When Porsche set the production car lap record at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca a year ago with the 918 Spyder – a record formerly held by the SRT Viper TA – it set a pace which many expected would be unbeatable for quite a while, one which even the $1.3 million McLaren P1 simply couldn’t match. Indeed, 1:29.89 would be hard to beat for a production car of any price.
A few months later Dodge announced the Viper ACR, the most track-focused road-going version of the Mopar sports car. Expectations were high, but how could it compete with the modern batch of seven-figure, nearly 1,000 horsepower hypercar from Ferrari and the pair above – especially since SRT engineers had chosen to leave the 645 horsepower V10 and six-speed manual gearbox alone?
It took half a year to find out, but the wait was worth it. With SRT engineer Chris Winkler behind the wheel, the ACR team started by beating the production car lap record at Inde Motorsports Ranch in Wilcox, Arizona. Then they headed to Buttonwillow Raceway Park northwest of Bakersfield, California, and beat the production car record there. Then, they did the same thing at Willow Springs. And Virginia International Raceway. By the time Dodge made a formal announcement about the Viper ACR’s new trophy collection, they’d racked up 13 production car lap records across the country.
But the crown jewel was captured with pro driver Randy Pobst behind the wheel – the same hot shoe who’d set that incredible time in the 918 at Laguna Seca. Dodge put him behind the wheel of the ACR and sent him out to see how the new Viper would fare against the record – and they came back with the production car lap record, beating the 918 by more than a second with a 1:28.65 — that’s more than two seconds faster than the McLaren P1, for those keeping score.
That makes the latest Viper ACR essentially the fastest road-legal production track car that money can buy. So when the folks from SRT asked me if I wanted to take one for a spin around Chuckwalla Valley Raceway in the California desert during the a Viper Tracks event – a Viper owner’s club-organized weekend at the track – it didn’t take much convincing to get me out the door and on the road to Palm Springs.
Viper Tracks Pt. II: The Desert Sessions
With 2015 marking the first annual Viper Tracks event at Buttonwillow Raceway Park, the grassroots effort that was conceived by a group of ambitious Viper owners looking to bring both a sense of community to the Viper fraternity and provide an event tailor-made for Dodge’s super sports car. The program caught the attention of the folks from Dodge, who jumped in with both feet to help make the event a reality and provide elements to the weekend that simply would not be possible without their help.
From classroom instruction for drivers at all skill levels by pro racers who’ve piloted the Viper for Dodge’s factory team and Q&A sessions with SRT engineers (including Chris Winkler), to a full autocross course, a handful of Viper ACRs for the media to get seat time in during the event along with a number of Hellcat models for both lead/follow lapping and autocross duty, Dodge and SRT’s active role in the event elevates this celebration of the iconic sports car far beyond your typical car club track event.
Dodge engineers might have chosen to leave the 645 horsepower V10 from the standard Viper alone when developing the ACR, but that doesn’t mean this is some kind of wannabe sticker-and-wheel package. When SRT applied the ACR treatment to the previous generation Viper back in 2008, that car went on to set the Nurburgring production car lap record that same year and again in 2011, besting cars like the Lexus LFA “Nürburgring Edition.” Those are some big shoes to fill.
To that end, the ACR features a wild new aerodynamics package that boasts nearly one ton of downforce at 177 miles per hour – that’s over three times the downforce offered in the current Viper TA, and more of any production car ever. It’s achieved by way of a massive dual-element rear wing, rear carbon fiber diffuser, a unique SRT hood with removable louvers, a detachable extension for the front splitter and four dive planes.
Moving on to the braking system, the 2016 Viper ACR gets some serious stopping power from a new Brembo “Carbon Ceramic Matrix” system, which utilizes 15.4-inch two-piece front rotors (with six-piston calipers) and 14.2-inch discs out back that are clamped by four-piston calipers. Along with the most brake pad area ever offered on a Viper, the ACR features specially tuned stability control and ABS systems to eek the most out of the new brake package.
Also unique to the ACR is a 10-way adjustable Bilstein coiloverer suspension that offers three inches of height adjustability. But the car’s real secret weapon is a set of Kumho Ecsta V720 high-performance tires measuring 295/25R19 front and 355/30R19 rear that have been designed specifically for the 2016 Dodge Viper ACR which may be the best DOT-legal tires you can get right now. It’s a perfect example of a performance package that’s truly more than the sum of its parts.
Behind The Wheel
Over the years, the Viper has earned a reputation as an unruly beast that’s fast in the right hands but also a widowmaker that doesn’t suffer fools well. That’s inherent for most high horsepower, rear-wheel drive sports cars, but it’s worth noting that the fifth -generation car is worlds apart in terms of predictability and poise in comparison with the early iterations of the car that set that standard.
As in terms of sports car prowess, the ACR improves upon the standard Viper in nearly every way measurable – it’s quicker in a straight line, it stops harder, it corners with even more aplomb, and above all, it’s just about the most planted road car you’ll find at high speeds. But what’s truly remarkable about the ACR is how approachable it is, even for relative novices. Much of the credit for that should go to Kumho for making a seriously incredible street car tire.
The grip is simply relentless. After a few road course sessions, I decided to change things up and headed over to the autocross to see if I could come close to matching a colleague’s time of 36.8 seconds around the course. I was a bit disheartened when my first hop lap around the course resulted in a 42.2 on the timing board. “How am I going to make up five and a half seconds?” I complained to a track official, jokingly. “Just go faster,” was his reply.
That seemed reasonable enough to me, so I did. I switched off the part of my brain that was sure the car would plow into a corner here or cause the back end to come around there, and the results spoke for themselves – a 38.9 the next time around. Two runs later I was down to 37.1, and I have no doubt there’s a second a half left in the car that I might’ve found if my run group hadn’t been called to go out on track. Priorities, you know?
Those same principles of trusting the car hold true at speed on the road course as well. Chuckwalla Raceway is a technical, 17-turn course with a banked, high-speed bowl that the ACR can pull more than 1.5G around. It’s enough to make it feel like your face is being pulled off sideways, and it’s incredibly addictive. Every single lap around the course I found places to shave time off – braking later here and getting on the power earlier there – and at no point did the ACR even flinch at my ham-fisted inputs.
The car is flat-out accessible, begging you to find the limits of your capability and improve upon them – the car is always ready for more. Even Pobst needed half a day of track time to get the most out of the ACR at MRLS.
Saving The Best For Last
The bad news is that the majority of consumers are more concerned about comfortably cruising to the car show than a truly analogue sports car driving experience, and Vipers just haven’t been selling that well. Blame it on the lack of an optional automatic gearbox and Dodge’s stubborn determination to keep the Viper as pure as possible.
Their mission is undoubtedly admirable, but the upshot is that the 2016 Dodge Viper ACR might end up being the last new Viper model ever produced. If it does return, it will undoubtedly be a very different beast, and if Dodge knows what’s good for them, it will bear little resemblance to the concept that Bob Lutz commissioned in 1990 – a modern day AC Cobra.
That’s truly a shame. But life, as they say, is change. And if there’s a moment worth savoring it’s this one, a time when an American manufacturer once again produced a legitimate world-beater at a fraction of the cost of the competition – a car which can be ordered at the same dealership where a soccer mom is getting the oil changed in her Caravan during lunch. If that’s not an American legacy to be proud of, I don’t know what is.