Thursday, July 31, 2008

Flat Out on the Salt in the New Viper ACR

Insideline - We're about to make our first high-speed run in the still-black 2008 Dodge Viper ACR when the old guy pulls up to our makeshift pit. He looks exactly like the guy you'd expect to meet in the middle of the Bonneville Salt Flats, like a worn-out Hank Williams, Jr.

Over the deafening cackle of his Cummins-powered diesel pickup, he yells, "What's you boys doin'?"

"We're going to make a few runs in this Viper here."

"Yeah, how fast will she run?"

"We don't really know. Maybe 190 or so."

By the expression on his face, it's obvious ol' Hank has figured out that we have no idea what we're doin'. He knows we're just a bunch of yahoos with a fast car. He takes a good long look at the big winged Viper, then he shuts off the truck's engine so we can hear him better.

"When you're going fast, the slightest gust of wind can flip you," he says. "That's why we only ran early in the morning when the air was calm."

We look up at the mid-afternoon sun and wonder what we've gotten ourselves into.

"And make sure you don't run out of room," he continues. "You think you have all the space in the world, then Floating Mountain is suddenly right in your face. I remember when I went for 300 mph back in 1978; my chutes didn't open and I almost didn't get her stopped." He runs his fingers through a white beard. "Didn't make 300 either," he adds. "Only 280."

Great. We thought this Bonneville thing was as easy as holding our foot down until the speedometer stopped moving. Now Mr. Monday Night has us imagining our $100,000 Viper sliding across the Utah desert on its roof.

The Plan
The 2008 Dodge Viper ACR has been designed for owners who want to drive to the track, punish a few Porsches and then drive home. But taking it to a racetrack like Mazda Raceway at Laguna Seca seemed like a waste of time.

What were we going to learn? Oh wait, let us guess; it turns faster lap times than the standard Viper. Hell, with nearly slick tires, a fully adjustable suspension and a foot-high rear wing, it had freakin' better.

For those who need the numbers, we still ran it through our usual instrumented tests. It pulled a 1.1g on the skid pad and stopped from 60 mph to zero in just 100 feet. It went from zero to 60 mph in 3.7 seconds, just like the standard model, but the ACR did run a slightly faster quarter-mile time of 11.6 seconds at 124.2 mph.

But forget the usual track numbers, we wanted to stretch this Viper's legs and see if its aerodynamic add-ons really make a difference when the speed gets serious. Only one place made sense: the Bonneville Salt Flats, the world's fastest speedway. Current speed limit: 630 mph, set by Gary Gabelich in the Blue Flame.

Getting There Isn't Easy
We left Los Angeles early yesterday morning, blasting 650 miles to Wendover, Utah. It's about 120 miles west of Salt Lake City, and the salt lies just over the hills to the east.

Getting out of L.A. meant slogging through early morning traffic. As we inched along, an L.A. city cop gave us a big thumbs up, while nearly every Prius driver scowled at the jet-black coupe like it was melting the polar ice caps all by itself.

Once we were clear of the city and heading up through the blazing central Nevada desert, we couldn't help but admire those old-school racers. They often drove to Bonneville in open-top roadsters with nothing more than wet handkerchiefs around their necks. As rough as the Viper rides, it was cool inside, the seats were comfortable and the engine temperature stayed steady.

We dialed in the softest settings on the ACR's adjustable coil-over shocks, but it didn't help much. Every nick in the pavement felt like a speed bump, while real potholes delivered body blows that hurt. It could have been worse, as our car didn't have the hard-core package which strips out the radio and some of the carpeting to shave another 40 pounds off the Viper's curb weight of 3,420 pounds.

By the time we got to Wendover, the sun had set and it had cooled down to around 80 degrees. We checked into one of those motels where you can park right outside your door, as we wanted to make sure the Viper was still there in the morning.

The Salt Remains the Same
And it was, right where we parked it, so we topped off the Viper's gas tank and headed east over the hill. We exited the freeway onto a two-lane access road that heads north before bending 90 degrees directly into the salt flats. From there, it was like driving to the end of a pier, with nothing but gleaming white salt on all sides. The sign reads "Bonneville Salt Flats International Raceway."

There's not much in the way of rules, so we simply drove off the end of the pavement onto the salt. There are several tracks, but we settled in at the starting line of the international long course. Because it's over 10 miles long, we would never even come close to running out of room. Or so we thought before Hank's little pep talk.

What an incredible place. It's a perfectly clear day. Blue sky from horizon to horizon, and the glare off the salt is blinding despite our best BluBlockers. As impressive as the salt looks, mining has taken its toll over the years, so much so that an organization called Save the Salt has been established to help restore Bonneville to the way it was when racers first arrived in the early 1900s.

