Suspension tuner John Hotchkis, principle of Hotchkis Sport Suspension and apparently at peace with the fact that we broke his precious E-Max, invited yours truly out to the Streets of Willow to pound some more hard fought miles into the amazing yellow 1971 Dodge Challenger. Actually, a whole bunch of people were on hand to do the pounding, and not just on the E-Max. Hotchkis was putting on a before-and-after clinic to showcase (and show off) a couple of its suspension packages. Not only was the mighty, heavily tweaked E-Max on hand, but the Hotchkis gang brought along a fairly stock 1970 Challenger, a rented Chevrolet Camaro SS and a Camaro SS that had been given the full Hotchkis suspension treatment.
The Plan: Put each car in the more-than-capable hands of John's brother, Mark Hotchkis, a former Indy Lights driver who also happens to campaign a Porsche 962 in vintage races. Each car would be put through a series of tests (slalom, skid pad and a lap of the track itself) revealing numerically just how much better the new Hotchkis suspension pieces worked. They also brought a few of us journalist types along to not only see viva la difference, but share our impressions with the world/you guys. But before we get to the results...
Photos by Jonny Lieberman / Copyright ©2010 Weblogs, Inc. and Dan Khan
...I've got to share with you the story of the Hotchkis-modified 2005 Mini Cooper S. Hotckis's second in command, Henry "Hank" Hancock, decided to introduce himself to the rigors and wilds of SCCA racing a few years back by campaigning in a very tricked out Mini with just about every possible Hotchkis suspension mod thrown at it, roll cage and all. A fine choice for a beginner race car. Also, Hank stands six-foot-four and helps disprove the rumor that big guys can't fit in small cars.
As much of the day was taken up with Mark Hotchkis recording numbers, there were periods of doldrums. Sensing this, and noticing I hadn't stuffed too many cars into the dirt, Hank offered to let me take the modded Mini out on the track for a few laps. Not only that, both he and John insisted that I take one of their video guys out for his first ever "hot laps." On the one hand, I was honored. On the other, talk about losing your virginity to the wrong person.
We're off and I'm doing my best not to embarrass myself. The first turn is gradual and can be taken flat out in the Mini. There's a bit of a braking zone before a hard right-hander. I set the car up about as well as I can and ARGH!! We nearly slide off the track. I somehow catch it and instantly yell, "Cold tires!" to my startled passenger, assuming that he would know what I mean/believe me. Up comes the next corner and... we're nearly in the dirt again. Something's rotten in Denmark/Willow Springs. And my poor passenger's terrified.
We're heading down the back straight into the biggest braking zone. I'm hard into the middle pedal when we hear a terrible noise from the rear of the Mini. It's a big bang that sounds as if a crock pot has slammed into the roll cage. We pull in after one lap and I explain to Hank that I think something broke in the back of the car. He pops the tailgate and pulls out... a crock pot. "Oops. I was going to make some chili for lunch..." I later learned that the tires weren't cold, so much as they had been on the car for five seasons of SCCA, i.e. hopeless. As for my poor, freaked out first time passenger, a very nice man in a supercharged 570-hp C5 Z06 Corvette eventually took him out for some proper hot laps.
Back to the suspension challenge at hand. First up for me was the 426-hp Chevrolet Camaro SS that Hotchkis wound up renting when a friend of theirs with a bone stock 2010 Camaro SS backed out last minute. Sorry to disagree with P.J. O'Rourke, but this particular Camaro (we'll call it the Red Pig) disproved his assertion that the best handling car is a rental car. Honestly, I was more than a little shocked at how poorly the Camaro SS performed under the circumstances. In fact, let's go with massively disappointed. From ABS shudder that came on surprisingly early in the lousy brake pedal's travel to a looser rear end than Kim Kardashian, it become clear that the latest Camaro upheld the model's straight line-only legacy. Also, I managed to put a wheel in the dirt while driving the Camaro. It was either spin out of control fighting the rear end's refusal to play nice, or get the car dirty. To get an idea of how clumsy the Camaro is, even in the Mini – with five seasons of track time on its tire's well-worn rubber – I kept it on the pavement at all times.
