This is Day FOUR of the 5-day Challenger Challenge — Nicolas Stecher’s drive through the heart of the south in a Dodge Challenger SRT8. From New York City to Alabama in 5 days, hitting 10 states and traversing 1,000 miles…and using no technology that existed before 1974. It will be madness. To start at the beginning, click Day ONE.
12:52 pm Interstate 20, Birmingham, Alabama
I cannot believe my bloodshot eyes. I’m folded up in the backseat of this now filthy, booze-caked Challenger while Sergeant Bud of the Alabama Police accelerates through the open highways of Birmingham, pushing this pony car like he’s testing Secretariat. “So how do you like it?” I yell over the howling din of the engine.
“I’m in Birmingham getting paid driving a fast ass car, so right now it’s awesome!” hollers the Sergeant. “God-damn! This is a fucking engine!”
Heads in nearby cars crane around, doing cartoonish double-takes—first at the nectarine-orange monster tearing up the asphalt next to them, then again with eyes popping Elmer Fudd-style when they see a uniformed officer behind the wheel.
Challenge #2, check.
Be warned: The Challenger does strange things to a man. Even a man in uniform.
Continue reading DAY FOUR of Nicolas Stecher’s 5-Day Challenger Challenge after the Jump!
[All images by Robert Kerian]
“Let me give this Yaris a little room—go ahead Yaris!,” he says mockingly. Then he drops the pedal and tears right past the irritating gnat that lay between us and clear highway ahead. I have never, ever seen a cop smile so much in my life. Ever. “I’m generally a happy guy,” promises the Sergeant, a wide grin stretched ear-to-ear. “But god-damn I’m happy now! No shit—you guys are my heroes! Where do I sign up?”
I have never been, nor do I expect to ever again be, called a “hero” by a police officer. Oh, I’ve been called my share of powerful nouns by men in blue before, but the word “hero” has never been one. “So,” I ask, as he’s now drunk from the Challenger’s Wild Turkey-like power bursts. “What do you think? How does it drive?”
“It feels good, good response. There’s just no comparison! This thing eats the Corvette alive!” he says deliriously. In our bond of fresh camaraderie, we begin telling him of our travels thus far. Stories of Dynos, toothless hillbillies and speeding are shared. We tell him how the night before we had four strippers on the hood, whooping and spilling their drinks everywhere. “I tell you what, if my boss sees me, I’m…” his voice trails off. “I drove by you guys this morning thinking, ‘Oh man! Is that the Challenger?! I wish I could drive that car!’ And now, here I am — driving the car!!! Isn’t it funny, how life is?”
Yes, indeed life can be funny.
1:32 pm Birmingham Police Station, Alabama
“You guys mind if I do a burnout?” Robert asks from the driver side window. Behind his Prada sunglasses, the assembled cops are shielded from the devilish glint gleaming from his eyes. We just dropped off the Sergeant, and there are about a dozen cops outside admiring our ride. “Sure—go ahead!” says one of the officers with a shrug. So Rob creeps out the exit onto the street right in front of the Birmingham Police Station sign, gives me a ‘prepare yourself’ side glance, and proceeds to lay down one of the craziest smoke sessions in Bama history. Within 20 seconds, you cannot see the car, and soon after you cannot see anything—the car, station, cops, road, sky, God…anything. Finally he releases the brake and we catapult forward down the street like a bad idea…only, there’s a patrol car 50 feet ahead of us and he snaps on his lights and siren.
Slowly, the cop pulls up next to us, window down. He removes his glasses and looks at us with a look I will not soon forget. A healthy mix of astonishment, red-blooded fury and utter amazement, with not a meager amount of what I can only describe as admiration. “What in the hell you boys doin’?” he asks, as the cloud of smoke overtakes our cars, creating a thick haze between our two windows.
“Hello officer. It’s not what it looks like—the sergeant said we could do a burnout,” explains Robert nervously. The cop looks around, trying to see if there are any policemen around. Only problem is, the smoke is still so thick you couldn’t see if The Hulk were standing five feet away doing jumping jacks. “Really sir—they were standing right back there! I promise! We were just leaving to go to Montgomery!”
Finally collecting himself, the cop slides his glasses back on. “You boys then best be on your way.”
“Yes sir.” As we pull away, Robert looks at me smiling. “That burnout will be there till they pave the street.”
1:36 pm Birmingham, Alabama
Two teenagers with emo haircuts in a Papa Johns delivery car pull us over, ask us if they can take our photo. “I’m so glad I dove up this street right now!” says the pudgier emo-kid excitedly. “You guys are making our day!” Why it takes two people to deliver pizzas in Alabama is a question we refrain from asking.
3:37 pm Clanton, Alabama
We’re on our way to the Montgomery MotorSports Park where they have an open testing tonight to complete Challenge #3. Looking for the map, I notice the backseat is filthier than a gas station toilet, splashed with mud and liquids and what I can only describe as Stripper Juice. I’m so glad I won’t have to wash this thing.
