Text by: Shawn Kaufman
Photos by: Chrysler Group, LLC
Whenever one of the modern Mopars makes an appearance at an event, there are usually members of generations gone-by who will regale you with stories of how they owned a HEMI Challenger back in their day. Or they knew of a guy with the fastest Charger in their town. They’ll say to you, “I was there when …”. For the most part, it’s always fun hearing these stories. However, there’s no real connection until you become one of those storytellers.
The first generation of the Dodge Viper ran from 1992-1995, which was my time in High School. Back then, I was the guy with posters of that sinister red snake on my bedroom wall. Ok, I had Samantha Fox and Cindy Crawford up there as well! America’s supercar became a hope and dream for every teenage guy getting their drivers licenses back then; and on the very rare occasion you saw one, you stopped and pointed. Remember, this was long before camera phones became part of your daily wardrobe selection. The Viper was a status symbol all its own. Granted, the European supercars will always have their following, but Viper owners are … different.
With it being the first, and still only V-10 powered American sports car, there’s something to be said about the Viper’s lineage. Nothing produced on this side of the world has ever stood so far out from anything else before. If you think about the sports cars from other domestic manufacturers, even their top of the line race versions are easily mistaken for their bare bones, stripped down, base counterparts. With the Brand Xs, you can take a V6 model and swap out body parts and wheels to pass it off as the higher end offering. Where the Viper is concerned, this concept doesn’t apply. You see a Viper, and you know it’s packing gobs of power, a manual transmission and race-car handling. Fine, maybe one is colored differently than the last one you saw. But everything else is exactly the same. You KNOW you’re looking at a Viper.
The Viper has gone through some changes over the years; the addition of the GTS coupe alongside its RT/10 brethren in 1996, ACR (American Club Racer) and GTS-R race versions were unleashed upon the masses and then a major restyling came in 2003. Gone was the clam shell hood that was a fan favorite. Side pipes returned, albeit with better heat shields so owners wouldn’t burn their legs when getting out. But the most important change of all was the power. Viper began its assault with 400 horsepower and then bumped to 450 in the late 1990s. As technology advanced, so did the snake’s power. The V-10 eventually climbed up to 8.3 liters and was over 500hp. As other manufacturers bumped their power, so did Viper. There were some tuned Vipers making a boosted 1000hp. Unreal! The horsepower wars that those storytellers would ramble on about were back. But instead of pistols and shotguns, these were bazookas and flamethrowers!! The Viper was striking on all fronts, from the drag strips, to the road courses and even setting a new world record on the famous Nurburgring. It seemed like nothing could stand in the snake’s way. Nothing, that is, except a crumbling world economy.
Is it logical to spend close to $100,000 on a car when the stock market is crashing, the price of oil is skyrocketing and the term 401k has become something of an alien concept? For most people with their heads firmly welded to their shoulders, that answer would be a resounding ‘no’, and in July of 2010, Viper ceased production. The Mopar world seemed a little darker. We had no “secret weapon” to go hunting with anymore. Sure, HEMIs were out and about, doing their fair share of crime fighting. Even the little turbo-charged 4 cylinders were lending a hand in the fight against evil. But it wasn’t enough. The world needed a hero. “Superman” needed to return and save the day!
That would be hero would come in the form of Ralph Gilles. With the joining of Italian auto makers Fiat, the rebirth of the legendary Viper would be nigh. However, the ‘Dodge’ moniker would no longer prefix the name Viper. The performance division of the Chrysler Corporation, known simply as SRT, would claim the title. SRT, which stands for Street & Racing Technology has spent the last 2 years pondering, plotting and planning. The goal was to take an already capable idea and make it better. The Viper would need to shed its skin, both inside and out in order to win the hearts and minds of the next generation.
In the beginning of 2012, DriveSRT started with the teasers. We weren’t given much. Just a silhouette of the front end. Shortly thereafter, a Hot Wheels 1/64th scale was leaked. People started scratching their heads. The image still didn’t give us much context as to what was about to slither into the world. Slowly, but surely, more images appeared. A glimpse at the interior, a shot of the rear end, but the overall look of the car was still a mystery. Finally, the date would be set: April 4th, 2012. America’s true supercar would be revealed to the world.
Despite living 1300 miles away, when I was given the esteemed honor of an invitation to attend the world reveal of the SRT Viper at the NY International Auto Show, I quickly submitted my information for my press pass. I made the trek from Florida to New York in my own modern Mopar to be a part of automotive history. “Excited” would be the understatement of the decade. Opportunities like this don’t come along every day, you know.
