While the Challenger SRT Hellcat has been out terrorizing the streets of America and beyond for some time now, it’s safe to say that the 707 horsepower muscle car demands to be unleashed on a track.
Dodge and SRT have been running the SRT Track Experience ever since 2005 when the first SRT vehicles started rolling off out of the factory and into the hands of enthusiasts, with the idea of providing new owners some time on a road course to get better acclimated with their cars in order to get the most out of these high performance machines. While the program has been a success ever since it launched, it recently became clear with the introduction of the Challenger and Charger SRT Hellcat models – along with the incredibly capable fifth generation Viper and other SRT vehicles that have recently seen a substantial leap in capability – that Dodge needed to step things up a bit.
Accordingly, they’ve partnered up with the Bob Bondurant High Performance Racing School to conduct the SRT Track Experience. Located in Chandler, Arizona, the Bondurant school is a purpose-built facility designed for high performance driver training.
Since 1968, Bondurant has been teaching tens of thousands of drivers ranging teenagers and military personnel to professional race car drivers in disciplines ranging from evasive maneuvering and car control techniques to high-speed race course driving. Racing icon Bob Bondurant and his roster of instructors – many of which are also highly successful former racers – are on hand to provide their expert tutelage, and that’s particularly reassuring when you’ve got 707 horsepower under the hood, a six speed shifter in hand, and plenty of adrenaline running through your veins.
Great power, great responsibility
For every YouTube video of a Challenger SRT Hellcat dusting a Lamborghini Huracan out there there’s also a story about someone wrapping one around a tree minutes after leaving the dealership or a clip of a guy roasting the tires all the way down the drag strip to a pitiful loss. As remarkably easy as these cars are to drive around town, the torrent of horsepower and torque they can dish out on command is something that has to be respected.
Ask any experienced high performance driver what the best way to improve a car’s performance is and they will invariably suggest a driver mod – or in other words, improving your skill behind the wheel before worrying about the ceiling of the car’s capability. That notion isn’t lost on the folks from Dodge and Bondurant, so the SRT Track Experience will now include not only road course laps, but skid control, autocross, and crash avoidance training as well.
The Challenger SRT Hellcat is just great at being an immensely fun car that’s exceptional in everyday use and still engaging at the track.
In different ways, each of these disciplines reinforce high performance driving fundamentals: Using your eyes to point the car where you want it to go (rather than what you want to avoid), understanding handling dynamics based on grip and where the car’s weight is focused during a particular maneuver, applying throttle and braking inputs smoothly, and listening to what the car is telling you through the wheel and elsewhere.
In terms of the latter, it’s worth noting that while the rest of the Challenger lineup (including the SRT 392) gets electrically assisted steering, the Hellcat model sticks with a hydraulically assisted unit. A while ago I asked an SRT engineer about the rationale behind this move, assuming it had something to do with the packaging constraints that the supercharged 6.2-liter V8 introduced into the mix. As it turns out, that was not the case – Hellcat development started before the rest of the refreshed lineup did, and SRT engineers simply weren’t satisfied with the steering feel and level of feedback provided by the electric racks available at the time. It might sound trivial, but that engineering mindset goes a long way here.
On the track
The Challenger SRT Hellcat gets a fair amount of flak from those who haven’t driven it – accusations that it’s a one trick pony that can only go in a straight line. Make no mistake, the Challenger is big and should never be confused with a purpose-built sports car – that’s the Viper’s wheelhouse. But SRT’s engineers clearly spent a lot of time making this a well-rounded performance vehicle that’s not only easy to drive in the real world and absurdly fast in a straight line, but also highly capable on a road course as well.
At 4,500 pounds, the Challenger SRT Hellcat is no McLaren, and transitioning between a Viper TA 2.0 and the Challenger between road course lapping sessions serves to drive home the difference between a muscle car and a sports car in terms of size, weight, center of gravity and driving position. But the truth of the matter is that this car can maintain an extremely fast pace on the track, and do so lap after lap without mechanical hiccups.
