You can say what you want about the fifth-generation Dodge Viper, but you can’t say that it went gently into that good night. With Mopar engineer, SCCA Runoffs winner, and certified madman Chris Winkler behind the wheel, the ACR Extreme set lap records at 12 American tracks. Randy Pobst snagged the Laguna Seca crown for the snake last year, upping the count to 13. Most recently, a pair of Vipers went on a self-funded trip to the Nurburgring where they knocked on the door of a six-minute lap in a whirlwind sequence of events ranging from the exhilarating to the downright tragic.
Sam Yau might not have the name recognition of Winkler, Robst, or Dominik Farnbacher, but the Asian GT3 and European Scirocco Cup veteran is also a record-setting Viper driver, having recently set the production car lap record on the privately-held New York Safety Track. He and the car’s owner, medical entrepreneur Mike Okhravi, are discussing holding a Viper-versus-the-world, run-what-ya-brung challenge at the track early next year. If it happens, your humble author will be there to take a shot at the title, but in the meantime I thought it would be a good idea to sit down with Sam and Michael to find out why they thought a Viper would be the best choice for a street-legal track car.
R&T: Tell me a bit about yourselves.
Mike: I was lucky to grow up with an (affluent) dad who wanted me to taste different cars and would buy them for me if I begged enough and performed my academic duty. It's not typical and I take no credit for what was essentially a spoiled-rotten spree, but it's how I got into it, from the minute I saw the E90 generation 3-series in 2006. From there, I actually got a new E46 325 convertible (they were still making them), a 2006 Boxster, and a 2006 Lotus Elise in just a couple years…. After a long hiatus I bought a Boxster Spyder, followed by a 2001 Viper R/T and a Jaguar F-Type SVR. I met Sam through friends and he convinced me to buy the ACR. “You will own the track with this car,” he said.
Sam: I’ve been a diehard motorsports fan (Formula One, GT racing around the globe) from a very early age. I trained with Skip Barber in the USA and Formula Renault Racing School in Asia. I ran the GT3 Asia series where I held numerous podium finishes, top qualifier, and was the runner-up in the 2008 championship. I also raced in the VW Scirocco one-make series in 2010-2012 where I also achieved numerous podium finishes.
R&T: Why the Viper ACR?
Mike: As an amateur, my best description is that it's like driving a big-ass Miata. It does exactly what you want it to do, is totally controlled and predictable, has incredible steering feedback for a front-engine car, and is hilariously easy to point, despite the enormous nose.
It pleads with you to go faster because one can hardly comprehend the amount of grip available. You never, ever feel as though you are carrying too much speed into a corner, because even if you are coming in too hotly, the brakes will save you every time.
It’s bonkers, ridonkulous, WTF. I will not be surprised if 100 years from now, conspiracy theorists openly doubt the ACR's track king status and claim it was all a hoax. It's already beginning to happen. People think this car is modified.
Sam: The Viper ACR is a very well-engineered car right out of the factory to be quick and competitive on the track. With minimal seat time in the car, I quickly felt comfortable with the overall performance of the car while it gives me great confidence on how it behaves on the track. Mike’s ACR is not the Extreme version but I felt the downforce was already quite effective and efficient at New York Safety Track, which isn’t that fast of a course. The most we see in the car is 132mph at the end of the main straight. Grip from the aero kit and semi-slick Kumho tires is very impressive. With some suspension tuning we could go even faster.
R&T: What’s the best part of driving the Viper at speed?
Mike: Its best attribute is how it exits corners. There is never wheel spin. Never drama. It merely plants itself into the tarmac and slingshots out. An interesting point: The Viper is not that fast. It's not slow, but the power output is peaky and it must be kept above 4000 RPM. It's not a Z06. It could use another 150 horsepower, if not more. The aero doesn't help nor does the super notchy manual transmission. I couldn't pull off a 4-5 shift at Watkins Glen, so I was cruising at 140 for a quarter of a mile. If this had a PDK, it would be untouchable on all tracks.
Sam: I would say it’s the stability from the aero downforce and high grip tires.
R&T: How does the aero come into play?
Sam: The Viper ACR offers more downforce than other exotics in its class. The front splitter, front bumper canards, and extreme rear spoiler gives it more extreme aero downforce compared to its competitors such as Porsche GT3 RS, McLaren 675LT, Ferrari 458 Speciale, and others in same class category.
R&T: What would you change about the car?
Mike: The gearing is too long. It could use a 15 percent reduction in final drive ratio. It could also benefit from significantly more power without changing the car's corner exit characteristics. The tires chew up faster than any other tire I've used, perhaps a result of the aero. I kind of wish it had more than one single radio speaker. I don't need the radio, but I do need to hear people on Bluetooth. It's maddening. Lastly, it gobbles gasoline, which is annoying because of the frequency that the tank must be filled. 16 MPG is basically hyper-miling.
Sam: Definitely shorter 1-2 gearing or shorter final drive. The pedals could be moved to make heel-toe easier. The front tires should be longer-lived, whether through suspension or aero changed. The fuel consumption is so high you’d never win an enduro with one. Lastly, I think it would benefit from a semi-automatic transmission with paddle shift.
R&T. That’s blasphemy, Sam! Gentlemen, what do you think about FCA’s decision to shut down production?
Mike: FCA is in an impossible predicament. They built a special car that recalibrated the collective opinion of a great American sports car back in 1989. Despite hilariously low sales numbers, they kept it around for five generations and made continual upgrades—that's something the Honda S2000, Mitsubishi Evo, and Nissan Z-series cannot say. Enthusiasts love it. It's instantly respected and recognized. So where are the buyers? It's like the Lotus Elise or Alfa 4C. We want cars like these, don't we? Yet who is willing to put their money down on one? A Z06 doesn't really compare. That car is over-powered and really for bragging rights.
That said, it's lame that FCA failed to see a path for the Viper that mirrored the Corvette. The Corvette, particularly in the last two generations, has proven the exception to the rule about two-seat sports cars (which are declining precipitously in demand) and that American two-seaters can sell in volume if they're reasonably comfortable and tout substantial performance chops. Minor tweaks to improve cabin space, ingress, and convenience could have saved the Viper. The door trim protrudes so deeply into the cabin that one almost has to put his elbow on top of it. It effectively makes the cabin 10 inches narrower.
Sam: It’s obviously disappointing. I’d like to see the cars that are already out there flourish in GT racing during the years to come, though.
R&T: What are your future plans for the Viper?
Mike: Our new goal is to add some power. There really isn't much else to do. Dodge didn't leave much on the table. We’ve set the stock record, and the guys in the modded GT-Rs are chasing it. So we might add some power and make their life a little harder.
Sam: More power, and some time spent with the suspension to see what we can improve.
I think Mike’s right about the Viper’s eventual transition from fact to myth. I’m also stoked that he, and other people like him, are out there continuing the Viper story through their own efforts. If you’re in the Northeast, watch this space to find out how you can challenge Sam and Mike at their own game in the spring of 2018. I can tell you how I’d do it if cost was no object: I’d go get an ACR Extreme and then I’d spend some time at a dyno tuner. These are very special cars, made more special by the sudden halt of production. If you’ve ever thought about buying one, now’s probably the time.