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by Daniel Bennett
I have to start this off by giving a huge thanks to Dave Zatz for allowing me to have the opportunity of a lifetime, and for trusting me to represent Allpar in an appropriate way.
This all started with me making a joking comment to Dave about the fact that the Hellcat event was only a couple hours' drive away from me, and I would have been glad to take the responsibility of going and taking all of that tedious driving off of his hands.
Skip forward a few days. The event was to take place that week on Wednesday, and I got an email from Dave on Sunday asking if I could still go [my son was in the hospital; he's fine now— DZ]. My first thought was “Are you sure?,” quickly followed up with, “Well, DUH!”
So began what has become one of the most fun things I have ever done in my life.
Poor Dave, I began to pester him with questions about things like “What should I wear?,” “Are there any unusual no-nos that I should avoid when dealing with these folks?,” and on and on. I have a lot of experience at only one part of this whole thing: Driving high horsepower cars quickly. Even in the rain which, as it turns out, was a huge benefit. Dave, quite patiently, even with everything that he has going on at all times, answered my questions and gave me direction.
First task, get the time off of work. I told my boss what was going on, and he was actually quite supportive, and even though we are sort of shorthanded, and it makes it very difficult on everyone else when I am not at work, he said, “No problem.” Luckily, I would only be leaving early on Tuesday, be gone on Wednesday, and back to work on Thursday.
So off to the store Monday after work to buy a polo shirt and some casual slacks-type pants. Not easy to do for a boy my size, but I eventually was able to find some stuff that looked good, and was comfortable to wear. I went home and started to lay out everything for packing. I plugged the camera and video camera in to make sure they had a full charge. I took the time to make sure I have a notebook and pens, all the little things that I thought I would need to actually interview people and note what is said of importance. I asked my wonderful wife if she could launder my new clothes, and finish packing for me on her off day from work Tuesday.
I got an email confirmation from Chrysler that I had been added to their list to attend, and with it comes the itinerary and some explanatory information. Whoa, this is paid for by Chrysler? Wow. Hotel, food, parking, completely covered by Chrysler. That may not shock some of you, but for me, that was a revelation. “So let me get this straight, you are allowing me to come and thrash, err... excuse me, test drive one of your newest, most powerful cars, and you are covering all of my fees, room and board to do so? WIN!” Imagine the ecstatic jump in the air with the fist pump.
Sleep? Yeah, not so much that night. My mind turned on at about 1 AM, and refused to shut off. First, you have the doubts “What if I make a fool of myself, and worse, represent Allpar badly? You will never get a chance to do this again!” Then the planning, “Okay, how am I going to score a Hellcat for the drive portion of this...” — to the inevitable “Just exactly how is this all going to happen and play out?”
Somewhat blearily, yet full of energy, Tuesday morning was off to work like usual. Work sort of flew by, but then again it dragged. When 2 pm finally came, I was off home to grab my bags, snag the Rumble Bee for the drive to Portland, and to try to get out of Seattle traffic before it got too hairy. I had to be in Portland by 7 pm for the introduction dinner that would give me the opportunity to meet everyone, and get a feel for what was coming.
I got to the hotel in plenty of time. At check-in, I was handed the press kit for the weekend. I was too distracted by all of the new things around me to really take a good look at it at that moment, but I could see that it had a lot of information in it. I got my bags up to my room, settled in, took things in a little bit, and checked out the press kit before I had to be in the restaurant, which Chrysler had rented for this event, that was downstairs in the Hotel. Nice place!
I was too antsy to sit still for long, so I made my way downstairs and into the restaurant and discovered that I was the first one there. Yes, I have a habit of being early to things. As I walked in, I was greeted by this glowing blue thing on the bar — an ice sculpture of the Hellcat emblem! Holy Cool Batman!
As one of the hostesses guided me to the bar, she pointed out the specialty drink list. Every one of them was named after a classic Mopar car. Diplomat, Cranbrook, New Yorker, Imperial, Shelby Daytona and on and on.
Slowly, people start trickling in. I walked over and introduce myself to them as I get a chance, and start to learn who is who and what is what. I found that the Chrysler people were absolutely the nicest and most gracious people. Even the mucky muck types that were there were nice, willing to chat, and honestly, were just real people.
