Meet America’s race car.
Editor’s note: We learned today that Fiat Chrysler will end production of the Dodge Viper in 2017. America’s racecar will surely be missed.
“Race car for the street” is a misappropriated phrase, applied to everything from Porsche 911 GT3s to your cousin’s Honda Civic with the stickers and the big wing on the trunk. When you hear of some new machine described as a race car, that’s typically just shorthand for a predictable roster of modifications: more power, stickier tires, maybe a few pounds less weight. Fine, but not a race car. You want to see what one of those looks like, take a gander at the 2016 Dodge Viper ACR.
The name stands for American Club Racer, and the premise is that this is a car you could drive to a track and enter in a race without any major modifications. Although that might not be wise, as I imagine each highway expansion joint would feel like a Ronda Rousey jab to the kidneys. I say imagine because Dodge confined the Viper ACR’s official launch to the car’s more natural element, that contorted ribbon of driving nirvana known as Virginia International Raceway. No expansion joints here. High-speed esses, plunging off-cambers, fifth-gear kinks —it’s got all of that.
This, without any caveats or hyperbole, is America’s race car.
Letting a bunch of journalists loose on a track with ACRs might seem like asking for disaster, but what Dodge knew is that none of us would crash the car because we’d never test its limits. Say you’re in a sustained high-speed corner, pulling a full g. That’s around the limit for most high-performance track cars, like Ferraris and Corvettes. In the ACR, though, at 1.0 g you’re barely past the halfway point. This car will pull 1.5 g’s in sustained cornering. The faster you go, the harder it grips. The average brain cannot comprehend that kind of voodoo.
Aerodynamics is key. Equipped with its Extreme Aero Package, the Viper effectively becomes an upside-down airplane wing, and as the speedometer climbs, the bodywork levers itself ever harder toward the pavement. At the ACR’s top speed, 177 mph, the Viper generates 1,710 pounds of downforce. It’s like having the Green Bay Packers’ offensive line sitting on the roof, crushing the car onto the track. Watch the cars go past on the VIR front straight, hitting the kink at about 140 mph, and they look about 2 inches lower than they did standing still back in the pits. That’s because they are.
Before we take test laps, the Viper team pairs each driver with an instructor, someone to tell us to cool it if we’re retreating too deeply into our Lewis Hamilton delusions. I climb in with a genial fellow named Bernie. The ACR’s air conditioning automatically cuts out at full throttle to save horsepower, so Bernie asks if we want to be sweaty with the windows down or sweaty with the windows up. I opt for down, the better to hear the Viper side-pipe-exhaust drama.
Then we hit VIR’s 4.1-mile Grand West Course. On slow corners that require pure grip, the Kumho Ecsta V720 tires—developed specifically for this car—let out a low howl as they approach the limit. On fast corners the downforce is so great that the front splitter and rear diffuser grind on the pavement, despite Bilstein coil-over springs that are three times as stiff as those on the standard Viper.
I never quite figure out the braking zones—the carbon–ceramic brakes are so monstrously powerful that even late braking often turns out to be too early. If there’s any ill behavior to be found in the ACR, it’s that trail braking, or braking as you turn into a corner, elicits some unsettled tail wagging. Perhaps it’s because you scrub speed too fast—all those linemen instantly jumping off the roof. I’m sure you could learn how to manage that tendency, even use it to your advantage. That’s what a race driver would do. And this, without any caveats or hyperbole, is America’s race car.