Blaze a Path

When the Dodge brand made the announcement of the Dodge Challenger SRT® Hellcat, there may not have been a single person who could predict just how far the platform could be pushed in such a short period of time. Anytime a new platform comes out, there is always a learning curve for everyone to go through. In that learning curve comes failure while navigating the new terrain. To jump out to the front where there is no path means you have no choice but to blaze your own. As the random Internet quote reads, “You send a better message trying, and failing; you are more likely to innovate.”

Meet Leon Epling, ya’ll. Some of you may know the name and some may not. If you know, you know. Leon leads three generations of maniacs gutsy enough to try to push their SRT Hellcat well beyond what anyone else has. Shortly after the SRT Hellcat came out, it was common knowledge that they could easily run high 10s in the quarter-mile. So it would seem that running 9s should be no problem at all. For the most part, getting an SRT Hellcat to break into the 9s didn’t take a terrible amount of time to figure out. Where things really started to get rocky was dipping down into the low 9s and into the 8s. The race was on (literally) as thousands of owners worked feverishly to continue to push past the next guy hundredths of a second at a time; splitting hairs by a number two digits to the right of the decimal point. The community realized putting an SRT Hellcat into the 8s was not going to be an easy task and that challenge quickly became the new target for guys looking to really jump ahead of the pack. Who would be the first to the 8s?

 

Let us back up and get some background on this everyday guy hailing from East Tennessee, a rather unlikely place to find innovation. For years, Leon spent his spare time racing motorcycles at nearby Bristol Speedway. When his son, Jason, was of the appropriate age, the father/son competition really started to take shape as Jason decided to join in and rip down the track with his father. That’s kind of where it all started. The duo also spent a lot of time in their shop at Jason’s house wrenching on vehicles for work, mostly diesels, on top of racing. Over the years, Leon has owned and raced multiple Dodge Vipers, along with a plethora of motorcycles and other performance cars. Jason was right along with him burning rubber just the same. Oh yeah, one other thing; there is a third Epling in this story. That would be Logan, Jason’s son (Leon’s grandson). Do you think this kid would get too old before they had him involved in the antics?

 

When rumors of the SRT Hellcat started to surface online, Leon did what many soon-to-be owners did. Went to the local Dodge dealership and put a deposit to be first on the list when order banks opened. “I went and put deposits at three different dealerships on Sublime Green 8-speed automatics to make sure I would get one ordered,” Leon tells me. By an ironic series of events, even with deposits placed at all three dealerships, Leon ended up with none of those three SRT Hellcats. When it was all said and done, he ended up with his black 2015 Challenger SRT Hellcat, 6-speed manual. Wait, this story is about a stick car? Yes, yes it is. Leon admitted, “I never really had any major plans to mod it much, it was just a fun car that was a blast to drive, but it became an addiction.” Just two weeks after Leon let Jason drive it for the first time, Jason went and purchased himself a Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat. You can see where this is going, can’t you? Leon started pretty quickly modifying his SRT Hellcat early on to pump out a mild 830 rear wheel horsepower and participating in one-mile and half-mile racing events. All the work they did on the car was done in Jason’s shop at his house, the same little shop where they worked on the vehicles from their construction company fleet. With a few minor power modifications, it was quickly realized that 830 hp was just not enough. A few more “small” tweaks were made and the car was cranking out just over 1,000 hp to the wheels. Jason, not to be outdone by dear old Dad, followed suit and performed very similar mods to his SRT Hellcat. Again, wrenching evenings and weekends together to get the pair of HEMI® engines to the top of their game. At this point, it was father versus son in a family battle royale. The duo started taking their SRT Hellcats to the drag strip with young Logan in tow as well. Logan, only 18 at the time, shared the same need to go fast. When the ladies of the family weren’t around, Leon and Jason would let him suit up and make passes in the cars. Most of the time, Logan ran almost as fast as his father and grandfather.

 

Now comes the failure portion of our story. We are now roughly a year into the SRT Hellcat being on the market. It is still a baby and people are still trying to find out what works, what doesn’t work and what an appropriate build should look like. It is no secret that the Challenger and Charger platform is a bit on the heavy side. Actually, in terms of racecars, it is extremely heavy and weight is a large enemy in the battle of the 1320. Wanting to really kick things up a notch and push past where anyone else was landing with the SRT Hellcat performance, the Eplings quickly started to realize that there was going to have to be some upgrades made in the weight reduction department. See, the car was making plenty of power. The problem was the weight of the car. Not only was the weight making it slower, but it was also causing part failures. The drivetrain was being push WELL beyond its intended purpose and limits. This is where Leon started to really pave his own path. When parts start to fail, many people look to the power the car is making and assume that it’s just too much power for the parts in question to handle. The Epling crew looked at it from a different perspective. The problem with things like burning up clutches, broken axles, broken driveshafts, broken suspension parts and the like wasn’t caused by too much power, but rather too much weight. Instead of cranking out more power to get it to go faster, they opted to focus on finding parts that could handle the weight of the car, and try to shed some pounds as well.

