It starts on the highway in Atlanta. The dude in the early-'90s Nissan Sentra - slammed, with huge chrome wheels and purple tint - snakes his way through traffic. He's swerving back and forth, cutting people off, until he finally reaches my rear bumper. He stands the Sentra on its nose, jinks into the right lane, and mouths three syllables to me:
Two hours after my encounter with Sentra Dude, the questions start again. At a gas stop outside Augusta, people want to know everything: Pricing. Torque at the rear wheels. When it hits dealers. One out of every two folks has no idea what the heck that sumbitch is, anyway. (The aggregate response seems to be, "Hell, yes, I like it! But would you mind tellin' me why your new Camaro/'Cuda/Firebird says 'Dodge' on it?")
Mistaken identity or not, one thing remains: the Dodge Challenger is magnetic. It yanks people off sidewalks like a thirty-story Hoover, and camera phones whip out so often that you find yourself checking the right seat for a pantyless Paris Hilton. Looking to gain a little perspective away from our usual citified haunts, we launched off into the Carolinas on the NASCAR trail, figuring that the best way to gauge the big Dodge's potential would be to engulf it in the land that should love it the most. We weren't disappointed - everywhere we went, we were mobbed.
DARLINGTON DRAGWAY, HARTSVILLE, SOUTH CAROLINA: 4/16/08, 9:30 P.M.
"That's off the chain, isn't it? That's a swifty right there." - Chris Page
Darlington Dragway looms over the highway like some hulking, fire-breathing medieval monster. At night, the backlit, forty-foot-tall burnout plume can be seen for miles. Darlington Raceway - the fifty-eight-year-old, 1.37-mile NASCAR oval just down the road - usually steals all the national limelight, but the Dragway still gets its fair share of local love, especially since it's busy five or six days a week. Although the plan is to hit the oval tomorrow, the lure of an old-school, late-night drag-strip visit is just too much to pass up.
We roll in on a Wednesday night ("Grudge Nite" according to the sign out front), when the staging lanes are stacked with amateurs running everything from snorting Chevy Camaros and Plymouth Barracudas to Volkswagen Golfs. The Challenger looks at home here, surrounded by cast-off timing slips and shoe-polish numbers, and it instantly draws a crowd. People are lining up to sit in it, to blip the throttle, to ask me why it doesn't rev over four grand in neutral. I am a hero, all because I opened the doors and left the engine running.
Mitchell Goldman walks up, holding a coozied beer and wearing a "Team Shitbox" T-shirt. He walks around the Challenger, eyeing it pensively, weaving in and out of the teeming crowd. "That actually beats the Camaro, I think," he says. Chris Page, standing next to him, nods and nudges me in the arm. "Damn," he says, and lets out a low whistle. "I've been ready to order one for months. I've only been married two years, but I had to put my foot down on this with my wife. Had to."
A tall, heavyset guy in a Chrysler letterman jacket climbs out from behind the Challenger's wheel. Terry Choice has a hint of a smile on his face, and he's soon grabbing every leggy blonde he can find and shuffling her behind the wheel. He points at me and grins, and other guys soon take the cue. ("You gotta come see this, baby. Sit in this, it's crazy!") Mindful of what my mother told me about hoochie mamas and fast cars and how rock 'n' roll would poison my brain, I refrain from gratuitous ogling or posing for camera-phone pictures with girls in my lap, because that would be wrong.
RAINMAKER CAR WASH, DARLINGTON, SOUTH CAROLINA: 4/17/08, 9:00 A.M.
"Bigwigs in South Carolina , they got to have it!" - Oliver Chandler
It is nine o'clock in the morning on a sunny South Carolina Thursday, the Challenger is getting a bath, and Oliver Chandler, a painter from Darlington, is eating hot wings and having his mind blown.
"Damn!" he says, walking in circles around the Dodge. "This is the hottest damn thing I ever seen!" He stops circling the Challenger and starts selling it to passersby. "This is the SRT! This one right here's got the hood strips! I'll hand-wash it, no charge!" He whistles a lot and cradles the hot wings in his arms. A few cars pull into the parking lot, and I hear murmurs in the background: "Camaro, right?"
Oliver: "Mmmm-mmm! What do I drive? Hell, I drive a damn van! Chrysler is back - all the way back!"
BOBO NEWSOME HIGHWAY, NEAR DARLINGTON, SOUTH CAROLINA: 4/17/08, 10:30 A.M.
From the driver's seat, the Challenger is a dark, foreboding cave. The roofline is a low-brimmed hat pulled down over your head. The thick C-pillar is a giant blind spot, an acre of black plastic and shadow seen out of the corner of your eye. And that enormous hood stretches out in front of you, all nostrils and stripes, leaping up with every stab of the right pedal.
