As a teenager, Tim Kuniskis once set his lawn on fire. It was summer in upstate New York. It was hot and, in his defence, the lawn was quite dry.
However mad his parents might have been, Kuniskis turned out all right. He holds a top position in Fiat Chrysler management, and – perhaps less surprising to his parents – has just created the world's quickest car, the Dodge Demon. Some say an electric Tesla is faster, but Kuniskis vehemently disagrees. We'll get back to that.
The lawn fire was caused by a 1977 Pontiac Firebird. Kuniskis was 17 and it was his first car. "It had a 350 engine. … the car was junk," he said. "I could've got a nicer car, but I wanted a Firebird or Trans Am or a Camaro, because who didn't back then?"
Now, a 350-cubic-inch (5.7-litre) V-8 might seem like a lot of motor for a 17-year-old. But it wasn't, not when you and your buddies are into drag-racing.
"I was like, 'Dad, this isn't gonna cut it. I need a big block, I need a big block.' And he was like, 'Get outta here; this is your first car, big-block nothing, you're going to learn to drive on this.'"
Eventually though, his dad caved and said Kuniskis could swap in a bigger engine when the 350 died.
"I drained three quarts of oil out of it, took it down the parkway as fast as it would go and blew the engine," Kuniskis said. Then he went to a junkyard and pulled a 455 (7.5-litre) V-8 from a Pontiac Catalina wagon.
It was a hot, dry day. The Firebird with the new 455 was running rich. The open headers pointed downward, spitting huge flames. The entire lawn caught fire. "That didn't go well. My dad didn't like that."
It would be easy to conclude that Kuniskis – a pyromaniac possessed by the fiery spell of a big-block V-8 – used his high position at Chrysler to push through the creation of a hellish muscle car the likes of which the world has never seen. Behold, the Dodge Demon.
It's the first production car that can pop a wheelie, the most powerful V-8 ever in a production car, the first car that can pull 1.8 Gs of acceleration. It squishes eyeballs into sockets, churns stomachs, takes names (for the order books) and is generally a menace to society.
But that's not how the Demon came to be, says Kuniskis, head of passenger car brands for FCA North America, and Jim Wilder, the project's vehicle development manager.
The car that would eventually become the Demon was conceived in 2012 while they were working on the Hellcat, then the prized muscle car in Fiat Chrysler's stable.
"From the very beginning it was like, this [Hellcat] would make a really cool drag car," Wilder said. "Then management started to see that, and got on board right away."
The project was originally called ADR, American Drag Racer, a twin to the Dodge Viper ACR, American Club Racer, Kuniskis said.
"More people will spend $25 to go to the drag strip and run their car than people who spend $250 to go to a track day and race their car," Wilder said.
Fiat Chrysler surveyed 45-year-old to 55-year-old customers – its own, as well as dedicated Ford and Chevrolet people – asking what type of motorsport they identified with most: NASCAR, Formula One, Indy?
"Seven to one, it overwhelmingly came back, 'I identify with drag racing,'" Kuniskis said.
Dodge wants to be the performance brand within Fiat-Chrysler's North American lineup. The point of the Hellcat and Demon is to help erase memories of the subpar Avenger and boring Caravan and to establish this new brand identity.
"You have to have a brand identity, otherwise you're lost in the shuffle and all you're competing on is price, and that's death," Kuniskis said. "Three-thousand cars is not going to destroy the CAFE [corporate average fuel economy] of the company, but 3,000 cars will build an attitude for a brand."
Only 300 Demons are allocated for Canada, and 3,000 for the United States.
"The fact you're going to write a story about it, that's why we do it," he said.
Yes, I'm writing about the Demon because it's exciting, in an OMG, hashtag-able kind of way. It's an 840-horsepower throwback to a time when there was no replacement for displacement. While other major auto makers lay out plans for electric vehicles, plug-in hybrids and hydrogen-powered cars, Dodge is stealing the spotlight at a major auto show with a retro muscle car.
It's tempting, if unkind, to see it as the Donald Trump of cars. An anti-establishment candidate, not concerned with political correctness. A candidate who yearns for some dubious version of the good old days. Although, that's not fair to the Demon because, unlike Trump, it delivers on its insane promises.
Rumours swirling at the Demon's New York International Auto Show launch suggested that, for all its retro gas-guzzling power, it would be slower than Tesla's Model S P100D. The idea that an electric car could beat Detroit's maddest V-8 would surely ruffle the feathers of MOPAR diehards.
Kuniskis and Wilder refuted the rumours. Tesla's quickest car does 0-60 mph (97 km/h) in 2.28 seconds. But that's measured with a foot of rollout before the clock starts. The Demon does 2.33 from a dead stop, no rollout. With roll-out, the Dodge Demon does 0-60 in 2.1 seconds, Kuniskis said, making it the world's quickest car.
But the Tesla is a four-door family sedan, not a purpose-built drag-racer, and that's a slim margin for bragging rights. Is this the last hurrah for the big-block V-8 muscle car?
"We said that with the Hellcat," Wilder said. "Is this the last hurrah? And then we did [the Demon]. I think guys were saying that in the sixties when they were working on muscle cars then. … You kind of want to soak it all in, in case this is the last time you'll do it, but it's hard to say."