Despite having more weight at the nose than ever, the Challenger SRT Hellcat is surprisingly neutral. As has ways been the case with SRT’s muscle coupe, rotation is just a stab of the throttle away, although now with so much more power on tap, ham-fisted inputs aren’t as defensible as they once were. The new traction control system will certainly save your neck if you decide to ignore physics and get on the throttle too early, and plowing into a corner is certainly still possible since front end grip is ultimately finite. But where the road course was something of a novelty for the Challenger in years past, the SRT Hellcat is absolutely a capable dancing partner a the track and will reward good behavior with progressively faster lap times.
Make no mistake, the Challenger is big and should never be confused with a purpose-built sports car.
Complimenting that supercharged Hemi is a set of massive Brembo brakes, with six piston calipers up front that chomp down on 15.4-inch discs, while four piston units are mated to 13.8-inch rotors in the rear. Despite the warm Arizona weather and the near-constant lapping done throughout the day on Bondurant’s road course, none of the Challengers I drove exhibited brake fade at any point – even when I was allowed to chase an instructor car without any other journalist cars in tow to anchor us at a slower pace.
However, it’s worth noting that the Bondurant school uses motorsport-style brake pads on all of their cars. While these pads help make the cars even more resistant to brake fade, the tradeoff is that the brakes are far noisier than they would be off the showroom floor. Having previously driven a showroom-stock Challenger SRT Hellcat during lapping sessions at Auto Club Speedway’s sport car course, which includes multiple sections where speeds can exceed 140 miles per hour and are immediately followed by heavy braking sections, I’d say that the standard pads are up to the job in all but the most extreme cases – like the near-constant everyday track use that the cars at Bondurant see – and they’re as quiet as can be, unlike most carbon ceramic setups.
On the road
At the end of the day I hopped in a Hellcat for the drive back to the hotel from the Bondurant facility. Aside from the livery, brake pads and the tires it rolled on (Pirelli supplies the Hellcat’s factory-installed tires but Goodyear sponsors the Bondurant school and provides Eagle F1s for their training cars), this Hellcat was essentially identical to the ones we had been abusing all day out on the track. But instead of strapping on my helmet, I sunk into the plush leather seats, turned on the AC, cranked up the stereo, and headed out on the highway.
Therein lies the genius of this car. Many performance cars focus their efforts so sharply on a particular metric that it serves as a detriment to the overall enjoyment of the car – an unyielding stiff suspension might be useful on certain track surfaces but it’s invariably unpleasant on public roads, and a small chassis is great for lap times but less so when you need to go to Costco.
And that’s where the Challenger SRT Hellcat suddenly starts to make a whole lot of sense. Rather than chasing mythic lateral g ratings or Nurburgring times, the Challenger SRT Hellcat is just great at being an immensely fun car that’s exceptional in everyday use and still engaging at the track. It looks cool, sounds fantastic, it’s comfortable, it’s capable, and it’s even relatively practical on some level – all without any modification whatsoever.
Tuning the nut behind the wheel
If there’s any scenario that can clearly illustrate how driver skill is of paramount importance to performance, it’s the Bondurant Racing School. In the early part of the day, we took a trio of passes around the autocross course, and my best time was a 26.25. In recent years I’ve really found myself drawn to autocrossing because it really allows you to pinpoint areas for improvement in your skill set with more precision than a road course does, so I made a point to revisit the course later in the day when the program had concluded but we still had an hour or so to kill.
After a dozen laps and feedback from Bondurant’s instructors, I managed to bring my time down to a 23.18, dropping more than three seconds in the process. That’s an eternity on a course that short, and apparently it put my time on par with a driver who had formerly raced Vipers Cup cars in a semi-pro capacity but had opted to only do the first trio of laps earlier in the day, rather than the additional laps I put in later on.
That’s something to consider the next time a discrepancy of hundredths of a second in a comparison test between two models puts doubts in your mind about a particular car’s performance prowess – the driver mod counts for a lot more than you might think, and new SRT owners are about learn how to go very fast at Bondurant.
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