The other media types? Well, there were definitely cliques there. There was a good ol' boy group for sure, and I seemed to attract all of the first timers, possibly because I knew enough about the Hellcat, and was actually able to educate some of them so that bad information wouldn't make it out into the general non-car public as well.
There were people from all sorts of places there. Magazines, web sites, blogs, car centric, tool centric, gaming centric, men's lifestyle centric. There was quite an interesting and diverse mix of cars, people and backgrounds. I actually had a very interesting debate about the “death of Jeep” (Norm would be proud) with a couple of the Chrysler marketing people. I don't know that I changed any minds, but I am sure that I made them think about it from a different perspective! That's all I can ask for really. It probably bored our table mates to death, but the three of us were having fun for sure.
I set my alarm for 6 am, and proceeded to sleep until about 3 am. I woke up, couldn't get back to sleep, so at about five I got up and started getting ready for the day. Again, I was the first one at breakfast. This was getting to be a habit, I thought.
Anyway, people started trickling in, we smiled and said “Morning,” or at least those of us that could say morning, some responses were merely an “Unh.” Apparently, a group of the ol' boys club had decided to head out to some of Portland's strip clubs after dinner the night before.
Anyway, I snarfed down a quick and tasty breakfast, then headed outside to be shuttled to the building where the cars are parked and where we would have the pre-drive presentation about the vehicles. Heading to the lobby to go out, we were stopped by Chrysler folk who wanted us to sign a waiver form of some sort. Silly me, I was so excited I just scrawled my signature and continued on without reading. Hopefully I didn't just promise to buy 10 Hellcats!
I walked outside with Gene Kahler (Flattop on the Challenger Talk forum) with whom I had struck up an acquaintance, mainly because we had a lot of similar interests. Racing, Challengers, Fast Mopars. You get the idea. Hey! What do you know, Chrysler minivans to shuttle us.
As we turned into the area where we were to be, through an open electronic style bar gate, we saw a lot full of 2015 Challengers sitting there in the rain, every one of them with their halo lights on and glowing at us. Oh, the rain. Let me address that quickly. Yes, we got rained on the entire time. It was sunny when I was driving down on Tuesday, and started to clear up and started to be sunny on my way home Wednesday night. Shucks. At least I am used to dealing with wet roads and cars that make power. Advantage: Dan.
Anyway, we started scanning the lot (Gene and I) and we headed off to find the car we wanted to put our name on for the drive. I half figured that the two Hellcats that were available were “bespoke,” and sure enough, it turned out that they were. I just knew that those would be held back for “special” folks. So I busily figured out that there was only one SRT392 on the lot, a bunch of Scatpack 6.4s, and a smattering of 5.7 and SXT's as well. Gene and I gave the Hellcats a good looking over, and I pointed out the SRT392 to him as well to make sure he knew what our “alternate” car was going to be.
We got directed out of the rain and into the adjacent building, which turned out to be a warehouse type of area, but with multiple floors, and ideal for what was laid out in front of us. We were greeted by three Challengers, a blue SXT Track Pack car, a Sublime Hellcat, and a Silver Scatpack Shaker. They were arranged in a half circle, facing some nicely padded backless seating that had some taller bar style chairs behind them. At the back of the room were some tables with doughnuts from Portland's Voodoo doughnuts (look them up, worth the effort) and more coffee and morning type stuff.
Off to the left was a lighted cutaway of the 6.2 Hellcat motor that is set up so that the engine actually rotates and you can see everything moving inside. It's a good tool, and very well done. (You can see it in the video.)
On our right was an “interior display module” for lack of a better term. Imagine if you will, a car that has no suspension or wheels, the front is gone from the cowl forward, the back is gone behind the rear seats, and the roof was never there. That's what was in front of us. It was nice though, because it allows you to see the interior from all angles with no visual interference.
Kristin Starnes, head of Dodge and SRT Communications, gave us an introduction to what was going on, and presented our first presenter of the day, Jeff Strauss, head of SRT and Dodge Marketing. He opened by saying that they, as a team, wanted to be careful with the redesign and update of the 2015 Challenger, and they wanted to be “Careful not to mess with the formula of success.” Mission accomplished as far as I am concerned.
