3 Aug
The Challenger Challenge: 1,000 miles, 10 states, 5 Days, 4 Challenges, 2 hardened journalists and one supreme American Muscle Car. DAY 2

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This is Day TWO of the 5-day Challenger Challenge — Nicolas Stecher’s 5-day 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.

11:48 am Weston, West Virginia
By the time the sun dropped yesterday we were still in the industrial wastelands of Maryland, so our drive today in comparison has been stunning. All rolling foothills with young spring greens covering the hills, and purple dogwood trees adding flourishes of fluorescent color everywhere. This may be second poorest state in the nation, but its easily one of the most fun to drive. Initially scared after yesterday’s Copapallooza, we realize we haven’t seen a police car all day.

1:45 pm Flatwoods, West Virginia
Straightaway, no cop sightings for hours, I drop the pedal. The engine blasts an aggressive pitch, purple trees whiz by my window and my adrenal glands kick into a frenzy as the speedometer jumps to 120…130…140…150…We rumble across the wide road that carves the valley through the foothills, passing pickup trucks like they’re standing still. Robert’s gripping the armrest of the passenger door with white knuckles. Whooping like frat boys on Cinco de Mayo, we creep to 161, and still had room for maybe 170, but when you’re going 160 you catch up to traffic quicker than you think.

Continue reading DAY TWO of Nicolas Stecher’s 5-Day Challenger Challenge (including a mega-gallery of pics) after the Jump!

[All images by Robert Kerian]

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2:12 pm Shoney’s parking lot, Braxton County, West Virginia
“Every one of these that I’ve seen in the magazine, on the net or in the game, there’s no sunroof. And that fin in the back wasn’t there, either,” notes Denny, a local who’s blatantly stunned to be in the Challenger’s presence. We’ve passed dozens of people (and half-dozen cops) that have been bowled over, but Denny’s the first to know more about the car than we do. “There’s a game for Xbox 360 called Forza Motorsports 2, and you can go online and pay so much money to get this car to add to your collection,” he tells us in awe. “I wasn’t really interested until this car became an option. And oh my god, yeah, I had to have it.”
“Well, how would you like to drive it?” I ask.
“Are you fucking serious?”

2:17 pm Backwoods, West Virginia
“This is awesome. The power—you can feel the take-off! It’s just incredible!” exclaims Denny in pure visceral glee as we charge down a mountain road. “I was disappointed when they come out with the new Charger. I like the look of it, but there was no 2-door option—what’s up with that? And sometime later my friend Kevin found this new Challenger on the internet, and also the new Camaro. And the Camaro looks all right, but it does not compare to this by any means. This is the first time they’ve re-done a classic and they’ve done it with complete taste. Very cool.
“You just don’t understand, since the first time I’ve laid eyes on this car, months and months ago, it’s like ‘My God, that is awesome!’ But driving this is unreal!” he says as he shifts through gears, his voice cracking, almost giggling at the thrill. “So you guys get to, like, drive this car around for a week?”
“Yeah, but normally we’re not supposed to let other people drive it. But you really knew your shit, so I think we can make a couple exceptions. At least you’ve got a good story to tell your girlfriend today.”
“I got a good story to tell for the rest of my life!”
Denny takes the car up to a remote asphalt strip, only about 15 feet wide but with no cars in view for miles. He slams the gas and takes off down the patch. “Geez Lou-ise,” he says in full Southern glory. “Zero to sixty in like two seconds! I don’t think anyone’s gonna believe me! I got my best friend with me, and he’s always got that cell phone that he takes them pictures with, and this one time he doesn’t have it! But this is unbelievable—you know, just to get to see the car up close is plenty enough, but getting to drive the car as well? Are you serious?” Opens it up one last time heading back to the Shoney’s lot. “Maaan, this sonuvabitch is bad! Several phone calls will have to be made!”
So are you like a religious Dodge guy? I ask.
“No, you know I love the old school muscle cars, and it’s all MOPAR, the hemi, Dodge stuff. I love that—they just had it right. Sure Chevrolet done some cool stuff, but when it comes down to it, I just feel that Dodge was the leader with the muscle. They had the look, the handling, the power.” He finally pulls into the Shoney’s lot, wide smile on his face. “Maaan, you ain’t gonna believe this shit!” he says to his friend Kevin. “This thing is the devil!”
“You just won the lottery!” Kevin chortles.

