‘Nines-with-light’: Behind the making of Dodge’s Demon
Pontiac — Before it was a Demon, it was just the ADR.
Cloaked in secrecy for two years before it pulled a wheelie and exploded down Pier 94 and stole the New York Auto Show, the Dodge Challenger SRT Demon was known to Fiat Chrysler Automobiles insiders as the “American Drag Racer.” If the Dodge Viper ACR — “American Club Racer” — had thrown down the gauntlet as the fastest production car every built by setting lap records at 13 American race tracks, the Dodge Challenger ADR would be its quarter-mile equivalent. The fastest production car in a quarter-mile ever.
But Dodge Motorhead-in-Chief Tim Kuniskis and his merry band of mischief-makers wanted more. They wanted a Demon. A Hellcat on steroids that would not only wow the drag-strip faithful, but define Fiat Chrysler’s performance brand to every car shopper.
“Our mantra was ‘nines-with-light.’ It had to run under 10 seconds and it had to pull the front wheels,” Kuniskis explained to media at M1 Concourse on Thursday, six weeks after its jaw-dropping Big Apple debut. “Why? Because nobody had done it. And if you do it, then the Camry buyer reads the headlines and say, ‘They just built a car that pulls a wheelie. Now you got my attention.’ ”
The $84,995 Demon has had Americans buzzing since the first of 12 teaser videos leading up to the April debut in New York. On Thursday, Kuniskis & Co. filled in all the often-cryptic details (like “nines-with-light” — a purposely obtuse term so that even Dodge employees didn’t know the Demon’s performance details) on the top-secret project that now stands alone atop the automotive pyramid with an insane production-record 9.65-second quarter-mile and 2.3-second 0-60 time.
Then the devilish Kuniskis wowed his audience by personally taking the Demon off its leash for the first non-auto show demonstration of its distinctive engine audio as it accelerated down M1’s back straight.
Contrary to other muscle cars, the Demon doesn’t start with a roar so much as a shriek like, well, a demon. The eerie sound is the result of the car’s unique air induction process as the front fascia feeds the 840-horsepower, supercharged beast with air from every possible orifice. That includes both inside front headlights which create the unholy shriek by sucking air through narrow passageways.
The induction system is just one of numerous changes that transformed the already legendary, 707-horsepower Hellcat into Dodge’s demonic halo car.
Sixty-two percent of the Hellcat’s 6.2-liter, supercharged engine would be transformed, including a new block, crankshaft, pistons and connecting rods. A “chiller” box was added to reduce air temperature entering the engine by 18 degrees in order to add 15 horsepower. And the engine was designed to take 100-octane fuel. The resulting 840 horsepower and 770 pound-feet of torque meant that the transmission needed a transbrake and torque converter just to keep the power from overwhelming the car’s brake at a drag strip starting line. To hit its quarter-mile target, the car would be outfitted with narrow dragster tires called “runners.”
Despite concerns from FCA’s product approval committee that “we were crazy” — as Dodge SRT’s powertrain guru Chris Cowland put it — the Demon team got its production green-light in September 2015. The tight time frame excluded costly modifications like all-wheel drive or dry-sump systems. The world’s fastest production car would be a traditional wet-sump, rear-wheel driver.
“Every two weeks we would have a meeting. And every decision was driven by ‘nines-with-light,’ ” Kuniskis says. The money set designated for the interior money got repurposed into the transbrake and a chiller.
To keep the project secret from other FCA employees, it was named “Benny” — after engineer Cowland’s favorite “Top Cat” cartoon character. Dynamometer tests were done on weekends. And even then the dyno’s horsepower scale was calibrated to read the Hellcat’s 707 horsepower so no one would leak the Demon’s 840 horses.
To rocket down a drag strip in its record-breaking time, the Demon requires 100-octane fuel and the skinny drag tires. But even with its stock, 12.4-inch wide radials and 91-octane fuel, the Dodge will hit the quarter-mile in less than 10 seconds. That’s illegal under NHRA rules without a roll bar.
“If you do too many sub-10 second times at Milan (the famous Michigan drag strip), they’re going to kick you out to get a cage,” says Kuniskis.
The Demon has our attention.
Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at email@example.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne.