2015 Dodge Viper GT: 2,740 Miles in the Last Naturally-Aspirated American Supercar
August 9, 2015
Driving a 2015 Dodge Viper across the country is a bad idea. But a funny thing happens with bad ideas: They get appealing. How else do you explain skydiving or Las Vegas? This phenomenon is also, largely, the foundation on which YouTube exists. Well, it and cat videos.
When Dodge invited us out to North Carolina to drive the Viper ACR, the fastest and wildest track-ready Viper yet, we decided to drive there — from Los Angeles — in our long-term Viper. How can you resist driving the last naturally-aspirated American supercar across its home field? I gave myself five days and set a loose course along Interstate 40.
You spend day one acclimating to the Viper's interior. Remember the saying about trying to fit a square peg through a circular hole? If the hammer's big enough, you can do it. I make way towards Arizona being pressed into the form required by the offset pedals and aggressive seats. The engine drone and road and tire noise muffle the stereo and Bluetooth phone calls. I use it as an excuse to practice meditation.
Despite the discomfort, loudness, and tight visibility, the Viper takes well to freeway cruising thanks to accurate steering and a tall sixth gear. I feel out a comfortable range of around 250 miles per tank, which coincides with my distance-to-get-out-and-stretch goal.
I turn off I-40 before Flagstaff and head north to the Grand Canyon. What better time to see an immense and powerful American icon than while driving one? Pictures do neither justice. The Grand Canyon's vastness is of a magnitude that makes it seem fake. I walk around taking the same picture over and over again, trying to capture the size of the expanse.
The Viper sits in the parking lot enjoying the view of rental cars. I feel bad for it, so I tape the Grand Canyon fact sheet to its dash in an attempt to make it feel better.
The tape falls off. Undeterred, I poke around to see the Viper can get a better view. After a little searching, I find the spot.
It looks perfect.
The next morning, I wake up with a plan and set off to the nearest auto parts store. While struggling to hear each other over the phone the day before, I needed to make the Viper's interior more livable.
Some neon green painter's tape on the top of the driver's window makes a better seal, while affixing microfiber towels on the armrests should provide a bit more comfort for my elbows. A few store employees look quizzically as I make the neon-green exterior additions. I eagerly reach freeway speeds and find the tape drops wind noise to tolerable levels. The towels add a bit of crucial padding to my elbows. Success!
I chose I-40 because it parallels much of Route 66, and through Arizona and New Mexico every few dozen miles you see road signs beckoning you off the highway. The Meteor Crater lies not far out of Flagstaff, and like the Grand Canyon, it's another large hole in the earth. But this one's created by a haphazard, 150-foot diameter chunk of space rock. Standing over it, you can only wonder the vision of hell that happened when it hit.
Again, the Viper's left out from sightseeing. I take it for a picture with one of the many road signs leading to the crater and hope it doesn't feel too bad.
Arizona and New Mexico are vast places with gorgeous plains and unobstructed skyscapes. As I-40 dances around the edges of a dark thunderstorm, you can appreciate the awesome scope of the clouds as they stretch across the windshield and into the side mirrors. Lightning hits occasionally in the distance.
Outside of Albuquerque, there's a stretch of Route 66 that's been grooved so that when you drive over it at 45 mph, it plays "America the Beautiful."
Route 66 runs through Tucumcari, New Mexico. Gas stations, restaurants, and motels line the boulevard, but most seem abandoned. A stream of tourists like myself come and take pictures of the buildings. Then we head back to the big-name chain hotels, gas stations, and fast food closer to the I-40 exit for the city.
Viper fatigue levels out on day three. It's a bit like sitting in a plane in that you learn to cope. The Viper also breeds confidence with familiarity. Once you acclimate, you can drive the Viper longer and feel more comfortable with it. I start trying to stretch the gas tank further and further.
If Arizona and New Mexico are about big holes in the earth, northern Texas is about putting old cars in holes and spray painting them. On the west side of Amarillo is the famous Cadillac Ranch. On the east side is the VW Slug Bug Ranch. They share a similar idea: Take a few cars, stick them in the ground, and spray paint them.
The Cadillac Ranch sits on a large empty field and is swarmed by travelers. Empty spray cans and trash cover the ground. It photographs well, but smells awful. The Bug Ranch is empty, sitting off the side of I-40 next to a dilapidated service station.
I make way into Oklahoma and stop at Okemah, the home of Woody Guthrie. The folk musician wrote "This Land is Our Land" and inspired countless other musicians. But I always remembered him for the slogan on his guitars: "This machine kills fascists." His home is now an empty lot, save for a tree that someone's carved in his honor.
Notes on Arkansas, the 25th state of this great nation:
- Travelers entering from Texas are greeted with a friendly sign: "Speed limit strictly enforced. Zero tolerance."
- I pull off the freeway for the hotel and see a lifted truck sporting a Confederate flag.
- I go out for dinner and order a beer. The waitress shrugs and says, "Sorry, dry county." These still exist? I Google the county line. Suddenly, NASCAR's beginnings make sense.
I don't spend much time in Arkansas.
Going east the scenery changes from open colored mesas to highways walled with trees. The temperature stays hot, but goes from a dry heat to a wet one. The Carl's Jr.'s change name to Hardee's. The Viper soldiers on without issue.
I want to get to Nashville with some daylight in my pocket, which means blowing through Memphis. I hear there's a burger joint there that's been using the same grease for a century. My mouth regrets not stopping; my digestive system feels pretty good about it.
I pull into Nashville and cruise down Broadway. It may be a Monday night, but there's plenty of foot traffic and you can hear country rock played live from every bar you walk past. There's a statue of Chet Akins playing a Gretsch a couple blocks north of the main strip. A family is sitting around the statue eating ice cream. I decide against asking them to move for a photo.
Also, there's another Viper in Nashville tonight, but we'll come back to it later.
I'd been lucky with weather the entire journey, but the rain finally comes down as I get into North Carolina. It puts a damper on the day's plans, so I skip the famous Tail of the Dragon road at Deals Gap, and head straight for Durham.
It's easy going, with minimal traffic. I'm confident with Viper car now, happy to rev it out on every on-ramp to keep a good speed through the rain. The interstate again dances around the worst bits of the storm, which I watch through the Viper's on board weather display.
The drive ends with quietly in Durham. There's no banner, no parade, and no fireworks. There are a few impressed Dodge representatives present for the ACR event. And there's Jay Kavanagh, who's flown out to drive the car back to Los Angeles. I give him the key and some advice, and he takes off. Despite the lack of fanfare, it feels like a legendary accomplishment - and maybe a good idea after all.
Carlos Lago, Road Test Editor @ 1,973-4,713 miles