3:53 pm Montgomery MotorSports Park
With the help of one of our “fans” from our Birmingham Bon Jovi episode, we track down a chap named Joey Cummings who tells us he has TWO vintage Challengers—one, we’re thrilled to find out, is sublime green. Bring on the Bonus Points! We’re waiting both for him to show up for the photo shoot, and the track to open so we can take our runs. Robert’s so hungover, he’s laying down on the one small stretch of grass, hands clutching his head. Apparently, the oppressive smell of VHT which they spray on the track for traction is making him turn an even greener shade of white. He really shouldn’t have taken those last shots of Patron last night. I remind him of that, and he dry heaves into the grass.
5:15 pm Montgomery MotorSports Park
Robert and I each run twice, and we both beat Dodge’s announced ¼-mile track time of 13.9. Rob nails 13.52 and I hit 13.76 seconds, with a 103.99 mph. Surprisingly, we beat all other cars on the strip that afternoon, which included several super-modified Mustang GTs, a Camaro with “The Intimidator” written across its windshield, a Ford F-350 dually and a Vette that never made it off the line. In the end, only a silver AMG E55 beat the Challenger with a 12:51 mark at 110.53 mph.
6:20 Montgomery, Alabama
Joey Cummings rolls up in his absolutely mint sublime green 1971 challenger R/T which draws almost as much attention as its younger sibling. We drive out to an abandoned factory and take some sunset photos, letting Joey drive it. “Just like the original—you can’t see over the hood,” are his first words. “It’s a bit too quiet, too. I like the sound of the old engine a bit better. But it’s really nice—I wouldn’t mind having it. But I’m gonna wait till next year, cause I want it in white.”
“Robert’s so hungover, he’s laying down on the one small stretch of grass, hands clutching his head… He really shouldn’t have taken those last shots of Patron last night…”
7:14 East Alabama
Everything has just come together under a most bizarre light. We were rolling towards Atlanta when we stopped for gas, and a family came at us with the usual zeal. Only this time, the mom — a gigantic women in her late 40s — was visibly emotional. Oh brother, I thought to myself, this chick’s taking it a bit too far. Then she rolls up her sleeves, revealing a flabby forearm covered in giant Challenger tattoo. At that point I was irritable and hungover, utterly exhausted to the bones from the trip, and the last thing I wanted to deal with then was another overzealous MOPAR fan. I smiled weakly, and tried to ease my way back towards the car to get the hell outta there.
That’s when she began to tell me about the tattoo.
Her son had enlisted and gone to Iraq to save up money to buy the Challenger, and had put the down payment on it a couple months back as he was due to return this summer. Well, just 3 short months before he was to be discharged you can guess what happened. Tragedy. The army showed up at her door, hat in hand, and her life would never be the same again. In honor of her son, and of his overwhelming wish to own that car, she decided to finish the payments and buy it for him anyways. Till it arrived, she got the tattoo to remind her of him. I felt like such an asshole for my initial dismissal of the woman, you cannot fathom.
It is in these moments when one realizes that sometimes a car is more than a car. Sometimes, a car is an emblem of something else…something ephemeral. Sometimes a car transcends a block of metal riding 4 rubber rings, and transforms into a living symbol. Quite clearly, this was one of those times. In fact, under this light I could see that this entire trip was one of those times. As corny as it sounds, this Challenger had become a vehicle of joy, brightening up lives everywhere it went…Birmingham, Letcher County, Dixie, Braxton County…lives that maybe hadn’t seen too much illumination in recent years. Yeah, it was Santa Claus — everywhere we went burst into an ad hoc festival, a party for MOPAR fans and believers in American ability everywhere. Yeah, so the car handles like a ship rolling on storm waves. At times that’s vitally important (say, on the track), but during these 4 days it wasn’t. It couldn’t be less important. And if America’s been down, and Detroit’s been down, and the coal miner has been down, and the American worker has been down, well, then sometimes a symbol — even if it’s only a car — has more importance and triumph than any stimulus package or flightsuit-adorned president declaring victory under a waving flag. And no, the Challenger won’t save America, and it most assuredly won’t single-handedly save Chrysler, but for about 300 people in those five days that car definitely made them feel good about being American.
And what’s so wrong with that?
1:45 am Buckhead, Atlanta
Unfortunately, my flight back to LA is at 7 am, which means I gotta be up at 5 am to make it to the airport in time. Rob and I contemplate pulling an all-nighter, but after 1,000 miles and 10 states of backroad driving, we’ve both hit a wall. We share a final congratulatory dinner of coq au vin and steak, with several dirty Chopin martinis, and discuss our one failure: hitting air. Problem was, as the car weighs over two tons we just never found a safe ramp. We found one spot, but the lip was so generous it would’ve launched us into a glorious, yet axle-breaking, nosedive. Although we regret the lost glory, we don’t regret waiting 8 hours to be found in a smoldering ditch near Pikeville Kentucky. We stumble to our beds, collapse, and hit the wall harder than Dale Earnhardt.
Finally, rest for the wicked.