Next up was Mark Trostle, head of SRT and Mopar design. He had a many good bits of information, one of the most entertaining was when he stated that they were able to “Punch everyone in the face with the Hellcat” in reference to the other manufacturers. He also stated that the halo headlight design and the Shaker hoods were directly influenced by the enthusiast LX crowd. Both of them because they were such a popular after vehicle purchase modification.
Then Dan Zimmerman, from Dodge Challenger Design, was introduced. Dan turned out to be another Mopar enthusiast (he was wearing a Scat Pack jacket) who owns a 1970 Challenger himself. He went over the design influences on the interior, and indicated that the cluster design and look was influenced not only by the 1971 Challenger cluster, but also by the 1967 Barracuda cluster.
Steve Williams, Vehicle Line Executive, went over all of the changes that had been done to the transmissions and axles in the cars. The eight speeds all rev-match on downshift (when equipped with paddle shifters). All of the rear differentials have been upgraded and are made from aluminum. The Hellcat has a special, larger 230mm rear diff, that has been designed to handle the immense power and torque. He also pointed out that for 2015, Chrysler hid the windshield washer nozzles under the back edge of the hood. So instead of being on top and visible, they stick down from the trailing edge of the hood and are out of the main airflow. A nice touch.
Darryl Smith, Chief engineer on the Challenger SRT was up last, and he went over the Hellcat engine itself in great detail.
Class over, it was time to go out and pick a car. Gene and I got outside, and sure enough, found out that the Hellcats were “spoken for” (ol' boys club), so Gene and I made a beeline for the SRT 392 that we had spied earlier on the opposite corner of the lot. No one else was there. Keys were in the car, we hopped in it, Gene letting me take first stint at the wheel, and got settled in for whatever comes next. We found a route book on the dash, along with the key fob. Upon opening the route book, we saw that our drive is completely and totally laid out for us.
I noticed, being from the area, and having driven some of these roads before, that we are going to be taking a nice curvy bit of road and some good open highway as well — a good combination route. With that out of the way, I started the car, got all the settings where I wanted them to be, put it in gear, and started to pull out and follow some of the cars that were already leaving the lot. A nice gentleman stopped us and asked our names, and logged the car number so that they knew we had that car, and that was it. We were off with $45,000 worth of Chrysler property to use and abu... err gently take care of as we saw fit.
The first leg of the trip took us from downtown Portland out east towards Multnomah Falls (Mull-t-nome-ah). We quickly got onto the freeway, and about eight miles later took an exit that got us into the forested twisties. By this time, we had had time to sort out the SRT Performance Pages, so I had the 3 mode suspension, steering, traction control, and shift modes up on the screen so that we could play with changing them at will.
The Hellcat is unique in the 2015 Challenger line, in that it has a hydraulic steering system. All of the other Challengers are electric, so the SRT 392 has even more ability to adjust to your personal preference than the Hellcat, because you can set the level of steering feedback.
If I were to say that the SRT 392, and by extension the Hellcat, were supremely capable cars that feel stable past 140 miles an hour, handle wet roads with aplomb, and can pass other cars at the drop of a penny, I would have to be merely speculating. I can also speculate that the SRT 392 is quite possibly quicker than a Hellcat in black key mode (limited to 500hp) because of the weight difference. The Hellcat has to carry around a couple extra hundred pounds that the SRT 392 does not have to. Rumor also is that stopping from 100-0, even in the wet, can be done in a very controlled manner that will lift you out of your seat and press you up into your seatbelts as you come to a complete stop in virtually no time at all. This is thanks to the SRT392 also sharing the Hellcat's new and improved braking system.
After driving through the twisties, testing the traction control (still has wheel hop, dangit), and testing the brakes a few times, we came upon a nice scenic overlook. It was absolutely pouring rain, so we hard parked the car, took a couple of quick shots of it in the surrounding grey, and hurriedly got back in the car to dry back out. Being a native Washingtonian, I sneer at umbrellas and hats, so there was no respite from the impromptu shower.
