Bench racers. You know the type: guys and gals that sit on a park bench (or these days at their computer keyboards) and discuss who would win a race. They take into consideration the cars and their modifications, and usually the drivers of those cars. Would a 2010 Viper Roadster beat a new Lamborghini around a road course and by how much? How much would driver skill factor into it?
The one thing that the SRT division of Chrysler lacks is bench racers. That is because they are actual racers themselves. Fiercely competitive, even their accountants seem to have SCCA trophies somewhere in their past. These guys aren’t about theoretical races, they want to see how it actually unfolds in the real world on a real course. That is pretty obvious by the products they turn out.
And so that reality unfolds every other year at the Chelsea Proving Grounds just outside Detroit, pitting the VCA against SRT in an Autocross Challenge. The Viper Club of America sends their best-of-the-best autocross drivers as determined in Zone events earlier in the year. These drivers have proven themselves in VCA autocross competitions or sent alternates in their place if they couldn’t make it. If one or two of those people happen to be ringers (similar SCCA trophies on their mantels), then so be it – SRT has won this competition for as long as most can remember. Did we mention that SRT is very, very good?
On October 30th the two groups met at the Proving Grounds to see who would take home the coveted prize for 2011. Marv Spatz would lead Team VCA while Erich Heuschele would be coaching Team SRT. Oh, and there was one added twist: Because there are no Vipers being produced and none available for this year’s challenge, everybody would be competing in Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT8 development mules.
As predicted, the competition was fierce and the times were amazing. To see SUV’s tearing up the course at full speed was truly a sight to behold. In addition to the Zone winners, the VCA had Bernie Katz and Ben Keating from the Viper Cup Series – Ben would go on to win the Viper Cup Championship a few weeks later at Daytona. SRT had two previous SCCA champions in Erich Heuschele and Chris Winkler, the latter having set the Laguna Seca record in a Viper SRT10 ACR in 2009. All bets were on Marco Diniz from SRT Vehicle Dynamics, as the Jeep SRT8 was his baby – he spent more time developing and driving it than anybody else there. And of course he has his own racing trophies sitting at home as well. Needless to say, there were no bench racers to be found this weekend.
The morning session would finish with the best time coming from Erich, followed by Marco and then Ben. The afternoon would be filled with surprises, not the least of which was Mark Trostle from SRT Design setting the time to beat at 58.006. Even the SRT engineers were amused that a designer would be taking the lead from chassis engineers, etc. While Marco would turn a phenomenal 57.95, he killed a couple cones in the process and penalties increased that time to 59.95. Ben’s morning run of 58.914 would hold the lead for Team VCA, followed by Steve Katz from the New York/CT region and Rich Kautz from the Ohio region (not typos, they almost shared the same last name).
But the day was not over. No, the most competitive of them all would have one last run. Earlier in the year a few foolish detractors thought he won the Viper Celebrity Challenge earlier because his “employees” (including NASCAR and NHRA drivers) sandbagged to let the boss win. No spark from him in the morning session, it was obvious that his employees at SRT wouldn’t sandbag either – he was far back in the pack. Marco in particular was determined to take the top honor for the best time. None had a chance: SRT CEO Ralph Gilles would make one of the last runs of the day and turn a blistering 57.817. No cones hit and a run that all could only watch in awe. In the end all times were averaged and the winner declared: SRT had won yet again with an average time of 59.684 to the VCA’s 60.713 – the closest separation in recent memory.
Of course the best part of the event is the bonding between manufacturer and customer. The folks from SRT get to spend lots of time with Viper owners and learn more about what makes them tick and what makes them buy other SRT products. Viper owners learn just how passionate the manufacturer is about building the very best vehicles in the world. Between Ralph’s jubilation and Marco’s dejection, you know that these guys take winning very, very seriously. As the day ended and dusk settled in, you could still see Marco making a few unofficial “last runs” to set the time he knew he could. The boss still won.
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