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Deja vu allover again: Why Viper pulled out of Tudor née ALMS

Guest editorial by Ian Sharp

Ian Sharp had experience in nearly every type of European motorsports, Indy car, and NASCAR truck.

A motorsports program should have two elements: technology (both actual engineering, and perceived engineering by the spectators), and marketing of that technology, to both customers and employees.

Taking the second part first: Marketing is built upon the inherent excitement and action, the cut and thrust of combat, even the combat with the track and conditions. The personalities of the protagonists have to be thrown into the mix, as they all make up the rich panoply of "the circus."

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Even conditions such as rain are an element to be overcome, though the ISC (International Speedway Corporation), which runs the former American Le Mans / current Tudor series, does not allow the NASCAR warrior to show his mettle during bad weather, at least on ovals. It is said that rain "sorts the men from the boys", and Ayrton Senna was a master in the rain, driving difficult "peaky" 1,000 hp lightweight Formula 1 vehicles (see movie at right).

One could argue that the ISC, by absorbing American Le Mans into the Tudor series, does not engage on the technical level, discounting the grandfathered Delta Wing. They appear to believe in the NASCAR model, where manipulated entertainment is the key; perhaps they see it as the only worthwhile element now. ISC enacts apparently arbitrary adjustments at almost every race, trying to equalize players in the series, thereby stage-managing the results. It's like micromanaging, and has a corrosive demoralizing effect. Many question why they are racing, if they cannot alter the outcome.

Viper still won the series. Why did Viper win against newer, more technically advanced cars and more experienced drivers? I don't buy the better drivers/team argument. Some say it won because ISC wanted to keep it in the series, and made technical adjustments to make sure it would win, assuring, or so they thought, another year of competition - knowing the other competitors would stay, regardless. (Some others aren't staying, regardless.)

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Abraham Lincoln said, "You can fool some of the people some of the time, but you can't fool all of the people all of the time." This is what NASCAR has tried to do with saying that, to paraphrase, "the spectator does not care about the engines, aerodynamics, or cars themselves, all he wants is close racing." But he can have both if a series is designed and managed properly.

The "constant adjustments and control" model, artificially equalizing all the teams, is a precarious way to organize racing. The competitors, including automakers, sponosrs, and parts makers, have an interest in a not-so-contrived results. They want authenticity and validation of their products that motor-racing success can give them. If we keep the status quo, we might do better to employ Don King, the boxing promoter, to run the series; I can see the pre-race promotions now. Look for the "Thriller at Miller" (Miller Motorsports Park).

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The entertainment model, where everyone was either penalized for being too fast or helped if they were too slow, confused the public, even people like me who pay more than a passing an interest in the sport. Even I "checked out" on race day, by the second half of the season, and just looked at the results later.

IMSA has been told that they should use a formula that takes into account the success of a car in the market place, at least in GTLM. This includes the public's view (as voted by their pocket books), so that the formula for factoring the cars' success on the track takes into account the car's cost, technical features, etc, so that a Veyron could race a Viper on equal terms. This is the statistical equalization formula, not reactively adjusting performance on the last weekend's results. After all this, was why sportscar racing and Le Mans came about in the first place. (More of this ability to model an equivalency formula at a later time.)

The technology model can be much more rewarding. Jim Hall's Chaparrals sports cars started using ground effects with success, but they did not capture the imagination as much as the later Lotus 78s and 79s (the marketing element). There was a palpable buzz of excitement at the Lotus cars by spectators at every track (which increased crowd sizes dramatically), as Mario Andretti and Ronnie Peterson shot by and won races with ease. Spectators and the media were enthralled by this new technology of "ground effects." In this day, it would be hybrid and KERS in F1 and sports car racing throughout the rest of the world.

The Apollo moon landings were a technology endeavor that captured the world's attention. We seem to have forgotten that, especially here in America, where the Kardashians get more media coverage than Noble prize winners, a situation like having Twinkies being a staple of school kids' lunches.

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Viper did not have marketable technical features to engage the public, and even its styling was not seen as new. Strategies to address the concerns here were placed on the table in front of the Viper powers, back in early 2010. In essence, this was re-creating the Viper chassis, cutting the welding by 70% while increasing stiffness (while working within Conner's constraints). Chrysler would have worked with Magna / Cosma International, which had expertise in CNC bent steel tubes and extruded aluminum, and expressed strong interest in being the low volume chassis and racing chassis supplier, to showcase their advanced technologies. Delta Motors would provide racing engineering and input with a design team that had already won Le Mans numerous times; SRT/Dodge would provide direction and lead production engineering. Informal discussions with the racing series organizers indicated that the car would be allowed in using KERS, to create a proactive element of interest both within Chrysler and the spectators, something that is mortifyingly lacking at present.

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There were three basic differences in philosophy between the Viper that is, and the one that got away:

  • Using the car to usher in an experimental division, just as the original Viper was a test for applying AMC's design system to the larger Chrysler organization. This would be like the loosely-affiliated "Liberty Technical Affairs" group that Bob Lutz and Francois Castaing set up physically outside of Chrysler, that was not overly impacted by the corporate types, with a racing responsibility as well. Unfortunately, this suggestion fell on stony ground too. They just didn't get it - and I strongly believe the current Dodge management doesn't get it either.
  • Using a kinetic energy recovery system (KERS) with a V8 to take energy recovered from the brakes, in addition to the standard gasoline-fuel V10 version. Viper ran in the Tudor series with an air restrictor, because its engine is far too large for the series; using a Hemi V8 and KERS could improve handling without losing power (indeed, with more power at launch).
  • Designing the race and production versions simultaneously, working with an established Le Mans racing team. For the street cars, the high level V10 would have the best audio, trim, etc. The low level would have been the bare knuckle homologated* racer, with the "trick" KERS system, and would attract interest by the youth market, having "cool" technological features.

