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?"