2015 Dodge Viper GT: Making Peace With Viper On Track
by Josh Jacquot, Senior Editor on October 16, 2015
That's the response I got from a close friend when I told him I was bringing our long-term 2015 Dodge Viper to a track day at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca. He's only partially right.
Sure, the thing is the Big Hammer of track cars. Given that most track days are fraught with Miatas, showing up in a Viper is like bringing a small-scale thermonuclear weapon to a slap fight. Think of it: 645 horsepower, 355mm section-width rubber in the back, an engine that sits cleanly between its axles and massive, fade-free brakes. On paper, this is about as good as it gets. And everyone knows it.
But I've driven a Viper on racetracks before. And I'm yet to love the experience.
Almost every encounter I've had with the car since its 2012 redesign has included the caveat that it lacks the communication, confidence and drivability of its contemporaries. I've always found the Viper difficult, particularly relative to the Corvette. And though I find its lusty curves and distinctly American brand of hubris appealing, I've never had the time to sort through its nuances and discover any latent potential. Two days at Mazda Raceway was bound to be eye-opening.
The thing is unapologetically stiff, loud and powerful. Its creators laugh off small tracks with utter indifference, claiming the Viper is designed for high-speed, mega-grip scenarios found in fast, smooth ribbons of asphalt. It's particularly finicky about braking over bumps and there have always been secondary motions at the limit that make me nervous. It communicates, sure. But I've never loved what is says.
When this track opportunity arose, it was with our car's original-equipment Pirelli PZero rubber — the same tires that had already carried it across the country and back. More than 11,000 miles of road use, thousands of heat cycles and several serious burnouts had come on the tires I was about to rely on through Turn 1 at 130 mph.
I went anyway.
The first few sessions were filled with the same confidence-sapping struggles I've come to expect from the Viper — slides at the wrong time, instability during braking. But I was still using trial and error to sort out the tire pressures, damping setting and preferred stability control calibration.
The old tires, I figured, offered less grip and might justify using the "street" damping setting. Turns out, those massive tires still make enough grip to demand the stiffer "Race" setting. And the "Sport" stability control setting is far too conservative for the Corkscrew. Because most of the turns at Laguna are lefts, biasing tire pressures is beneficial. I burned a few sessions coming to these conclusions all while becoming more convinced that nothing would ever change between me and the Viper.
Then everything changed.
It didn't happen all at once, but as the day progressed, I slowly learned the Viper's language. That lateral movement of the rear end under braking for Turn Two? It doesn't destabilize the chassis in a meaningful way.
As my confidence increased, I inevitably found myself in oversteer situations on the throttle. And despite the fact that the Viper has never given me confidence when its back is trying to pass its front, I found myself carrying the occasional power-on slide out of Turns 2 and 11. It's not the fast way, but dealing with it successfully built real confidence.
Even the Rainey Curve, Turn 9, a fast downhill left that falls away on the outside, was beginning to feel good. I was learning to deal successfully with feedback that was previously unnerving. And I was going faster — a lot faster.
The tires took the abuse admirably and were capable of sustained lapping. As day two arrived, however, the brakes impressed the most, allowing big gains in lap times under braking. I ran the stock pads and hadn't even given them a second thought until the end of the first day. After the last session, I pulled off a front wheel to ensure enough pad remained for another day only to discover at least 50 percent remaining. That the Viper's stock pads, rotors and fluid will tolerate this kind of lapping without a hint of fade or even a bit of squeal on the street is almost unfathomable.
This video was shot midway through the first day's sessions and shows the Viper chewing its way patiently through a crowded track. At the time I was still nursing the throttle uphill between Turns 5 and 6 to avoid a sound violation. I discovered the next day that that concern was unfounded. There's a little Evo dirt rodeo exiting Turn 4 at 7:10. Audio has been disabled for the first minute to protect the innocent, but this will give you an idea what it's like.
The last session on the second day found the Viper battling two new Porsche 911 GT3s. And it was a good one. Though the GT3s had higher cornering speeds, the Viper's power advantage made for entertaining laps as we worked through traffic together. It was a good battle. And if hanging with a reasonably well-driven GT3 doesn't prove the car's potency, I don't know what does.
I left the experience with a more complete appreciation of the Viper. I stand by my belief that most of its contemporaries are easier to drive, but I now understand Viper sympathizers. It's a wildly capable track car that makes you earn it. And that's a trait I can also appreciate.
Josh Jacquot, Senior Editor