2:54 pm Dixie, Kentucky
“Oooh, look—a little country road!” says Robert pointing down to a 2 lane road below us. “Dude, we’re on a little country road,” I remind him. “Oh yeah.” Just then, a self-service car wash appears in the middle of the woods, no houses in sight. Utterly random. So we pull over to wash the car, as it’s already dirtier than Dick Cheney’s soul after less than 24 hours into The Challenge. As we finish, these two high schoolers roll up in a white Ford 150, poking their heads out of the cabin with shit-eating grins. “Is that the new Challenger?” asks the driver Sean, 19. We end up using his Hooters t-shirt to dry the car after the quick rinse, and when I throw it back to him, it’s like I just threw him Tera Patrick’s soaked nightie—as if Jenna Jameson had just wiped her sweat-strewn body with it. He’s clutching it like Lebron’s playoff jersey. Enjoy, kid.

“Can we see the engine?” asked Shawn’s friend TJ, 18. When we pop the hood, their eyes nearly pop from their craniums. “Oh my god that is like so awesome. That is a bad ass car!”

2:56 pm Dixie, Kentucky
We officially dub the car Santa Claus, cause it’s making every day Christmas everywhere we go.

3:20 Clay, Kentucky
“It’s absolutely beautiful here, in a weird way,” says Robert as we drive along the small roads following one of many Kentucky rivers. “Maybe cause we’re not used to seeing it.” Indeed not. Nothing could be further from the distilled genetics and surgically perfected illusion of Los Angeles. Two room shacks sit suspended over the river, trailers turned into ad-hoc homes, powdered with a thick layer of dirt and pollution. Years of neglect painting their own story on their white and baby blue vinyl siding. Some deserted, windows smashed. We pass a town called Clay with a Subway, bank and the Clay Welcome Center—a one-room cracked wooden shack. Fittingly, it is closed.

3:57 pm Letcher County, Kentucky
Off a tiny road running right through the heart of coalmining country. We’ve been looking for a place to eat for about two hours and haven’t found any open businesses. Normally we’ve been following a small river—it seems you’re always following a river when driving a non-highway road in Kentucky—but we broke off to climb up and over Pine Mountain, snaking back and forth across switchbacks. In these hairpin turns, the weakness of the Challenger becomes more prominent. There’s simply too much body roll, an obvious repercussion of the car’s substantial weight (4140 lbs). A tighter suspension, with stiffer springs and swaybars, would help alleviate the sense that you’re weaving a giant drunken elephant through Nürburgring’s Northern Loop. Let’s just say that this car is definitely, without question, the modern manifestation of the true classic American Muscle Car. For better and for worse.

Finally, J.D. Maggard’s Cash Store appears to our left so we pull off the road and up in there. “I hope they got some goddamn food in here,” Rob says turning to me.

Inside the tiny, standalone 1914 house is the typical sundry of 7-11 preserved goods. We’re hoping for something a bit fresher—frozen burrito, burger, day-old hot dog—hell anything not packaged in plastic and soaked in sulfites. No luck. The freshest thing we can find are some giant pickles behind the counter, packaged in plastic and soaking in neon-yellow pickling juice. Screw it. Inside, a woman is talking about receiving a check soon and walks out with a handful of foodstuffs, paid in credit. “Thanks Hank!” she calls out as she leaves.

After we pay and walk out the door, two gentlemen are circling our car, mesh trucker hats in hand. “Whoo hoo, this is a bad ass car!” says the tall one with the moustache. “I went to Lexington to price one of these when I first saw it,” says the other, named Lester. “I’ve been a MOPAR man for 30 years, but I think they really messed up the Charger, making it without a 2 door.” Turns out, Lester is a true-to-life coal miner—a Caterpillar mechanic in the nearby mines. In fact, J.D. Maggard’s Cash Store is famous for being the shop in The Coal Miner’s Daughter (so say the t-shirts inside). You just don’t get more coalmining than here. “But when I saw this thing, I said ‘Dang! I need to have that car!’” continues Lester. “So I went to price one, but they couldn’t even do that! They didn’t know when they was gonna get one!”

5:02 Pikeville, Kentucky
We pull up to a parking lot outside a place called Rock N’ Roll Heaven for more directions. It’s a record store specializing in metal, replete with posters of Eddie everywhere (The Trooper, Two Minutes To Midnight, Stranger In a Strangeland, etc) and various leather and silver jewelry baubles behind glass cases. It’s got that particular aroma that all metal shops have—a heady mix of incense, weed, leather, Marlboro Lights, stale Miller High Life and darkness—and it brings me shooting back to my high school hangout days. “Is this Route 119?” I ask the middle-aged woman behind the counter wearing a Misfits t-shirt. She looks at me quizzically, her eyes thickly painted with mascara and puzzlement. “I dunno, honey. I’ve been living here for 8 years, all the roads got numbers and letters to ‘em—I just know how to drive from here to home and Wal-Mart.”

