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My day at the races

The Los Angeles County Raceway is one of the area’s great cultural resources, particularly if you are the type to spell “cultural” with a can of spray paint.

This scruffy and sun-haggard hunk of asphalt, in Palmdale in the Antelope Valley, offers off-the-chart vehicular giggles for a pittance. It’s great. On Wednesday and Friday nights, anybody with a car and a helmet can bracket-race for $15. The Sunday test-and-tune session is $20, and you can make as many passes as you like before your tires melt.

So on behalf of the management -- including the guy who sleeps in the ticket booth -- I invite you to bring out your pretty little BMW Dinan M3s, your Mercedes SL55 AMGs, your Saleen Mustangs yearning to breathe free.

And bring a candy bar, because the locals will definitely eat your lunch.

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Most Sunday afternoons, the kings of the burnout box are the guys with the hot-rodded Mustang Cobras that can turn 12-second quarter-miles, the 11-second Toyota Supras, the eight-second Super Comp Chevy Camaros, the seven-second gas dragsters.

But as I wheel a silver 2004 Dodge Ram SRT-10 pickup onto the paddock’s hot, spit-scented asphalt, I know I’m Mr. Big.

Within seconds, a dozen burly men and boys surround the truck. No pleasantries. No friendly thumbs up. Just a big-knuckled rap on the window: “How fast is it, bro?” “Lemme in there, man.” “How much is it?” They are racers. They want to know now.

“Yo, bro, pop the hood,” demands one man whose smile is missing a tooth like an abandoned building misses a window.

I oblige. Up goes the massive silver hood, revealing the SRT-10’s reason for being: an 8.3-liter, 10-cylinder, 500-horsepower Viper engine. The thermals rise from the red crinkle-coat valve covers that say “Viper.” The crowd seems to falter as if overtaken by a wave of envy-induced angina.

“Damn, bro.”

I was just thinking that.

What a difference 50 miles of highway makes. In the cozened quarters of La La Land, the SRT-10 couldn’t be more politically incorrect if it wore a white hood and was named the Dodge Imperial Wizard. It’s huge. It’s big-fat-fiance obnoxious. It’s got more vulgar bulges than a Chippendales show. It burns gas like a fuel depot fire and tires like a Port-au-Prince roadblock.

But in sunstroked Palmdale, its presence is a kind of divine visitation. A Viper-powered pickup truck? What, anywhere, could possibly be cooler than that?

Pickup buyers are a curious sort. On the one hand, they are romantics, fiercely brand loyal and deeply attached to the pickup as a personal value statement, a badge of homeland honor. But they also are hardheaded. They like numbers. Every year truck makers wage war over which brand has the most towing capacity, the most torque or the biggest engine.

Add “fastest” to the list of fought-over numbers. In August a Ford F-150 Lightning SVT set a Guinness record as the world’s fastest production pickup truck, reaching 147 mph. This week Dodge’s Special Vehicle Operations team will take a Ram SRT-10 to DaimlerChrysler’s Chelsea proving grounds in Michigan and attempt to break Ford’s record. Brendan Gaughan, rookie driver for Penske Motorsports’ Nextel Cup team, will go for the record on Chelsea’s parabolic track -- assuming they can shovel the snow off.

The rear-wheel-drive SRT-10 was purpose-built to ink this record for Dodge. And you can have one for a mere $45,795.

It’s not easy to make a pickup truck go 150 mph. Even more important than horsepower is assuring that young Brendan, or anyone else, makes it home to his mother in one piece. Dodge called in the aerodynamics experts from its NASCAR truck series program to design the ground-effects package on the SRT-10. The Dodge’s huge front air dam with splitter (the thin lip at the bottom) helps keep pressurized air from building up under the truck. The hoop-style spoiler stretched over the cargo box generates rear down force -- enough, one hopes, to keep Brendan shiny side up.

So the aero pieces are functional. The fact that the SRT-10 looks like something Judge Dredd might use for a run to the hardware store is just a happy byproduct.

