Three years ago, I was invited to compete in the Dodge Viper Cup, a spec series for the company’s heady Viper ACR-X, the factory-built, fire-breathing, racing version of its slightly more humble ACR road car.
With Michelin slicks, some meaningful aerodynamics, horrible sightlines from the driver’s seat and a cockpit with temperatures that easily reach over 50° C, it was going to require a bit of a learning curve before I could master this Viper, but what did I know? I was successfully campaigning a Honda Civic in American club racing and at the top of my game.
Dodge’s Viper Cup series included a wide range of drivers, primarily club racers (all of whom had a real need for speed), to blokes who now race in the pro ranks, like Viper Cup champion Ben Keating, to Chrysler’s now motorsports President and CEO, Ralph Gilles. The Canadian-raised Gilles is one of a small number of auto industry executives who can talk the talk and walk the walk when it comes to his love for automotive. Yes, this CEO can wring the neck of any racecar and I’ve raced with him, or more accurately, against him, outside of Viper Cup as well. He can drive.
Before the season began, the good folks at Chrysler asked me for my choice of race weekends and as much as I desperately wanted to race at Daytona, the smart money (meaning the folks who were going to let me race their very fast racecar that costs well over 100 grand) rightly pointed me to the event at Virginia International Raceway, or VIR as all of my friends call it. VIR is a historic sports car circuit, tucked into Virginia just over the North Carolina border and in fact, unless you’re coming in by helicopter, the only way to get to the track is through North Carolina.
July in Virginia, as always, is hot and humid – think of peak Ontario summer on steroids – and racing a car that generates a tremendous amount of heat is perhaps one of the plain craziest things one can do. Racing a Civic doesn’t require much physical training, but I figured the snake from Motown might demand a little more out of me, so I trained for weeks beforehand.
Still, nothing prepared me for the experience that was racing a Viper. When I first sat in my car, the crew told me, “Don’t worry about your mirrors because you can’t see out of the car anyway.” Sitting there in the garage, it seemed like the mirrors would be useful, but as soon as I rolled out on track for my test session I realized that I couldn’t see a darn thing.
Well-known West Coast racer Cindy Lux, proprietor of Lux Performance Group along with her husband Fred, was tasked by Dodge to prepare the company’s two race cars reserved for celebrities and media blokes like myself. With her depth of experience, Lux was a ledger of Viper driving wisdom and early on she told me, “Use the torque of the V10, don’t worry about revving it out,” and for my first few sessions I did exactly that.
Until Kuno Wittmer arrived at the track, that is. Back then, Wittmer was Viper’s factory driver, but he was driving the car in the Pirelli World Challenge, not the recent IMSA SRT Viper GTLM. The Montreal-based racer had taken me for a spin in his Viper the year before, so I immediately started to pick his brain about getting the most out of ACR-X. He told me, “Forget torque, drive the horsepower!” with a sly smile. That I did, and picked up a few tenths in my next session.
By the time I took the green flag in race one, I was still learning the car and, in the first few laps I made some passes, going from 13th to eighth. Race two presented a different problem: I cut a tire on my first hot lap in qualifying. I was on pace for sixth or seventh place on the grid, but fighting oversteer in the last few corners of that lap put me in P13 again. After a dramatic start, I was able to pass a few more cars before settling into the race. In the sprint format that the Viper Cup raced, I couldn’t catch the lead pack, so I finished in eighth again.
They say – or at least I do – that you never really know a car until you race one, and since the day I raced that Viper ACR-X, I’ve been a fan of this crazy, hairy-chested, American supercar.
Fast forward a few months and my friends from Viper surprised everyone at the 2012 New York Auto Show with an announcement that they were going racing in IMSA for the 2013 season to battle it out with the factory programs from Corvette, Porsche, Aston Martin and BMW. Plus, they were going back to Le Mans, where the Viper GTS-R made its mark on the racing world with three class wins in days gone by.
In the meantime, SRT gets involved at the other end of the racing spectrum with the Fiat 500 in SCCA Pro Racing’s Pirelli World Challenge. One day while diligently doing my job of testing a Lamborghini Aventador, my phone rings and displays a Detroit phone number. Since the Aventador is so darn loud, I decide to let the call go to voicemail. When I finally park, it turns out the call is from my old pal, Gary Johnson, SRT Racing Manager for Chrysler, asking me if I’d like to race their Fiat 500.
A few weeks later, I’m in Brainerd, Minnesota for rounds 11 and 12 of Pirelli World Challenge, and I finally lay my eyes upon the SRT Motorsports Fiat 500. The Fiat competes in Touring Class B, otherwise known as B Spec, a category that’s developed in the last few years to encourage low-cost, production car racing.
B Spec was founded on a relatively simple open book of rules that are intended to equalize performance – and keep costs down – for sub-compact cars. The World Challenge TCB field is filled with Honda Fits, Ford Fiestas, Mini Coopers and the like. For my weekend in the car, I was the lone Fiat driver.
SRT’s 500 had been raced during the 2014 season by a range of drivers with mixed results, but the racer in me thinks that a lack of a consistent driver and the resulting development is putting me behind the proverbial eight ball. Indeed, as much fun as the Fiat is to drive – and as exciting as the concept is – this 500 can use a little help.
During every session, I have no trouble staying with my competitors through the corners, but on every straight they are able to pass me and pull away – with or without a draft – and I’m not able to make gains by jumping back into their draft. As a driver, I’m never one to give up, so during my races, I click off fast laps, as fast as that little 500 can go, with so much consistency that my lap chart makes it looks like I’m a robot.
While the 500 wasn’t the car I’d hoped for (it just needs a couple of simple, rules-approved changes to be on pace), racing in Pirelli World Challenge was a blast. Competition in the TCB category is undeniably professional and the good folks preparing SRT’s Fiat did an exceptional job of doing everything possible to get some additional speed out of the car.
A few weeks later, the SRT Viper racing team celebrated its 2014 championship at Petit Le Mans and I couldn’t be happier for this group of hard-working racers. The next day, with heavy hearts I’m sure, Chrysler announced the end of the SRT Viper racing program. Sure, it’s always good to go out on top, but fans and competitors alike are undoubtedly saddened by the loss of those thundering V10s.
Racing has changed since Viper first drove at Le Mans in 1996 and, perhaps the old adage of win on Sunday, sell on Monday is outmoded. With the success of an almost endless number of customer racing programs in recent years, perhaps the trick is to put race cars in the hands of customers, so they can race on Sunday, then go to work on Monday.
While I haven’t asked the question to Viper folks, I think we’re going to see another ACR-X factory built racer in the near future. If I were a betting man, I’d bet we’ll see another Viper Cup series and just like before, Canadians Wittmer will develop the car, while Gilles will be back behind the wheel in heated competition.