Ralph Gilles kisses his pride and joy, the 2013 SRT Viper GTS, at the New York International Auto Show reveal last April.
Ralph Gilles, president and CEO of the SRT brand and motorsports as well as senior vp of product design at Chrysler Group LLC, stopped by the RACER offices to talk about the Viper GTS-R in the American Le Mans Series and at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, as well as the SRT road car philosophy.
Why was SRT chosen to be a separate sporting brand, and steered away from the Dodge and Chrysler nameplates?
RG: Well, the other way to look at it is that SRT unites the company, because there are SRT models of Chrysler, Dodge and Jeep. The brand will still have a halo effect on the less-powerful models in the ranges; people still recognize the SRT models as Challengers, and 300s and Chargers. However, the consumer is very different; there's a difference between the person who buys the V6 Charger and the one who buys the SRT8 model. And the Viper consumer is more different yet.
The market is fragmenting, people's priorities are evolving and shifting, and I believe the SRT brand is to speak to the rock solid performance car enthusiasts who have been here for the past 50 years. Those people held firm even through the OPEC oil crisis days of the '70s, and the cars became smaller but there were still sporty models. That community still exists, they're still well informed and they're core enthusiasts. So the SRT strategy is to speak to them because the people who buy the SRT models are prepared to pay a premium for the extra performance.
Our website has been up for almost two years now, the traffic is healthy and we're creating a community, not just a brand. So whether you bought an SRT model 10 years ago or just yesterday, you're part of that community. We celebrate our heritage all the time and feature customer's cars, and try to get out to special events as much as possible, engage people on social media and so on. The website is more of a magazine than most car manufacturer websites.
So the idea behind this community is that people who buy a Jeep SRT feel a bond with the guy who buys an SRT Viper?
RG: Absolutely, and in fact, in some case they are one and the same. They drive the Jeep every day, and the Viper is for the weekend. The Jeep is a perfect example because the Grand Cherokee SRT protects the brand. The Jeep brand is supposed to be about off-roading and being the most capable SUV available, but by creating just a little separation between the two dimensions of that vehicle, it preserves what Jeep's about and underscores what SRT is about. I went to an event where a bunch of media made it fairly clear that they didn't understand the purpose of the Grand Cherokee SRT; then they drove it, and they walked away saying, “OK, now I get it.” It's incredible; it drives like a sports car. So rather than SUV, it's best to look at it as a highly practical, multi-purpose sports car.
And the Cayenne hasn't exactly harmed Porsche's sports car sales, has it?
RG: Precisely. We're unique among car companies in that we've added a brand recently. But that's because we believe there is a wide array of interests in the car market and, like I say, we market SRT to the core enthusiasts.
How much of a blow was it to withdraw from NASCAR?
RG: For the fans, huge. Leaving on the perfect high with Brad Keselowski winning the title really softened the blow, but it was bittersweet, I'm not going to lie to you. Our fans do understand it – it's a tough sport to find the right players to work with. Once the decision was made, it really galvanized the bond between Penske Racing and ourselves. We thought, “OK, this is it, we're going to be leaving but let's make the most of it.” And we had a really good year. It wasn't without 10 years of work; we didn't just show up and win. There's a difficult cocktail of things that have to line up before you can win a NASCAR championship, and that's why we weren't prepared to be in it without a top team like Penske. You can burn through a lot of money while achieving little.
But it's not correct to say then that the Chrysler Group switched from NASCAR to the American Le Mans Series?
RG: Getting into ALMS was specifically done to market the Viper and more generally, to promote the SRT brand, whereas the NASCAR project was from a different budget and was promoting the Charger in Cup and the Challenger in Nationwide. And that would have continued if we'd had opportunities with the right partners.
Speaking of the Challenger, what's the plan going forward? Do you foresee it one day being promoted on track, maybe in Trans-Am?
RG: I admit I love the heritage of the Challenger and the fact that the original car competed in Trans-Am in 1970. I know a lot of privateers have tried to make it into a racecar, but you know, it's quite big and although the street car owners love that and love the fact that it's so practical and roomy for driving cross-country, it's going to take some work to make it a track car. Having said that, we're monitoring the reboot of the Trans-Am series very carefully and we'll be interested to see what equalization could do.
Personally, I think you should revive the Plymouth name and get an SRT 'Cuda out there. Take a Challenger, shorten the wheelbase a couple of inches, trim the overhangs a little, lower the c of g and then you've got a direct rival to the Mustang and Camaro.
RG: Some people have done some of that to their Challengers, actually! But as far as an official product is concerned, no one at Chrysler wants to do a new 'Cuda unless we do it right. That's all I'll say on that for the moment. To balance that, I can tell you that the Challenger is doing really well for us, and its future is bright.