Let us not belabor the obvious: The 2018 Dodge Challenger SRT Demon is a very fast car.
It has a supercharged V8 with more than 800 horsepower. It's capable of running the quarter-mile in 9.65 seconds. It does freakin' wheelies.
Alas, the limited 3,300-unit run means that the Demon, to most people, will exist largely as Dodge's four-wheeled and Super Bowl-size marketing campaign. In spite of this, what you learn from a few passes on a drag strip is that all the pizzazz is the result of a more significant accomplishment: building a turnkey, soup-to-nuts drag-racing package specifically for drag racers.
The unique specificity of that goal means the Demon is an entirely different experience from similarly fast supercars. Of all the production cars capable of sub-10-second quarter-mile passes, the Demon is the only one with a transbrake; the only one with drag radials; the only one with an optional passenger seat; and the only one with smaller, skinner "front runner" wheels and tires that come as part of a $1 performance and tool package.
The Demon also costs less than one-tenth of the $1 million it takes to get into those sub-10-second supercars.
The Staging Lane
Understanding the Demon's significance comes by understanding drag racing, and our education starts at the staging lanes at Lucas Oil Raceway just outside of Indianapolis. We're inside a bright yellow Demon that's in full drag mode, wearing those small front runners and drinking 100-plus octane fuel that ups the engine output to 840 horsepower and 770 pound-feet of torque.
It's 90 degrees and humid. We sweat because the air-conditioner is busy routing refrigerant to cool the air the engine is breathing. This trick is part of a specialized drag mode accessed by double-tapping the SRT button ahead of the eight-speed automatic's shift handle. Drag mode disables traction control, makes the transmission shift as aggressively as possible, and sets the steering assist to a stable, high-speed setting. It also softens the front suspension and firms up the rear to make the car pitch backward when you launch. Doing so puts more weight on the rear tires, significantly increasing their traction and the chances of a wheelie.
The tires are specialized Nitto drag radials (there's even a Demon logo on the sidewall) that are designed to provide maximum straight-line acceleration while adhering to the federal regulations that make a tire street-legal. The car comes rolling on four of them, equally sized. It is up to owners to install the small front runners that come in a crate along with tools and performance goodies, including a high-performance air filter and the engine control unit calibrated for high-octane fuel.
Unlike most tires, drag radials get stickier when they're hot, so we idle up to the water box ahead of the staging lights. The wet and recessed rectangular pad is for burnouts that both heat and clean your tires. For spectators, it's an interesting pre-show.
A natural showboat, the Demon has no difficulty creating voluminous clouds of smoke when you mash the brake and gas pedals. But it also veers to one side slightly, requiring some steering correction that novice drivers might find intimidating. To make the process even easier, the Demon has a line lock, a feature that clamps only the front brakes down. When enabled, you simply lay into the gas pedal and watch the scene unfold in the sideview mirrors.
The Starting Line
Quick quarter-mile runs all come down to the launch, and achieving a good launch with an automatic is a straightforward process: Hold the brake pedal with your left foot and apply the gas with your right, increasing engine speed as much as possible without overwhelming the brakes. The problem is that overwhelming the brakes is much easier when you have in excess of 700 lb-ft of torque.
This brings us to the transbrake, perhaps the Demon's most distinctive feature. A transbrake holds the car still in drive by engaging both first and reverse gears, effectively locking the transmission and allowing you to build engine speed without moving the car. It's a tool used specifically in drag racing, and you won't find another production car with one.
It takes a little practice to operate the Demon's transbrake since it requires a combination of holding both shift paddles, applying the brake pedal, and using the gas pedal to hold the engine speed between a narrow 1,500- to 2,350-rpm window.
When you're all staged up, the engine is making strange, ominous sounds. When the transbrake is active, the Demon uses special timing and fuel delivery to get the supercharger working and filling its lungs in preparation. The tone is uneven, as if it's developed a misfire. It adds tension like an Ennio Morricone score.
Launch control makes acceleration in modern supercars simple. These sophisticated systems apply tremendous power while the driver is left to simply hold on. While the Demon has launch control, it's faster on the drag strip without it. When the light goes green and you release the transbrake, it's all up to your right foot.
The trick, as explained by Dodge engineers, is to watch the hood. Keep digging into the gas so long as it rises into the air. The more the hood goes up, the more the rear tires get pressed into the ground. If you're aggressive enough, the front tires will briefly leave the ground. If you're too aggressive, the power becomes overwhelming and the rear tires lose traction. The difficulty is finding the sweet spot in between.
For how complicated the buildup seems, the acceleration itself couldn't be easier. Just keep the throttle pinned and the steering straight. The transmission upshifts automatically and the car stays stable. Watch for the finish line — you'll pass it quicker than you think.
10 Seconds Later
The timing lights at Lucas Oil Raceway aren't running, so we finish our runs without time slips. Fortunately, the Demon has an onboard acceleration timer, and while its accuracy is questionable, it shows consistent quarter-mile passes in the high-10-second range and trap speeds nearing 130 mph. That's far off Dodge's best pass of 9.65 seconds and 140 mph. But our handful of runs occurred in high heat and humidity, and with a large group of people making back-to-back burnouts and passes in four cars without rest. The Demons sat running the entire time with their auxiliary fans audibly working hard. Over the course of a few hours, only the drivers exhibited signs of fatigue.
Yes, the Demon is about generating quick acceleration at a drag strip, but it delivers that acceleration run after run. Combine this consistency with the supplied tools and equipment (including a VIN-stamped logbook that even explains high-octane fuel mixture ratios), and you have every piece of hardware needed for the drag strip.
So it supplies all the tools, but the Demon doesn't do the important work for you. You're in charge of managing the gas pedal, which makes improving your performance more rewarding. Unlike similarly fast exotic cars with sophisticated launch control systems, you still have to drive the Demon.