The ash-covered tip of a Marlboro cigarette has a golden-red glow in twilight, especially when somebody is pulling a deep drag off it. At this moment, I am finishing off the bummed smoke with one hand on the wheel, the engine letting out a steady growl, and the narrow, winding pavement of east Tennessee beckoning ahead. This is where it all happened back in the day, when the locals referred to it as Thunder Road.
The land once known as the State of Franklin ascends into the southern Appalachian Mountains from the west. It was here that the rugged Overmountain Army began its march to King's Mountain, North Carolina, during the American Revolution to defeat the British. This is where Daniel Boone staked out trails, and where a successful businessman named Larry Carrier first brought the sport of major-league NHRA racing to the east coast when he opened Bristol Dragway in 1965, adjacent to his already operating half-mile NASCAR track in Bristol, Tennessee. It was also here that blue laws and stubborn individualism created some pretty serious "white lightning" operations.
There are still a few stills scattered around in the hills. Today, though, other more potent illegal substances (which tend to blow the sides of house trailers apart while being brewed up) are keeping the sheriffs busier than ever. But what does all that have to do with Mopar Muscle?
These days, NHRA brings Powerade drag racing to the Volunteer State, and this past April, as the O'Reilly Auto Parts Nationals was being staged at Bristol, Mopar Performance Parts Portfolio Manager David Hakim called me on the phone from the road. He would be in town, and asked, "Hey, how would you like to drive this new SRT-8 Charger? I've got one for this trip, and we could take it out and drive it around out there. You'll like it; it's pretty fast."
The wheels in my mind started to work. Bootlegging and Chargers had something of a heritage, ranging from the NASCAR days to the Dukes of Hazzard. So I told David I would try to find a story angle, and we would talk again when he got into town.
Let's be honest up front, the Dodge Charger has not been a huge attention getter recently. Available in a four-door design only, the body being used in the current NASCAR Nextel Cup and NHRA Funny Car divisions just didn't do it for a lot of car people, especially with the red-hot Challenger on the horizon. But the SRT-8 may be that spark that gets a Charger fire going again because, outside of the Viper, this car is the quickest highway-legal Dodge ever produced.
SRT stands for Street and Racing Technology, the design and powertrain group at Auburn Hills who feed the need for speed, and these guys have nothing to be ashamed of compared to their old 426 Hemi counterparts at Highland Park. They opened the new-generation 5.7 Hemi engine out to 6.1 liters (that's 370 cubes to us old guys), boosted the compression up to 10.3:1, reworked the aluminum heads with unshrouded valves and larger ports, moved the rev limiter up to 6,400 rpm, and took the horsepower rating all the way to the old company standard of 425.
As the joint was jumping,...
As the joint was jumping, we decided to load up our "medicinal elixir" and head east. David didn't drop any of the cases, and the jar on the hood was placed into the trunk.
That number is serious. Turn the key, and the reward is a throaty rumble; the headers, covered by stainless steel covers, feed into dual closed-chamber cat units and out through fat rear-mount mufflers and 311/42-inch chrome tips. There is no big lope at idle, just a steady growl that one hit of the accelerator will turn into a roar.
Open the hood, and the snaky intake manifold design is pretty large and in your face. the runners have been created for higher-rpm fuel mixing, and the Hemi 6.1 valve cover fascias fill the bay from fender to fender thanks to the inboard suspension design. Yeah, to be honest, it is a Hemi.
Behind the engine is the five-speed Auto-Stick, which can be used either automatically or manually. Keeping it in Drive during hard acceleration will keep you planted in the seat; banging the Auto-Stick by hand will give you a bit more top end rpm and makes driving more interactive. The final gear ratio is 3.06 and coupled with the fifth gear overdrive of .083 makes this a car where you'll probably want to keep an eye on the speedometer. Eighty mph is there before you realize it.