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How Dodge kept the Demon secret

by Patrick Rall on

Perhaps the most impressive thing about the 2018 Dodge Challenger SRT Demon is that no real information – not even the real name of the car – made it out of the FCA headquarters. In the era of information being leaked via unnamed insiders, most new cars are formally introduced after much of the key information has been leaked; but with the case of the Demon, we really didn’t know anything other than the fact that Dodge was working on some sort of widebody Challenger, rumored to be a factory-built drag racer.

The life of the 2018 Dodge Challenger SRT Demon began like every other FCA vehicle, with a small group of representatives from the Dodge and SRT branches going before the corporate product planning committee. These two dozen or so FCA employees are responsible for approving everything new vehicle, so before Dodge boss Tim Kuniskis, SRT powertrain director Chris Cowland and the team could get to work on the new Demon, they had to get the green light.

The first discussion between the Dodge team and the product planning committee was back in April 2015, at which point they proposed the Dodge Challenger American Drag Racer (ADR). The basic goals for the ADR were that it would be a street legal muscle car that would turn 9-second quarter mile times and lift the front wheels off of the ground. Months went by as Tim Kuniskis and his team worked to show the decision makers from FCA that the ADR could become a production reality; and in September 2015, Dodge formally got the go-ahead from FCA to begin developing the car which was then only referred to as the ADR.

Through the process of proposing the ADR to the product planning committee, a great many people within Dodge and FCA heard or saw the ADR name. However, in the secluded SRT offices, they weren’t actually working on a car called the American Drag Racer. They were building the next Dodge Demon.

The process of building the Demon was a top secret project, with only people who needed to be involved having any access to the information. By minimizing the number of people who knew what was actually being developed, the company reduced the likelihood of someone mentioning it to, say, an auto writer they know from the local racing scene. Because of that internal secrecy and the strict “need to know” policy, the name, purpose, and details of the Demon were kept under wraps more efficiently than any other vehicle to hit the US market in many moons.

There was much more to keeping the Demon a secret in a company the size of FCA than just limiting the number of people involved in the project. First, since the preliminary goals were factory 9-second quarter miles and air under the front tires, the mantra of the Demon team became “9s with light” – as in light under the front tires on a 9-second run. That was drilled into the development team every day and it was said without much concern of secrecy, since few people would know what it meant without some background.

Next, the company wanted to pick a code name for the engine which wouldn’t draw attention — unlike the 392 Hemi (“Apache”) and supercharged Hemi (“Hellcat”), which were named after historic fighter planes. The team knew an aircraft name would be too easy to notice for those outside of the project, so the supercharged engine in the Demon was codenamed Benny.

Why Benny? Well, Chris Cowland grew up watching the cartoon Top Cats, and on that show was a cat named Benny. Benny was blue, and part of the initial plan was to paint the engine block of the Demon blue; but when they found that the company didn’t have a heat and corrosion resistant blue paint which would meet internal requirements, the company went with a red engine paint which they already had on hand.

Along those same lines, any meetings to discuss the Demon in the company’s computerized scheduling system didn’t list a name, referring to the Demon as just the “Special Edition”. As Tim Kuniskis put it, there were lots of people wondering why there were so many meetings to discuss a special edition car without a name – but it was all in an effort to prevent any information from leaking in advance.

Hiding the monster supercharged engine itself was another issue. As we have already heard, the Demon’s engine is very loud, and the FCA dyno labs are a busy area; so the engineers working on Benny often came in to work with the dyno late on Saturday and Sunday evenings when there were far fewer people there. This allowed the team to push the Demon’s Hemi to the limits without having the folks in the dyno lab next door asking what was making so much noise.

There were still other people around the dyno lab at times, so an extra step was taken to protect the real horsepower numbers. The SRT team recalibrated the dyno in lab cell C07 to understate the readings, so it would appear to be a normal Hellcat engine. The video below shows the Demon’s Hemi working out on the dyno in cell 07.

One other interesting problem that was avoided when working with the Demon’s Hemi in the dyno lab was a shortage of fuel caused by the demands of the 840hp supercharged Hemi. Each cell in the dyno lab has fuel from a source safely outside of the actual testing rooms so if something goes wrong, cutting the fuel supply is as simple as closing the valve to that cell from the main fuel system. All of the cells draw from this central system; and running to peak power with the Demon Hemi was causing a shortage of fuel to the engines in the other dyno lab cells.

Finally, in addition to coming up with unusual codenames for the car and engine, introducing a seemingly vague mantra to keep the team on track and working in the dyno labs at odd hours, the SRT team also took special measures in how each component of the Demon was developed in order to keep the project as a whole a secret.

For example, when the Demon team went to the guy in charge of creating the fuel system for the 2018 Challenger SRT Demon, they didn’t tell him what the fuel system was for or what kind of power this fuel system would be supporting – they simply told him that they needed a dual-pump system that offered a certain flow level. Each component was designed by the various departments without those people creating the parts having a clear picture of what the end product would be, so no one person in each of these departments would be able to spill the beans.

Most of the build team of the Demon’s supercharged Hemi didn’t learn the final power numbers until shortly before the debut of the car in New York City. Only about 35 people in the company knew all of the key figures when the Demon rolled out of its cage in NY’s Pier 94. The real numbers didn’t leak ahead of time because other than those who were most closely associated with the project, no one had the real power numbers.

Dodge kept the Demon a secret by withholding as much information as possible for everyone involved with the project. Those folks, even within Dodge, who had no involvement with the project, also had no access to the information about that project.

Patrick Rall was raised a Mopar boy, spending years racing a Dodge Mirada while working his way through college. After spending a few years post-college in the tax accounting field, Patrick made the jump to the world of journalism and his work has been published in magazines and websites around the world.


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