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.

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.

The numbers from the factory give the car a 0-60 acceleration rate in less than six seconds, 0-100-0 times in about 16 seconds (that's start to stop), and a rapid slowdown of 60-0 in 110 feet; they didn't state what the negative g-forces were under deceleration. This is a car that will get scary fast and will stop in a hurry, plus it won't rattle nearly as much as your original Hemi car did under these conditions.

So what about our Tennessee bootlegging tale? Well, to be honest, I didn't have any real bootleggers listed in my cell phone, but I figured I'd gotten into enough hot water over the last 30 years that I could double as one. David needed to get the car back to Michigan in one piece, so I suggested we take it from the race track in the evening and go up into the mountains to the North Carolina border. The border used to stop a constable, but them dreaded federal revenuers in the days before radio kept going. I let him drive first since he had already let me beat on this thing a little bit earlier that day. Besides, I didn't want to be behind the wheel if things got out of hand.

I know the roads, but ol' David was way outside his Motor City element. This terrain can tame the quick and make the dead-the road mutates from four-lane to three-lane to two-lane and back, twists and turns with big rock faces and deep drop-offs in some places, and even has its share of over-the-road truckers, police speed traps, and lethargic farm equipment. Plus, the falling light would be enough to give the run a little flavor, though I reckon most bootleggers would have only been getting out of bed at this early hour.

To make sure our trip was authentic (you know, in case we did get stopped and had our pictures taken for a newspaper story), we picked up a couple of cases of Mason jars to throw in the trunk for good measure. We strapped ourselves in the Charger from our starting point at the local barbecue joint and headed east into the dusk.

The Charger SRT-8 rides on huge 20-inch rims with Brembo power disc brakes on all four corners. The front versions are actually assisted by the cooling ducts alongside each front road light. With a noticeable lack of brightwork, save for those monster rims and the SRT logos, plus a centered hoodscoop, it looks nasty even standing still. This one was done in Inferno Red Crystal Pearl Coat. If you haven't looked closely at the latest Charger yet, SRT-8 or otherwise, one thing that will strike you is this is a big car-the wheelbase is 120 inches, and the overall length is 200 inches bumper-to-bumper. It's a far cry from a C-Body Polara or Monoco, wasted space is not a problem.

The seats are available in either a conservative light or dark grey, with red trim and suede inserts for "rearend traction" at speed. The back seat is also large enough that you can set two more good ol' boys in the car without anyone getting too squeezed. The dash layout is well thought-out, and that 180-mph speedo is pretty cool . . . and functional. We won't admit to you that the SRT-8 can peg that puppy, but three out of four ain't bad.

Up into the mountains, the Charger was sticking very well to the three-lane road; David has some heavy B-Bodies with big-blocks at home, and he had no problem pushing the car hard through a series of ascending S-turns with a deft foot on the throttle. The exhaust note itself is again one of the most telling signs of the SRT package; from the outside it did not seem as loud, but from inside, coupled to the sense of acceleration, there was no need to ruin the thrill with the radio. Meanwhile, the big Goodyear Supercar F1 tires (245s in front/255s in the back) verified that the SRT credo remains functional performance.

By now, darkness had filled in the valleys and only the setting sun remained behind us. We got up to the state line Grille outside of Elk Park, North Carolina, at a pretty fast clip, then turned around and headed back. This time I took the wheel and thought it cool to look out over the menacing bulge on the hood surface. At reasonable speeds on dry pavement, the SRT-8 does handle like it's on rails. The windshield, rear glass, and mirrors make visibility easy, and the car responds almost instantly to terrain changes, thanks in part to ESP, the Electronic Stability Program associated with the chassis. Despite being a half-inch lower than the regular Charger, shocking stability and a lack of noticeable body roll are a big plus, and functionally the car is quite a bit sportier than its outward physical size would denote. Pretty impressive considering it had topped the dragway scales at Bristol earlier that day at 4,200-plus pounds without any occupants.

Since David had done me right on his turn driving, I didn't try to spin the car out or do any 180-degree bootleg reverse-turns on the way down. If that is your bag, however, we have a pretty good feeling the SRT-8 Charger would live up to your expectations (though getting that Auto-Stick up into reverse on the fly would probably require some practice).

Price-wise, the SRT-8 is not going to be a first car for a lot of people. as tested, this example was well over 40 large, and had several options such as a sunroof and optional stereo. On the other hand, it is a lot of car for the money and will take pretty much what is thrown at it; the SRT team did their job putting this package together.

One engineer from headquarters reportedly hustled an early production example out to three east coast race tracks during a weekend jaunt, tuned it slightly, and clocked elapsed times down in the 12.8-second zone. Since NHRA was already busy at Bristol Dragway during the car's stay in Tennessee that weekend, we'll have to wait to prove that one, but with the loose rear gearing, you'll run out of pavement before you run out of motor.

But the price point is the one sticky issue in an otherwise terrific mix of style and performance. The car could well be a Mustang challenger (no pun intended) if it were someplace between the $25,000-$32,000 range, motored-up big time but perhaps not so comfortable. In other words, a 21st century Super Bee with a bigger hoodscoop, different wheels, and fewer accessories. This is an opinion, of course, and it may well be that the price on the SRT-8 is justified by the additional suspension and driving technology that the SRT engineers determined would make the car both fast and safe. The SRT-8 will likely be competing for dollars in the Euro touring car market, where it is indeed economical for the performance level.

Finally, perhaps a note on collectability would also be in order here. There is not any word on how many of these cars will be built; previous SRT package cars have never been in great abundance, and the corporation seems to be tailoring them to a niche of real enthusiasts rather than the "see me" crowd. Due to the upcoming availability of the Challenger that people are now waiting for, it may turn out that SRT-8 Chargers, the version the factory itself has tagged "the ultimate American muscle sedan offering stunning all-around performance at an attractive price," will also join the ranks of Hemi-powered desirables sometime in the future.

It was dark as we finally hit the four-lane back to Bristol, blasting past a couple of prewar coupes that had been at the car cruise. We pulled back into the place where we had started earlier-the Ridgewood Barbecue, world-famous since 1947-to throw back giant pork sandwiches and bottomless glasses of sweet tea. The Charger SRT-8 also hits the spot, and-with the right driver and circumstances-would have no problem teaching a few lessons out on Thunder Road.

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