Home » Dodge Neon ACR Racing Champion Tells Us Why The First-Gen Neon ACR Was A Wolf In Economy Car Clothing

Dodge Neon ACR Racing Champion Tells Us Why The First-Gen Neon ACR Was A Wolf In Economy Car Clothing

Neontop

This morning I found myself marveling over how much you readers love stories of rare versions of regular cars. Automotive history is full of Holy Grails, and today we have another. Jason reminded me that the Dodge Neon ACR was once a thing. This was a car that was just a cage from being track-ready, and actually quick around a circuit. It looked like a teenager’s first car, but was fast enough to shame the competition.

Whenever something makes me conjure up memories of the Dodge Neon and its Plymouth twin, those memories take me right back to high school. It was common to see a Neon in my high school’s parking lot, and those cars would usually be used up and beaten down. Despite crumbling rust, peeling paint, and all kinds of dents, these cars still got classmates to school. Chrysler, Dodge and Plymouth put roughly 2,224,000 Neons on the road between 1993 and 2004, and many of the survivors continue to live a life of cheap transportation. But such is the life of many inexpensive cars. And yet, through the damage you could still see the kind face of a car that Dodge once marketed simply by saying “Hi.”

Neonad
Dodge

As our Jason wrote back in 2019, these cars are way cooler than they appear at first glance. I think this little paragraph about the concept and the production version sums it best:

The Neon started life as a fairly bonkers 1991 concept car with a two-stroke engine, four sliding doors, and a freaking onboard trash compactor. It was a bold take on the standard small, entry-level sedan formula, and while the production version stripped away all the really weird two-strokey, trash-compacty stuff, the end result still captured the fun essence of the concept.

Neon Concept
Chrysler

And the Neon was more than just cute, inexpensive, and fun. Then Chrysler President Bob Lutz said: “There’s an old saying in Detroit: ‘Good, fast, or cheap. Pick any two.’ We refuse to accept that.”

The Neon came with a 2.0-liter four making 132 HP, with an option to get 150 HP in the R/T. And you could get your Neon as a coupe or a sedan, which weighed in at roughly 2,400 pounds. In today’s world–where regular family cars can easily sneeze out 300 HP–that’s nothing. But you have to look at what else was on the road in 1993.

A Saturn SC1 made 85 HP while the SC2 made 124 HP. The Nissan Sentra put out 110 HP unless you got the SE-R, which netted you 140 HP. A Volkswagen Golf made 115 HP, and even the hot Honda Civic Si made 125 HP. All of these cars had weights close to each other, too. And at $9,457 ($19,277 today), Car and Driver says, the Neon was $850 cheaper than the cheapest four-door Saturn. So right out of the box the little Neon had an advantage.

If you were a racer, the Neon had a version just for you.

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Grassroots Motorsports Seller

The Neon ACR, sold under Dodge and Plymouth, was homologated by the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) and was just a cage away from being able to compete in a number of racing series. In fact, when the Neon ACR made its debut for the 1994 model year, you had to be a licensed SCCA racer to buy it. Fewer than 200 of them were sold for 1994, and from 1995 to 1999 the ACR was available to everyone.

So, what did you get with the ACR? Well, you actually got fewer bits with the Neon ACR. The car came without anything that would add weight, like the air-conditioning, sound deadening, and the stereo. And while you lost creature comforts, you gained thicker anti-roll bars and adjustable shocks. All wheel disc brakes were available, and they came without the ABS that they’d get on the regular car. Sedans kept the 132 HP four of the base car, but coupes got the 150 HP dual cam four from the R/T.

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eBay

ACRs didn’t come with anything snazzy that allowed you to easily identify one. Though, you could identify an ACR by looking at its front bumper. They had higher-end trim bumpers, but without the fog lights that those cars would have. Other goodies came in the form of keeping the radiator meant for Neons with air-conditioning and a faster steering ratio.

As Hemmings writes, this was enough to help propel the Neon to lots of racing victories. Neons won three consecutive Showroom Stock C competitions and they were known to absolutely kill it at the track. Neons even got their own spec series, the Neon Challenge. The folks of Allpar have compiled a list of what they could find of the Neon’s impressive racing career [Editor’s Note: I just interviewed a national champion mentioned on Allpar’s list— keep reading! -DT]. Today, you’ll still find them zipping around tracks, and I’ve also seen them competing in off-road time trial events like HooptieX.

