If you’re a sportsman drag racer, nothing about the 840hp, supercharged 2018 Dodge Demon will feel unfamiliar at a track. Drop the air pressure in the rear drag radials—in this case Nitto NT05R 315/40-18s designed just for the Demon, and cambered just perfectly for the flattest possible tire patch, then swap out the matching 11-inch wide front wheels for skinny 4.5-inch front runners, add your race fuel, and roll into the staging lanes. So far, pretty standard. Roll into the burnout box and hold the line-lock to keep the car in one place while you warm up the rears in a cloud of smoke. It does not prove difficult to make smoke from the rears on this car. Creep on up, ready your transbrake, bump into the lights and wait for the drop. Release the paddle, watch the horizon dip and lay into the throttle. Easy 10 second pass even if you make a mistake or two. 9s if you don’t. Great pull on the top end. Ease up and take the first turn-out. Head back to the pits and run the fan for a bit to cool down, then do it again. What’s the big deal? Why make a $90,000 deal with the devil for just a fast race car?
It’s what comes after the track day that might surprise our drag racers. A little air back in the tires, skinnies in the trunk—they fit real nice in there, and then roll your 9-second machine right past your 11- and 12-second competitors loading up on their trailers for the long haul home. Set it in Street mode and it tightens up the floaty suspension and holds the nose down like a normal road cruiser. That, drag racers, is the truly amazing part about the Dodge Demon. Yes, it’s insanely fast, and yes, it has a bunch of cool race-tech, but the fact that you can beat on it non-stop like an angry chef with a meat tenderizer, all day in 100-degree heat and then wheel it to dinner like it’s a soft-sprung ‘70s luxury car, now that’s worth selling your soul for.
Like a quarter-mile pass in it, our half-day with the Demon went fast. We met up with the car at Lucas Oil Raceway, the famed Indiana dragstrip that has hosted the NHRA U.S. Nationals since 1961. It’s been the setting for record-setting wins by racers like Garlits, Muldowney, Glidden, and Tom McEwen. It felt like an appropriate place for the first ever press drives of the record-setting Dodge Demon—first production car to come with a transbrake, first to lift the wheels on launch, and currently capable of outrunning every other production car on earth in a quarter-mile.
There were four cars, and probably a dozen journalists, all of us drooling in anticipation of driving the car that everyone has been talking about, seemingly since the dawn of time. We weren’t given timeslips, which left us dependent on the car’s internal timers–which are not as accurate as the track timers–but we believe the low 10-second screens and we saw it lift the front wheels on numerous passes. The car is easy to drive, loud for a street car maybe, but nothing like the brain-shaking noise and vibration of a lopey vintage race machine. The line-lock is really simple, just a button in the center screen and then foot on the brake, thumb on the button and follow the dashboard directions for a perfectly slide-free burnout. Roll out of your smoke towards the Christmas tree. The throttle is responsive, not stiff, but firm, and the brakes are evenly matched. It’s smoother to stage than a Hellcat Challenger, less jolty on the brakes with small motions. It’s easy to creep into the lights a little at a time, and bring the revs up while you wait for the count-down. The trans-brake takes a little practice, a bit of pat your head and rub your tummy, but when you get it, the car’s nose comes up and it shoots forward like a spitball out of your bratty cousin’s straw. The launch isn’t fail-proof. It’s possible to leave too hard and spin the tires, but even when you do, you end up with a high 10-second pass on your screen. Name another car you can drive so badly and still run so well? “It’s not a point and shoot,” said Dodge SRT head of passenger car brands, Tim Kuniskis, who is a staunch supporter of this kind of purpose-honed car insanity, “Just because I give you Hendrix’s guitar, doesn’t mean you’ll suddenly be able to play.” But in a way Dodge has given us Hendrix’s guitar, a finely tuned, perfectly suited instrument for the job, and while it might not be immediately possible to hit Voodoo Child note-for-note, it’s certainly easy to rock out.
How did Dodge turn the already outrageous 707hp Hellcat into the dragstrip-burning, but still completely streetable Demon? It started in February of 2015. The engineers had been messing with a test mule nicknamed “Rudolph,” for its mismatched red front fascia. They’d cut out the fenders to have a go at wider tires, and were playing with a modified Hellcat engine that ran a bigger supercharger and smaller pulley. By April they were sitting in meeting pleading a business case for a drag racing sister to the track-tuned ACR Viper. “We thought it would be ACR (American Club Racer) setting records on the road courses, and ADR (American Drag Racer) doing the same on dragstrips,” said Kuniskis. “but then Viper was going away, and we didn’t want this to seem like a replacement, or a change in focus, like we were disparaging road racing.” The project moved forward, but it needed a new name, and a stand-alone goal. “So many of these things never go anywhere. We had a bunch of walls in our way, but we knew what we needed. We knew that a 9.75 E.T. wasn’t the quickest. We wanted that 9.65.” For second here, imagine the SRT staffer tasked with researching all the quickest and fastest current production cars. “It’s not like we could ask one of you,” says Kuniskis, waving at the sweating journalists, comparing transbrake to launch control in the staging lanes. “Then you would know what we were up to.”
