Dominik Farnbacher isn’t satisfied with setting the third-fastest production-car lap ever recorded at the Nurburgring.
He’s not satisfied with caveats, either. His 7:03.45 run is the fastest manual-transmission lap, the fastest rear-drive lap, and the fastest time ever set with an American car at the harrowing German circuit. It’s also the first ‘Ring lap he’s driven in the 2017 Dodge Viper ACR without traffic. As first attempts go, it’s a good one, nearly nine seconds faster than Farnbacher’s 2011 record in that year’s Viper.
But he didn’t come here for third. Nor did the nearly 20 Viper devotees gathered around the blue striped ACR radiating heat in the Nurburgring paddock. They all have a lap time in their heads, a number they think the ultimate Dodge Viper can achieve, and it starts with a six.
“There’s more in the box,” Farnbacher tells me. But the privateer team’s opportunities are dwindling. The plan was to have two professional racers in two identical Vipers chase the record on Monday; it’s now Wednesday afternoon, and, with one Viper damaged and one driver unavailable, they’ve only made their first full-speed run. It’s been a long road from the United States to the Nurburgring, and like the track itself, the journey has had some wild ups and downs.
“I wanted to see the Viper go out on top,” Russ Oasis tells me. In 2016, when Fiat Chrysler announced it would discontinue the model, the media entrepreneur turned Viper racer was inspired. He wanted to give the car a proper sendoff, one that would settle internet arguments and bench-racer boasts once and for all: A Nurburgring lap time. “To me, Nurburgring is a badge of international honor,” Oasis says. “This is where all the ‘prestige’ car brands come to prove their mettle. I wanted to prove that the Viper is indeed the greatest street-legal race car produced.”
So Oasis got in with Bernie Katz, co-founder of . Together they launched what is, as far as I can tell, the first self-funded group in Nurburgring history to attempt a production car lap record without OEM support.
Dodge had decided against bringing the fifth-generation Viper ACR to the Nurburgring years ago, opting instead to set 13 production-car lap records at circuits across the United States. “I called them on numerous occasions asking for support,” Katz tells me.
Their plan came together swiftly. Katz plucked two brand-new, identical GTS-Rs from his inventory to ship to Germany. (The GTS-R Edition is mechanically identical to the Viper ACR Extreme, with a paint scheme paying tribute to the 1997 Le Mans-winning Viper.) He didn’t blink at the idea of risking two $145,000 cars at the notorious circuit. “If they wad a car up, we end up having to pay for it,” he told me. “There’s so many people so passionate for this car, including ourselves, we thought it was well worth that opportunity.”
The duo cold-called Kumho, supplier of the ACR’s bespoke ultra-high-performance tires, scoring a marquee sponsor and unlimited rubber. Another out-of-the-blue conversation brought on Prefix, the Michigan firm that paints every new Viper. The rest of the funds were raised by Oasis through , bolstered by his huge social media following and Viper fans worldwide.
More than a dozen people gathered in Germany for the July effort, Viper luminaries among them. Dick Winkles, father of the car’s V10 engine and now a chief engineer at Prefix, joined as driveline expert. Matt Bejnarowicz, a Riley Motorsports race engineer with 15 years of Viper motorsports on his resume, came to handle chassis setup. Michael Mintgen, whose German race shop specializes in Vipers, brought an expert crew of mechanics and technicians. Farnbacher, formerly with the SRT factory Viper team and now competing in International GT Open, and Luca Stolz, a 22-year-old Nurburgring expert racing in the ADAC GT Masters series, joined as the wheelmen.
With their dealership-fresh cars, straight-from-the-factory full-tread production tires, and a hastily-assembled crew of experts, they ended up embarking on the most transparent Nurburgring lap attempt I can recall.
I meet the Viper crew on Sunday afternoon at Mintgen Motorsports. Stolz and Farnbacher have been running practice laps all week at the 12.9-mile circuit, helping the crew hone in on the ideal suspension setup. Once the work is done, I hop in a Viper with Katz for the 30-minute drive to the circuit, where a Kumho tire facility will be their home base throughout the week. The twin Dodges wear Texas license plates, a curious sight in the hinterland.