Leaving the overlook, we drove many of the same roads that you can see in the Chrysler film of the Portland event. On a sunny day, they are partially tree shaded, gloriously bright green lined, roads that twist hither and thither in a most delightful way if you enjoy swooping your car on those sorts of roads. Today, it was a wet, grey and so dark green to almost be black lined road that still twisted hither and thither. So a swooping we went anyway.
Halfway through the swoops, we swapped and I let Gene drive. We stuck his Go-Pro camera to the quarter panel and had it shooting at the right rear wheel, so that we could verify that it was in fact the good ol' LX wheel hop that we were feeling anytime we tried to kick the rear out on this car. Results are still being waited on, but both of us were pretty certain that we were both feeling the same thing that we have experienced in our own Challengers.
Back on track. Gene quickly decided that he would rather navigate and let me do the driving, and I was not going to argue, because I honestly prefer driving to riding. I am a horrid passenger, no offense to Gene, but I feel that way with anyone driving. It's rare that I feel “comfortable” in the passenger seat. Control freak? Me? Nah... Back to swooping.
We eventually came to the mid stop point, where we checked in and verified with Chrysler that we still had the car we left with, stopped, got out, stretched our legs, and grabbed a snack and a drink. This was right on the Columbia River that divides Washington and Oregon. We were still on the Oregon side, but that would soon be changing. After I grabbed a quick bite and Gene grabbed a fountain drink, which pretty much meant that I was going to be the one driving again, we hopped back in the car to head back towards Portland, and the waiting track.
We checked out with a nice young lady, who once again placed a check in an appropriate box on a clipboard mounted piece of paper, and we were off to find a bridge. In the route book, there was a ticket to use to pass the bridge, which apparently to everyone else is a toll bridge. Like I said, all expenses paid! We found the loop that leads up to the bridge, gave the toll taker our ticket, she sent us on our way with a “Have fun!” and off over the bridge we went.
Onto a freeway, for a spirited drive back to Portland, all the while playing cat and mouse with a couple of gentlemen who were piloting a Hellcat. Those things are menacing looking when they are behind you, let me tell you. And from the rear, they can be heard clearly even through the well sound insulated cabin of the 2015 Challengers.
Fun was had by all.
Track time. Tracking these cars, while in a minor monsoon, was filling everyone with a huge sense of apprehension. I, on the other hand, thought it was going to be an awesome opportunity to really get a feel for the car and the way it works. See, when it's dry out, you have to work pretty dang hard to feel how the car works at the limits, and at what point you are going to be going past that limit. It usually ends in some pretty spectacular manner that, at the speeds the Hellcat is capable of attaining, means that you might just possibly end up being a headline in tomorrow's news. In the wet, that whole threshold is much lower.
I always take any my new cars out the first time it rains and play with them as much as possible. How does it react when the rear end breaks loose, how does it recover, what happens when you get into a drift. Things like that. So for me, this was the perfect testing ground for these cars. So being a native webfoot was going to really pay off this time.
Into the relative dry of the race briefing room we got the walkthrough of the track, via a diagram on a whiteboard hung on the wall. One of the SRT gents (Sorry, I didn't get his name) walked us through the nuances of the track. We got our li'l silver armband to say “Hey! I got this quick talk, and am now qualified to drive a 199 MPH capable monster at speed on a wet racetrack!”
Then it was off to the minivans to do a quick drive around the track with one of the driving instructors. I learned a lot about driving lines in the wet that I was not aware of.
Let me break it down like a fraction for you. On a dry race surface, you want to be on the smooth part of the track that has had rubber laid down on it from the constant transfer of tire to pavement as cars scrub through the corners. In the wet, that becomes the worst place to be in the corner. So instead of taking the apex trimming lines that we are so familiar with, we were taking more of a diamond approach to the corners. We would drive in wide and deep and cut hard to cross the normal racing line as squarely as possible. This was to help keep from running on that smooth slick surface, that actually gets oily when it gets wet. Bad place to be. I get it, makes sense.
Headed back into the “pits,” grabbed a helmet and head sock, turned around, and picked my poison.
