You have to get the timing just right. Executing the perfect drag racing launch is a delicate dance; klutz up the steps, and you're in for embarrassment.
Buckled in to a 2018 Dodge Challenger SRT Demon at Lucas Oil Raceway in Indianapolis, I'm not gunning for a world record. I'm just trying not to humiliate myself on my first day at a drag strip. Demon launch procedure feels like it came from a NASA handbook, a series of instructions to be performed in exacting succession. I tap the touchscreen to engage Line Lock, mash the brake pedal, and hold the steering wheel button to lock the front wheels. Next, goose the accelerator, lighting up the rear tires in a ten-second burnout before releasing the button and easing into the staging lights.
The cockpit is sweltering. The air conditioner is running full blast, but it's chilling the Demon's intercooler, not my sweaty torso. Windows rolled up per track rules, acrid tire smoke still seeps in. Prepare for liftoff.
Pulling both shift paddles activates the Trans Brake. Following the dashboard's instructions, I rev the engine with the brake pedal floored. Release one shift paddle, then let go the brake—the car stays riveted in place, engine straining, chassis flexing behind a load of potential energy fighting to become kinetic.
All that's left to do is to release the second shift paddle, launching the car into motion as I add just enough throttle to rocket out of the hole without breaking traction. But I blow the choreography. The car burps forward at school zone speed.
I overcompensate, matting the throttle and scorching the tires to flee my balking failure. It's my fifth time launching the Demon—or any car at a drag strip, ever—and I've slipped on a banana peel.
Idling back to the starting line, I scroll through the data captured on the Demon's Performance Pages dashboard app. Zero-to-60 on my botched run: 3.3 seconds. One hundred MPH took 6.9 seconds; the quarter-mile fell in 11.1. My faltering dragstrip performance barely tapped the Demon's potential—Dodge claims 0-60 in 2.3 seconds, quarter-mile in 9.54—but it's still quicker than nearly every car this magazine has ever tested.
The Dodge Challenger SRT Demon isn't for amateurs. Mastering this beast takes experience and finesse. But even at the hands of a neophyte, its speed is devastating. Dodge hyped this Challenger the way your dad or granddad brags about his high school muscle car. Amazingly, the Demon delivers.
This car's entire existence revolves around its tires, 315-width Nitto NT05R drag radials optimized for this model and wearing its logo on their thick sidewalls. The tires demand a bodily sacrifice: all four fenders sliced open with a laser cutter, slapped with obnoxious flares to house the foot-wide shoes. The suspension bends to the rubber's will, too: Special geometry gives the Demon nearly zero rear camber, laying the almost-slick treads flat against the pavement. Switch the car to Drag Mode, and the adaptive dampers switch to soft rebound up front, firm compression out back, pitching the nose skyward and squashing the rear tires into the pavement on every hard launch.
And hard they will be. SRT engineers fitted a huge new 2.8-liter supercharger—the largest ever offered on a modern gas-burning engine—to take the familiar 6.2-liter V8 beyond Hellcat power. A fuel system that pumps as many gallons per minute as a hotel shower head, coupled with the largest hood scoop ever offered on a stock automobile, force-feed gas and air to this ravenous machine. The result: 808 horsepower on 93 octane, rising to 840 with the optional race-gas-tuned ECU. An upgraded eight-speed automatic and a strengthened driveline with shorter 3.09:1 gearing send all 770 lb-ft of torque to the tires.
Like every other SRT vehicle, the Demon offers Launch Control—left foot brake, floor the accelerator; when the engine hits your preset RPM, drop the brake, keep the gas pinned and let the drag-tuned traction control search for grip. On my first run down the quarter-mile, Launch Control was enough to make me giddy, a 2500-RPM dig slamming me into my seat like I'd been rear-ended by a bullet train.
But traction control is for amateurs. The Demon comes straight from the factory with Trans Brake, Dodge's version of a feature found in custom-built drag cars for years but never before offered on a production car. When activated, Trans Brake engages first and second gear simultaneously, seizing up the driveline and holding the car at a standstill. Revving against the anchored transmission, the engine builds up to eight pounds of boost—impossible with a left-foot-brake launch. The exhaust pops and stutters like the gnarliest two-step launch control you've ever YouTubed.
It takes a master's touch to tame. You only rev to about 1800 on the Trans Brake, a light nudge on the accelerator. The instant you're rolling, you've got to add throttle, before that burst of built-up torque dissipates. Squeeze on too fast, and you'll break the tires loose, all those painstaking steps gone to waste in a haze of pebbled rubber and smoke. Too slow, and you might as well be in third gear. Timing it is as tricky as hitting a fastball, if home plate was directly behind a buzzsaw Hemi and every home run launched you forward at 1.8 g.
