2015 Dodge Viper GT: 140 MPH at Indianapolis With Carroll Shelby 25 Years Ago
by Scott Oldham, Editor in Chief on May 10, 2016
Yes, that's a picture of a 21-year old me in the very first Dodge Viper ever built. And yes that's Carroll Shelby driving. Yes, the Carroll Shelby.
We were at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway back in 1991 for the 500. Ol Shel', less than a year after his first heart transplant, was pacing the race in Dodge's soon to be supercar (sales were still about a year away) and I was fresh out of college and working at my first gig, mopping floors at Mopar Action magazine.
Originally the Dodge Stealth was to be the pace car that year, but when middle America realized the twin-turbo all-wheel drive super coupe was built in Japan by Mitsubishi (it was a twin to the Mitsubishi 3000GT) and would be the first pace car not built on American soil, the backlash was loud enough to put Chrysler's PR machine into swift action. Under the supervision of Bob Lutz himself the Stealth was replaced with a pre-production Viper dressed up to look production ready and then they put a "America's Enzo Ferrari" behind the wheel.
Everyone was happy. And then, they invited members of the automotive press to the track the Friday before the race to get rides in the car around the track with Shelby driving. Which is where I came in.
I've driven many Vipers over the years, but every time I drive our long-term 2015 Dodge Viper GT I think back to that day. I can't help it. I was just a kid. A kid in the presence of greatness: the man, the car and the track. It's hard to believe it was 25 years ago.
A few days later, after the race, I wrote an article about the experience, which was published in the October 1991 issue of Mopar Action. I dug it out last week and included it here in its entirety. I think it still holds up, what do you think?
"Exiting turn two, Carroll Shelby — Ol Shel' — shifts fifth gear and really puts his foot in it. Without hesitation, the Viper digs in and accelerates down Indy's back straight. "Sixth gear is for Uncle Sam," yells Shelby over the exhaust gurgle and wind noise. "We don't need it."
The five-point seat belt holds me tight to the leather seat. My muscles are tense. I'm scared. I make a bid to check the speedometer, but the safety restraints won't let me. The smaller console mounted gauges are easily visible. The Viper is running strong. The white face tach holds at 3800 rpm.
"Even at one forty, steady as a rock," Shelby yells looking over with a schoolboy grin. Reality sets in. My mind fills with the number — one hundred forty miles an hour. That's fast in anyone's book.
The Viper feels tight. The car's construction gives me a sense of security. There is no creaking, no sloppy feeling, no indication of failure. Even at this great speed the suspension feels firm but not uncomfortable. It handles the track's imperfections without losing its line or blurring our vision.
Looking down the red hood beyond the rather large intake duct I can see turn three approaching. Shelby holds the Viper high near the wall. My eyes scan ahead to the groove. I can see where we should be in the corner. Shelby backs off, getting on the brakes just enough to scrub some speed. His turn-in is smooth. The g-forces shove me right, hard. Without the harnesses my right shoulder would be pinned to the door panel. The Viper's weight shifts onto the right side tires. I can feel the suspension working. I can feel it settle in as we clip the apex. Once the suspension settles Ol Shel' gets on the power, balancing the Viper through the turn. The short shoot blurs as the Viper accelerates hard. The revs climb to 3300 rpm and hold.
Quickly turn four is upon us. Fear strikes my body. For the past month, drivers have been putting it into the wall in Four. Kevin Cogan's violent accident in 1990 was in turn four, as was Dominic Dobson's this year. As Shelby turns in, my eyes lock on the dozens of skid marks running from the apex into the outside wall. My right hand grips the edge of the windshield as Ol' Shel' compensates for some oversteer induced by the rippled groove. Again the g-forces play with my neck muscles.
Shelby quickly is back on the power, bringing the Viper up to speed. Down the front straight the tach climbs back up to 3800 rpm. 140 mph. Running on the outside at one-third the Viper's speed is a convoy of the Motor Speedway's support trucks. As we blast past each truck on the inside, Shelby graciously tosses each driver a wave. But the Viper shoots past them so fast that by the time Shelby's hand raises above the windshield we are gone.
I am starting to relax. My fingers are beginning to loosen their grip on the windshield. My neck muscles are no longer bulging. The Viper's side exhaust is shrieking a perfect mix of Hemi roar and screaming drone of a Ferrari V12 as the suspension thunks over the famous yard of bricks marking the start/finish line.
Pit wall ends fast and we are quickly into turn one. Another smooth corner and another g-force shove to the right. The belts hold firm.
Turn two is also smooth and steady, the tach reading 3300 rpm throughout the corner. Again the g-forces play with my insides. As we exit up to the wall, Ol Shel' is quickly back on the power. The tach rebounds up to 3800 rpm fast. Again we are cruising at 140 mph down the back straight, only this time the clouds begin adding moisture to the equation.
By the time we are halfway down the straight the rain is exploding on the windshield. I figure the ride is over, but Ol Shel' never lifts. He keeps the speed up at 140 mph, never hesitating. When turn one arrives, I am scared again. My hand returns its grip to the edge of the windshield and my muscles tense.
I can see the track is damp. But just as before, Shelby lifts and scrubs speed as he turns. The Viper miraculously holds the line. Nothing new. The rain stops but the short shoot is damp. Notorious turn four is back again. Shelby turns in. The Viper bites hard. By the apex we are running up the butt of a support truck sitting in the groove.
Shelby doesn't blink. I, on the other hand, give every muscle in my body a squeeze as Shelby moves right, taking the Viper out of the groove onto the gray area to avoid the truck. From watching time trials I know the gray area is bad news. I know we aren't supposed to be out there. Dominic Dobson slamming the outside wall is in my thoughts as the Viper flies over the dozens of skid marks. Ol' Shel' gets us around the truck and onto the front straight beautifully.
As he decelerates down the straight and pulls into the end of pit road, we are both sporting smiles Jimmy Carter could call his own. The Viper felt great. It possesses the straight line speed and cornering capabilities to make it a world performance leader.
"A year ago I thought I would be staring at the roots of daisies," jokes Shelby. Not you Ol Shel'. The Legend grows."
Scott Oldham, Editor in Chief @ 19,471 miles