upgraded to a big block before stepping up again to serious race motors – a Fulton 615 with Big Chief heads, then a Buck 706.
Woodruff raced the Nova at several tracks within a few hours’ drive from home, including Ozark Raceway Park in Rogersville, Missouri, Eddyville Raceway Park in Iowa, and Gateway International Raceway (now known as World Wide Technology Raceway) in Madison, Illinois.
“I’d run at the Wild Wednesday Nights or the Street Car Wednesday nights at Gateway,” Woodruff says, “and I held the record over there for a couple of years. I think I went like 189 mph or something like that in the quarter back then. It was a pretty serious street car.”
As a street car, the Nova ended up in plenty of street races in St. Louis and around Memphis when Woodruff would head south for Super Chevy or Fastest Street Car races at Memphis International Raceway.
“That escalated into going to Sikeston and running the street car/True 10.5 stuff and the Outlaw 10.5 stuff, and that’s where I met [Mark] Micke and all those guys. I did the Ozark series, and then the Eddyville deal, and there was ORSCA Limited Street, and year after year, we just progressively got into it deeper and deeper.”
As the ORSCA era was coming to a close, a new chapter of small-tire racing history was beginning, and Woodruff was one of the characters. He attended Donald “Duck” Long’s first-ever Lights Out drag radial race at South Georgia Motorsports Park in 2010 as a spectator, then came back with his Nova for the second running of the now-infamous race.
“We had run ORSCA Limited Street for a lot of years, so coming to this event, it was the same people we used to race with,” Woodruff said in a 2019 interview with DI’s Josh Hachat. “It was all the big-name radial guys back then and it was awesome. You could see something exciting happening.”
Ever since Lights Out 2, Woodruff has been a staunch supporter of Long and his Duck X Productions events. As a racer and as a fan of the sport, he’s witnessed some of the biggest moments in radial racing history go down at South Georgia.
“We lived through a time of that ten-year run for Donald to see some amazing stuff,” Woodruff says, looking back on the years of Lights Out, No Mercy, and Sweet 16 races that created drag radial legends and put the niche category on the mainstream drag racing map. “David Wolfe going 4.30s. Keith Berry winning, beating Stevie [Jackson] on a holeshot with a Corvette that they just put together that afternoon. There’s some stuff like that, to be involved in the deal and to stay involved in it and be competitive as long as I have, it’s pretty awesome.”
One of the “Duck” races that stands out in Woodruff’s memory is the inaugural Sweet 16 in 2018. Paying $101,000 to win in Radial vs. the World, it attracted the heaviest of heavy hitters, which led to a slew of new records. Woodruff himself missed the 16-car shootout, qualifying No. 17 with a 3.793-second pass in his twin-turbo ’10 Corvette, but he still looks back fondly on that weekend.
“It was a moment in time,” Woodruff says. “It was the most incredible drag racing event. I would have to talk to [Bret] Kepner because he’s the historian, but I don’t believe that there’s ever been another event in the entire world where every round a record was broken through that qualifying session.
“And then the guy that was on top went and won it,” Woodruff continues, referring to longtime teammate Mark Micke, who won in Jason Carter’s twin-turbocharged ’78 Malibu. “DeWayne [Mills] went a .60 (3.696), Stevie [Jackson] went .60s (3.666), Micke went .62 (3.623). It was like, ‘Holy cow!’ It was incredible. It was a fairytale story. I’m getting chills even thinking about it.”
Another favorite memory of Woodruff’s goes back further to Lights Out 8 in 2017 when he raced to the final round in RvW. Before the final, though, Woodruff and his team, led by longtime buddy and car chief Brent Sansoucie, had to repair engine damage sustained during a semifinal win over Stevie Jackson. The team’s pit area was flooded with people jumping in to help while a huge crowd stood back to watch it all unfold. It was a mad thrash, as they buttoned on the front clip and backed out of the pit to make it to the staging lanes in time to run the final before the sharp 10 p.m. Sunday night curfew.
“That was an iconic moment for me in the class and in the sport,” says Woodruff, who ended up losing to fellow first-time finalist “Nova Joe” Albrecht. “We had five different teams there trying to get me ready to go, to go attempt to win this race that’s harder than hell to win.”