Next up was the Hotchkis-tuned Camaro SS. What a difference a chassis brace makes. Well, a chassis brace, sport springs, front and rear sway bars (the rear one is adjustable), poly bushings and mounts. Almost magically the black Camaro proved how good a 426-hp LS3 can be when given a solid platform to work with. Instead of a skittish, all-over-the-track rear end with loads of wheel hop, I was treated to predictable oversteer and much smoother braking, which allowed even a ham-fisted driver like me to make it around the track without sending up any dust devils. But never mind what I did, check out what Mark Hotchkis was able to accomplish. In the Red Pig, Mark recorded 0.85 g on the skid pad, 67.1 mph through the slalom and a 1.15.157 lap time. In the Hotchkis-tuned Camaro his numbers improved to 0.88 g, 69.2 mph and 1.13.490. Big gains, especially considering the fully stock motor. [Please Note: The stock Camaro numbers were recorded in a different, not-pictured, privately owned stock Camaro SS that we didn't drive. From Hotchkis, "the stock Camaro that was tested for before numbers [is a] blue manual SS, exact same car and mileage as the black "after" car. The red car was just there for additional driving impressions."]
Next up was a mostly stock 1970 Dodge Challenger R/T. I say "mostly stock" because the car started off life with a (relatively) puny Mopar 318 that has been swapped out in favor of a 440 Wedge. All the better to pop off 12.7-second quarter mile times at 106 mph. Because of the heavier motor, the car's owner had already beefed up the front suspension. That said, watching the blue Challenger run the slalom was a frothy mix of comedy and horror. All gathered were certain the car would scrape its door handles. Even funnier was watching the Dodge blast out of the last corner before the front straight. "Sideways" doesn't even begin to describe it. After watching a couple of laps, I began appreciating the guys that made the movie Vanishing Point that much more.
When we reviewed the Hotchkis E-Max Challenger, I described it as feeling like a big go kart. This sensation not only rings true on the track, but the eye-searing E-max feels even more nimble here than on the street. The limits are gigantic, the steering is precise-perfect and the body stays flat. The car is still one of the most mind blowing machines I've ever driven. Like the Mini Cooper S, the E-Max was there to entertain us journalist types so they didn't record any numbers. Besides, comparing a mostly stock, door handle-scraping Challenger to the E-Max would be like watching Urkel wrestle Triple H. But what if you could transform the 1970 Challenger R/T into something approximating the E-Max? That would turn the blue Dodge into something of a superstar.
While the rest of us are eating lunch, the Hotchkis team set to work recombobulating the Challenger. Out came the jack stands and wrenches, the busted knuckles and sweaty camaraderie. The whole process took about an hour and a half, and most of that time was spent getting the old lower control arms out.
In case you're wondering, here's what Hotchkis bolts onto your first-gen Challenger to turn it (partially) into an E-Max: front and rear tubular adjustable sport sway bars, geometry-corrected tubular A-arms, geometry-corrected sport leaf springs, strut rods, steering rods and sport shocks. They also weld up a pair of laser cut subframe connectors. They call it the Complete Hotchkis E-Body Total Vehicle System (or TVS for short) and if you happen to have a dirty old Challenger laying around, we seriously recommend the Hotchkis TVS.
All that you'd be missing are the low-pro wheels, massive four-wheel disk brakes, MSD ignition and, of course, the E-Max's magical steering. So you know, it consists of a Flaming River quick ratio box and a sprint car steering quickener all tied into a custom column. The good news? Hotchkis is coming out with a Challenger steering package in a few months.
Once more, let us look at the numbers. With nothing but some busted-ass street tires and Mark Hotchkis's cajones holding the Challenger to the track the old girl pulled 0.78 g on the skid pad, managed 59.4 mph through the slalom and lapped the 1.1-mile long Streets of Willows in 1.19.772. After the surgery, these numbers improved to 0.85 g on the skid pad, a much-improved 64.3 mph through the slalom and a respectable 1.17.480 around the Streets. Not bad for rear drums. Clearly the numbers got better, but also the wild body roll was nearly eliminated. Mark Hotchkis reported that since the front suspension was now holding the wheels in place therefor making the tires' contact patches larger, that the brakes worked better. Not bad for 90 minutes worth of work.
Overall, it's hard not to come away impressed by what Hotchkis can do to a car with mostly bolt on parts. In the case of the vintage Challenger, the improvements are overwhelming, but obviously limited to a tiny demographic. At nearly $3,000, the TVS is something of an investment, albeit one we think is worth it. Of course, if you do decide to upgrade your Challenger, you run the risk of exploding the heads of another tiny demographic: numbers-matching Mopar freaks. Also, as I was able to confirm a few weeks later in the canyons around Malibu, the Hotchkis bits don't hurt normal, day-to-day ride quality one iota. In fact, I doubt the car felt as good rolling off the assembly line. However, when it comes to the Camaro, the $1,298 these new parts will set you back is practically a no-brainer. All things being equal, that's a small amount of cash for some big-league performance enhancements. The numbers speak for themselves. I'm just here to share the joy.
Photos by Jonny Lieberman / Copyright ©2010 Weblogs, Inc. and Dan Khan