By this time in the game, a select few were starting to get really close to a 9-second flat time slip. The battle was definitely on. What started out as just a fun hobby for the family to spend time together quickly escalated to having a lofty goal: “Be the first to the 8s.” One of the components that seemed to struggle was the 6-speed manual transmission and clutch. Leon and Jason decided rather than trying to spend time and money on two different cars to dominate the land, they should combine their resources and just focus on Leon’s Challenger. So it began, again. Generally speaking, a manual transmission is considered to be slower at the drag strip than an automatic transmission, at least regarding streetcars. Leon was already at a disadvantage. The gearing of the manual transmission, coupled with the time it takes a human to depress a clutch, shift and get back on the throttle, made it much slower on paper. The team tested a myriad of aftermarket clutches and every single one suffered the same fate: fried. They just could not handle the power and the weight of what they were trying to do. The decision was made. It was time to pull the stock transmission and clutch out of the car. Leon opted for a customized transmission from Liberty Gears. It was back to square one, trying to figure out how to make the new setup work.

 

With the new transmission in, the team hit the track as much as they could to really fine tune the car and see how they could make this new transmission really set the car apart from the rest. Hanging in there with the “faster” automatic cars really started to make some noise in the community. Leon and Jason would split duties piloting the car. During this time, they still stuck with keeping the horsepower where it was while others were busy scrambling to crank out as much horsepower as they could. Some blew motors, some blew their superchargers, some blew their differentials, some fried their automatic transmission. Leon’s biggest problem was melting clutches. He set out to find the best clutch he could. This landed him with a Ram Clutches unit made to work in harmony with the Liberty transmission. Again, Leon’s perspective kicks in and really sets the direction for where this car is headed. A large number of people are simply looking for a clutch that has one function: handling the horsepower their engine is producing. Leon was looking for something a little different. He needed one that could not only handle the power and weight of the car, but also allow him to fine tune it to really jump ahead of the pack. Leon says what they were able to do with this clutch might be one of the biggest keys to the success they have had with the car. They spent countless track visits fine-tuning the clutch. This may be the first time someone has used this transmission and clutch setup in an SRT Hellcat, so there definitely was no information to be had on where to start with it. Calling all the industry experts, none were able to offer much insight due to the fact that the SRT Hellcat was much heavier than most vehicles using this setup, and no one had really done it before. The Eplings were left on their own to figure it out. Eventually, they were able to make the clutch slip just the right amount off the line, for just the right amount of time, before it locked up. Knocking out 1.3 and 1.2 60-ft times in a 4,400-lb manual streetcar – pretty impressive.

A staple in the grassroots HEMI racing community, the Modern HEMI Street Shootout season finals were fast approaching in November 2017 at Atco Dragway. The date was closing in, and several of the heavy-hitters were all posed to battle out to the hundreth of a second to be the first to the 8’s. Leon kept a close eye on dozens of tracks within a day’s drive of his hometown, along with the weather.

 

The stars seemed to align the best for Great Lakes Dragway, October 16, 2017. The Epling gang called the track to arrange a private track rental. With the possibility of several other cars getting to the 8s before him at Atco in 2 weeks, Leon had no choice but to load up and make the trek.

 

The crew headed out making their way to Great Lakes Dragway. The weather was slated to be spot on with near perfect density altitude. Arriving early in the morning, the Epling team started preparing to make some runs, waiting for the dew to dry up with the sun rising. It was now or never. This was their one shot to win the race to the 8s. If you ever want to get a real sense of determination, follow around a race team or owner on a track day. Before the day was over, the battle was won. Leon Epling’s car was the world’s fastest SRT Hellcat, the first SRT Hellcat to make it into the coveted 8-second bracket, and the news travelled quickly among the community.

 

8.913 @ 156.14 was the official time of the first SRT Hellcat into the 8s. It was a massive victory for the family. Having no sponsors, doing all the work themselves (except tuning), and beating every other SRT Hellcat on the planet, together as a family. Ironically, Leon did take the car to the big Atco season finals two weeks later and not a single car, including his, made it into the 8s at that race. Although the trek to Great Lakes was a lot of time and work, they were definitely glad they had made it.