None of this is to say that the Challenger drives poorly. It doesn't. It drives like a current Dodge Charger, if a current Dodge Charger had been sent to disco-era finishing school. Everything has a distinctly yesterday feel, from the too-understated dash layout to the softer-than-Charger-SRT8-spec suspension. It's big, but the more time you spend in it, the smaller it feels. It's heavy and stiff and soft and flexible all at the same time. It bombs down the road like a lead burrito, whompf?ing over bumps at high speeds like they aren't even there. The pavement gets pummeled into submission. You feel like you could drive to South America. Nonstop.
DARLINGTON DRAGWAY, HARTSVILLE, SOUTH CAROLINA: 4/17/08, 11:00 A.M.
"You think that thing's loud?" - Bryan Sansbury
We've come back to the drag strip in search of a burnout picture and a brief run down the strip - I spent so much time talking to people last night that I missed the registration for late runs. A few IHRA Pro Modified teams are practicing in the strip's left lane, spitting out storms of tire smoke and eyeball-shaking noise. The ambulance crew at the main gate directs us to Bill Wilson, the dragway's laid-back owner, who generously offers us the use of his right lane for photos and testing.
If you've never been to a drag strip, here are the two things you need to know: Drag racing isn't as easy as it looks, and spectating isn't as simple as it sounds. Wilson and starting-tree man Bryan Sansbury spend a few minutes schooling me on the ins and outs of launches, pine-tar resin, and track surface before plopping me on the drag strip's middle wall. They then have a fuel-spitting, sidewall-wrinkling Pro Mod Pontiac Firebird launch four feet from my nose.
Two thousand horsepower makes one hell of a violent dent in your brain pan. The Firebird clocks 6.407 seconds at 210.23 mph in the quarter mile, slewing across the track a little toward the end of its run. Me, I spend the next five minutes walking around in a deafened stupor, having extensive conversations with trees and trying to remember my own name. In between photography and testing, the mechanics from the various teams all take a good look at the Challenger, universally declare it "not bad, but a little light on the balls," and meander back to their trailers.
I decide to start pricing drag slicks. Also, I make a mental note: Must call Dodge engineers. Must tell them the 425-hp Challenger SRT8 needs "more balls."
DARLINGTON RACEWAY, DARLINGTON, SOUTH CAROLINA: 4/17/08, 2:00 P.M.
In the modern NASCAR world of cookie-cutter ovals and mile-deep parking lots, tiny Darlington Raceway stands out like a sore thumb. Harold Brasington carved the 1.25-mile oval out of an old cotton field in 1949 - legend has it that the track's characteristic egg-shaped layout was chosen in order to avoid disturbing landowner Sherman Ramsey's minnow pond. In the ensuing fifty-nine years, little has changed.
Darlington's timeless, days-gone-by reputation is what brought us here, and the track doesn't disappoint. Much like the Challenger, the Darlington oval sports a shiny, modern faade over an old-school soul. Although it was recently the subject of a $20 million repave and renovation, Darlington still feels old; it's a mystical, imperfect, cramped, and notoriously difficult place at which to race, beloved by drivers and fans alike. No amount of sterilizing or corporate polish (the track is owned by the France family's International Speedway Corporation) seems to be able to detract from the oval's inherent charm, and that's probably why everyone loves it.
A knock on the door of the main office brings most of Darlington's PR staff, the track president, and half the groundskeeping crew out to look at the Challenger. They graciously let us onto the track, and while fresh paint keeps us from doing laps, we get the rare honor of walking the twenty-three-degree banking all the way to the top wall. (Tip: don't lean inward; you'll fall over. Ask me how I know.) All in all, it's pretty heady stuff, and the Dodge seems strangely at home, even considering the fact that the 1970s Challenger never competed in NASCAR.
Conveniently, the metaphorical connection wasn't lost on Chrysler's ad men: The sole race at Darlington this year has been christened the Dodge Challenger 500. Convenience, thy name is Retro.
U.S. 74, NORTH CAROLINA: 4/17/08, 4:00 P.M.
"I just had to come look at your car! Ha! My wife is gonna kill me!"? - Random Traffic Dude, Charlotte, North Carolina
The short stint up Highway 151 toward Charlotte - where NASCAR is king - is in many ways a journey from the past into the present. Narrow, winding roads widen, chain restaurants begin to dot the landscape, and the rural charm thins out. Fittingly, the Challenger reveals its modern guts a little more on this drive. The Dodge jumps over off-camber pavement like a rock star, the massive trunk lid dancing back and forth in time with my right foot. High-speed charge is relentless - the 425-hp, 6.1-liter Hemi's thrust is actually more impressive at highway speeds than it is around town - but the rough-shifting five-speed automatic is tuned for fuel economy, and the heavy, achingly slow steering feels like it's mired in molasses.
Halfway into Charlotte, a middle-aged man driving an early-'90s Lincoln Continental jumps out of his car while we're waiting at a red light. He's grinning like crazy, hopping back and forth from foot to foot. "Jesus! Is this the 425-horse one? This is the real deal? It's not a Camaro?"
LOWE'S MOTOR SPEEDWAY, CONCORD, NORTH CAROLINA: 4/17/08, 7:00 P.M.
