Le Mans is always awesome. Ninety-eight cars of so many different makes and four different classes rocket around a track that’s part public road, at top speeds, for twenty four hours. But this year’s going to be more awesome than last year, because one of those 98 cars is going to be a Dodge Viper.
But let’s not start with this year. To understand what this means, we have to go back to the days of Weezer’s Blue Album and Clinton’s “balanced” budget. We have to ride back 20 years, to 1995. Dodge’s Viper was just finishing up its first generation and was known for a loud, unpleasant, unmanageable ride, its propensity for homicide, and for being awesome nonetheless. We all wanted one. We all had Viper posters sticky-tacked onto our bedroom walls. But a Viper then cost $56,000, and I was 11, and I didn’t have that in my sock drawer. But some people did, and many of those same people had $66,000, so they bought ZR-1 Corvettes instead. The ZR-1 also had 400 hp, but it came with a much deeper pedigree, GM reliability, and styling and predictability that were a few notches down on the crazy pole. The amazing and terrible Viper TV show had already slipped from NBC’s schedule like a kid running beside the pool, and the Viper seemed to be falling out of favor.
It was time for Chrysler to prove that they were serious, even if the Viper looked bonkers. It was time to go racing. And they took it to the place carmakers have been using to prove themselves serious since 1923: Le Mans.
For help, they turned to fabled racing developer Oreca and built their racing Viper jointly. The result was the Chrysler Viper GTS-R, designed for GT1 classes in endurance series like BPR Global GT, and, most importantly, Le Mans itself. The 8.0 V10 was tuned to 620 hp and 590 lb-ft of torque, a substantial improvement over the incoming ’96 stock Viper’s 450 hp and 490 lb-ft. It also received major aerodynamic and lighting modifications, though many of the stock body panels were used. Oreca built 52 examples of the racer.
The GTS-R, labeled a Chrysler, since Dodge wasn’t operating in Europe at the time, was similar to the already extant Viper GTS coupe, but the FIA called for closer homologation, so 100 examples of a homologation special, road legal GTS-R were built. They kept the race-ready spoiler and splitter from the track version, though power was left mostly stock, with just a 10 hp increase to 460. Homologation specials also wore the white-with-blue-stripes Oreca livery.
The results were breathtaking. But not at first.
In fact, the GTS-R’s first race, the 1996 24 Hours of Daytona, saw it finish in 29th place. That’s not promising. They improved at Sebring that year with a 12th place finish. These results came from the Canaska Southwind team. The official Oreca team’s first race in the BPR Global GT series they didn’t even finish. Both teams showed up to Le Mans that year and produced mediocre results.
Southwind dropped out for ’97, leaving Oreca to pick up the slack for their car. And so they did. That year the FIA GT series replaced the BPR Global GT series, and it was packed with competition in the GT1 class. If you’ve ever seen the $1.5 million Mercedes CLK GTR or the similarly priced Porsche 911 GT1 Straßenversion, you’ll know what the Viper was up against. These were the homologation specials for the even faster race cars built to dominate the series by the behemoths at Mercedes and Porsche, and they did handily. Sometimes the best way to win is to admit when you can’t, so the Viper became a GT2 car.
And it steamrolled the competition in that class. They won class victories in 6 of the 11 races that year and took home the GT2 championship. But Le Mans was not so kind, and their best finish was 5th in class. It was clear, though, that they were onto something. Of the 10 races in FIA GT’s 1998 season, they won all but one. Privateer teams started jumping on board. At at Le Mans in ’98, they won. They won hard. Oreca finished first and second in class, and the first place car of Justin Bell, David Donohue, and Luca Drudi even beat the second place LMP1 car.
Their Le Mans dominance continued in 1999, when they also won the FIA GT championship (the Viper-driving Chamberlain team took second), and the American Le Mans series, though it was just their first year there. Zakspeed also won the 24 Hours of the Nurburgring in their Viper that year. 2000 saw another 1-2 win at Le Mans, but in 2001 Chrysler and Oreca entered an LMP car and ended their Viper program.
And that was about it. The Viper cropped up here and there in endurance racing, but its earlier dominance of Le Mans was only history. The mighty V10 lay mostly silent for over a decade.
But in 2013 it came back to endurance racing. The new GTS-R, developed with Riley technologies and running as the SRT team (Yeah, you remember when SRT was its own brand. That was weird, wasn’t it?), entered the 12 Hours of Sebring and finished 6th and 10th. It also took 3rd in the ALMS series that year, and 8th at Le Mans. Then they went ahead and won the TUDOR United SportsCar championship in 2014, taking third in the championship, as well, but despite all of this success, Chrysler again withdrew the Viper from factory competition. Perhaps some patience was in order. They could have learned from the first attempt.
The history lesson’s over. It’s time for the present tense, because Riley is bringing the Viper back to Le Mans. They’ve already been competing this year in TUDOR United SportsCar Championship in the GT Daytona class. And by competing, I mean winning. They lead their class in points with after winning both Daytona and Sebring. Jeroen Bleekemoelen, Ben Keating and Marc Miller will pilot the #53 Viper in France for the GTE-Am class. (And yes, after reading this article, you get an idea of how much the classes shift in endurance racing. The same 8 liter V10 has competed in all of these classes.)
So what about this new car? Yes, the old one had over 600 hp, but the new regulations require it to be restricted to 490. The 8.0 V10 is built by Roush Performance, though it’s smaller than the current 8.4 stock engine. The paddle-shifted transaxle (nobody is calling it a transmission, whatever that means) sits behind the driver for better weight distribution.
Riley faces some quick competition in class at Le Mans. The new Corvette C7R, the Ferrari 458 Italia GT2, the Porsche 911 GT3 RSR, and the Aston Martin Vantage GTE will all grid up for the 83rd running of Le Mans, with the flag dropping on June 13. So tune in and cheer on Riley and the Viper, because it’s a Viper, and this is America, and who wants to see another 911 win, anyway?
You may not drive a race car like the GTS-R, but that doesn’t mean you can’t prep your car for a track day. Get some race-ready mods to free up the horsepower in your engine. These K&N cold air intakes never leave the design room without increasing the horsepower of their specific vehicles. Open up your exhaust for a better flow, more horsepower, and a thunderous sound with a cat-back exhaust by Gibson. And make sure you’re getting all the spark you need with these MSD ignition components.
Andy Sheehan is a blogger, aspiring novelist, and relentless hoon. He plans to will his 2002 Subaru WRX Wagon to his firstborn, plans his daily commute around the swoop of its roads, and doesn’t plan to ever buy an automatic. A cool-car omnipath, he loves the common Mustang or Chevelle, but hunts for the weird and wonderful Velorexes and Cosmos of the autoverse. And when he can afford a garage, he’s going to turn an MX-5 into a race car.