Trial Run
After setting up our canopy, tools and ice chest, we checked the tire pressure, torqued the lug nuts and prepared to make a trial run. That's when we spotted the pickup truck of our friend Hank cresting the curvature of the Earth. After his visit, the idea of pushing the 2008 Dodge Viper ACR to its limits on the Salt seems daunting. By comparison, going 120 mph on Highway 93 through the middle of Nevada was easy.

And our first run confirms our newfound fear. At 100 mph, the flats aren't the perfectly smooth sheet of salt we expected. The ride is a little bumpy, like driving down a freshly graded dirt road. The Viper's tires struggle for traction on the salt, and anything more than a modest nudge of the gas pedal sends them spinning. We rip a few gears and get a little sideways just for fun, but clearly, the path to higher speeds will be short shifting and gentle, deliberate pressure on the gas pedal.

Easing into 3rd gear, the Viper easily builds up to triple-digit speeds. The track across the salt feels a little smoother when the car is gliding over the top of it. Dodge says the rear spoiler on the ACR generates 1,000 pounds of downforce at 150 mph, yet the rear end still gets loose at 120 mph in 3rd gear, so we drop it into 4th.

At 150 mph, the Viper ACR shakes and rumbles. The super-quick steering that pays off so well on the track makes the car feel nervous now. Off the gas, we coast down below 100 mph and return to the starting line.

Now We're Rattled
For the next run, we go extra easy on the throttle, picking up speed gradually. The changing colors and textures of the salt enhance the sensation of speed, yet the horizon never seems to get any closer. Going fast at Bonneville feels like driving on a giant conveyor belt.

Dropping into 4th at well over 100 mph, we feed in more throttle as the ground roars beneath us. The Viper climbs past 140 mph, then 150 mph and on to 160 mph before the shift light tells us it's time for 5th gear. We shift as smoothly as possible into the next gate, but the thrust doesn't carry over to 5th. Even with our foot now flat to the floor, the pace of acceleration slows to a crawl.

Knowing that the standard Viper has a top speed of just over 200 mph, the ACR's struggle to top 165 mph makes it obvious that the big rear wing and front dive planes that are designed to plant it to the track in the turns are taking their toll on straight-line speed.

We keep our foot down for another mile or so, but the Viper doesn't go any faster.

Tweaking the Suspension for Speed
The Viper's suspension is adjustable for ride height and the dampers can be dialed for both compression and rebound, so we decide to try a few tweaks. An hour later, the Viper is sitting 2 inches lower and the dampers should offer more control.

Back on the salt, the Viper feels even more nervous than before, and in our haste to get up to speed, we dip into the throttle a little too deep. The back end suddenly jumps sideways at 120 mph. We catch it once, but it snaps again and we're thrown into a long, long sideways slide that ends without damage. Most important rule at Bonneville: Always go easy on the gas.

We decide to back off the shocks a little to smooth out the ride, but keep the lower ride height to improve the aerodynamics. By now, the 2008 Dodge Viper ACR is packed with so much salt that it's probably carrying an extra 20 pounds.

Track Knowledge Helps
It's only been a few runs, but we're already feeling more comfortable at speed now that we've found a smooth groove. It pays to have a little track knowledge, even at Bonneville. Louise Ann Noeth's Land Speed Racing notes that the legendary Mickey Thompson used to walk the entire length of the track the night before a run so he could see the subtle surface changes in the moonlight. Then again, he was also trying to top 400 mph in his 2,000-horsepower streamliner.

Back up to speed, we're through 4th gear and into 5th and topping 160 mph again with the Viper still slowly building speed. It always feels like we're going to run out of racing room, but by keeping on eye on the orange cones that dot the track, we're reminded that there are still miles of salt left.

Foot still flat on the floor, we creep past 170 mph. The Viper is still twitching and hopping, but we figure all that downforce will keep it from going anywhere. The speedometer needle edges past 171, then 172 and finally 173 mph before it's clear that even a 600-hp V10 is no match for the air resistance at these speeds.

We're happy to run another mile or so as we soak up the experience of pushing to the Viper to its limit on the salt, like so many American hot rods before it — but that's all this Dodge has today.

The 200-mph club is going to have to wait.

The Long Ride Home
When the day is done, our first stop is again the gas station. At 170 mph, the Viper swills gas faster than the Chinese middle class, and it has burned through an entire tank of fuel during our half day of high-speed runs.