That showing of support from fellow competitors speaks volumes about not only the good nature of so many people in the drag radial community, but it was also specifically a reflection of Woodruff’s standing in that community. He’s developed a reputation as one of the most generous people in the pits at these races. Known by many as “Woodymart,” he keeps his trailer fully stocked with all kinds of spare parts. He’s frequently the first stop someone makes when they need a part or help patching up fiberglass.
“It’s about taking care of people, number one,” explains Woodruff, who owns Midwest Collision Equipment, an auto collision repair equipment distributor. “But for me, if and when I win a race, I want to win it on the merits that we outperformed everybody. I don’t want it to be because someone broke and didn’t have the parts they needed. If I’ve got something, the door’s open, and if for some reason I ran into that situation where I needed help, I would hope that would be extended my way if somebody had it.”
Going back to the challenge of winning these major races like Lights Out, it’s like an invisible barrier standing between the competitors and the winner’s circle. The heartbreaking moments like that runner-up finish at Lights Out 8 would send many people home dejected, but Woodruff just keeps coming back, knowing that win will mean so much more when it does happen.
“Most people don’t understand how hard it is,” Woodruff asserts. “I’ve got buddies that I went to school with that know I’m a car guy and have been around it and have been racing with me. They’re like, ‘Dude, why haven’t you won one of them?’ I’m like, ‘You have no f*cking clue what it takes to win one of these things.”
Woodruff hasn’t hoisted a giant Thor’s hammer or worn the crown or sat in the throne – or enjoyed any of the other over-the-top prizes and celebrations that come with winning one of the Duck X Production races. And that’s OK with Woodruff because he was still a part of the action at those infamous races, and he’s still in the game.
“I would’ve liked to have won some of them,” Woody admits, “but even without winning, just being there was enough. Because you could be the baseball team that never won the World Series, but if you were in it 20 years, you still got to go to the World Series.”
Car counts and overall enthusiasm surrounding Radial vs. the World have been on the decline over the past few years, to the point some people have declared the class dead. Longtime participants have moved over to Pro 275 or big-tire Pro Mod racing, and Woodruff himself has also dabbled in those endeavors. His Corvette now races in Pro 275, while he recently debuted a Pro Mod ’69 Camaro with Micke behind the wheel. But he’s not giving up on RvW. As he says, “It’s not dead, it’s diluted.”
“I look at it this way: In any professional sports – NFL, NBA, or MLB – the All-Star game’s not played every game,” Woodruff says. “The Home Run Derby’s not played every game.”
Woodruff believes he has a solution to stop the bleeding in RvW, and it primarily comes down to dropping the number of RvW events to three races – Lights Out, Sweet 16, and No Mercy – and make those three races the baddest races on the schedule.
“If you went out and did a three-race deal and made it to where it paid good to win each race and it was the premier class, and you ran in the best conditions of the event, that makes the deal happen,” he says.
A massive six-figure payout isn’t necessary, maybe $30,000 or $50,000 to win each race, Woodruff says.
Those three races could be used to determine a season champion, similar to the new FuelTech Radial Outlaws Racing Series being put on by Long and sponsors and track partners.
But the money isn’t even the most important factor, nor is the championship. The key is to celebrate and embrace the extreme, “Home Run Derby” aspect of the class that made it so popular. RvW is the Top Fuel and Funny Car of these races, and while it probably wouldn’t please racers in the other classes, the headlining class should get some preferential treatment. Run them in primetime conditions – not in the heat of the day – and make a spectacle out of them.
“The goal here would be to break the door car record,” Woodruff says. “It doesn’t matter where we’re at in the schedule, this is what’s coming for our pay-per-view customer and the RvW guys.
“It needs to be a big-money Home Run Derby,” he continues. “Give them the runs, give them the time to be able to go up and crush the scoreboard. Don’t run them in the middle of the day. The sun’s out, we’re parked.”
That was more or less the formula that was used at the inaugural Sweet 16 that saw the deluge of record runs and a social media meltdown as a result. It’s a formula that works, and had it been used at Lights Out and No Mercy, Woodruff believes the class might be in a different place today.
