In 2009, Mopar manufactured 100 Drag Pak versions of the Dodge Challenger. This marked the first time in 40 years that Chrysler had produced a factory race car. Weighing almost 1,000 pounds lighter then the stock Challenger SRT8, and fitted with a host of drag-specific changes, these very limited cars were designed specifically to be run in NHRA Stock, Super Stock and Comp classes.
While many of the 2009 Challenger Drag Pak cars have already found their way into competition, one sets itself apart: #24. The story behind Drag Pak car #24 starts in 2008 when David Wertman bought a Challenger SRT8. Driving the car rekindled an old love for racing, which had been put aside for years while David focused on his career and family. While researching his new car, David heard about the Challenger Drag Pak program from Mopar. With his interest in racing renewed, David and his son Chris made the big decision to buy and campaign a Challenger Drag Pak, provided they could get their hands on one.
When David went back to his dealer to order a Challenger Drag Pak, the salesmen hadn’t even heard of the program yet. So David pointed them to the web site. When he was told that he needed a racing team, David formed New Hemi Racing Group, LLC and established a fully equipped shop. He returned to the dealership with the paperwork, but was then told he would need an established driver. Undaunted, he found one and again went back to the dealership. Finally, David’s order went through and the waiting began.
“I put in my order and we waited 14 months,” said David. “Most of that time Chrysler was going through two bankruptcies so I didn’t know if it was even going to happen. After a delay they said, ‘We think you’re about number 18.’ Chrysler was still going through all this stuff so I got slid back again. Just when I was thinking I wasn’t going to get the car, they finally said, ‘You’re number twenty-four, and it will be done next Thursday.’ When the car became a reality it was like oh crap, what do we do now?”
But the father and son team were ready. They had spent the long wait in their shop, spending countless hours working on new 6.1L Hemi engines in order to become more comfortable with them. All that prep work paid off. From painting to engine building, they did nearly everything themselves. Chris was in charge of the engine because even from a young age he had shown an amazing talent for understanding engines of all kinds. It was also Chris who found two-time world champion, Keith Lynch to drive for them.
“Between my son and I, one of us thought something and the other one did it,” commented David on the building of their car. “Most of the time we pretty much thought alike. Sometimes we needed a third party to say, ‘Are you sure about that?’ But we got it ready and we started throwing the car out there. At first, we had a lot of problems. Not all of them due to other people. Some of them were self inflicted – things that seemed like a good idea at the time. A lot of our decisions were like that. It was trial and error.”
After completely rebuilding the engine, removing excess weight, painting, wiring and performing a host of other tasks to get the car ready to race, the team finally moved the #24 car out of the New Hemi Racing shop and took it to the dragstrip.
“One thing after another would jump up and bite us,” said David. When we were in Maple Grove we were waiting in the staging lanes, next to go into the water box, and suddenly the car cuts out. We tried to start it and it just stalled again. We just couldn’t get it started. Keith had a good idea about what was going on; he knew it was a fuel thing. We ended up banging on stuff with the back of a screwdriver, but when we got back in the car it started up. We got back in line. The deal there was that we were only going to make one qualifying run. We ran 9.85 and made top qualifier. Not only did we get down the track, but we got down it with a more than respectable time. It was darn right good.”
David and his crew became all too familiar with this kind of experience. But despite their rocky start, they continued to campaign the car. With true racing passion, David, his son Chris and their driver Keith overcame many obstacles to make their dream come true. One recurring problem the team had was a finicky electronic fuel injection system. After countless hours of frustration and multiple fried coil packs, they tried something new, a FAST™ XFI™ Electronic Fuel Injection System.
When the team switched to the XFI™ system, they saw an immediate difference. Not only were fried coil packs no longer and issue, but the car performed much better. David and his team were familiar with the FAST™ system because earlier in their build they had installed a camshaft from COMP Cams, which, like FAST™, is a COMP Performance Group™ company. With a top notch valve train in place and the fuel injection system sorted out, things finally started to fall into place. The #24 car, now named Mega Maniac, would have even captured an unofficial world record time had they not been disqualified for being just three pounds overweight.
“We swapped out the electronic control unit,” said David. “It wasn’t bad; it just wasn’t working right. We got a FAST™ XFI™ in and it’s been great for us. We’re just thrilled with the products and excited about the future. We’re really liking the FAST™ system and the COMP camshaft. Both companies really helped us because the cam and the electronics are key. We’re really excited to have partnered with them.”
Just as the car was beginning to perform reliably, tragedy struck. In August of 2010, the team experienced a heartbreaking setback. Chris passed away from smoke inhalation during a house fire. He left behind three children and a large group of friends, many of whom he had met through drag racing. While campaigning the car, Chris and David had not just met other Challenger Drag Pak owners, but they had actively worked to bring everyone together. Chris had also become a widely known and outspoken presence on several racing web site forums. His death left a hole in the racing community.
The response from fellow drag racers to Chris’s death was immediate and touching. In the same forums he was once so active in, posts sprang up where friends coordinated online to pay their respects. People volunteered their time and talents to create memorial car decals, which were sold in order to raise money for the children left behind.
“He was a bright light for us,” said David. “Sometimes he was a shining light, but sometimes he was a lighting rod. He even claimed that these cars are capable of getting into the 8s. Now that we’ve got cars running in the 9.50s, a time of 8.99 isn’t that far away. But it’ll still take a lot to get there. It won’t go 8.99 in Stock, but with a little work you could get an 8.99 in Super Stock.”
David and Keith continue to campaign the car as they know Chris would want them to. Everyone involved believes Chris would have a huge smile on his face knowing that with Keith behind the wheel, the #24 car received top qualifier status in the last four NHRA races it ran in. Thanks to the efforts of everyone involved, and due to Chris’s outspoken presence in the community, Challenger Drag Pak #24 is probably the most widely known Drag Pak car in existence.
David summed up their experiences thus far by saying, “We went to Las Vegas last year and ended up getting there two hours too late. It was a long drive; so on the way back we stopped at Indy for a divisional race. Well that got rained out. We started to wonder what is this black cloud that’s following us around? But it never occurred to either me or my son to give up on it. We always felt like we were just around the corner. I spent more quality time with my son in those last years than probably the last fifteen. It was great time for both of us. I wish it could have continued. But it is the way it is. We’re still running and racing. I’m still having fun. I’m meeting the goals Chris and I had for it. At the end of the day we now have the only Drag Pak to run classes A through F. It’s exciting but I wish he was still around to share this with us.”