Appearances can be deceiving. After spending some time in Japan you learn to never underestimate any car you see on the street. No matter how sedate the exterior is, never assume anything. And if the ride in question happens to be a Skyline GT-R, then tread very carefully. Take the Duke Racing-built R33 GT-R you see on these pages. A very nice clean example-stock bodywork, a set of obligatory Volk Racing TE37 wheels-but nothing that really hints at what it may be capable of. Look a bit closer and you might see some minor details like a front race car-like tow hook or the faint silhouette of a full rollcage through the side windows. You can guess all you want but you are never really sure until you pop the hood. There is never a bigger surprise than finding a pair of top-mounted turbochargers sitting aside the legendary RB26. One second is all you need, then you knowingly nod and admire with respect.
The Duke name might be familiar to those with a passion for drag racing. To this day they hold fourth place in the international 4WD drag records (on slicks) with an 8.326 sec. pass. That car, an R33 GT-R, runs twin HKS GT3540 turbines. The white Duke "R" we have here is not quite up to those standards but with a fully rebuilt motor and a pair of HKS GT3037S' it is one of the most insane street cars we've come across.
The owner of this stealth powerhouse wanted something a bit special and wasn't particularly bothered about creature comforts. So out went most of the interior trimmings, including the rear seats and floor carpeting to give way to a bolt-in rollcage. Despite this lack of amenities it remains a very comfortable car, easy to get in and out of. You might even begin to assume it may not be too bad for the occasional ride down to the grocery store. That is, until you turn the ignition. It takes a couple of seconds while the six huge 1000cc injectors try to spray a bit of fuel into the cylinders, and then all of a sudden it happens, the RB26 catches and comes to life. The thunderous note of the full Duke drag spec exhaust fuses with the ear-piercing hiss and whine of the twin Bosch fuel pumps and you realize that there is absolutely no kind of sound deadening in the cabin. The idle quickly settles to around 1000 rpm, but constantly hunts up and down in typical race car fashion.
Duke rebuilt the engine with HKS balanced and forged internals to guarantee a tough foundation for the bolt-on parts. A lot of work went into porting and polishing the head as well as making sure the engine could take the full 9000 rpm at full boost. The GT3037S turbines are fed through HKS stainless steel manifolds and are controlled by twin external wastegates, again from HKS.
Boost on the HKS EVC Pro was only set at 1.2 bar during our test drive but it was more than enough to get a glimpse at what more than 800 horsepower feels like. Don't expect electrifying response on a setup like this, it takes a while for the turbochargers to spool up and there is an enormous drag-spec intercooler to "fill up," not to mention the large-capacity GReddy intake plenum. But this sluggish low-end response becomes trivial once you hit 5,500 rpm. Keep the accelerator planted and what follows will leave most people totally astonished.
In what seems like a split second you hit the 9,000-rpm fuel cut as the wastegates scream away under the car and the exhaust expels copious amounts of hot gasses. Grab the next gear through the tight OS Giken close-ratio gearset and the acceleration gives no sign of dying off. There is so much power available that the car torque-steers from all four wheels and virtually veers left and right as you desperately tug at the steering wheel in an attempt to keep her straight. This is what high-power GT-Rs are all about: monster acceleration in every gear with equally impressive and relentless grip. Should you feel the need to light the rears up the Grid Dancer torque split controller allows you to send all power to the back while a line lock system makes sure you stay put.
With this amount of thrust under your right foot a decent set of brakes are always a good idea and Duke certainly didn't skimp in this area. Grex/Alcon 4-pot front calipers bite down on slotted rotors providing a reassuring strong pedal feel at any speed. The owner of the car enjoys the occasional time attack on fast circuits like Fuji Speedway and so the suspension can be set up for either circuit or drag thanks to the fully adjustable Kawasaki coil-over kit.
Back in the interior a set of HKS dials keep important parameters like oil pressure and exhaust gas temperature under scrutiny while the Nismo 320 km/h combination meter is eclipsed by an Auto Meter Sport Comp tach with shift light, a necessary piece of equipment for those full rpm drag launches. The rear of the Recaro bucket seats have actually been signed by none other than Daijiro Inada, the daddy of all things aftermarket and extreme in Japan. They were actually purchased at auction and fitted to the car recently, without a doubt a great conversation starter.
Duke Racing was clearly successful in the goal of developing a heart-stopping R33 that isn't so ostentatious everyone stares. In Japan, the owner of this GT-R can blend in with the others when he wants to and with a tap on the accelerator blow everyone away on a whim. Peel off the stickers and this Skyline is the sleeper of all sleepers. What we were reminded of is the age-old adage: "Don't judge a book by its cover." The true beauty here, or one could say threat, lies under the hood.