The Need For Speed
by Dave Burnham
“I have to race. It’s what I do. I’ve tried to get away from it but I can’t. It’s my disease!” local businessman Rodney Bitgood said as he showed me his fire-breathing 2,000hp Camaro dragster.
When he was young, Bitgood always dreamed of being a race car driver, but thought he would be going around in circles like his uncle who raced at Waterford and Plainville. When he was 14, Bitgood met his future Crew Chief Bill Scrivener of Scrivener Performance in Middletown.
A friend of Rodney’s brother, Scrivener raced a ’68 Camaro and a ’70 Nova that were both 10-second cars. “The first time I went to the track with Bill I was hooked,” said Bitgood. “I crewed on his car throughout high school and went to a tech school to learn mechanics.”
Bitgood started racing with a ’72 Nova that he brought while he was still in high school. “Like a lot of others back then, I started out by street racing, which was very hot in Connecticut and New York at the time. I would only go to the track to try to make the Nova quicker on the street. As I got older I realized I had to race at the track though.”
Bitgood and his team ran the Nova, named “Fatal Attraction” in the very popular Super Street eliminator class. Sadly, the small-block-engined Chevy didn’t have the power to take on the leading competitors.
When Bitgood opened Cromwell Automotive in 1999, he was competing in NMCA (National Muscle Car Association) and NSCA (National Street Car Association) racing in Street Car Shootouts. To compete with the heavy hitters, a new car and and engine combination were needed. Over the next couple of seasons, the team built and developed Fatal Attraction II – a 1969 Camaro – whose performance improved with each event and produced a best pass of 7.42 seconds @ 187mph.
Then disaster struck at the 2005 NSCA World Finals at Columbus, OH. Bitgood lost control and crashed heavily while on a qualifying pass. “I was about 1,000 feet down the strip and I lost control of the car. I was in the left lane and hit the left wall at 160mph. The impact shot me across the track, narrowly missing the guy [Ed Parker] I was racing against. I went wall-to-wall. I was in the hospital overnight. The whole nine yards.
“I took a breather for a while after the crash to decide my future. The car was destroyed. I had never crashed this heavily before and it was a shock. There’s a lot of crashes in our class of racing due to the tires not being able to handle all the power the cars produce.”
As the old saying goes, “You can’t keep a good man down,” and that applies to Bitgood. Very soon a 1992 IROC-Z Camaro became “Fatal Attraction III,” powered by a 706ci Chevy big-block engine producing around 1,300hp. As if that wasn’t enough, a three-stage nitrous oxide system adds another 700hp!
“The car was all over the place when I raced it in 2006 . One of the nitrous systems would kick in at 400-500 feet into a run and the extra power would pull the front wheels up. It was violent. A fellow competitor then offered some help with chassis setup. I made the changes and competed at the US Street Nationals at Bradenton Motorsports Park in Florida in February 2007. I came in third out of 36 cars. My best run with Fatal Attraction III is a 7.02s @ 202mph at Cecil County Drag Strip in Maryland.
For 2012, Bitgood has put the Camaro into storage and is racing a 1968 Pontiac Firebird. “We’ve been out three or four times testing the car in advance of racing at Englishtown, NJ, on August 19th. The car will compete in what is known as “grudge racing.” This is where teams put money into a pot and race for it in a similar fashion to ESPN Speed’s Pinks All Out show.
“The Firebird has hit 171mph, and is basically a regular street car with nothing removed. It’s just got a real big motor in it. I’ll be racing this car and hopefully my other car, a secret project, that I’m thrashing to get finished. I just got the engine a couple of weeks ago from Florida.”
With that, Bitgood left to close up Cromwell Automotive for the day and put in a couple of hours on the project car. His disease shows no signs of being cured!