* "Homologated" means they would make enough production units to allow racing in "stock" classes. Homologation led to the 1969 Dodge Charger Daytona and 426 Street Hemi.

Because it had no unique technological interest, but did carry a massive expense, there was no serious rationale for FCA to support Viper in IMSA any more.

This is diametrically opposed to how sports car racing was designed to be. No wonder it could not be sustained as a program, either technologically (thanks to SRT's direction), or marketing wise (thanks to ISC/IMSA's direction).

What frustrates me, as it should every Viper interested party, is how Chrysler's racing decision making was and is so amateurish. Chrysler performance efforts seem to continually be rolling backwards and forwards in the surf-line, like a confused pod of stranded dolphins. European automakers started out with racing as their key objective; they built cars to race, its is part of their core beliefs, a core competency, built into their principles and disciplines. They do not dabble in it as American companies generally have.

General Motors (and most of the companies it was formed from), Ford, and Maxwell/Chrysler were all created to make pedestrian road cars; none had racing as their primary goal. Soichiro Honda raced motorcycles and, a decade after starting up production, made racing a core competency.

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Nearly all European companies started out with racing and made road cars to support that. In the past decade, arguably one of the most successful startup car companies that makes a profit is McLaren road cars, which (like Ferrari) puts a dent in conventional wisdom the people that say a racing company cannot make a successful road car. An example of small companies able to adopt new technologies would be McLaren developing an ultrasonic windscreen water removing technology instead of a blade.

The first cars to be sold, developed by Daimler and called Mercedes (after the daughter of the buyer), were put to use in racing. Ferrari reportedly makes a profit in racing. Auto Union, now Audi, used to routinely combat Mercedes and Porsche on the track, and fought for the world speed record as well; Audi developed their "Quattro" all wheel drive system for World Rallying. Lotus makes its cash from consulting, but remains grounded in racing, as it has always been, even through its financial struggles. This makes the inconsistent actions of Chrysler all the more disconcerting to someone who understands the European model.

What should be done? For a start, Chrysler needs to integrate racing more into its engineering, as is done in Europe. This would engage more engineers into racing, providing a longer term perspective than the idea of racing as just a marketing tool, and create more circulation of ideas between "learned on the track" and "used on the road cars." Certainly, the company needs to make, and to make clear, long-term commitments, rather than bite-sized chunks which are dropped after two years. One problem Chrysler faces is the lack of popular series which are not actively manipulated race-to-race.

NASCAR is extremely popular but has too many elements of professional wrestling, where every bout is choreographed. With ISC's absorbtion of IMSA, it now has the same issues. Other series in the United States are not especially popular, though the company has engaged in certain classes in drag racing for the long term, via Mopar and now Magnetti Marelli. World Rallycross, which ironically was a "made for TV" race series, has some promise, but I fear it will be overly regulated, and we are already seeing cookie cutter vehicles. It needs Porsches racing Dodge Ram trucks with a carefully crafted equivalency formula enacted at the beginning of each season, and not tinkered with constantly. One of those original equivalency factors used to be great amount of water on the track with slippery mud even on the asphalt track portions.

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Even the successfully Chrysler factory team efforts from the 1950s to the 1970s, which started with engineers who volunteered their time and effort, were never fully integrated into the company structure. Even this effort managed to put some innovation into production cars, though, because it was not well integrated into the company, and was not a core value of the company, did not really contribute to the road cars. Factory support was there to sell road cars, rather than because racing was a core value, or because the goal was to make it a core competency. What was learned on the track, all too often stayed on the track, and dips into series like Can Am and Trans Am tended to be brief.

Restructuring to put carefully chosen series onto the front burner, and with a ten year commitment, integrated into the company structure, would do much to help Chrysler's "racing cred," with strong marketing support. This need not be expensive, as suppliers are willing and able to participate, and the company may learn enough on the track to make the venture a "profitable" R&D venture - if they put their best and brightest into the effort.

In the meantime, all that is left for me to do is to pick up all the hair off the floor, that I have been pulling out in handfuls over the past 12 months, and put it back so as not to look like Don King.

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Why SRT / Dodge left the Tudor Series

By an anonymous contributor, with some affirmation by other sources

When Tim Kuniskis, head of Dodge, took over SRT and Viper, he saw a surcharge of $15,000 per car on the production Viper to fund the racing program. Reducing the price of the Viper by $15,000 would help sales of the vehicle, while keeping it profitable. The Dodge team then proposed that SRT Motorsports find sponsors to pay for the racing operation.

Assuming $15,000 per car times 1,000 cars sold, one gets $15 million, and that kind of money can go a long way in a racing program. The pricing of other SRT vehicles may have been similarly adjusted. Telling the SRT Motorsports marketing team to bridge the gap to fund the racing program makes sense.

Tim Kuniskis then lowered the price of the cars so that the customer was no longer paying for the racing operation, spurring sales. Dodge then waited to see what SRT Motorsports would come up with in terms of sponsorship before making any other decisions.

SRT Motorsports management may have had a different plan, thinking that if they won the championship, Tim would see value and fund the additional monies required via Dodge Marketing. Thus, SRT Motorsports did not find sponsors to bridge the cost gap [one insider claimed that he had lined up possible, major sponsors, but that SRT Motorsports did not follow through].

Tim held to his word and refused to fund the program. Without funding, SRT Motorsports could not renew their contract with Riley Technologies, effectively shutting down the Viper racing program. Ralph Gilles, as the head of SRT Motorsports, was once again stuck with having to make the announcement that the program had been cancelled.

This is currently speculation, based on hearsay and rumor and unconfirmed stories, but does connect the dots well.

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