So, off to my first lap. Other people had skipped the road drive, and headed straight to the racetrack. In my opinion the road drive was critical to getting a true feel for the cars, but hey, what do I know eh? I decided to go for broke, and headed straight for a manual Hellcat. Sitting in each 'Cat was a driving instructor, non-Chrysler guys, regular driving instructors at Portland International Raceway.
I was lucky enough to pick the car that had the lead instructor in it, the guy in charge of all of the other instructors. I learned a lot from Jim very quickly; I assured Jim that I practiced driving smoothly (I do) and that I had owned my own manual-transmission SRT Challenger, so other than the increased horsepower, I was pretty familiar with the car and its quirks already.
That seemed to set him at ease a little, and not spinning the tires trying to get the car moving, and not stalling it, probably did more to help settle him than anything I could have said. There were people stalling them, people who couldn't get them moving without spinning the tires, people shifting from third to first (I heard that a couple of times..) An enthusiast does not a driver make apparently.
We had been instructed to take off gently once we were given the thumbs up, so as not to spray the starter with water, or worse, rocks. I was third back in line, driving a silver Hellcat that had the red suede insert seats, much like the graphite 392 that Gene and I drove earlier.
Thumbs up, about a 10-15 second interval between me and the guy in front. 2 mile track, 4 laps. First lap is a “get in the groove” lap, not to be taken at full speed. Second and third laps are where the action was, with the 4th lap being a cool down lap that was to be taken at no speeds exceeding 80 mph.
As we approached the first turn after the front straight, we passed the bright yellow braking cones, and headed towards the turn in cones that they had laid out for the wet track. I downshifted into 3rd after having worked gently up to 4th on the front straight, and set up for turn 1 which was a 90° right, followed immediately by turn 2 which was a sharp 120° left turn, and then turn 3, a semi sweeping right that transitioned over 2 different track surfaces to another braking zone for a long sweeping right that is turn 4.
Turn 4 transitioned into a decreasing radius turn 5, which then transitioned into an off camber increasing radius sweeper turn 6, which dropped you into another braking zone for Turn 7 back to the right.This was the setup for the back straight, which actually had a couple of small zigs that are called turns, and then the back straight itself, which is a long gentle sweeper to the right.
If you don't stay fairly close to the wall, the track will tend to suck you out into the weeds. In the dry, the Hellcats were seeing 140 there. My first time through at speed in the wet, I was at 110. By the last set of laps on the day, I touched 130 there.
About half way through that wall hugging back straight/sweeper, the race surface has some ripples to it that unsettle the chassis. Not so big a deal in the dry, but very unnerving in the wet, especially when you have a car that can break the tires loose at will at anything below 100mph in the wet.
Anyway, the big braking zone at the end of the back straight, which you then exit to the left, which sets you up for a 50-60 mph right sweeper, that brings you back onto the front straight.
Entering the straight for the first time at speed, I finally rolled into the Hellcat hard in 3rd gear for the first time. We were using the red key, so all 707hp and 650 ft/lbs of torque was available to me. Past 3/4 throttle in 3rd gear I was starting to get tire spin, Jim suggested I short-shift it to keep the torque down and lessen the tire spin potential. Suggestion followed. Dang! It works like a champ.
My driving instructor, Jim, complimented my smooth driving; I smiled with joy, and walked off to the pit area to collect my thoughts, and let my head breathe a bit. I chatted with some of the guys, took a couple not so great videos of Hellcats going down the front straight. For what I wanted, the videos are great. I didn't want to show you anything, what I wanted for you to do was hear the phenomenal symphony of Hellcats at full voice. I have a pretty decent camera for sound quality, and even routed through a home stereo system, it still does not do the sound and the feel of the sound justice.
I stood and watched the next batch of cars go out, and decided I wanted to be driven around by one of the instructors so that I could glean even more data and go faster. Yes, stupid am I. So I grabbed my helmet, meandered over to the Hellcat line, and found Jim. I said “Your turn, time for me to ride.” He smiled happily and we jumped back in the car that we had shared for the first set of laps, Jim as the pilot, me as the not-so-sure-I-was-going-to-be-happy-about-this-experience but dealing-with-it-as-well-as-possible copilot. Yes, here I was, going to be giving someone I had just met, the trust to drive me around, in a 707hp car, on a racetrack, that is wet, at over 130 miles an hour. Naw, I wasn't uptight about that at all....