The Viper is up against stiff competition: In March, Lamborghini claimed a 6:52.01 ‘Ring time with the new Huracan Performante, pushing the longtime production car king, the 6:57.00 Porsche 918 Spyder, into second place. “I’d love to do a 6:51 and walk away with my head held high,” Katz says over the V10’s bawl. “I think that’s a tall order, to be honest with you. Our goal, really, is to be a sub-seven-minute car.”
With the second Viper following close behind, the combined wail of 20 cylinders echoes through the villages. The ACR holds the production car lap record at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca in California; that circuit is depicted in a center console cubby, a wink from FCA designers. I look down at the passenger door panel. In a little inset on the armrest, there’s an outline of the Nurburgring.
The plan, devised far in advance with painstaking preparation, was to have Stolz and Farnbacher run both cars during an exclusive hour of track access on Monday afternoon. It’s abandoned almost immediately. Monday morning brings rain, a frustrating drizzle broken by brief glimpses of sunshine. Even when the sun peeks through, it’s no guarantee: A single lap of the gargantuan circuit can have numerous weather patterns, the dense forests and elevation changes (1000 feet in total) creating microclimates unseen at the starting line.
Less than 40 minutes before Farnbacher and Stolz are supposed to take to the track, Katz makes the call: The flying laps are off. Their 60 minutes of access becomes a photo opportunity, the two American cars glowering around the famed Karussell under a brooding sky. Between track fees, taxes, and the intricacies of the exchange rate, this rained-on parade will cost the Viper team roughly $13,000.
Securing this track time was the single biggest challenge of the whole effort. When it’s not being used for racing, or the famous open-lapping “tourist sessions,” the Nurburgring is a research and development track used by nearly every major performance automaker. Industry pool sessions, where OEMs run test laps in camouflaged prototypes, dominate the ‘Ring calendar; individual lapping opportunities are scheduled entire seasons in advance. Oasis started lighting up the phone lines around Thanksgiving, 2016. “I was calling them every day for months, waiting to hear if someone cancelled,” he says. Weather frustration coils through the team.
At 1pm, industry pool laps begin. Automakers and suppliers pay an annual fee for track access; Kumho’s support for the Viper effort includes free use of its July pool time. With nothing else to do, Stolz and Farnbacher join the parade of prototypes for lapping practice.
It’s almost painful to watch. OEMs test all sorts of vehicles at the ‘Ring; today, the conga line holds a preponderance of luxury SUVs. As they wallow around the track, punishing their tires for cornering data no human buyer will ever replicate, these behemoths make it impossible for the Viper duo to get the flow of a full-speed lap. The racers are hemmed in like speed skaters at a rink full of kids.
The Vipers are the only things out there that look like they belong on a racetrack. The ACR Extreme aero package brings a cable-mounted front splitter, dive planes, wide-open hood extractors, deep undertray diffusers, and that outrageous bi-level rear wing. In a strange way, they’re guilty of looking faster than they are. “The car has so much downforce, we only get up to around 283 km/h [176 mph] top speed,” Farnbacher tells me. “The [non-ACR] Viper would easily run over 300  here, I think.” That much downforce is great for normal-length road courses, he says, but at the ‘Ring, where entire sections are run flat-out, it’s a hindrance. The crew ends up adjusting the rear wing to its least aggressive setting, putting the balance of downforce on the front axle to combat understeer. “If Ralph [Gilles, head of design at Fiat Chrysler] builds another Viper, I will call him and tell him, ‘a little smaller wing.’ And paddle shifters,” Farnbacher quips. The professional racer is sweating the time lost to manual gear changes, a five-second disadvantage by his reckoning.
The rain tapers off. Stolz and Farnbacher cycle through the paddock, giving feedback to chassis guru Bejnarowicz. The cars get more suspension rake and more front splitter, last-minute tweaks to improve front-end traction. Just after 2pm, the crew decides to head back to the shop for the day. By the time we’ve reached Kumho, the sun is blazing, the pavement nearly dry as the pool prototypes circle the track.
Tuesday morning I arrive at the Viper home base. With Oasis still scrambling to find replacement track time, this will be a day of practice laps. The crew worked into the early morning pulling a differential, chasing a troubling vibration discovered yesterday. It’s the second major repair they’ve undertaken since arriving. A set of rear hubs went bad over the weekend, replaced with parts borrowed from a brand-new Viper in Michigan and stashed in Prefix founder Kim Zeile’s suitcase mere hours before his flight. Hubs and diffs aren’t generally weak points on the fifth-gen Viper, but with less than 500 miles on their odometers, these cars are being broken in on the most challenging circuit on earth.
