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.