Jim Wilder, SRT's vehicle development manager for Challenger and Charger, rides shotgun on my first few drag strip runs. "I do it in two steps," he explains. "Give it a little throttle once you come off the Trans Brake to bring the nose up, then roll into it when the weight lands on the rear tires."
Maybe it's two steps from Wilder's point of view. For me, across a dozen Trans Brake launches, I'm never at risk of mastering the timing. Half the time, I dip into the throttle too quickly, turning horsepower into wheelspin and axle hop that shudders the whole car; on the rest, I'm a beat too slow, fifty yards down the track before I'm at wide open throttle. My best launch of the day—2.6 seconds to 60, 6.1 to 100, 1/8th mile in 6.8—is done with Launch Control; my fastest quarter-mile, a 10.7-second run, is still more than a second behind what the Demon can do with a pro at the wheel.
"Everyone who worked on this car missed out on the first era of muscle cars," Tim Kuniskis, head of SRT (and Dodge, Chrysler and Fiat) said at the beginning of my day with the Demon. "When we were growing up, 'high performance' was 150 horsepower. But we grew up talking about the original muscle cars, the Super Track Packs, the 426 Hemis. And 50 years later, we're still talking about them."
Yesteryear's muscle wonders are a theme among Demon collaborators. "We wanted to capture the essence of those 1960s drag cars," said Mark Trostle, head of exterior design on FCA's performance vehicles. He points out the broad, gaping hood scoop, so wide-open you catch a glimpse of the conical air filter through its ducting. See how the shape mimics the crude, boxy sheetmetal ram-air experimentation of the 1960s altered-wheelbase dragsters? That's no accident. "We wanted a hood as heroic as the horsepower," Trostle said. "And a big middle finger to everyone else on the road."
On the road, the Demon certainly lives up to the image of its 1960s forefathers. Set the three-mode chassis to Comfort, with the dampers and electric-assist steering at their softest, and the big-body Dodge is downright floaty. Blame the drag radial tires and their billowy sidewalls, designed to deform on launch for a broader patch. Or the springs, softer than a Hellcat's by 35 percent up front, 28 percent in the rear, and paired to anti-roll bars that hardly live up to the name. Clicking the adaptive dampers to Sport mode shores up some of the wallow, and while the steering never whispers a single jot of information from those impossibly wide front tires, at least in Sport and Drag mode you don't feel like you're twirling an arcade game's tiller.
And you know what? The chassis tuning fits for a car like this. The Challenger never aspired to Mustang Shelby GT350 handling or Camaro Z28 lateral grip; the dragster of the family certainly shouldn't be expected to change tack. Driving the Demon on the rural routes outside Indianapolis, where straight and flat is only occasionally interrupted by a four-way intersection, the Demon's high-power-speedboat dynamics are a throwback joy.
The whole ensemble is ridiculous. Even without a compound-warming burnout, those fat sticky tires grab every pebble and piece of roadway grit, flinging it all against the underside of the un-upholstered trunk to clatter like marbles in a coffee can. You leave twin gray streaks on the pavement with every 40 roll, supercharger whooping the world's angriest slide-whistle solo as you rocket into the next time zone. The exhaust note roars just a few decibels beyond aggressive, resonating through the cabin unimpeded by the missing rear seat. You can see why Dodge sells this as a quarter-mile car—driven any further, you'd risk massive fatigue, mostly in your smile muscles.
So the folks at Dodge set out to build a modern-day muscle car legend. In one way, they've already succeeded: like the most sought-after Challengers and 'Cudas of the 1960s and '70s, you'll be hard-pressed to get your hands on one of the 3300 Demons slated for production.
But today, legends don't work the way they did when The Beach Boys were on the radio. The stories we've all heard about the hairy muscle cars of the 1960s are mostly unprovable, passed down in postwar oral tradition with no documentation and all the commitment to accuracy of a good fishing tale. Back then, street racing was , occasionally including the odd Detroit engineer. Today, it's often treated, rightly, as a felony. And those 1960s muscle cars? These days, most of them would get walked by a family SUV.
I can't tell you if the Demon will have the same folklore in 2067 that its predecessors enjoy today. Perhaps in 50 years, Dodge's slew of YouTube teasers and the blog posts they inspired will be passed around with the same enthusiasm we have for stories of red-light holeshots from the Summer of Love. Maybe Dodge's dizzying flurry of math-heavy performance numbers will satisfy our kids and grandkids, raised with history's most powerful fact-checking devices glowing in their pockets. "It made 840 horsepower when most cars had a quarter of that," we'll say. "It was the only car that could pop a wheelie. Go ahead. Look it up."
I hope the legend takes hold. Because this car deserves it.