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.