Our second stop is a car wash in downtown Wendover, as the Viper ACR needs a good spray-down to get all that salt off its once-pristine black paint. More than an hour later, we think we've done a pretty thorough job.

The next morning, the Viper feels like its going to shake itself to pieces at anything over 80 mph. At first, we think the Viper is just plain screwed up, like the salt has already eaten away all of it suspension bushings, or all four of its massive Michelins have somehow been flat-spotted. But a quick inspection at a roadside gas station reveals a stubborn layer of salt caked to the inside of the Viper's ultralight wheels, obviously throwing off their balance. A shot of water from a hose solves the problem; the Viper rides smooth again right up to 150 mph.

Ten hours and 72 gallons of premium later, we're back in L.A. traffic, proving positively that the 2008 Dodge Viper ACR really can be driven to the racetrack, punished and driven home. Even if your chosen racetrack is Bonneville, the world's fastest speedway.

The manufacturer provided Edmunds this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation.

2008 Dodge Viper ACR Video (Photo by Kurt Niebuhr)
It's only 650 miles from Los Angeles to Bonneville, so a road trip was clearly in order to see what the Viper could do. (Photo by Kurt Niebuhr)
Other than this sign, there's not much in Death Valley Junction, a virtual ghost town deep in the Mojave Desert. (Photo by Kurt Niebuhr)
This old dirt track sits just outside the Tonopah, Nevada, home of the U.S. Air Force's Tonopah Test Range. (Photo by Kurt Niebuhr)
Heading up through central Nevada, there's plenty of room to let the Viper stretch its legs. (Photo by Kurt Niebuhr)
This gas station is all there is once you get off at the Speedway exit just east of Wendover. From here, just go about four miles down the access road and you'll be deep in the heart of Bonneville. (Photo by Kurt Niebuhr)
It's early in the day and the Viper is still clean as it waits to make a few runs on the international long course. There are markings like this all over the salt, but it takes a map and a little bit of local knowledge to find them. (Photo by Kurt Niebuhr)
The salt may look smooth, but it's actually quite bumpy when you're going fast. (Photo by Kurt Niebuhr)
The Viper's rear tires may have been a pair of 345/30ZR19 Michelin Pilot Sport Cups, but they were no match for the salt; they struggled for traction throughout the day. (Photo by Kurt Niebuhr)
You don't have to pull the wheels to adjust the damper settings, but if you want to crank down the springs, it's easier to do with everything out of the way. (Photo by Kurt Niebuhr)
Fully adjustable coil-over shocks allow us to adjust the ride height as well as the rebound and compression settings of the dampers. (Photo by Kurt Niebuhr)
A quick check to make sure everything looks OK under the hood, and we'll be off for another run. (Photo by Kurt Niebuhr)
It looks like this for at least 10 miles; perfect for topping out a Viper or just about anything. (Photo by Kurt Niebuhr)
At these speeds, the Viper's 600-hp V10 is no match for force of the wind. (Photo by Kurt Niebuhr)
Rocker/sill exhausts are one of the Viper's most unique features; don't expect to see another production car with them anytime soon. (Photo by Kurt Niebuhr)
The Viper ACR rides on a fully adjustable suspension and weighs 40 pounds less than a standard Viper. There's also an optional Hard Core Package that strips out the radio and some of the carpeting to shave another 40 pounds off the curb weight of 3,420 pounds. (Photo by Kurt Niebuhr)
According to Dodge, the rear spoiler on the Viper ACR produces 1,000 pounds of downforce at 150 mph. (Photo by Kurt Niebuhr)
Once you get off the well-worn tracks, the surface of the salt is not always smooth. (Photo by Kurt Niebuhr)
The terrain gives Bonneville an eerie, otherworldly feel that's hard to forget. (Photo by Kurt Niebuhr)
There are no engine upgrades for the ACR, so its V10 makes the same 600 horsepower and 580 pound-feet as a standard Viper. (Photo by Kurt Niebuhr)
Everything else about the ACR is typical Viper: a low, slouched seating position, slightly offset pedals that are a little too close together and a set of perfectly aligned white-faced gauges. (Photo by Kurt Niebuhr)
This is the end of the access road that leads to the Bonneville Salt Flats. From here, we simply drove off the edge and onto one of the most famous racetracks in the world. (Photo by Kurt Niebuhr)
If you don't want your car to rot to the ground within the week, a good high-pressure wash is necessary after running on the salt. (Photo by Kurt Niebuhr)
A little water from a gas station hose was all it took to rid the Viper's wheels of the salt that was throwing their balance out of whack. It was a smooth ride home from then on out, relatively speaking. (Photo by Kurt Niebuhr)

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