Turns out we had another instructor driving in front and one in back of us too. Great, now we got a race going on. Yep, I'm about as uptight as I can be while still having fun.
As we rolled out onto the track for the warm up lap, Jim was happily chatting about how if you stab the brakes and ride the throttle at the same time through the corners, you can get the front tires to bite better and track better in the corners. To which he ably demonstrated in the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th... all the turns.
On the 3rd lap, we were touching high 130's on the back stretch, when we hit that rough patch, and the car snap pitched about 20 degrees to the left. Jim caught it and we were back straight almost instantly. This happened so quickly I barely had time to pucker. Thinking back on it, we were lucky. Even Jim was a little wide eyed after that.
I had to take a little time to relax after that fun ride, and it was fun for the most part after I relaxed from the first lap and began to trust Jim's ability, which was prodigious. So off to let my head breathe some more and find a drink of water.
Taking a deep breath, it was off to the Hellcat line again to find Jim. This time, it was my turn to take the reins and apply what I had learned from him. He smiled when I got in the driver's seat, said, “Oh good, it's you,” reached over, turned the traction control off, and set the suspension setting to Track. I just looked at him slightly incredulously, he looked back at me and said “You just drive as cleanly and smoothly as you did the first time out, and you will have no problems at all.”
I am going to remind you, this is a car that is a handful in the wet with the traction control on. The four laps passed without incident, other than me learning and getting faster and more comfortable with the car every lap. I believe I passed someone on this set of laps for the first time as well.
I meandered over to the “Lesser” car line, which included a SRT392, a few Scatpacks, a 5.7 R/T, and a 3.6 powered SXT. These you could take out without an instructor, but I really wanted to see how hard I could push the SRT392 on my own with my newfound knowledge. All the Hellcats I had been driving were stick cars (the autos were hard to get a ride in) so I was also very keen to try the ZF 8 speed out as well. You can read my impression of this and the other cars, as well as more about how the Hellcat and SRT 392 cars felt on the road and track, in my “Challengers on the road and track” article and in my original “Hellcat at the track” summary.
We had one last round that we could go before we had to call it a day. I was really hoping to be able to sample a Hellcat auto on the track, but alas, twas not my day. Instead, I went into another manual Hellcat. A new instructor, who after I said I had been around with Jim a few times, relaxed, put the car into track mode all the way around for me. I was in the rear-most car this time. The front 3 guys were all planning on going out and trying to get as fast of laps off as they could while we still had dry. As we were doing our warmup lap, the rain came back with a vengeance; the track ended up fully covered by at least an inch of standing water. I powered on through it. This driving instructor complimented my shifting and downshifting, saying it was the smoothest he had seen out there. I went sailing past the 4th spot car at the start of the 2nd lap, I set out to reeling in the 3rd place car. By the end of the 4th lap, he was on the tail of 2nd place car, and I was basically right on them. Another lap and I would have had both of them.
That ended our track experience, for me, on a high note.
Back at the hotel, I ran into Mark Trostle and Dan Zimmerman. I thanked them profusely for the event, adding my appreciation for including Allpar on the invite list. They politely said that they hoped to see us at the next event. Both seemed like really nice guys.
I had called down so that the valet could have the Rumble Bee ready for me when I got downstairs, but it still wasn't quite ready when I got there. So I stood and chatted with some of the Chrysler personnel who were all leaving to catch their respective redeyes back to Detroit. I can't possibly say enough about the quality of these people. I am more at ease about Chrysler and the people there than I have been in ages. Especially Dodge. They are all enthusiasts, who get it. Dodge and SRT are in great hands, at all levels.
I spent the drive home mentally working on the Hellcat article that I had been asked to write; later, I wrote more specifically about my experiences in these cars. Please, take time to go read that if you haven't, I think you will find it worth your while.
In closing, thank you to everyone who made this possible. I can't publicly thank everyone for various reasons, but you all know who you are. Again, thanks to Dave. And thanks to my wife for going with the flow and being quick on your feet about the sudden changes. I hope that I get to experience this again, but honestly, it's your first time only once, and how often can your first time be something as monumental as the Hellcat.
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