Here's What It Feels Like to Launch the Positively Evil 840-HP Dodge Demon on a Drag Strip

It's totally exhilarating, but way complicated.
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It's totally exhilarating, but way complicated.
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Dodge built the $84,995 Challenger SRT Demon with just one purpose in mind: rocketing down a drag strip in the shortest elapsed time possible. Which we did, at Atco Dragway in New Jersey.

In optimizing the car's hardware for this task, Dodge famously eliminated the passenger seats, a move that trims more than 100 pounds of dead weight at liftoff. As we've seen, under ideal circumstances, the Demon can fly through the quarter mile in 9.65 seconds, a time which earned it a prompt ban from National Hot Rod Association-sanctioned races unless the owner installs a roll cage.

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We've all heard about the Demon's shocking 840-horsepower rating. In regular driving on high-octane premium gas, the Demon's engine is actually rated at 808 horsepower. To unlock the motor's full potential requires a bit of navigation through the SRT Performance page on the infotainment system, after filling the car's tank with proper race gas.

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That's when the engine's ignition timing gets advanced to fire a few degrees earlier in each engine rotation, giving the Demon's fire a split-second head start making power.

To get in our Go ManGo orange test car, we've pulled on the required anti-ballistic nylon protective jacket and full-face helmet, complete with the hair-mussing fireproof balaclava.

Now it is time to learn the Demon's operating procedure. Watching videos of fighter planes launching from aircraft carriers, it all looks so simple: salute the catapult officer and off you go! How hard can it be?

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To start with, the Demon has a line lock system on the brakes. That means that when you stomp on the brake pedal, activate the system and release the brake pedal, it will lock that pressure on the front brakes alone, leaving the rear wheels free to turn.

You do this when the Demon rolls into the burnout box. This is the watered-down spot just before the dragstrip where racers go to spin their rear tires to heat the rubber for maximum grip. The Demon's Nitto drag radials work best when the tread is heated to about 180 degrees, so you stomp the brake pedal until the dashboard display shows enough pressure in the brake line and then press the 'OK' button on the left side of the steering wheel controls where you'd normally check things like the trip odometer.

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Release the brake pedal while still holding the OK button, the the front brakes are lock. Now rev the engine and the rear tires will spin, pouring off smoke from the heat. Once they are good and cooked, release the OK button so the car can roll forward with the rear tires still spinning, because this will help clean their surfaces of any gooey debris that might have built up during the burnout.

Now you can pull up to the line. For the test, we'll mostly ignore the drag strip's "Christmas tree" of timing lights, though we will be sure to check with the two sets of yellow lights that indicate first that the car is "pre-staged," or nearly to the starting line and "staged" right at the start line.

Once staged, the tree will go through its yellow-to-green countdown to start a race. We'll just wait for the green to do our launch because we want to focus on the correct use of the Demon's transmission brake.

Just as the Demon has a line lock for the front brakes that hold the front tires so the rears can spin, so it also has a transmission brake that lets the engine rev to build power while the car is in gear, but without going anywhere.

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As with the line lock, you stomp on the brake pedal. No, wrong foot. You have to use the left foot because you're gonna need your right foot for the gas pedal. With the brake firmly pressed, press the on-screen button to activate the transmission brake, rev the engine to a steady 1,700 rpm. Then squeeze both of the Demon's steering wheel-mounted shift paddles.

Now you can release the brake pedal and release a single paddle to tell the computer you are ready to go. The launch part seems simple, but it requires some finesse. You release the second paddle, while still holding a steady 1,700 rpm on the gas pedal.

The temptation is to floor the gas pedal the instant you release the shift paddle, but this is a mistake. You can cause the engine to rev out of the acceptable launch rpm range before the trans brake releases and the system shuts off. Or you can hammer the gas pedal so abruptly that the Demon's fury reaches the rear tires before the car has had a chance to lift up on its rear haunches, giving those back tires better grip because of the weight transfer from the front.

So, in a drag race, what you have to do is wait. Release the shift paddle. Beat. Press the gas pedal. It is harder than it sounds.

2018 Dodge Challenger Demon

It should come as no surprise that in a weapon as ferocious as the Demon, the gas pedal needs to be treated like a rifle's trigger. You squeeze the gas pedal to the floor rather than abruptly pulling the trigger. Mat it too quickly and you'll just vaporize the rear tires.

Get the procedure correct and you'll reach the end of a quarter-mile drag strip in less than 10 seconds, under ideal circumstances in a stripped-out car with no seats. In a car with seats and a passenger providing instructions it isn't quite as quick.

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We limited runs to pro-style eighth-mile passes in consideration of our instructor's nerves and saw sub-7 second elapsed times. Coasting through the end of the quarter mile produced a time of 11.2 seconds. 

That would be a shockingly fast time for nearly every car in the world, but the Demon does it while coasting, like Usain Bolt setting the world record in the 100-meter dash. (Incidentally, Bolt's 9.58-second 100-meter time is nearly identical to the Demon's 9.65-second quarter-mile!)

At launch, the Demon growls fiercely and the hood rises, as the rear suspension takes a set for takeoff. The supercharger whine builds with speed and the transmission automatically clicks off upshifts as the Dodge inhales the track ahead.

The sensation from the driver's seat is exactly like that of those launched roller coaster amusement park rides that vault the roller coaster forward from a standstill using hydraulic or electromagnetic power. And just like that, it is over. But the eighth-mile mark, all the heavy lifting has been done and the Demon is gathering speed more slowly now, which is why the quarter-mile time is still spectacularly quick even while coasting.

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Interestingly, steering the Demon back to the start line back down the return road, there is no discernibly different feeling from the super-skinny front drag tires. It sort of seemed like they would feel toy-like (because they look toy-like) but the difference wasn't obvious through the steering wheel.

Insane is an over-used term of description for over-the-top experiences, so we'll refrain from using it here. Instead, we'll declare the experience positively Demonic.