In automaker-backed Nurburgring attempts, that’s no big deal. Many European OEMs begin ‘Ring testing early in the design process, logging thousands of laps. They can chew through tires, components, or entire vehicles as they perfect their tuning, learning the vehicle’s behavior over every inch of the gargantuan circuit. With vehicles and technicians always nearby, they can wait out the fickle Rineland-Palatinate weather and, when the moment is right, install a driver who’s known the vehicle since it was a schematic on an engineer’s laptop.
Theoretically, they can also cheat. There’s no governing body for ‘Ring times, no mutually-agreed definition of what makes a “production” car. An automaker decides an impressive lap will help sell cars; that same company publishes the time. Supporting evidence, when it’s provided, can be frightfully incomplete. Even in-car lap video, the internet’s gold standard, doesn’t settle every suspicion. Speaking with Nurburgring veterans and car industry observers, I hear stories of hot-rodded engines, gumball tires, hollowed-out interiors with dashboard buttons connected to thin air—none of which is visible on YouTube. Perhaps these rumors are baloney, and every automaker ‘Ring lap is squeaky clean. You can’t blame an OEM for chasing ideal conditions. But in the village barrooms around the Nurburgring, you hear varying definitions of “ideal.”
The Viper privateers certainly don’t exhibit the organized precision of a complex, covert cheat. Among their spare parts, they’ve mistakenly packed five rear wheels and three fronts. Kumho provides an unlimited supply of production street-legal tires, and the team takes advantage—Farnbacher’s camber and downforce preferences overcook the front tires after a few laps, leaving the crew constantly in search of new, full-tread-depth rubber. Ring locals tell tales of OEM engineers taking pavement temperatures, selecting the ideal tire compound from a truck stocked with ringers. In the Viper camp, tires are pulled from piles at random; the only selection criteria is new versus used.
I keep searching the cars for evidence of mechanical trickery; I find none. Air conditioning, power windows, and dashboard touchscreens function normally. Seatbelt reminders chime incessantly, unaware of the racing seat and five-point harness installed for each driver. The roll cage, Bejnarowicz tells me, is the same design used by Chrysler engineers during Viper development, adding 68 lbs. to the car without altering torsional rigidity. Despite having Winkles on hand—the man who saw the Viper V10 through from the first late-1980s prototype to the 645-horsepower behemoth in front of us—I never see anyone plug into an OBDII port. When one of the Vipers develops a rough idle, Winkles diagnoses it by ear as a variable cam timing issue. Handbuilt prototypes, he explains to me, never show the quirk, but the factory occasionally turns out a slightly misshapen cam. The offending microns of metal wear away after about 1500 break-in miles—an odometer reading the brand-new Viper in front of us will need 80 more ‘Ring laps to achieve.
Wednesday morning we’re back at the track, the crew abuzz with anticipation. Nurburgring officials, taking pity on the Viper crew’s rainout, have arranged a 15-minute slot of exclusive track time at the end of industry testing this afternoon. It’ll be a solo attempt by Farnbacher. Stolz, present throughout the testing and setup process, will be gone before the lap attempt, his busy racing schedule calling him back to duty. The two drivers run practice laps with the industry pool, giving feedback to the crew to fine-tune the chassis and aero for the afternoon’s flyer.
“The Viper has so much potential, with the aerodynamics, the horsepower, the grip,” says Bejnarowicz. “A lot of places on the track aren’t car limited, they’re driver limited. It all depends on [Farnbacher’s] confidence to be able to use it to the limit. It takes some really big talent to be able to navigate this place as fast as he does, and it’s all down to his comfort level. So you focus on the things that are going to make him fast, that in a perfect world may not make the car the fastest or produce the highest grip. He’s the one that’s got to get it done, and if he’s not comfortable and confident, it’s never going to happen.”
Of course, with a suspension that’s as tweakable as a race car’s, finding the perfect Viper setup requires a ton of trial and error. “The car almost has too much adjustability,” Winkles says, slightly exasperated, after another round of damper and aero changes. The team begins fiddling with one car while Farnbacher laps the other, swapping cars every 20 minutes.
