“I’m Freiburger. That’s Finnegan. This is the show where we play with cars and you point and laugh.” And with that, David Freiburger launched Roadkill. Eight years and more than 100 episodes later, Roadkill is still going strong. In fact, it’s one of the most successful and widely watched automotive TV and video series ever, arguably second only to the BBC’s lavishly funded and expensively produced Top Gear. And we did it all ourselves.
I know. I was there.
When Google threw us some money in 2011 to help make YouTube more than just a platform for shaky lo-fi user-generated videos about laughing babies and dancing cats, I decided the MotorTrend Channel would be like a proper automotive TV channel, something I’d dreamed about doing for decades.
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It would have TV-length, TV-style shows covering everything from new vehicles to hot rods to four-wheel drives to motorcycles. Some shows would be weekly, some monthly, but to keep the channel relevant and interesting, a fresh show would be uploaded every day, five days a week.
I came up with a complete slate of programs, outlining the show formats, who the on-screen personalities should be (no pretty-boy TV talking heads reading scripts, but staffers who’d actually know what they were talking about), and what the shows would be called. Ignition. Head 2 Head. Hot Rod Garage. Dirt Every Day. On Two Wheels. The Downshift. Wide Open Throttle. Epic Drives. And, of course… Roadkill.
How Roadkill Got its Name
Google David Freiburger today and you get the descriptor “TV personality”. But back in 2011 he was editor-in-chief of Hot Rod magazine, the title founded by Robert E. Petersen in 1948 and the success of which would lead to Petersen launching MotorTrend magazine the following year.
When it came to Hot Rod-branded or themed shows for the new channel, I naturally asked David, a man who’s forgotten more about hot rods, drag racing, and classic American iron than the rest of us will ever know, for ideas. A build show of some type—a video version of the ‘how-to’ features that had been part and parcel of Hot Rod the magazine for decades—seemed a no-brainer. But I wanted a show that took the automotive counterculture out of the shop and put it out on the road.
I’d been intrigued with the videos David had done for a short-lived media venture of his own a couple of years earlier. It featured grungy, dirt-bag vehicles and was powered by a genuine sense of fun.
“Maybe you do a show something like that,” I said to David as I leaned in the doorway of his office one evening. He was intrigued, interested. I could see the creative wheels starting to turn. I glanced around his office and saw a copy of the brand-new special edition Hot Rod magazine on rat rods, fresh from the printer. The title? Roadkill. “And that’s what we should call it,” I said, pointing at the cover.
David said the show wouldn’t be about rat rods. “Doesn’t matter,” I said. “Roadkill is a brilliant name. We can make it mean whatever we want it to mean. And the logo is perfect just as it is.”
If You Haven’t Watched Roadkill Yet, Here’s Why You Should
It’s fun. It’s real. It’s men behaving badly with cars. And in among the mayhem you’ll almost always learn something. Take episode 108, where Freiburger gives you chapter and verse on the Dodge D100 pickup, and how not all D100s are the same. It got me thinking the right D100 could make a cooler classic truck than a Ford or Chevy from the same era.
Sure, some of the scenarios are far-fetched. But who wouldn’t want to see a Prius squashed by a tank (episode 17), cars catapulted off a 300-foot cliff in Alaska (episode 83) or a 2013 Dodge Dart dropped 1,320-feet from a helicopter onto a map drawn on a dry lake bed to celebrate the 100th episode? The latter was a wonderfully over-the-top homage to the opening scene of the first ever Roadkill episode in which a blindfolded Finnegan threw a dart at a map of the U.S. to see where they would have to buy a car and drive it back to L.A. without spending more than $1,500.
The Dart did the vertical quarter mile in 10.4 seconds, by the way.
When the boys are trying to make some old junker run with little more than gaffer tape and zip-ties, they’re really doing it. When stuff goes wrong, it goes wrong. Check out the time they tried to drive a Ranchero to Alaska (episode 2) or off-road a Chevy Monte Carlo lowrider (episode 39).
Frankenstein creations like the Vette Kart (episode 35), the rat-rod Jeep (episode 15) and Nascarlo (episode 46) are all their own work. I remember that time they tried to supercharge a Chevy Monza Spider (episode 16) with five—count ’em —leaf blowers.
You hear a lot about unscripted drama and reality TV these days. But when MotorTrend entered into a joint venture with Discovery Communications, the experienced TV execs who came and kicked the tires on our home-grown shows were stunned to learn Roadkill is basically all automotive improv. Even UK’s Top Gear, for all the fun and the banter, has relied on heavily scripted set pieces since the Clarkson, May, and Hammond days. Roadkill is car guys talking car stuff, live, as it happens.
And that, for me is what makes Roadkill must-see TV.