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.
Let's look at the Viper now, then. How do you handle the expectations of SRT heading to Le Mans, especially after such a strong performance at Sebring?
RG: I think our outlook has always been based on the fact that we have such a sound base; the car really is solid. And even though we've only been back in it for less than a year, remember we're with a really good team. Riley Technologies is absolutely one of the best, and so we benefited from Bill Riley having been in the sport for 34 years. That gave us a hugely advantageous starting point.
So I'm confident in the soundness of the car and the strength of the team. Where I'm tentative is simply with the unknowns that are a fact of life in racing. And it was one of those unknowns that caught us out at Sebring. There was a solenoid problem that cost us second place at Sebring. And then there was a very unique problem with the collar on the center mount that wasn't processed properly and was keeping the wheel from torquing and that caused one car to shear its drivepins. Both of those were problems you never see anywhere else but racing – and you won't see again on our car! – but in a way, you have to go through them because you only learn they can happen through on-track competition.
But other than that, we were pleasantly surprised at how we did; we were better than we expected. The speed was good, we were very consistent, our drivers were exceptional. So now I look at you and say with regards to Le Mans….well, we're not going there to finish last. I wouldn't be so cocky as to say we can win it on our first trip back, but I think we can be contenders.
It must give you a lot of confidence to see how you stacked up against the Porsches and Ferraris, for instance, although I guess beating Corvette will always be one of your priorities.
RG: I have a lot of respect for all the teams. And don't forget, Aston Martin looked strong for a while there, too, but then ran into some issues like us – teething problems. And that's the point; we were always at some point going to hit niggly little problems that only track time can find.
Every manufacturer justifies their competition spend by talking about what can be taken from their racecar and applied to the road car. I'd guess there's more truth to that with ALMS cars than any others. But, honestly, how much race-to-road transfer is there between the GTS-R and the GTS… and vice versa?
RG: Well, braking, for example. Everyone was asking, “Why don't you use carbon fiber brakes on the Viper?” and the answer is because we use steel brakes on the ALMS car and it can run hours and hours and hours on the same set of pads and rotors. And we use some of that technology for a road car upgrade package that we're producing. There's plenty of life left in the steel brake package, which is something people underestimate.
There's the traction control system allowed in ALMS and that went the opposite way, from the road car to the GTS-R. There's body bracing that we transferred from the racecar to the street car – the two were developed simultaneously, remember – and, actually, the racecar was finished first because obviously there was less Federal regulations stuff to do! But yeah, the X-brace, and a certain little gusseting that you can't see, went from the GTS-R to the GTS.
And then there were the aerodynamics. There were huge lessons learned from the road car to the racecar and then a little bit back again, too. The design team that did the base car actually helped the race team with the aero package. We were still sculpting the body of the street car while they were developing the ALMS car, so the hood features on the road car are where they work best for cooling and downforce. So that flows back and forth; there is genuine synergy.
If you look at the fundamentals of the Viper – where the driver sits, where the engine is located, the center of gravity, the size of the tires – the GTS and GTS-R are remarkably close.
How much of an annoyance to you is it when sanctioning bodies of multi-car classes have to bring in equalization measures?
RG: Meh…we're used to it. The race Vipers have been tranquilized for years. Seriously, we're all right with that; we expect it and anticipate it. When the GTS-R was just an idea, we went to the ALMS and said, “Here's the plan. We can't shrink our motor any more than it is, so tell us how you're going to restrict us.” And they were very transparent on what they'd do…and the racecar now produces a scintillating 450 horsepower or whatever, compared with the 640hp of the road car. But what the ALMS does is pretty remarkable. If you look at the lap times at Sebring, the GT cars were within half a second, despite the vast differences – front-engined, mid-engined, rear-engined, with six, eight, 10 and 12 cylinders, all in one melting pot.
Yeah, and I was surprised when Tommy Kendall said that the characteristics of the Viper's engine still shine through, that you still get that big wedge of torque that you wouldn't get in a more peaky engine.
RG: Well, yeah…for a while. The way the restrictor works is that you have enough manifold volume that you get a nice pull out of the corners – kinda like the diesel prototypes! – but eventually you hit the supersonic speed of the restrictors and the car figuratively hits a wall. And actually it's a little bit inefficient because of its size running that way. The torque is only relevant while the manifold is full of air.
And TK says that torque is great from the practical point of view in that the team's not having to mess with the gearing all the time…
RG: …And also, just like with the street car, the level of stress on the engine is low. It's a large engine so it's relatively unstressed and that's what has been one of the legendary factors in the Viper's 21-year history. That V10 is so uncomplicated, but it can get the job done performance-wise and the current GTS gets 22mpg from an 8.4-liter V10!
So what's the situation regarding customer racecars in the future?
RG: That question's come up quite a bit, as you can imagine. Very few customers could afford the ALMS-level of GT car. But the GT3 class, yes, that's something we're very definitely interested in. At Sebring, I was getting accosted by several wealthy men who want a GT3-class car, like… yesterday! There's an interesting pull there, and I'm very encouraged by that interest, and it's global. We've sold over 120 competition coupes to World Challenge spec and we made a GT3-spec version of that car, and they're in action all over the world, and those guys want the new-shape car now, so we're looking at it. The good news is that the GT3 rules are attractive because there's a lot of transfer, a lot of bodywork that's common to the road car, so we're working with sanctioning bodies to see what it will take to make that happen.
Just to clarify, that would be a customer-funded philosophy – we'd build to order, a true private deal. We'd sell engines and parts, but running the team is 100 percent on the customer.
The unification of U.S. sports car racing: how big a deal is that for you?
RG: That is a huge deal, and the fact that the ACO are involved along with Grand-Am and ALMS means that we should have a true globalization of motorsports. That's music to OEMs' ears, the fact that we can have one spec usable worldwide, and it's a big help to the engineers who previously would have found it impossible to manage competitive cars for all three sanctioning bodies. We're really excited at the thought that our car can work in any country, so once we've decided what the GT3 package is, it can be turn-key and we can ship them all over the world.
Finally, how's the brand activation going in relation to the ALMS program?
RG: Very good, although we learned a lesson as far as the car corral at Sebring was concerned, in that we need to give owners a better heads-up. We had space for maybe 150 cars, and we had owners coming up and saying that they'd only known about it happening for about four weeks in advance. So that's been noted and we will make sure we give more advance notice. The other problem with Sebring is that you can't get a room there, and the track's a fair old trip from say, Miami. So that's logistically challenging for SRT owners.
As far as Long Beach is concerned, there's just no room to hold a corral there, simply because of the geographical limitations. But I think that now the word is out, we can do good car corrals at Road America, Mid-Ohio and so on. And as an SRT owner, you'll get taken care of at the races; you'll get a VIP card on your lanyard, you can use the hospitality area, and you will get treated like gold.
And that's part of the community aspect we talked about at the start. It doesn't matter if you have a 2004 Neon or a Viper: as an SRT owner, you're one of us.
You can follow on Twitter… Ralph Gilles at @RalphGilles, the SRT Viper GTS-R team at @teamSRT, and check out all SRT street and race news at @teamSRT.
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