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eBay

Perhaps the coolest part about the Neon ACR (which means American Club Racer) is that it’s road legal. So, it’s a car that you could dominate at the track with then drive home in.

The first ACRs ended production in 1999 before returning again in the Neon’s second-generation and again in the SRT-4. It’s not known exactly how many first-generation ACRs were made, but enthusiasts estimate that there were 4,256 made between 1994 and 1997, and it’s even more unclear how many 1998s and 1999s there are.

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Grassroots Motorsports Seller

One thing’s for sure, it that these are seemingly getting lost to time. Popular selling platforms Bring a Trailer and Cars & Bids have sold Neon SRT-4s, but zero first-generation ACRs and only one SRT-4 ACR. I’ve found a number of ACRs for sale on Facebook, and all of them are either later models, worn down and heavily modified, or no longer street legal. A minty one went up for sale in 2018, generating headlines. Normally, I’d say that’s sad, but not this time. At least to me, the lack of good early ACRs for sale means that so many of them have done their job, getting raced hard then going on to be their owners’ daily drivers.

David Tracy Interviews The Neon King

Thank you, Mercedes, for letting me crash your article a bit, here. The thing is, there was no way I could publish an article about Dodge Neon ACRs when I know the Dodge Neon guy. His name is Erich Heuschele, and he’s the head of vehicle dynamics for Chrysler’s fast-car division, SRT. I met him while half-drunk at a huge Gambler 500 party in northern Michigan, where he drove – of course — a modified Neon with a wacky wing bolted to the hood. Erich loves Neons more than you could ever imagine — in fact, in some ways, he owes his career to the little car.

“I’m still riding that [Neon racing] wave now,” he told me over the phone today. “I was a nobody! I was just a freakin’ lab engineer who autocrossed and started doing track days in my Sentra SER. I jumped into that Neon ACR. I won the regional champion champ in 94. In 95 I won the national championship…There was the Neon Challenge Pro Series, and I won in ’97, and I won in ’98 — that was on ESPN 2 at 2 in the morning. [Racing Neons] took me from nobody to a hero at work!” Erich was a lab engineer, then a brake guy, then a suspension guy, then he went into litigation for a few years. Then: “Freakin’ SRT called me. They needed a dynamics guy — called me! I was working in litigation on the 13th floor!”

“I could attribute my career post-1997 to racing Neons,” he told me. “It was way better than any master’s degree I could have got. I’m the highest level driver at Chrysler right now because of it, too. (I’m not the best driver, but I am the highest level — the best driver works for me).” Heuschele then reminisced with me over the phone about how he learned a lot from racecar driver Randy Pobst, whom Chrysler hired when doing Neon development work.

Anyway, I’ve gotten ahead of myself. The main reason I called Erich was to learn about what made the first-gen Neon ACR special. First things first: The powertrain was a big deal, even if it wasn’t unique to the ACR.

“It was totally the same engine,” he told me, and everything was parts-bin except the struts front and rear,” he said, comparing the ACR to a regular Neon. “It was pretty cool; they did a lot with not-much. It was a pretty light car! I think the minimum weight spec was 2,420 with a cage!”

Heuschele got into the Neon ACR racing craze early in his career; he was too young to have developed the first Neon, but he wasn’t too young to race the shit out of one. “The first-gen ACR was legit, man,” he said. “I bought one of the first ones; I think I bought the second black car in ’94.”

“Welcome to my life; 1994 to 1998 – racing Neons…I had three of them. Actually four!”

Then we got into some nuts and bolts of the machine. “The first-gen Neons, like the very first Honda CRX — it doesn’t have very much suspension travel. In order to manage not having very much suspension travel, it has to be very stiff…so you have to put very stiff shocks in it, and next thing you know: You have a sporty car.”

“[Chrysler] put a 2 liter engine in it. None of the competitors had that big of an engine. A lot of them were 1.8s, a lot of them were two-valves… [the Neon] as just a powerhouse compared to its competition at the time.”

“You put that big torque engine in it…you got a big motor, you got a stiff platform, stiff suspension, and pretty good geometry — struts all thew ay around. The company decided it wanted to go SCCA stock racing and they wanted to do autocross, and they put contingency money from the start behind nationals level racing… there was money in it — that was part of the marketing plan for the car.”

How about that?! The Neon was designed to race cars from day one! And the folks behind making it capable were those with experience racing front-wheel drive Shelby Chargers.

