The new Neons debuted at Denver...
The new Neons debuted at Denver (above), and Darrell Alderman reset the speed record to 202.64 one week later (below).
The NHRA Prolong Super Lubricants Nationals in Seattle may be remembered for any number of reasons, but for those of us of the Mopar persuasion, a plan came together beautifully with the 2001 edition. In the final round of Pro Stock action, Dodge teammates Darrell Alderman and Mark Osborne raced for the title, with Osborne earning his first win since becoming one of the Dodge Boys. But there was more. By the end of the day, Alderman reset the speed record (normally the domain of Warren Johnson) to a blistering 202.64 (with a 202.42 backup), while Osborne won the event with a 6.819, the third-quickest time in NHRA Pro Stock history.
So here is today's quiz: What's the slickest car in the history of drag racing? If your answer was anything but "the brand-new, '98 Dodge Neon R/T Pro Stockers," just put your copy of Mopar Muscle back on the shelf and slowly back away; you're obviously not a Mopar fanatic, and if you leave quietly, no one will get hurt.
David Nickens (center) with...
David Nickens (center) with Darrell Alderman and Mark Osborne.
Seriously, although Mopar's "new" '98 two-door Neons had debuted only at the NHRA Mopar Mile-High Nationals in Denver in July, the David Nickens-owned factory team arrived in Seattle the following weekend and in one race went from showing promise to dominating the class. To use another tired but appropriate metaphor, they went through the event reminiscent of how Sherman went through Georgia during the American Civil War. They left nothing but broken dreams and records in their wake at Seattle.
By all counts, the one item that propelled the Dodge factory hot rods from contenders to winners was the long-awaited introduction of the team's new RJ Race Cars' Neons. Indeed, even at this early stage, it's undisputable the aerodynamic, factory-developed Neon body style has finally freed up the Nickens Racing-built Pro Stock "Hemi" engines to perform to their potential. Essentially, it takes less horsepower to push the Neon bodies through the air than it does the wider Avenger bodies; as a result, the engines are able to turn more rpm during a pass, equating to better speeds and elapsed times.
The Seattle race marked the first time since the '95 NHRA Winternationals at Pomona that a pair of Mopars met in the final round of Pro Stock, the first time the brand has held the speed record since 1994, when Alderman ran a then fastest-ever 197.80, and the first victory for the new Pro Stock Hemi mill that debuted at the start of last season (see Mopar Muscle, June 2000).
The long road back to dominance for Mopar Pro Stocks began with the development of that engine combination. When Nickens began the dyno development work on the new powerplant, he realized it didn't make maximum horsepower until the engine was turning beyond 9,500 rpm. Unfortunately, the boxy Avenger (compared to the new Neon) body required so much horsepower to push it down the track and through the air that the new Hemi couldn't spin above 9,500 rpm during a quarter-mile lap. Obviously, the solution was to develop a more aerodynamic body than the Avenger, one that would put less rpm-hurting load on the engine.
After looking at what was available, the engineers at Mopar eventually settled on the Neon. Unfortunately, by the time that was decided, the Neon was available only in a four-door model; the last two-door Neon had rolled off a DaimlerChrysler assembly line in 1998. However, NHRA has a rule that allows bodies up to five model-years old to compete in the Pro Stock class. So in the end, Mopar went with the '98 two-door Neon, which would be legal for NHRA competition until at least 2003.
Once that decision was made, the factory engineers met with Rick Jones of RJ Race Cars in Galesburg, Illinois. Jones' shop has been building Nickens' Pro Stock cars for several years. However, building the new cars was not simply a "let's do this" type of decision. In fact, the project to replace the Avengers started in 1999; to make sure the project was properly conducted, it took Jones and Mopar nearly two years of serious research, development, and manufacturing to get the first Neons to the track.
The new Neon is significantly...
The new Neon is significantly smaller and more aerodynamic than the Avenger. All of the current Dodge Pro Stock racers are planning to make the change to Neon bodies as soon as possible. Larry Morgan's new car came from Don Ness.