“If they would’ve taken that recipe like what we just talked about, and ran with that after the first Sweet 16, you would still see cars like my Corvette, [Tim] Slavens’ Camaro, Micke’s Malibu, still in the class running,” he says.
At the first Sweet 16, Micke’s Malibu – which car owner Jason Carter used to drive on the street before it started its 20-year small-tire racing career – was the quickest car on the property, even with a host of Pro Modified-style cars already in the mix. But as more stretched-out, purpose-built Pro Mods came into the class, they started to flex a competitive advantage, especially when the sun was out and conditions weren’t ideal.
“The reason why we got rid of running [cars like that], is there’s no way you’re going to take that stock-bodied turbo car, and run with that Pro Mod car at high noon,” Woodruff insists. “You’re just not going to do it. The physics aren’t there. You’re not going to get the weight moving and we can’t get it light enough.”
Pandora’s box has already been opened, so to speak, but Woodruff doesn’t think it’s too late to reverse course and bring back the magic of RvW. Radial-tired Pro Mods like the GALOT Motorsports ’69 Camaro have knocked down major barriers – the 3.50-second barrier with Kevin Rivenbark driving in 2019 and the 3.40-second barrier with Daniel Pharris behind the wheel in 2021 – but fans still want to see those stock-appearing monsters like Woodruff’s former Lynch/Petty Corvette get after it and chase those same barriers.
“You’ve got to have the perfect conditions and the track’s got to be super sticky, but if you want to put the world on their ear, you go out and have a stock-bodied car go 3.59,” Woodruff says. “I know we can do it. We’ve proven it already with what we’re able to back half with a 275 tire. If you give us the right conditions with the 315, there’s no doubt. I mean, I think we can go 3.55.”
Woodruff has accepted that Pro Mod-style cars are the way to go in RvW right now, so he had B&B Race Cars build a new ’69 Camaro for the 2022 season. It made its debut with Mark Micke driving it in Pro Mod at the U.S. Street Nationals at Bradenton earlier this year before entering RvW with Craig Sullivan driving at Lights Out 13. The car will continue to be a multi-purpose hot rod throughout the season.
“The Camaro is my RvW car that could go run Pro Mod if I want to,” Woodruff says. “I built the car for RvW to try to go after that [FuelTech Radial Outlaws] championship deal once they added that. And Pro Mod, we all know you can go race that anywhere, anytime, pretty much any part of the season. With the Mid-West series looking to be as strong as it is, I’d like to run some of those races, along with PDRA and NMCA. I’d really like to run some of the ADRL Pro Extreme races if they haul the rules out the window and see who can crush the scoreboard. That’s intriguing to me.”
Woodruff also plans to continue running the Corvette in Pro 275, and he has another car coming out soon. But you probably won’t see Woodruff driving both cars at the same event.
“I don’t have it in me,” Woodruff admits. “I’ve done it before and it’s just a lot of work. I’ve got enough quality people around me with Mark and Craig and a couple other people that I would trust behind the wheel that are good wheelmen. I’d rather go enjoy the weekend and watch both my cars have a chance at winning than to go there and be a circus and chase our tail and not perform as well as we can because we’re trying to do too much.”
Woodruff and his crew are all for putting in the work, that’s for sure, but not when it involves pushing the people or the equipment too hard. They run a manageable schedule anchored by Lights Out and Sweet 16 in the early part of the year and No Mercy in October. The plan is to pick and choose from the dozen-plus options for Pro Mod races to fill out the rest of the schedule.
“The radial stuff has to be run at a certain time of the year at a certain time in the day,” Woodruff says. “For me personally, I don’t want to race in June, July, and August. We’re going to go hang out on the lake and enjoy the boat and do some family time there. Our race season is basically January through May, then September through December.”
Beyond his own racing program, Woodruff says he’s even had aspirations of putting on his own events, or maybe even owning a track. He credits promoters like Long for all the work they put into events, as he talks to “Duck” often enough to know the behind-the-scenes efforts it takes to make these races happen. Woodruff is obviously passionate about the sport and finding ways to make it better, and putting on races of his own is a unique challenge he’d consider.
“I’d probably end up hating drag racing after it was said and done,” Woodruff laughs. “But I could see myself making a transition out of what I do right now and just promoting, and racing, and throwing on badass events, and making it happen.”