During pool sessions, all vehicles park in the same open paddock, engineering prototypes from competing OEMs lined up side by side. Next to the camouflaged hatchbacks, sedans and SUVs, the twin Vipers, be-winged and slathered in sponsor decals, are impossible to miss. There’s an agreed etiquette among poolers—gawking at another automaker’s vehicles is sternly forbidden, and don’t even think of taking a photo—but the Americans have clearly made an impression. The Dodges even show up in the local newspaper.
So when two engineers in a European test car roll up to the Viper crew and shout nervously in German, it’s an unusual break from protocol. Moments later, we discover what worried them. Farnbacher rolls into the paddock on a flat tire, grass plugging the grille and dirt spattering the doors.
“All of a sudden it went straight,” he told the crew. Barreling into the fast Kallenhard chicane, the right-front tire gave out. “First I thought a suspension upright or something broke, but then I looked and the tire pressure gauge was at zero.” Farnbacher plowed a tall, steep curb, launching airborne before cantering into the wet grass. How fast? “End of third gear, around 120 mph,” he says.
Driving all the way back to the paddock on a flat tire trashed the wheel; the splitter cable is bent, and there’s a gash in the lower front fascia. As the crew discusses what to do next, a track attendant walks over holding a piece of black composite smeared with mud. It’s a brake cooling duct, jostled loose from the wheelwell during Farnbacher’s off-road jaunt.
If the German driver is rattled by his foray in the field, he isn’t letting on. Minutes after he limped the first Viper back to the pits, he’s out in the second one. Farnbacher still has some light traffic to contend with, but he’s clearly hit the sweet spot with the car. Industry pool rules prohibit timing, so there’s no way of knowing exactly how fast he’s going. But as a pool non-member with a halfway decent sense of time, I can tell you his pace would make a Nissan GT-R Nismo driver sweat.
At 5:10 that afternoon, with the track cleared, Farnbacher embarks on his first full-speed Nurburgring lap in the 2017 Viper ACR. Seven minutes and a hair over three seconds later, he returns. He’s pleased, as is everyone in the Viper crew: They’ve just put the Viper among the top five production car lap times in Nurburgring history.
But it wasn’t a perfect lap. Farnbacher, whose race cars all have paddle shifters, gets tripped up by the Viper’s manual transmission. “Second to third gear is quite a strange movement for me,” he says after the lap. He’s doing the gentlemanly thing, assigning himself the blame, but it’s not just user error: The gearbox is fighting him, unwilling to go into gear on full-throttle upshifts. Farnbacher estimates he gave up two seconds to the uncooperative transmission.
He also admits to a rather simple goof-up: A few corners into his lap, Farnbacher realized the traction and stability control were turned on. He prefers to run with everything off, but he’d shut off the engine in the pits. When he turned the car on again, the electronic nannies reset. Toggling through the traction control menu while navigating the ‘Ring at full speed, he was eventually able to get the system into Track mode (its most permissive setting; the system can only be turned completely off with the car stopped), but he figures the electronic intervention—and the moments spent jabbing at steering wheel buttons—added another second to his time.
And this being Farnbacher’s first full-speed, no-traffic lap, he had no reference point for where to start braking for Turn 1. During industry pool laps, this is where cars enter and exit the circuit, making it a mandatory slow point on the course. “When I approached at full throttle I’m like, where is the braking point,” he chuckles, estimating that the botched corner added another second to his lap time.
Farnbacher figures he can improve by four seconds if he can avoid these errors. He’ll have tomorrow to try. Nurburgring officials have offered the Viper crew a 15-minutes slot at the start of Thursday’s industry pool sessions.
Thursday morning and conditions are nearly perfect. The air is cool, the sun bright; the rain that dogged the team early in the week is long gone. The Viper idles anxiously in the Nurburgring paddock, the clock on the dashboard showing a quarter 'til 8AM.
The crew worked on the car late into the night, swapping in the transmission from the dirt excursion car in hopes it will cope better with full-throttle shifts. Sitting on a brand-new set of full-tread-depth Kumhos, the car is, at this moment, perhaps the most painstakingly prepared Viper in the world. Farnbacher pulls onto the track to run a brief warm-up behind the safety car.
It’s a poignant scene. Beloved sports cars, like athletes and musicians, tend to slip away into old-age irrelevance, their greatest achievements far behind them. As Farnbacher drives toward the start of his flying lap, we’re five weeks away from the final Viper rolling off the assembly line; after that, they’ll shut the doors at Conner Assembly Plant for good. If Dodge had run a Nurburgring lap in 2013, when this car was introduced, it would be a distant memory today.