The morning of the reveal, I met with members of DriveSRT.com and other social media representatives at the Market Diner for breakfast. We knew to eat hearty, as we’d be pretty occupied for the rest of the day. After omelets and coffee, we made our way over to the Jacob Javits Centre and registered. Our crew headed directly towards the Mopar display to take in the sights. We had a couple of hours to kill before the guest of honor would arrive, so we all spent it looking over the new additions to the Mopar stable for the new model year. There was so much to see, between the new Dodge Dart, the Fiat Abarth turbo and the remaining roster carrying the SRT badge. As much as we loved everything we saw, we knew what we wanted to see. We wanted the Viper! Everyone took their seats by the stage and I was fortunate enough to have 2nd row center. The clock ticked and at 11:55am EST, we’d all be bitten by a venomous snake.
Ralph Gilles took the stage and monologued about the SRT Viper project, going through details of its production and changes to the car. Before the Viper would even come out, you could see the emotion welling up inside him. A video display paralleled Ralph’s every word as he explained what went into putting the car together. After a few minutes of oration, Ralph left the stage. What happened next was nothing short of extraordinary. The snake came alive. The V10 roared and Ralph drove the Striker Red 2013 SRT Viper GTS onto the stage. As they say, the crowd went wild! With a tear in his eye, Ralph exited the car, kissed the front fender and again addressed the audience.
You could feel the excitement in the room. Everyone was in love again and we weren’t done. Mr. Gilles went on to tell everyone about how a special race version of the Viper was developed for fan racing game, Forza 3. Another video began, showing clips of the game and then the walls began to shake. No one expected a true to life version of the Viper race car to arrive, but we were definitely pleasantly surprised! With both creatures before us, the press was then invited onto the stage to examine, poke and prod.
There was so much to take in. From the newly designed, Italian inspired interior capable of comfortably seating a human of 6’7″, to the now 640hp, 8.4L V10 engine, this new car really shares nothing with its predecessors. The space frame has been redesigned and most of the body is now made of carbon fiber. Ordering the Track Pak option brings the new Viper down to a svelte 3,297 pounds; the lightest Viper to date. Being a part of the swarm around the guest of honor was exciting in itself. Checking out every nook and cranny, comparing notes with other enthusiasts, the entire experience was truly something special. Eventually, you had to just put your back up against the wall and just breathe the car in. At this point, I honestly felt the day couldn’t get any better. This was one of those times that I was glad to admit I was wrong. As it turned out, there was a Viper “After party” to be held at the Skylight SOHO in Downtown Manhattan. The gala was to be limited to 1000 guests and to my surprise; I would be one of those 1000!
The after party began at around 6:30pm and the line to get in went around the block. The small group of us were treated like VIPs and went right in. The first thing I noticed; that is, aside from the wait staff carrying hors d’oeuvres, was the display of prototype parts and original concept artwork from the new Viper adorning the halls. As it turns out, there were auctions being held for all the various items. Imagine having a pre-production carbon fiber hood, or an original wheel casting, or even some artwork of the new Viper mounted proudly in your garage. If your pockets were deep, that possibility would have been yours. During the party, Ralph Gilles reiterated his presentation for the Viper, for those that might have missed it earlier. Even seeing it for the second time, it was still emotionally moving. Also on display were the original 1989 Dodge Viper concept car and a GTS-R Viper. It was pretty awe inspiring to see how design and technology have come in just the last 20 years. The next 20 years should prove interesting, to say the least.
Due to the party’s small admittance, it was possible to get up close and personal with some of the important people in attendance. I got to chat with Lee Brown of Baxter Performance Auto Group, Fred Diaz; CEO of RAM and yes, I got to share some laughs with Ralph Gilles himself. The rumors about him being completely grounded and “one of the guys” certainly holds true. I’d share his personal nickname he gave me, but it might be more than some people can handle! He was generous enough to autograph my SRT Viper Hot Wheels toy, which has become a prominent piece in my collection. Also given out to those lucky enough to attend were SRT Viper goodie bags, consisting of a nice Viper flash drive in a beautifully crafted display can, a set of Harman Kardon headphones, a magazine detailing the production of Viper, the aforementioned Hot Wheels toy and a card with a link to order a complimentary SRT Viper T-shirt. At the time of writing this, sadly the T-shirt is now listed as “sold out”. Thankfully, I ordered mine right away!
I have to thank my friends at DriveSRT for allowing me the opportunity to be a part of not only Mopar history, but automotive history as well. Also, to be able to share my experience with the readers of the first and best magazine dedicated to the Modern Mopar community is a privilege all its own. I am now one of those enthusiasts who, in 20 years, will be saying, “I was there when …” and I couldn’t be happier.
As the song by Duran Duran goes:
The Union of the Snake is on the climb.
It’s gonna race it’s gonna break.
Gonna move up to the borderline.