Last weekend's 61st running of the legendary 12 Hours of Sebring endurance race served as SRT Viper's first big test of the 2013 season, and by the end of the punishing event, the V10-powered GT cars came tantalizingly close to acing their exam.
With the No. 93 Pennzoil Ultra SRT Viper GTS-R starting sixth and the No. 91 Fast & Furious 6 SRT Viper GTS-R positioned 10th in class, the SRT Viper GTS-R Racing Team gave a glimpse of the progress it had made with its GT cars in qualifying, but the real fireworks would be reserved for race day.
Coming off an abbreviated four-race re-introduction to the American Le Mans Series late in 2012, the SRT Viper team worked relentlessly throughout the off-season to catch their competitors — some with more than a decade of experience with their GT racecars — and despite the relative youth of the GTS-R program, quite an impression was made.
What more than 100,000 fans in attendance saw, along with an international television audience of millions, was the SRT Viper team making pass after pass until the No. 91 claimed the lead and contended for victory. Electrical gremlins would curtail the team's chances late in the race, but the message had been sent: The SRT Vipers were ready to win, and win now.
Showing such rapid progress in a short time frame was, as SRT motorsports marketing and operations director Beth Paretta shares, a major accomplishment of its own.
“The thing to remember is that the whole process came together very quickly,” she said. “This is an entire new group of people to put together as well; people getting to know how to work with each other for the very first time on deadlines that were fast approaching. There was a lot to be done.
“In addition to the cars you look at everything else that goes into just getting a race team, and by team I mean everybody, from city to city, getting the trucks and all the equipment and acquiring all that and purchasing everything. When you look at the shopping list of what goes into a race team, it's a lot of ingredients. We were dealing with all of that last season as well as in addition to just developing a car.”
The Herculean task of assembling a two-car factory racing program is an all-consuming endeavor. After the formation of something as grand as the SRT Viper GTS-R Racing Team, hopes and dreams of those cars being competitive is normally reserved for Year 3, at the earliest. Yet with the competitive roots of the production Viper in mind, Sebring showed how such a daunting timeline can be drastically reduced.
Coming off of its last race at Petit Le Mans in October 2012, the team assembled a list of steady refinements rather than major revisions, and within those dozens of small detail items completed, the SRT Vipers were transformed when the green flag waved at Sebring.
“We did a lot of work with dampers,” Paretta explained. “We did a little bit with aero. If you look at a picture of the car from Petit and you look at a picture of the car from Sebring you'll see a little bit of aero difference in the front bits, a little bit in the rear wings.”
Bill Riley, whose company built the SRT Vipers and runs the race team, also attributed the extensive detail work done to the Nos. 91 and 93 for the big leap in performance.
“We just went through the car and looked at all the areas we could clean up and make slight adjustments; there weren't any big items we could say needed attention,” he remarked. “The base Viper platform was a strong starting point, and that made turning them into racecars a lot easier. I think that's one of the main reasons why the cars have come along so quickly.”
Factory SRT Viper driver Dominik Farnbacher earned the distinction of powering the No. 91 into the lead for the first time at Sebring, and in passing numerous cars on the way to the front of the class, noted the differences between the various GT machinery.
“We improved the car's aerodynamics,” he said. “That was a big, big help. I really could see that in the comparison with the other cars because operating in the fast corners like Turn 17, Turn 1, we were really competitive there and I could make passes. And we were extremely good with our SRT Viper's handling.
“The one thing I saw that we can work on is our traction control. Some of the cars could get away in the slow corners because of this, but our engineers and electronics specialists are excellent and I know they will be working on improving this right away.”
With team's first appearance at the famed 24 Hours of Le Mans coming in June, and the pursuit of the season-long ALMS GT championship as the other major focus for the program, achieving reliability is key for success in both arenas.
The punishing nature of the 3.7-mile Sebring track exacted its toll on the SRT Vipers during the 12-hour contest, but the lessons that came from the electrical issues on the No. 91 and the mechanical woes that befell the No. 93 have been accepted as learning opportunities for the young team.
Paretta, like the rest of the SRT team members, wanted nothing more than to celebrate in Sebring's Victory Lane. The No. 91 came home in fifth, while the No. 93 claimed 10th, but if the adversity faced during the 12 Hours can help to make stronger Vipers for Le Mans and throughout the ALMS season, she says it was an acceptable price to pay.
“You're just happy to know that you went in a positive direction even if you make two steps forward and one step back,” she acknowledged. “And we're happy with the weekend because I'm looking at it as the difference from Petit. It's one thing to see how we did if you're looking at it in isolation but I think we did learn a lot — all things that we'll take with us to Le Mans. I think endurance-wise, durability-wise, I think the motor really performed as we wanted, and we found a few other areas to make stronger.”
With the SRT Viper team driven to improve reliability for the next race at Long Beach in April, a few performance items that came out of Sebring will also be carried forward at the bumpy Californian street circuit.
“Once you've gotten the basics taken care of, being successful in GT racing comes down to handling more often than not,” said Riley. “I think that's where we made a big leap at Sebring, a really bumpy track, and it'll help on other tracks for sure. If you can get a car to work at a bumpy track then you're pretty much set everywhere. Like Le Mans; it's not a bumpy track, but you have to hit the curbs so many times a lap that it becomes a bumpy track, oddly enough. I'm very confident in our shocks and suspension setup as we go to the rest of the races.”
And within the car, Farnbacher says the smooth, crisp handling, along with the series-mandated air conditioning made extracting race-leading performance from the SRT Vipers a breeze.
“I think that's one thing people might not expect,” he said. “The cars are loud and fast, so maybe they look like it would be tough to drive them, but I did a triple stint at the end of the race — the last three hours — and I was actually very comfortable in the car. It's a very nice car to drive, not difficult at all, which is different for me. Not a lot of racing cars are like that…”
With the stage set for the SRT Viper GTS-R Racing Team to move on from Sebring, the lasting memory of Farnbacher fighting his way into the lead just prior to the ninth hour of the race is what most fans will recall. It was the first big step for the program in 2013, and with a bit more time and development, everyone involved is confident the SRT Vipers will soon be able to hold that lead to the checkered flag.
“That's what's going to drive us to Long Beach,” said Paretta. “OK, now maybe we can get into the top 3. Maybe we can go higher than that. And the thing that we're so humbled by is just the response we're getting from our competitors as well — seeing the banter on Twitter and such of the Corvette-versus-Viper rivalry. I think the fans are excited to have it back and that's just really kind of cool to see that fire back in them. This was a great start to our season and there's a lot more to come.”
You can follow Tommy Kendall on Twitter at @TommyKendall11, team updates at @teamSRT, all SRT street and race news at @driveSRT and Dodge CEO Ralph Gilles at @RalphGilles.
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