That gives this independent, crowdfunded, social media-powered effort a sense of urgency—they want a record in the books before the car is history. It also makes this a delightful up-yours to the Nurburgring royalty. These Viper fans are bidding farewell to this old-school American brute by putting its name alongside the fastest hybrid, all-wheel drive, active-aero snobmobiles in the world. The Viper may be dying, but not without one last knockout fight.
Bejnarowicz, who’s watched countless Vipers lap circuits around the world, turns to Winkles, the man who heard the Viper V10 take its first breath. “It’s been a long run, huh?”
“It sure has,” Winkles replies.
Then Farnbacher comes wailing across the line that starts the in-car timer, that odd-fire V10 snarling through side pipes like it’s done since 1992.
“Now begins the longest six minutes and 50 seconds of your life,” says Oasis.
But six minutes turns to seven with no sight of the car. The adrenaline excitement burns off, leaving shaky foreboding. “Something is wrong,” Mintgen says, straining to overhear a track staffer talking into his radio in German. “There’s a problem with the car.”
The Viper comes into earshot, but it sounds wrong, not charging toward redline like it should. Farnbacher enters the pits, kills the engine, coasts to a stop. The crew swarms the car as he flings his door open.
“There’s something in the brake pedal,” Farnbacher calls out.
Any car on a timed lap of the Nurburgring has to carry a walkie talkie to communicate with the track’s safety staff. Whoever tossed the radio in Farnbacher’s car didn’t look to make sure it was properly secured. By the second corner, g-force had flung the thing into Farnbacher’s footwell. His five-point harness meant he couldn’t lean down to grab it; his helmet and HANS device prevented him from even looking down far enough to see it. But he felt it—especially when it slid forward and jammed under his brake pedal. “It’s such a weird feeling when you can’t brake,” he tells Bejnarowicz, exasperation in his voice.
Once Farnbacher wrestled the car down to a controllable speed, he had no choice but to complete the lap. For more than 10 miles, he coasted the 645-horsepower Viper around the Nurburgring with no way of stopping. Amazingly, he came in well under eight minutes.
“Obviously I’m a little disappointed,” Oasis tells me after the walkie talkie mix-up. “Everything looked really good. Dom is such a great driver, he managed to bring the car back in one piece. This was just a crazy thing." He shrugs. "In racing, this kind of crazy stuff happens.”
Among the disappointment, there’s one small breath of relief: Farnbacher tells the crew that, before the radio slid into his footwell, he could already tell the track was too damp for a fast lap. The cool morning mist was still hugging the pavement at the lowest points of the track.
Unfortunately, there won’t be another run. Farnbacher has already stuck by the side of the Viper crew longer than he’d originally planned. Now it’s Thursday afternoon, and with coming up, he has to hit the road.
“I didn’t anticipate having to return,” Oasis says. “I knew it would be expensive,”—all told, more than $200,000—“but I didn’t know that we’d need to raise more money if we have to return. Commitment-wise, we’re all-in. We want to see this happen. We’ve worked this hard to get to this point, I don’t want to just say ‘I’m tired,’ even though I am tired. I’m not gonna let it go that easily.”
And he won’t. As of this writing, Oasis has already arranged more Nurburgring track time at the end of August. ; the twin blue-striped Vipers wait patiently in Germany for their next chance to challenge history.
It’s a passion project, an undertaking that, to the typical person, might seem unfathomably frivolous. But in its 25 years, the Viper was never built for the typical person. Everyone involved in the ‘Ring endeavor talks about how this car got under their skin, how its capabilities—and idiosyncrasies—won them over. Some of these folks, assuredly, can afford hypercars that add a zero to the Viper’s sticker price. Others work at the bleeding edge of automotive performance, a field where stick-shift grunt-buckets with 700-lb engines have been old-fashioned for a decade.
They all still love the Viper. And so do we. It represents the last of the hairy, challenging performance cars that reward expertise. Everyone tells us these cars are dead, victims of changing technologies and tastes. And then the Viper, with its five-year-old chassis, goes and muscles its way past some of the most cutting-edge cars out there today.
Farnbacher’s first attempt has already crowbarred the Viper into the top three production car Nurburgring lap records. Later this month, the Viper crew will give it one more go. Road & Track will be there.