2016 Dodge Viper: Bad day at wet rock

2016 Dodge Viper

Water droplets shimmer like liquid cobblestones on the hood of the 2016 Dodge Viper.

Raindrops glint and quiver on the carefully waxed hood like liquid cobblestones, the inside of the 2016 Dodge Viper rumbles like a thunderstorm convention, and I’m wedged in tighter than a plug into a 240 volt socket.

It’s raining, more like a heavy mist, not hard enough for an umbrella but more than sufficient to slick the track, and we’ve been warned that Summit Point Raceway’s has been polished by racing. And told that, as an older track, there are no runoff areas should we go off the track.

We also know that the big news for the Dodge Viper is the 2016 Dodge Viper ACR – Fastest Street-legal Viper Track Car Ever. Not our emphasis. It comes tattooed on the wide and low coupe with a towering rear spoiler and front splitters that the Viper ACR’s maker SRT, Dodge’s performance shop, adds more than a ton of downforce. The ACR comes stock with carbon ceramic matrix 15-inch two-piece rotors with six-piston Brembo calipers.

There are 10-setting, double-adjustable, coil-over Bilstein racing shocks and unique race alignment delivering up to 3 inches of suspension height adjustment for fine tuning corner weight.

Add street-legal tires developed for the Viper ACR for lap times significantly faster than with race tires, with sustainable 1.5 g cornering during high-speed turns. It’s street legal, track focused.

2016 Dodge Viper

2016 Dodge Viper…before.

I’m in a merely ordinary 2016 Viper, the one with the same 8.4-liter V-10 as under the hood of the ACR, with 645 horsepower at 6200 rpm, and 600 lb-ft of torque at 5000 rpm. It’s the most torque of any naturally aspirated sports-car engine in the world. Not the most torque of any vehicle. There are things like giant open-pit mine dump trucks that produce more, but probably turbocharged. And they don’t corner at 1.5 g either.

“All Vipers,” says SRT, “are engineered to withstand severe track duty in ambient temperatures of 100 degrees Fahrenheit with a professional driver. Power reaches the pavement through the standard Tremec TR6060 six-speed manual transmission.”

I wish it were 100 degrees. And the track dry. Instead, the temperature is hovering in the fifties and the track wet. The tires on the Viper are “three-season,” good for everything but Really Cold. And it’s not. Just wet.

Already I’ve violated one of my own rules, however. At manufacturer track days, I always pick one of the slower cars first and work my way up. There was a Fiat 500 Abarth, for example. I love it. It’s a fun car, quick and makes compact sports sedan noises, and handles far better than it has any right.

But it’s the first heat—there’s an oxymoron, considering the weather—of the day, and there’s no line of eager journalists yet. I opt for the Viper. Because like Edmund Hillary said, it’s there.

Other cars include a Dodge Charger Hellcat, and Dodge Challenger Hellcat, Dodge Challenger Scat Pack and such. That’s thousands of horsepower, thousands of pounds-feet of torque, all in a relative handful of cars.

There’s an instructor in each car. There would be if it were dry. We all don’t know the track, and the cars are very fast. And we don’t all do well without adult supervision.

My instructor plugs himself into the passenger seat. And we’re off. Sorta. I stall the Viper’s torqey V-10. Better that than spin the tires among all the people standing around. It’s just the clutch and throttle being unfamiliar. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

So restart and then out on the track. I’m definitely—not afraid—but very respectful of what this car can do. And I’m wary going around the corners. I’m aware of everything that can happen. But barely above stall speed, the engine still makes oodles of torque, and the Viper weighs less than 3,400 pounds, at least before driver and instructor, and even then not that much more that matters.

But at low revs, below the 3000 rpm or so that I’m using, the V-10 feels rough and unhappy. Not terrible, but not on song, either. I work the Tremec, getting up to third gear. It’s silkier than one would expect, considering the power it has to transmit. And I find myself heel-and-toeing on the downshift. The layout seemed odd sitting in the pits, the brake pedal high, the gas pedal low and the clutch having so much travel it bottoms out somewhere near the front bumper, remarkable since there’s a V-10 engine in the way. But on the track, my hands and feet are syncing into close to a half century of driving manual transmissions.

After tiptoeing around the track, we come around Turn 10 and the front stretch beckons. I feed in the power, let the engine wind out. At about 4000 rpm the engine comes alive, the push back in the seat is intensified. A bunch. I didn’t check the speedometer. I don’t know how fast I went, but I back off early, already slowing at braking marker 5, the one furthest out, where they had told us we were to begin braking. Downshift. Turn 1 is not quite a hairpin, Turn 2 more of a dogleg, and there’s a straight up to the turn-in point for turn three.

Because it’s so loud in the Viper, my instructor has been using his left hand, pointing out the next turn in point, apex and exit. Then we get to that straight. He makes a tomahawk chop, several times. I interpret that as “go.”

I go.

The Viper comes alive. The rear wheels decide they want to be in front of the rears. The rate of yaw isn’t recoverable. The Viper is suddenly heavy and the steering slow, or maybe everything is just happening too fast. The Viper is arcing to the right and the tirewall is less than a car width from the pavement. We’re going to hit it.

The Viper ends up facing backwards, half on, half off the track.

Shit. Shit shit shit.

But neither of us is hurt. The damage isn’t serious. With the instructor giving directions, I drive to the back of the paddock the back way.

I’m debriefed. We had, it seems, a failure to communicate. Everyone says, “It happens.” But, like minor surgery is surgery on someone not you, “it happens” isn’t “it happens” when it happens to you.

I wrecked the Viper.

And it didn’t stop raining.