Likewise, the enormous 22-inch alloy Speedline wheels, the stuff of hip-hop fantasy, are not there simply to pander to Dub Nation. Wheel and tire size makes a big difference in a vehicle’s top speed -- in effect, wheels and tires are another gear between the engine and the ground. Bigger wheels generally mean slower acceleration but higher top speed.

Think of it this way: With 305/40ZR22 Pirellis mounted on the SRT-10, the wheels have a rolling circumference of 8.27 feet, which means they will spin about 1,600 times a minute at 150 mph; the 19-inch rear wheels on the Dodge Viper sports car have to spin about 1,760 times a minute to attain that speed.

The output of the 8.3-liter Viper engine is unchanged from that of the sports car: 500 horsepower and 525 pound-feet of torque, which peaks at 4,200 rpm. Huge 2.5-inch cat-back pipes pump exhaust through a megaphone-like resonator and out 3.5-inch twin chrome exhausts. Call it Dodge’s bad-neighbor policy. At full bellow the SRT-10 will set off car alarms and raise dear departed pets from their loamy backyard interments.

The gear-wrangling duties fall to the Viper’s Tremec six-speed manual transmission with its two towering overdrive gears. Unlike the Viper, the SRT-10 is kited with a retro-style Hurst shifter with a chrome arm more than a foot long. Instead of the early ‘70s Challenger’s pistol grip -- am I the only one to miss those? -- the Ram uses a leather ball shift knob.

With so much torque straining at the flywheel just off throttle, clutch management is an issue. The uptake of the clutch is smooth and linear, and the pedal’s weight is agreeably light. The throw of the pedals, however, is considerable, as is the pedal spacing. It’s actually quite tricky to heel-and-toe the SRT-10 -- press the brake with the ball of your right foot while rolling your ankle to press the accelerator -- as is necessary in a drag strip burnout box.

Do you really want to know what it’s like to drive one of these for a week, or do you just want to get to the smoky burnouts? Well, on the street the SRT-10 is lumpy, jumpy and hard to park. Given its mad-playa looks and blot-out-the-sun size, you typically get two hand gestures in L.A.: one, the bent-wrist, hand-flick signal of appreciation, the one that rappers use when they rip a good rhyme. The other gesture is less salutatory.

Out in the canyons, it’s a little disorienting. With all this tire meat, the SRT-10 corners like it’s on the planet Velcro. Once the suspension -- short-long arms up front, leaf springs in back, front and rear antiroll bars, Bilstein monotube shocks all around -- acquires hold in a long turn, you can pretty much roll on as much power as you dare without breaking loose the rear end. Your features will be distorted as if you had Bell’s palsy.

However, the thing weighs 2 1/2 tons and is big as a barn, so it’s not exactly agile in tight corners. Yes, you can easily throttle-steer it -- that is, break loose the rear tires to rotate the truck as it goes around a corner -- but all that mass makes it rather unhandy. Who wants to power-slide into opposing traffic?

No, the SRT-10 has an innate desire to go straight. And that’s why I’m at the drag strip.

You would think that a vehicle engineered to set a world speed record would be right at home at the L.A. County Raceway. Not so. The very things that make the SRT-10 a contender on the high banks of an oval track make it a little iffy on the drag strip.

The beads on my mental abacus begin to slide around just as the starter waves me into the near-lane burnout box. In the far lane -- I can hardly believe it -- another silver Ram pickup, this one a performance-tuned 5.7-liter Hemi.

Sure, I outgun him by 155 horsepower, but he weighs 500 pounds less than I do. More worrisome are his smaller, 20-inch wheels. On a drag strip, bigger wheels can slow you at the start. Drag racers who go to bigger wheels and tires for better traction routinely compensate with a shorter (numerically higher) gear ratio in the rear differential for a better hole shot. I wouldn’t mind swapping the SRT-10’s 4.11:1 rear axle for a 4.56:1.

