The Demon sucks the air out of the room.
That’s 5,000 liters of air, which is equal to the lung capacity of 800 humans, an engineer told us. We were being teased. It was only a test. A recording of an engine revving at a terrifying volume.
This isn’t the beginning sequence of a Koji Igarashi game, but the sound of the Dodge Demon. I grew up with this sound, when my father, who started his career as a Dodge engineer, showed off his love for all things mechanical.
When I was a kid, my father took me to the Milan Dragway in Michigan, where I covered my ears to block out the screams of the top-fuel dragsters. We didn’t wear earplugs. My father wore his cherry-red Dodge Boys jacket to show off that he was a Chrysler man. We always stayed for the entire race; my father never liked to leave a competition until the thing had ended. Afterward, I could smell the race gas on my clothes and my ears rung from the deafening roar of the engines.
The day the Demon was due to make its debut on Lucas Oil Speedway, the racing gods had other ideas. The forecast was for scattered showers and patches of sun, but the sky opened up and a punishing rain coursed down from 7AM until late afternoon. Lightening blazed through the sky, and the only audible rumble was the reverberation of thunder in the distance. By the time the rain stopped, the damage was done. Word was, no one in Indy had ever seen the track flood like that. The Demon was forced to remain idle. The Christmas tree lights were dull. (Editor’s note: a Christmas tree is drag racing speak for a mechanism that signals on your mark, set, go! Or if you leave too early, false start.)
A cadre of journalists had the chance to observe Demon in action last week on its home turf: the quarter-mile strip of a racetrack in Indianapolis, the symbolic heart of racing country. I jumped at the opportunity to drive the rare Demon — of which, only 3,300 will be made. I signed up for wave one, to get to drive first, but it wasn’t meant to be.
In case you don’t frequent drag strips or have been ignoring the rekindled horsepower wars waging among Detroit automakers, Demon is a souped-up variant of the Dodge Challenger SRT Hellcat. It’s the fastest production car ever made — so fast that it’s been banned by the National Hot Rod Association. Dodge is proud of its prowess and added this point prominently into its press kit. The numbers don’t lie: 840 horsepower and 770 pound-feet of torque, a 0–60 in 2.3 seconds, and a 9.65-second quarter-mile time.
“I wanted this to be a middle finger to the competition,” Mark Trostle, the designer in charge of exterior design for FCA, told our group as we waited the rain out in a soggy tent at the track. He pointed at the nips and tucks that have also added to that performance improvement, such as a shorter spoiler to reduce drag.
The Demon’s prowess comes down to math equations. “F=MA,” as the head engineer framed it: Force = Mass times Acceleration. To achieve its massive speed and torque, Dodge extracted 200 pounds from the car. “Every nut and bolt was looked at,” he said.
The Demon may be the last of its kind, a staunch, unapologetic defender of Detroit’s past and all things bulging American muscle. “We’re not soulless, driverless pods yet,” said Tim Kuniskis, the head of passenger cars for Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, in defense of the internal combustion engine, as we waited at the track to dry. Kuniskis made the case for why a company is building this niche vehicle at a time when, as a society, we are on the precipice of electrification and facing a demand for cars that emit less emissions. And though the Demon seems incongruent to the overall trends, the enthusiasm of aging baby boomers and young Fast & Furious fans is enough of a business case to justify this last hurrah. It’s also worth noting they didn’t spend money to build the car from the ground up, but instead made tweaks to juice up an existing model to the max.
Another engineer walked us through the three different ways that you can drive the Demon straight down the quarter mile, including using a TransBrake, a drag racing cue that harkens back to the 1960 heyday of racing not seen in any other production car.
But there would be no demonizing that day. Mother Nature had other plans. A soaking wet track is no place to drag race. Tires require dry surfaces to stick to the pavement. Jokes were made about Dodge being punished for the audacity to make such a car, a more efficient V8 than the cars of the early ‘70s. But it’s still not a gasoline saver and it’s the first production car that runs on 100+ high-octane unleaded fuel. While owners might stunt with this cars on public roads, in interest of public safety, perhaps they shouldn’t. Driving in a straight line on a track is another story, however.
When I left the track to make my flight, at first I felt a profound sense of disappointment, a ridiculous reaction to missing out on what was only a 9-second car ride. It’s hard to make the case for why regular folks who don’t care about cars should pay attention to this otherworldly beast, that on the surface seems to be up to no good. It may seem at odds with everything that technology and progress stand for — but not from where I’m sitting.
Because drag racing is about pushing the limits.
When I was kid, automotive engineers like my dad seemed like they lived in the future. They toiled away on cars that wouldn’t be seen until the next decade. There was a top secret sense about what they did behind the gates at the proving grounds, and that they were pushing toward doing new things, too. It was a feeling that carried from the R&D departments in Detroit down to the workers who worked long hours building the cars, that they were contributing something that was making a statement in the world.
While I wasn’t enamored by cars back then, I did appreciate my father’s enthusiasm for his life’s work. Somewhere along the way, several years after I became a journalist, I challenged myself to write about cars. My father got a kick out of my newfound beat and sent me frequent tutorials explaining how different engines worked and what it really meant to get butts in seats. I wrote about all kinds of cars, but whenever I had the chance to test out a Dodge, he was most impressed. After I drove a Viper on the track for the first time, he beamed and told me I was legit. Cars re-created our connection. It was cemented when I hooked up and later married a drag-racing hobbyist, self-appointed president of the local car club: the Brooklyn Dodges.
Long after my father retired, he still didn’t like it when I parked any other model in his driveway when I visited. Eventually, he paved a new space for me on the side of the house, where he wouldn’t have to see other makes and models polluting his driveway. That’s the kind of spirit that inspired the verve for Demon.
It’s been over a year since my father died. And there is a little part of me that is okay with living in the anticipation of the ride that never happened, so I wouldn’t have to be sad about not being able to call up my dad and tell him about what it felt like to drive.
By the time my flight boarded to leave Indy, the sky had turned a gauzy, serene pink, and the sun peeked out. It struck me that sometimes imagining an experience is just as rewarding as living through the actual thing. Other writers were able to stick around and drive the Demon on another day, like my friend and fellow Detroit native Lawrence Ulrich who drove the Demon like hell for The Drive, and Elana Scherr, editor of Roadkill, who wrote about her test drive for the audience that lives and breathes this stuff. For me, living with the anticipation of a ridiculous ride would be enough to sustain me — at least until the Demon strikes again.
Demon has already become a legend before it hits the streets, a gut punch that is in step with the times, as much as its paradoxically opposed to what’s happening in the rest of the world. It’s a metaphor for the moment as we race to a finish line, without knowing what’s at the end. When muscle cars were first made, we were imagining the Moon, only now we imagine Mars. While I appreciate the obsessive aspect of wanting more, my perspective has shifted. Instead of more power, I’d trade it in for a little more precious time.