SRT vehicle development manager, Jim Wilder interrupts, “Originally the program was approved for 770hp and 10.20 E.T.s, then Tim says to me, ‘Jim, that’s not your real goal.’ I was like, ‘GULP,’ and he says, ‘It’s approved, but we want 9s with light,’ meaning lift the wheels and run a 9-second quarter-mile.” In order to do that they needed to dramatically drop weight and up the horsepower, but as anyone who has ever done an accidental half-track burnout in a standard 707hp Hellcat knows—Can you believe we’re writing that? Standard? What a time to be alive—horsepower means little without the ability to turn it into forward motion. That meant the Demon wasn’t just an engine and body-lightening project, but a challenge in traction management and weight transfer as well. “One of the most interesting conversations we had was with [SRT vehicle dynamics engineer] Erich Heuschele,” says Kuniskis. “We asked him if we could flip the adaptive suspension, make it go lighter instead of stiffer, and he was horrified, but he thought about it for a second and said, ‘Yes, yes we can.'”
Kuniskis grins at all of us. Wilder grins back and tells us that he thinks the attention and the passion for this project from everyone involved is what won the corporate guys over, and made it possible. Once development was underway, the team got close to the goal number, running low 10s at a Florida test. Then it was all hands on deck to make it all the way. Take the seat out, get the air temps down, get sticky tires on it. Whatever it took, while still ending up with a viable street car. “We couldn’t make a tuner car,” said Chris Cowland, director of SRT powertrain engineering. “We had to meet all the OBD and CARB rules. We had to meet pass-by noise. There were no lets on durability. It has a warranty.” In some cases, the team doubled the normal tests, upping the drag starts and keeping all the hardest temperature and hot and cold-start torture tests. “I don’t recommend someone start the engine completely cold and bring it instantly to 840hp, but we did it in testing,” Cowland says. This durability is noteworthy. The day of track testing was appropriately hellish for a car named Demon. It was about 95 and humid, and the four cars ran without a break for the entire day. Not once did we see an engineer limp one off for an emergency cool-down, and they ran without any noticeable change in performance no matter what we put them through. By the end of the afternoon, we were feeling jealous of the engine. At least it was getting air conditioned. The Demon has a unique Chiller set up which uses the air conditioning to cool the intake air rather than the passenger cabin in Drag Mode. As proof that the SRT engineers had real track time in mind, the Chiller has an integrated absorbent pad to catch any condensation so no Demon drips land on the dragstrip. Normally, air conditioning has to be off for track runs.
During the development and testing of all these neat coolers and weight-saving tricks, the SRT team had to keep the Demon project secret. That meant code names for everything, a set of detuned dynos so a curious engineer wouldn’t notice any odd horsepower readings, and an organized list of exactly which information could go to which supplier. “The piston guys got the temperature it had to work at,” says Cowland. “The supercharger people got the airflow number. Nobody had the horsepower number.”
The engine department nicknamed the Demon engine, “Benny,” after the little purple friend of the cartoon, Top Cat. “Top Cat would have been too obvious,” says Cowland. Originally there were thoughts of making the block purple, but they couldn’t get the paint in time. So maybe luckily, the Demon engine is a hellfire red.
“At the launch date in New York, four people knew that horsepower number,” says Kuniskis. “We called Cowland ‘the sandbagger,” because he was lying to all of us about the number.”
“It was hard telling him 777 every week,” says Cowland, who wore a t-shirt that said “Sandbagger,” across the front at the official launch.
Kuniskis laughs, but then leans across the table and looks stern. “A lot of buzz has been from people saying, ‘Well, if I just make mods to a Hellcat, I can make all the Demon numbers,’ but to them I say, ‘Well, if you can do 9s with a modded Hellcat, what will happen with the Demon?’” He leans back. “I’d like to see them all used on the street, and a large percentage raced.”
“That’s the whole point of it,” adds Jim. “Drive it to the track, race, drive it home.”
Ok, we’re sold. When can we start?