The team Nickens assembled...
The team Nickens assembled proved the new Hemi has winning potential.
Mark Osborne wins Pro Stock...
Mark Osborne wins Pro Stock using the new Neon R/T. Seattle, Washington, July 22, 2001. Photo by Ron Lewis.
In this regard, the Neon R/T Pro Stock is one of the first real "factory hot rods" to come out of Detroit in 30 years or so; not since the specialized A-Bodies of the early '70s has a vehicle had this type of factory engineering behind it. Dodge now has a purpose-built engine developed by the factory just for Pro Stock use and a body specially modified for Pro Stock racing as well. DaimlerChrysler Aero-Thermal Development Engineer Terry DeKoninck talked about the unusual factory involvement in this project.
"Usually, the factory engineers get a hold of the car only after it's been completed and is pretty close to finished," said DeKoninck. "On this project, we were brought in very early in the process. We essentially took over and directed it. We made a lot of changes from the original mold and plug, and it came out pretty well."
The "we" in the equation includes Jones, who spearheaded the construction effort. The Neon body created for Pro Stock racing was carefully scrutinized, then constructed with the primary focus on the effect of air over the body.
"I've been to the Lockheed wind tunnel in Georgia many times working on the aerodynamics of this car," said Jones. "The fact is, the body was built first, then we built a chassis to fit underneath the body; it's a very slick piece."
As predicted, the Neon is more aerodynamic than the Avenger. The reduction of the frontal area, which is the width and height of the car, plays a role in the aerodynamics. This alone is very critical, but according to DeKoninck, the way the air flows over the body also allows it to develop more downforce, keeping it closer to the ground as it moves down track on a run. Finally, with the standardized rules that have taken place in Pro Stock, the cars have a slightly longer wheelbase and equalized nose lengths with the competing brands. Taken in whole, team owner David Nickens believes the body could be worth as much as 30-40 hp now that the engines can get up into the higher rpm ranges. Pro Stock is a class where 5 hp is a big deal; if Nickens can achieve the additional level of performance he's talking about, everyone from Warren Johnson on down will be playing second fiddle to Dodge from this point on; that was the idea in Brett Fischer's playbook.
"We're looking forward to having a body that's as good-if not a little bit better according to the data we have-as what GM has," said Fischer, Dodge Drag Racing's program manager, before the car's debut. "We're going to try to walk away from the GM guys. We were right with them in our old bodies and we'll obviously pick up with the new ones. We can beat those guys...."
Mark Osborne agrees. He has the benefit of having owned and driven Pro Stock cars using GM bodies, and the newest Dodge driver knew the Neon R/T would have star potential right off the bat.
"I was very impressed with all of the body lines," said Osborne. "The fenders, taillights, and windows are really tucked in tight. We should run some real good speeds and elapsed times with the new Neon."
Now, with only two races complete as of this writing, the happy days of Mopar racing in Pro Stock may indeed be here again. From Sox and Martin's earliest efforts to Bob Glidden's Arrow to Alderman's dominance of the early '90s, the heritage is there and these new cars have already begun to put the Dodge name in lights again-Neon lights.
Neon R/T Quick Specs
Owner: David Nickens
- Drivers: Darrell Alderman and Mark Osborne
- Bodystyle: All carbon-fiber Neon Dodge R/T
- Car Builder: RJ Race Cars, Galesburg, Illinois
- Weight and Wheelbase: 2,350 lbs race-ready/105-in wheelbase
- 1290hp, 500-in, new-style Hemi
- Two Holley Dominators
- MSD Digital-7 ignition system and components
- Autolite spark plugs
- Five-speed Liberty manual transmission
- Dual-disc ACE
- Lamb front shocks
- Koni electric rear shocks
- Strange brakes and axles
- RJ Race Cars four-link rear suspension
Wheels and Tires
- Weld Wheels and Goodyear Tires