Two interesting sidenotes about this area: 1. People don’t name towns when they describe where they’re from—they name the county. 2. Although a wellworn cliché, tooth decay does most definitely seem to be a scourge of the South. What’s the deal? Is floss that expensive? Do grits have some unreported de-toothing ability? Is there an evil, impatient toothfairy living only south of the Mason-Dixon Line? Does toothpaste taste all that bad down here? Questions that demand answers, ones we’d never find.

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The splendor of downtown Cumberland

6:22 pm Cumberland, Kentucky
We’ve gotten out of the backwoods of Kentucky and are now making some decent time on larger roads. Starving, still haven’t eaten, so we pull off into a town called Cumberland—home of the Kentucky Coal Mining Museum. All the buildings are brick, and almost all downtown is abandoned save for 2 taverns and a very shady looking Goodwill store with creepy boy mannequin in the window. But we find an inviting diner called A Touch of Country and park our car outside the big glass windows. All 5 inhabitants of the diner crane their necks when we enter, looking at us as if Han Solo and Hugh Heffner just walked through the plate glass door.

6:25 pm A Touch of Country restaurant, Cumberland, Kentucky
We order the daily special and I go outside to make a call. As I re-enter the restaurant, I notice two kids getting into our Challenger and driving off. “Umm, what the hell was that? How’d those kids get our keys?” I ask Robert. “I told ‘em I’d let ‘em take it for a spin,” he answers. “Dude, don’t you think one of us should’ve gone in the car with them?” I retort incredulously. “Nah, they’re only going around the block. Should only be a minute.”

6:37 pm A Touch of Country restaurant, Cumberland, Kentucky
Twelve minutes later, still no car. Normally I’d be worried but the food is so good all I can do is stuff my face. Home-roasted beef, shredded, piled on an open-faced sandwich with mashed potatoes on top and drowned in a thick brown gravy. Mmmmm…Best meal of the week, hands down. They even had Mello Yello at the soda fountain. Mello Yello. I haven’t had that tasty beverage in probably two decades; I didn’t even know it still existed. If you think it’s weird that I’m bugging out, Robert had never even heard of it—apparently, Mello never made it out West.

6:42 pm A Touch of Country restaurant, Cumberland, Kentucky
Finally our waiter pulls into the parking lot with a screech and an ear-to-ear grin. “That was a big block!” Robert yells. “Well, what did you think?”
“I thought it was amaaazing! I never been in a car like that!” gushes our boy Cody, 20.
“Did you open it up at all?”
“Oh yeah, I opened it up—I’ve never been that fast in a car! And I liked that auto-stick, is that what you call it? Like 15 of my friends seen me—they was sitting out in a parking lot and I pulled up like, ‘Hey.’ They were like ‘OH MY GOD!!! I didn’t think those were even out yet!’ And I was like, ‘They’re not. Some dude came from LA, was eating in my mom’s restaurant and said, ‘Hey take it for a ride!’ Everyone wanted a ride in it!”
“No one will believe that story!” says his friend. “Tell ‘em what your mom said!”
His mom, the cook, blushes. “I told Cody, ‘You shouldn’t take that car — what if you had drugs in it?!’ I was so worried!”
Hard to imagine that in a small remote place like this, in the foothills of the Appalachians, that drugs would be a primary concern.
“Actually, this is like the worse place in Kentucky for drugs,” Cody tells us.
“It’s cause there’s coalminers here. A lot of backs were broke, a lot of arms and legs crushed,” explains his mom. “So it started with the parents, the kids growin’ up seeing their moms and dads high all the time. Because you take ‘em, you’re addicted.”
“I’ve done Oxycontin, Vicadon, Hydrocodone—I done every pill you can think of,” admits Cody. “But I been sober for like 6 months.”
“Nice one man—congratulations!” praises Robert. “What do you wanna do when you grow up?”
He pauses for a moment, looks outside at the orange Challenger glowing in the twilight.
“Own that car!”

12:43 am Knoxville, Tennessee
We finally find an open bar after two solid days of driving, and they have $1 drafts. We take full advantage of their generosity. The beers are so cold and delicious, it might be the finest Schlitz I’ve ever drank. Now, bedtime.

Continue to Day THREE of the Great Challenger Challenge, or go back to Day ONE.

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