"Yo . . . I coulda sworn it was a Camaro." - Brad Robinson
Concord, North Carolina, is a NASCAR fan's dream town. It has a 1.5-mile oval (Lowe's Motor Speedway), a 0.4-mile dirt track (The Dirt Track at Lowe's Motor Speedway), and a few other smaller tracks. Plus, a whopping 90-plus percent of all NASCAR Sprint Cup teams call the Charlotte area home. Predictably, the interstate exits near the tracks are crammed with every chain restaurant known to man and more motels than you can shake a green flag at.
As you'd expect, the speedway dominates the Concord landscape in the way that only a 165,000-seat racing stadium can. If Darlington is a tiny throwback sitting in a cotton field mere feet from the highway, then Lowe's is its exact opposite: an enormous, fenced-off corporate compound steeped in the modern era. Its grandstands can be seen from two counties away, and everything from the campgrounds to the bathrooms sports a sponsor logo. (This toilet brought to you by Old Spice!) We log a few quick laps of the perimeter road - because Toyota is the Official Car of Lowe's Motor Speedway, only Toyota vehicles are allowed within the track's walls - and roll out in search of more welcoming climes. Five minutes later, in a nearby parking lot, a black Acura RSX jerks to a halt at the Challenger's front bumper. Heather McKnight is in the driver's seat. Her boyfriend, Brad Robinson, sticks his head out the passenger window:
"Excuse me? Excuse me? I gotta take pictures. Yo, what motor does it have in it? It's badass! I wanna drive it right now, and I wanna get pulled over by a Concord cop. Yo, I'm not gonna lie - I coulda sworn it was a Camaro. I made her slam on the brakes." (Heather: "He did!")
As I'm talking to Brad, a crew-cab Chevrolet Silverado pulls up, and the three well-dressed Latino guys inside offer me $200 apiece if they can drive the Challenger around the parking lot. And do donuts. They want to do donuts.
Six hundred bucks would buy a decent set of drag slicks, right? Right?
CHIP GANASSI RACING WITH FELIX SABATES, CONCORD, NORTH CAROLINA: 4/18/08, 10:00 A.M.
You can't spit in Concord without hitting a race shop. The first one we run across is the Dodge facility belonging to Chip Ganassi; it's discreetly stuffed into the back of an office park just behind the Concord Regional Airport. A sidewalk-mounted sandwich board touting the gift shop and a modest sign out front are the only exterior clues.
Moments after we roll into the parking lot, a voice calls from over the back fence: "Y'all mind drivin' that thing in here for a minute?" Ten minutes later, we've somehow talked our way into Ganassi's main shop, and the entire place has come to a standstill. Mechanics and fabricators are crawling around on the spotlessly clean floor, ogling the Challenger's underbelly. Bob Fehan, Ganassi's senior manager of operations, has a black Challenger on order: "I'm just an old Mopar guy. I used to build show cars at Magna International for Chrysler. I used to have a bunch of 'Cudas and Road Runners. This is great."
The Dodge's trunk is opened, and somebody pops its hood. Off in the corner, I notice a tarp-covered shape that someone refers to as "next year's Nationwide/Busch car." It looks remarkably Challenger-like, right down to the blunt nose and the angular roofline. It occurs to me that you should never, ever underestimate the power of rose-tinted glasses when it comes to marketing. Or a racing series that prides itself on consistency and fan appeal.
Perhaps, then, that's the Challenger's biggest selling point. It's not perfect - the interior is a little too understated, the curb weight a little too high - and as a backward-looking hunk of retro muscle, it just doesn't feel as special as it should. And arguably, if Chrysler intends to produce an attainable, sustainable halo car, then that car should also be dynamically up-to-date - it shouldn't trade solely on past successes. But like Darlington Raceway, stock-car racing, or even - dare we say it? - a good Camaro, the Challenger has a timeless, unimpeachable quality: the people who love it, love it without reservation. As we roll away from Ganassi's shop and head toward home, I realize that there's really nothing wrong with that. As a matter of fact, there's an awful lot right.
Just please, whatever you do, don't call it a Chevrolet.
Darlington is a small, fairly cramped little burg, and its historic, tree-lined streets don't seem able to support the population bomb that is the traveling NASCAR circus. Thankfully, they don't have to. Like us, most visitors stay in nearby Florence, where a host of chain motels offer clean, dependable rooms. Availability varies according to the time of year, but finding a bed during the one remaining race weekend is always going to be difficult, so it's best to plan ahead. The Darlington Raceway Stock Car Museum, located at the track itself, shouldn't be passed up - its small, shrinelike collection includes the winningest race car in NASCAR history (a '56 Ford convertible) and one of Richard Petty's two championship-winning 1967 Plymouths. Westwood BBQ, in nearby Hartsville, is a short jaunt up Highway 151. The buffet there - and the roadside boiled-peanut stands found along the way - is almost worth the trip in itself.