The world’s fastest SRT Hellcat was a 6-speed manual car, the slower brother over the 8-speed automatic cars. It was not built in a huge race shop by professionals, or driven by a professional driver. It was a true tale of David vs. Goliath. The Regular Joe vs. the World.

 

One would think that victory would be enough for most. NOPE! Not the Epling gang. They immediately set out to beat themselves and try to get as far out in front of the rest of the cars out there knocking on their doorsteps. Just a month later, they managed to pull off an 8.793 @ 156.975 at Mountain Park Dragway during a private track rental. That lasted all of several hours before they bested themselves again with an 8.716 @ 157.439. This set the team well past where anyone else was. Surely they were safe from being knocked off the throne for a while. Well, you see, just like the story of David and Goliath, Epling is just as persistent as David. Racing well into December while most people have their cars in hibernation for the winter, the Epling gang kept on pushing. On December 16th at Mountain Park Dragway, they set the bar yet again with an 8.687 @ 155.69. No one was even close to these times, well into the mid-8s. So they decided to make use of the breathing room they had to make some revisions to the car over winter while no one else was racing. Epling knew that he had a target on his back and all his competition would be in the woodshed themselves trying to get staged to take him down when the season opened up in the spring.

 

Over the winter, the car went through some changes, seeking to just skip the rest of the 8-second range all together and go straight to the 7s. Leon looked to Mike at MPR, the master of the Challenger Drag Pak, for answers. Piecing together a complete rear end setup, just as it appears in the Drag Pak Challenger, and swapping out the rear suspension was the first major step. “We had a lot of struggles with the independent rear suspension the car came with. It is really hard to get the car to align and track properly under that much horsepower and speed,” says Leon. No one had made that leap yet, converting the IRS to a solid rear end from the Drag Pak. The original all-stock motor was also pulled from the car. Yes, the car ran an 8.6 on a stock block, stock blower and stock engine internals. On the horsepower side of the car, it had been a pretty basic setup done by many people. A simple pulley change on the supercharger, fueling for extreme amounts of race gas and a little nitrous was really what the power side of the car boiled down to. But wanting to stop splitting hundredths of seconds, Epling wanted to chop off half seconds. Epling teamed up with local engine builders Matt and Kenneth Hensley to spec out a new motor from the SRT Hellcat from scratch. All work from the block to flow testing the heads was done in-house. The final step was a nice power-adder and one of the best tuners in the game. Tim Barth, from Barth Tuning, pushed Epling to throw the latest and greatest Kenne Bell supercharger on the newly configured motor, and when the mechanical work was completed down in good old Tennessee, the car was brought to Tim’s shop for tuning. The car was ready.

Taking a slightly different plan of attack for 2018, Epling remained somewhat M.I.A. for most of the summer. Rather than giving away his secrets and people seeing what he had up his sleeve, he made very few public mentions of what they were doing with the car or what it was running. In September 2018, the Epling gang ripped out a new record, 8.536 @ 160.08, without nitrous. But this time, this year, there are several others knocking on his doorstep with several other SRT Hellcats also running in the 8s. The group is still fine-tuning all the new components and plan to ride out the summer heat and wait for good weather to come in November and December.

 

What can we expect? The three generations of Epling boys burst onto the scene in 2017, almost out of nowhere, and made waves with what they were accomplishing. It’s a real-life story of David vs. Goliath, Small Town vs. Big Town, and the Epling gang plans on sticking far ahead of the pack. “We don’t care about hundredths anymore; when we get back out next month, we are working on 5/10ths a swing,” says Leon. Starting with a brand-new platform in their home shop, this family has come a long way, paving their own path to being the leaders in the SRT Hellcat game on the drag strip. “At the end of the day, we are doing this as a family,” Leon tells me. “We always believe the next run out will be a new record for us. Jason and Logan may not realize it just yet, but these memories we are making as a family are memories they will never forget later on in life.”

 

I ask Epling if he feels just a little extra awesome knowing that every part on the car was done and tweaked by them alone. “It definitely makes you puff your chest out a little bit,” he relies, “realizing what we accomplished on our own with no big shop or no major engine builder behind us. We are definitely proud of that part of it.”

 

Leon’s final words to me, and mine to you: “Stay tuned for our next run”

 

And I already know, it’s going to be a game-changer.

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