by Jon Brobst in April 2013 (5)
I had the privilege to drive the 2013 SRT Viper GTS Launch Edition #0021, the official pace car for NARRA-Road Atlanta (North American Road Racing Association) and the Radical Cup Road Atlanta. Ringgold Dodge stepped up and sponsored the fifth generation GTS, and PartsRack sponsored the 2013 Challenger Pace Car. (We use a split-grid in two races, and needed two pace cars) Randy Pobst, Laguna record breaker-setter in Vette/Viper was my “guest instructor;” more on that later.
Jon Brobst has been the pace car driver for the SRT Viper Cup since 2010. He runs PartsRack.com, an international store selling parts, accessories, and upgrades, “if it fits on or in a Viper.” See his profile on DriveSRT.com.
The SRT Viper GTS was loaded, with a $140,000 sticker price; there was just 278 miles on it. I'm a big guy, six foot three, 240 pounds, but from the moment I sat down, and adjusted the seat up/down/fwd/back/recline and pedals, all power, I knew I was at home. It has better comfort and ergonomics than my (matching) 2006 First Edition, and an excellent chubby/flat-bottom steering wheel. I hope they retrofit the third generation, but I bet “maybe.”
The many controls on the wheel are augmented by large displays, and the owner can re-configure them. Most are intuitive. I did not have the owners manual, but I figured it all out except the navigation. There was a nice grained leather / leather-look everywhere. The car had Track-Pack StopTech rotors, dual-adjustable suspension, and OE Pirelli P-Zeros (not the optional Pirelli Corsa).
From my very first lap, even from the paddock ride, I knew this Viper felt better. Steering was responsive and alive even at 15 mph. My first re-orientation lap was a hoot, checking out the various suspension and traction control choices. From 1992 on, Vipers had no automated traction control whatsoever. They only received ABS in 2001! The only “software” to prevent loss of traction was between the driver's ears. The 2013 has four ESC (stability control) choices, including Full Off, and two damping levels on the suspension, Race and Street. Discretion with Mike / Ringgold's Car dictated full traction control.
The car just feels glued down flat on the (dry) track. Street Settings were cozy for pace laps, and on a bouncy paddock surface, they provided a very compliant ride, and yet remained responsive. After about 50 track miles, I switched to race mode and left it there on Friday and Saturday, except to show the differences on demo ride laps....and I gave a lot of those to happy riders.
Saturday and Sunday were “Car Club” time, and NARRA and PartsRack picked up the tab for the gate-entry and Snake Pit parking for Viper owners from surrounding states, while Jim Stout built some cool goody-bags for them.
The SRT Viper GTS was a “one-car car show” with the “other brands” there. Tons of photos were taken, and quite a few Porsche, Vette, and Radical owners had to slip in, just to see what all the fuss was about. (The car is for sale, and there was one interested “other brand” lookee.) Between run/race groups, the Road Atlanta SCCA (hired guns) allowed me to give hot-lap rides to Viper owners, one or two laps as time and cleanup allowed. On those laps I began to fine-tune my appreciation for how amazing this fifth generation Viper really is; total control, not scary, geared just right. Planted. P-L-A-N-T-E-D, responsive handling, noticeably improved. The extra 40 horsepower feels like even more, due to the 3:55 rear differential and the reworked transmission ratios. It's the fastest original-equipment Viper ever, and due to ALMS restrictors, has 190 more horsepower than the GTS-R!
As usual, when the parade laps rolled around, we segregated the Viper owners, the Challenger/Chargers, and the large contingent of Vettes (20?).We had 45 minutes, so each group got a few hot laps behind the Viper with their own clubs; and we invited the Viper owners back for a second round. We ran out of time with Vipers getting a bunch of total laps. Big grins all around...
One of my proudest events after giving hot-lap rides, or instruction, or both, is to hear excited riders say “You made my year” or “I'll remember this ride for a long time” type of feedback. All instructors hear this, and it motivates us. There was a lot of that fuzzy on Friday and Saturday. Thanks.