I roll my rear tires into the puddle of water in the burnout box. Taking a moment to fiddle with the power-adjustable pedals, I bridge my right foot between the polished-metal brake and gas pedals. Squeezing the brake pedal with the ball of my foot, I roll onto the throttle with my heel, letting out the clutch as I do. Tire smoke envelops the truck as I vaporize $50 worth of exotic Italian rubber. The driveline starts to buck, and the cabin fills with a warbling complaint. I ease off the brakes and spin out of the box smoothly up to the starting line.

OK. That’s fun. I think of Caligula. Throw another virgin on the fire.

Once staged at the lights, I tease the throttle up to about 4,000 rpm. The demons under the hood are howling. At the moment I see the last amber light on the tree, I slip my foot off the clutch and then -- the truck bogs down. Damn!

The back wheels chug on the sticky asphalt, killing the revs. The SRT-10 staggers away from the line and it takes until the 330-foot mark for the truck to come to a boil again. This is ugly.

As I grab second gear, the guy in the Ram Hemi is door to door with me. But the SRT-10 is finding its feet now. I pull away. At about 6,000 rpm, I jam the Hurst shifter into third -- and miss. The shift linkage is bunged up. I have no choice but to back out of the throttle and let the Hemi go by me. I cross the quarter-mile line at 15.22 seconds and 82 mph. Pitiful.

The kid handing out the timing slips looks at me as if I might have become separated from my caravan of wandering idiots.

Back in the paddock, my new friends offer constructive criticism.

“Get out of there!” a guy with a black mustache orders. “I can do better than that.”

No doubt he could, but I decline.

“Listen, boy, you gotta raise them revs,” another says. “You know, drive it like you stole it.”

Back at the line for a second go, I do just that, slipping the clutch into first gear at about 5,500 rpm. This time, however, the big Italian tires spin uselessly, shrieking like Maria Callas stepping on a tack. The SRT-10 doesn’t hook up for 100 feet. Fortunately, the Dodge engineers added a special gas shack between the axle and the frame to limit wheel hopping.

To make matters worse, I miss third gear again. It’s official. This Hurst linkage stinks. It’s like playing pin the tail on the transmission.

I don’t even bother to pick up my time slip. I wait for it in the paddock, but my advice-giving friends are suddenly scarce. My helmet smells like shame.

Last pass: My rival, the Hemi pickup, is back at the line. I figure the ideal launch requires engine revs hovering in the 4,500 range. At the line ... yellow light ... bang! ... Helmet gets heavy

And just that fast -- 14.2 seconds and 99 mph -- I’m done. I coast through the shutdown area, considering my options. Sure, I could get more out of the truck. Three more passes and I’d be in the mid-13 seconds. Hey, I paid my 20 bucks.

But I decide to accept today’s verdict of ignominious mediocrity.

No, wait. I accept that every day.

Conclusion: The Ram SRT-10 is so over the top you can’t even see the top from there. I mean, really, a 500-horsepower, 150-mph pickup? This is sheer, unforgivable decadence, like boreholing the last plains buffalo with a Spencer carbine or washing your car with Gatsby’s shirts. I know, it’s wrong. I feel terrible.

Can I come back tomorrow?

Times automotive critic Dan Neil can be reached at dan.neil@latimes.com.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

2004 Dodge Ram SRT-10

Wheelbase: 120.5 inches

Length: 211.6 inches

Curb weight: 5,150 pounds

Powertrain: 8.3-liter V-10 engine, six-speed Tremec manual transmission, limited-slip differential, rear-wheel drive

Horsepower: 500 at 5,600 rpm

Torque: 525 pound-feet at 4,200 rpm

Acceleration: Zero to 60 mph in 5.3 seconds, as tested

Top speed: 153 mph

EPA fuel rating: 10 miles per gallon city, 15 mpg highway

Price, as tested: $45,795

Sources: DaimlerChrysler, Car and Driver


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