Mopar Hemi Challenge title goes to Daniels

02 Sep 2016
Kevin McKenna, NHRA National Dragster Senior Editor

James Daniels, near lane, earned the most impressive win of his young career when he drove his father Jim's Dodge Dart to a victory in the prestigious Mopar Hemi Challenge. Daniels claimed the $15,000 top prize after Stephen Hebert fouled in the final.

Second-generation racer James Daniels, 20, earned a victory in the Mopar Hemi Challenge held Friday during the Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals. Daniels, of Bristol, Pa., won the final round with an 8.44-second elapsed time after opponent Stephen Hebert red-lighted. Daniels was driving the same Hemi-powered ’68 Dodge Dart that his father, Jim, drove to the Mopar Hemi Challenge title in 2010.

“This is absolutely unbelievable,” said Daniels. “I've only had about three passes in the car before this. We struggled at the beginning of the year, going back to an automatic [transmission]; it just turned around this weekend. We did some work on it before the race, and everything just went together. It's an unreal experience. I can’t thank my father enough for giving me the opportunity to drive his car. He’s won many shootouts and set many records, and it’s awesome to be able to drive his race cars. I also have to thank [engine builders] Ray and David Barton for awesome horsepower. I just couldn't imagine leaving our home in Bristol, Pa., and saying, 'I'm going to be in the winner's circle Friday night.' It's unreal.”

In what might have been the most competitive battle in the 16-year history of the Hemi Challenge event, Daniels qualified No. 2 in the strong 20-car field with an 8.478, but at least a half-dozen other drivers were in the 8.4s, including low qualifier Bucky Hess.

During eliminations, Daniels, who was competing in the Hemi Challenge for the first time, wheeled his historic factory-built race car to wins over Doug Fazzolare, Matt Welker, and Jim Pancake before earning a semifinal bye run. On his first four eliminations runs, Daniels was incredibly consistent with passes between 8.44 and 8.46.

Hebert, part of a large contingent of Louisiana-based racers who participate in the Hemi Challenge races, was only the eighth-quickest qualifier with an 8.64 in his Secretariat Barracuda, but he made a big performance improvement during eliminations and matched Daniels stride for stride with a string of 8.4s during his wins over Dan Zrust, Gary Wolkwitz, former Pro Stock driver Steve Kent, and Hess, who had the misfortune of hitting the wall when his colorful Kandy Kuda entry slid in its own oil after damaging an engine. Hess wasn’t hurt, but his chances of winning another Hemi Challenge title will have to wait for at least another year.

In the final, which was held under the lights during qualifying for the Mello Yello Series, Hebert left the starting line four-hundredths of a second too soon, handing the win to Daniels while his crew celebrated on the starting line. After the final round, the elder Daniels had no regrets about allowing his young son to take the wheel of the family race cars.

“I’m so proud of that young man; I knew he had it in him,” said Jim Daniels. “I remember what it was like when I won this race in 2010. I can imagine how it feels for him. This is just an awesome day. This is the biggest event of the season for us.”

A staple of the U.S. Nationals, the Mopar Hemi Challenge is a heads-up competition featuring vintage '68-model Dodge Dart and Plymouth Barracuda factory race cars. For the win, Daniels received a $15,000 bonus from Mopar in addition to the SS/AH class championship Wally.