Today we think of the Dodge//SRT NHRA Hemi Challenge cars as the murderously quick SS/AH machines that get a spotlight at the Dodge//SRT NHRA U.S. Nationals, but in the late ’60s Chrysler corporation created a fleet of ’68 Dodge Darts and Plymouth Barracudas with the sole intention of stomping Camaros, Mustangs, and Javelins into the ground.
The original Hemi Barracudas and Hemi Darts, which the Dodge//SRT NHRA Hemi Challenge celebrates, began life as incomplete vehicles off the assembly line. They were shipped to Hurst Performance in primer and fit with crossram 426-cid Hemi engines, fiberglass hood and fenders, front disc brakes, lightweight buckets from the A100 van, and the racer’s choice of an NP A-833 four-speed with a Dana 60 rear axle or a TF 727 three-speed automatic with an 8 ¾-inch rear end. Power-to-weight ratio and durability were paramount.
That recipe for success has matured through more than 50 years of NHRA Super Stock racing, and at this week’s race nearly two dozen cars will compete for the coveted 42.6-pound Hemi cylinder head trophy and the $15,000 check. Last year’s winner, Stephen Yantus III, earned his first Dodge Hemi Challenge title and brought Jimmy Daniels’ four-year win streak to an end.
Watch Stephen Yantus run 8.428 at 158 mph in Round 1 of Super Stock at the 2021 U.S. Nationals
During 2020 qualifying, Yantus was the quickest driver in the 15-car field with an 8.477 in his Barracuda, and in eliminations, he ran a string of 8.4s to complete the rout with wins against Russ Campbell and past Hemi Challenge winner Bucky Hess, who broke his Barracuda and was unable to show for the semifinals.
Steve Comella, who finished the 2019 season as the fourth-ranked driver in the NHRA Super Stock class, also enjoyed his best day of Hemi Challenge competition at Indy. He had difficulty in qualifying but shone in eliminations with wins against Jim Pancake, Gary Wolkwitz, and former Pros Stock driver Steve Kent, who fouled in the semifinals.
Watch Steve Comella run 8.408 at 160 mph in Round 1 of Super Stock at the 2021 U.S. Nationals
The biggest news from the 2020 event came in round one when Jimmy Daniels suffered his first defeat in Hemi Challenge competition. Daniels, who had won every Hemi Challenge event since his debut in 2016, came into race day as the number-two qualifier, but his unbeaten streak ended at 18-rounds when he lost to Joe Teuton, 8.58 to 8.60. Daniels dominance in the Hemi Challenge had been astounding, but his defeat in round one came in a car that was ready for some updates.
“That car really never lets us down,” said Daniels. He knew there were a lot of people getting close to them, and going into the 2020 race there were cars within .500 of his Dart. The Comella’s Barracuda had even outrun him at Indy. It was clear to Daniels that the four-speed cars had developed an advantage in the heat over to the automatic he had been running, but COVID-19 restrictions limited the number of races he could run to shake down the four-speed combo before Indy.
Watch Jimmy Daniels run 8.417 at 158.46 mph in Round 1 of Super Stock at the 2021 U.S. Nationals
“When in really cool air with like a 30.0 barometer and around 60 degrees, the four-speeds just can't hang with the automatic, but then in the heat the four-speeds have an edge,” acknowledged Daniels. This year Daniels’ Dart returns to the Hemi Challenge with the same engine, but it’s now backed with a Liberty four-speed.
Round one of the Dodge // SRT NHRA Hemi Challenge begins Friday at 11 a.m. (ET). Tune in to NHRA.tv to see and hear the Hemis roar!