The Dodge Viper roared into existence back in 1991 and quickly took over a portion of our hearts and minds. After all, it embodied raw American power – a supercar birthed on home soil.
Engineers shoved an 8.0-liter 10-cylinder engine under the hood of the original that produced a then-impressive 400 horsepower and 465 pound-feet of torque. Those numbers may sound fairly pedestrian today, but remember that the first-generation Viper only weighed 3,284 pounds and its powertrain pushed the car to a top speed of 164 miles per hour.
The fourth-and-final-for-now-generation Dodge Viper was born in 2008 with more matured looks inside and out, as well as more power underhood. Now displacing 8.4-liters, the car's iconic V10 produces 600 hp and 560 lb-ft of torque. Before it drives off into the sunset, this last-gen snake is taking one final victory lap.
That victory lap, however, is not merely figurative. Dodge created the Viper Cup Racing Series to give its supercar a proper sendoff: ten races at five courses around the country, all being contested by the Dodge Viper ACR-X. The final weekend took place in October at Spring Mountain Motorsports Ranch and Autoblog was invited to tag along. My ears are still ringing, but my memory is clear... this wasn't about how fast a group of people could go around a track, but rather a celebration of an American icon.
Photos copyright ©2010 Jeff Glucker / AOL
The Viper owners filled the parking lot, some with just a truck and trailer while others had rigs that would make Dale Earnhardt Jr. jealous. The Dodge super car was everywhere and Viper fever filled the paddock. Owners would stop and talk about anything, as long as it revolved around their favorite sports car. Some folks made the trip to mingle with other fans and show off their singular pride and joy, while for others it was a chance to test themselves and their machine... or in some cases, machines.
Vipers from every generation were on hand and even a few special examples made it to the Nevada desert. Dodge only produced a handful of race-only Competition Coupe Vipers, yet I counted at least six examples on hand and willing to risk a crinkled fender to participate on track. These Competition Coupes were only available for purchase directly through Dodge, and were predecessors to the ACR-X cars that would later be competing for the Viper Cup trophy.
I was invited to ride shotgun as Dodge's development driver flogged a new Viper ACR-X around the Spring Mountain track. My brain tried to compute what happened, but the driver, a person younger, fitter and probably just all-around better behind the wheel than me, did things with the car that occurred more quickly than I could process them. His hands were a blur as they worked the wheel and shifter while his feet played the pedals like a piano.
I wasn't bewildered just by how quickly the Viper ACR-X accelerates in both a straight line and through corners, but also by how quickly the car's brakes can haul that speed back in. Put another way, the Viper brakes so hard it hurts my brain. My thought process while being ferried around the track went like this: "Is he really going to take this corner flat out?" was replaced by "Why is blue so seven?" Another straight opened up and I thought "Man, it must be awesome to have this guy's job..." as he got hard on the brakes and I thought, "So that's why coffee pork always happens in threes." To say the Viper ACR-X is wildly impressive, even from the passenger seat, is an understatement.
The Viper meant the world to everyone in attendance, but there was one person in particular with whom I was eager to chat and find out a more about what makes this car so special. Ralph Gilles, CEO of Dodge and Senior Vice President of Design for the Chrysler Group, gave Autoblog a few moments of his time before he hopped back into an ACR-X and qualifed for the weekend's two races.
AB: What does the Viper mean to Dodge?
RG: "It's an icon... I am a big fan of iconic vehicles and the Viper holds that position for Dodge. Like the Wrangler to Jeep, the Viper is to Dodge. It's a special car and one that is respected around the world."
AB: What is in store for the future of the Viper?
RG: "Right now, the car is too basic... that is part of its charm, but also one of its weaknesses. We are going to drive it into the 21st century and modernize it. By law, it will require traction control going forward, but we will keep it a true driver's car as well. It's simply going to get better and will become a crafted piece of engineering with a high level of fit and finish. It will be the most radical, yet most stable Viper ever produced."
AB: What does the Viper mean to you personally?
RG: "It's the reason I joined the company! I remember seeing nothing but K-cars from Dodge... then I walked into the 1990 Detroit Auto Show and saw the concept Viper. As a designer, it blew me away. I wanted to be a part of the future of that car."
AB: What is it like driving the ACR-X in the Viper Cup Spec Series?
RG: "It's really a lot of fun... since it's a spec series, everyone is on an even playing field and it's up to the driver to win the race. I'm out here to have fun, but I also want to try my best against these guys. The car itself though is a real beast."
After we spoke, Gilles went out and actually earned the pole position for the final race. Unfortunately for him, rally star and host of the upcoming Top Gear USA series Tanner Foust was starting in second and promptly passed him before the two hit the first turn. Ralph hung tough, however, and finished the race in third behind overall Viper Cup series winner Ryan Schimsk and invited-guest Foust.
The race ended and the champagne was sprayed, but the celebration of the Viper continued long into the evening. After spending time with Gilles, an honest-to-goodness car guy – and friendly one at that – we're confident that Viper fans are in good hands. They may have to make more room in the paddock, however, as a whole new generation of car fans are going to want to drive this snake on the track.
The future Viper, though not in attendance, actually provided a comforting air to the backdrop of the whole weekend. We're calling this event a swan song for the Dodge Viper as we know it. Ralph Gilles agreed, but he also told us not to focus on the death of an icon... rather, this is the prelude for the rebirth of a legend.
Photos copyright ©2010 Jeff Glucker / AOL