Randy Pobst was there as a pro-instructor for a Porsche driver, and was attending low-key. I recognized him right away, even though he had a baseball hat pulled down low. I went up to him after the Friday drivers meeting and re-introduced.....Brobst/Pobst, cousins? We had chatted twice in past events from 2003-2004 ALMS era. Randy is an extremely accessible and nice guy, and was a bit sheepish about “having made Ralph [Gilles] mad” at the Vette vs Viper I at Laguna. But he redeemed himself at Vette vs Viper Round II. I saw Randy around on Friday and Saturday, but he kept pretty much to his Porsche pack/student paddock.
Sunday I got up the courage to ask Randy if he'd like to take the GTS for a spirited drive, and maybe give me a few pointers. His response was immediate: “I'd love to drive a Viper again...I love that power. Thanks!”
SCCA managed to modify their lunch hour to allow us 15 minutes (SCCA time, not NARRA time). As with Tommy Archer and many pros, they don't often ride “right seat” and I hear that some contracts prohibit it. So I told Randy to hop in the driver's seat, and the track was ours. Randy radioed Race Control to thank them personally, and the workers knew they would see a treat.
Well, Randy took Lap One like I did, about 50-80, describing every entry, apex, and exit. He began a slow lap two, and I told him that he was able to “go at his discretion” to 4500 RPM (break-in) and he kicked it up to about 70%. For me, it was very humbling; I had been the “hero,” giving impressive rides for two days, and now I was a mere hack by comparison. No words can say how he made that GTS handle (Race Mode) with only the lightest of input touches. We went four laps, still had eight minutes or so, and he pitted. He then said the magic words: “Driver Change!”
I know I stuttered something, radioed control, and away we went, at 70% of my limit (which was about half of his). He critiqued every entry, apex, and exit, brake point, throttle app etc. We compared track reference points, and he even said he liked one of mine better! He showed me that three of my apexes needed improvement, so I improved. 3 laps went too fast.
As we drove to the paddock, we talked about the “maybe a wee-bit too stiff rear springs” (as was the case in 2001-02 ACRs.) We both agreed. We exchanged fellow-instructor chat of how we both love to make student drivers better and safer, and give them that “first moment to remember.” I assured him that despite my 25+ years pacing/instructing, he had just given me one of those forever moments. (So did Tommy Archer in 2002.) Thanks, Randy.
Sunday was dry, right up til the last ten minutes of Radical Cup. Slippery conditions slid a couple cars, one stranded, and “Full Course Yellow” was the call. Even after a long time pacing, I was in a new car on a seldom-driven track, blasting out to intercept and slow these amazing spec-racers. I was apprehensive due to the damp/showery track, but I had no reason to be! The “street mode” and the Pirelli P-Zeros were great in the damp, and I did not invoke the slightest hint of traction-control. As it turned out, the SRT Viper GTS also took its first checkered flag in competition! We beat all those Radicals to the yellow/checker flag. It set me up with confidence for what was to follow, and got me a Pirelli podium hat.
The GT/SRT Viper Cup race began in moderate rain. All racers on full-wets, rain tires, way better than my street tires, right? Chief Steward Terry Earwood added a second pace lap to help the racers get heat into their tires and brakes. Yikes, my one-lap deluge was now two laps, and Terry demanded “aggressive as you can go for 2 laps,” which would have been music to my ears in the dry!
But I had no reason to worry in the Gen 5 SRT Viper on Pirellis! Just drive the heck out of it, wet, and it hands-on, turns, brakes, and accelerates with confidence-inspiring responsiveness. No drama, just hooked-up control.
We did have a mid-race Full-Course Yellow, and no worries. When that race ended, there was the hauler from Ringgold to take my baby away, off to Corsa Performance to get cat-back #00001. We logged the last race /race miles for the owner-to-be, and it disappeared into the trailer. Me, back to the rented Challenger.
If I had ANY nits to pick, it would be these: the rear-view-mirror mount is too large. Tall-guy obstructive...black-fader-dots look cool, but block my visibility. And the rear springs (or valving?) in race mode are maybe a tiny bit too stiff, per me and Randy. But I could get used to it! Maybe Watkins Glen May 17-19?
I had 220 or so amazing on-track miles in a 2013 SRT Viper GTS, thanks to NARRA, Ringgold Chrysler-Dodge-Jeep, and to Randy Pobst. I won't forget....
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