“The company decided – I was too new and young [at the time] — there was a whole contingent of people racing the Shelby Chargers…John Fernandez somehow convinced management that that’d be a good way yo market that car…[incidentally,] large parts of team Shelby became early team Viper…[The Shelby Charger race folks] had experience racing, and they knew how to make a competitive race car…A lot of experience gained from that got put into [the Neon ACR] program.”

“They did a parts bin car, by pulling ahead some of the parts that were going to go into the [Neon] Sport Coupe — it was geared down. The springs and sway bars from the upcoming Sport Coup [went into the ACR]….and racing shocks — stock Arvin shock bodies, only totally valved as race shocks, and they had camber slots where you attach the knuckles, so you can add 2.5 degrees of camber.”

“We kinda played the rules and played the SCCA, so we could run race alignment,” Heuschele laughed, saying the rules say the car couldn’t be modified. A normal Neon, he told me, had a recommended camber of plus or minus 0.5 degrees. The ACR’s recommending? Plus .5, minus 2.5 degrees. “We specifically made a car to be an SCCA racer and autocrosser,” he reiterated. Part of that meant weight reduction.

“We parts-binned everything, and had these unique struts — otherwise, the car was the lightest possible. It didn’t have bump-strips on the side, it didn’t have sound deadening, it had the cheapest possible seats. Except it had the sport fascia without fog lights – that’s how you can tell the ACR.”

Even non-ACR Neons were fast, Heuschele made clear. Many cars in the segment had little 1.6s that made around 110 to 115 horses; the base Neon 2.0 managed over 130. “You just smoked ’em,” he told me about the competition.

The four-door ACR had a single cam 4 valve like the regular car. “It was never any different,” he said, though the 3.94 final drive ratio and shorter transmission gearing from the upcoming coupe were definitely beneficial, as were the new shocks. “The two-door Neons which came out the next year…were dual cams with dual-cam trans, which all two-doors had.”

“So if you look at a Sport Coupe versus an ACR coupe with a dual cam, the only differences was the ACR had the racing valve shock with adjustable camber, and a base base interior, no spoiler, no bump strips — all that other stuff.”

Anyway, I’m hoping to do a ridiculously deep-dive into the Neon with Erich at some later point. For now, click the video above and watch him show his skills in the Viper ACR.

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41 Responses

  1. I’ve told this story many times over the years, online and in my driver ed classes to my students, to illustrate how there are a lot of factors that play into the ideal driving experience.

    September 1995: A much-younger AKA_Rukh was visiting my mom, on leave fresh out of army basic training. I had never had a car of my own yet, and knew I was going to get one with my newfound income and guaranteed job for the next five years. My mom lived in southern Michigan, and I found myself at the Chrysler dealership in Albion, MI. They had a 1996 m/y Neon R/T Coupe (I don’t remember if it was a Dodge or a Plymouth) that had every option. Best of all, it was my favorite color, chartreuse (the most visible color to the human eye) which Chryco called “Nitro Yellow Green.” The dealership got my info and let me have the keys, and told me to take my time. I popped in a cassette of my favorite classical music, and started driving the back roads. There was a perfect moment in time where the combination of being an 18 year old with no real cares, the sporty little car, the undulating country roads, the beautiful trees and scenery, and the perfect song – Flight of the Bumble Bee – all came together to create something truly special. Obviously I STILL remember that 30 minute drive all these years later. The Neon was a great little car that most people never really knew; I didn’t end up buying that car, but I haven’t forgotten about it and I still find myself searching for NYG Neon Coupes every once in a while.

  2. I had a first year ES 4 door . In fact I was one of the first in my county to receive one. I had the fove speed SOHC 132Hp motor. I had it for 3 years. I never has the head gasket issues and only a quarter size paint chip missing on the roof after a rock strike. These were fun cars marred by terrible quality control. At 60k, my clutch literally shattered into a billion pieces, the suspension squeaked from day one , and the paint had only a tacit agreement with body panels. ( thankfully limited to a quarter size chip on the roof). I replaced the clutch and sold it shortly after that. A shame because Chrysler in the 1990s was a design powerhouse but Chrysler quality was terrible

  3. I had a 1995 manual sport which was a fun car, but the owner experience was ruined by breakdowns and blown head gaskets. I sold it with 75K on it a few years later. I assume that is why there are few survivors currently.

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