It was at an ordinary track day when Kevin Burke met Jerome. Kevin had been coaching some of the newbies and helping them get over their fears of Auto Club Speedway when, between sessions, Kevin noticed a fourth-generation Viper ACR parked away in one quiet corner of the pits. A poster of this rarity once decorated his college dorm, and all those teenager feelings started flooding back in. Five minutes of conversation later, Jerome opened his hand, revealing a set of snake-stamped keys.
“Want to take it for a spin?” he inquired.
Kevin bit his lip, remembering his wife’s wise words on the value of a poker face, and calmly, but thankfully, took the keys. Mismatched tires—Toyo RRs up front and R888s in the rear—and the restraint one shows with a passenger riding along made Kevin’s foray into Viper territory even trickier, but he reassured himself he was only out for a few exploratory laps. Even so, his first session yielded a 1:51, and with a little more familiarity and no passenger slowing him down, he notched a 1:47.
This was the quickest the car had ever lapped Auto Club Speedway in, and such a demonstration in a new-to-him vehicle made an impression on Jerome, and on Torco, the company he worked with. A few weeks later, Kevin received an e-mail from them and, again, had to recall the sage advice his better half had given him.
Torco decided to get this car into a formally competitive environment and felt Kevin should be the man to drive it. He calmly waited 15 minutes before replying to avoid appearing too eager. He wrote a calm and professional, almost casual response saying he accepted. For him, a man who hadn’t raced wheel to wheel before, getting signed on by a company to drive such a serious car was an enormous confidence booster.
That position came with additional duties. Promotion and budgeting were now his responsibility. With the limited budget allotted to him, Kevin had to determine which time trial class would give him the best return on the investment. At the end of their deliberations, they found that NASA’s TT2 class offered the best chances for the Viper, even if its power-to-weight ratio meant they had to add 120 pounds in ballast in addition to Kevin’s 200 pounds. Its TT2-trim weight of 3,750 pounds makes it an entirely different challenge than the stripped S2000 Kevin cut his teeth in, but the Viper makes up for that heft with an enormous footprint, real downforce, and 560 pound-feet of torque.
The number Torco gave him would allow him to run an entire season in NASA Time Trial, but he’d have to make a few concessions to make every event. So rather than opt for the dominant Hoosier A7s, he sought a more cost-effective tire that could provide him with the consistency and durability needed to stage a serious attempt against lighter cars on stickier rubber.
Toyo’s RR was that tire. Not having the outright grip of the A7, the RR compensates with durability and consistency. Still, to succeed in time attack meant he’d have to take risks and drive the car consistently at the limit. To match or beat the others, he’d have to pull out all the stops.
Comparison with a Momentum Car
Fortunately, he had the right sort of background to learn a car like the fourth-generation ACR. From the time he began in his S2000, his style has always been aggressive and regularly sideways. As it turned out, the S2000’s defining characteristics: nervous, skittish, but controllable with quick hands accurately describes the Viper.
“It’s a car that always wants to transition into some slip angle, but it’s surprisingly controllable once it’s there,” Burke began.
“It feels similar to the S2000, actually—both in the steering response and the way the rear has a habit of dancing. It usually tries to swap ends on you because it’s very light in the rear. I think some of that has to do with the double-wishbone in front,” he noted.
Though the powerplant dwarfs the S2000’s, the fact is that the V10 is almost mounted well behind the strut towers, just like the S2000’s engine. The Viper also has 295-section tires up front.
Of course, the two can’t be compared in the high-speed sections, but the S2000 and the Viper are alike in that they’re both happy to turn in and keep turning. The main difference in low-speed handling is in the breakaway. The Viper will snap on you, but because of its longer wheelbase, it’s harder to spin.”
However, the power deliveries are completely different. Whereas the 2.0-liter S2000 made 250 horsepower and 180 pound-feet of torque in its most potent guise, the Viper triples the second stat. Even with the 345-section tires administering that shove, makes driving a little trickier in slower corners.
And Against a Newer Muscle Car?
Perhaps his unusual progression from an S2000 to a C7 Grand Sport laid the perfect foundation for learning the Viper. To tame the Corvette, one needs to treat the skinny pedal with some care.
“The Corvette is a more competent car than the Viper is in technical sections. It just puts its power down so well. It takes less effort to get the lap time,” Kevin declared.
A transaxle and a suspension design a decade newer help a bit there, but so does the way the Corvette’s LT1 produces power. A big cam pushes the powerband slightly to the right and makes the torque a little more deployable.
When the 8.4-liter V10 in the Viper revs a little past idle, it’s already making most of its 560 pound-feet of torque which arrives at 5,000 rpm. The lack of a weighted rear axle—save for the downforce from the wing—means putting power to the ground in hairpins is always a challenge especially since there’s no traction control to lean on.
It’s really the throttle that gets the majority of his attention. Incredibly sensitive with a travel of roughly 3 inches, the throttle is never exactly comfortable to apply. “It’s so easy to upset the car with an accidental hit of the throttle from hitting a bump on track. You may think I’m stabbing at the throttle from the onboard footage, but it’s usually the result of a crack or pavement change bouncing my foot around.”
Indicators of serious intent: the pedals and the windows are the only power-adjustable items in the car.
The brake feel is good—not stupendous, but good. The ABS is also good, if not better than the systems in the S2000 and the C7. Still, it’s nicely weighted and facilitates consistency in the trail braking department. Little things like that go a long way in helping a driver feel confident in a car that really doesn’t tolerate any goofing.
“The gearbox is, well, agricultural. It’s like a spring loaded T56,” he added dryly. The TR6060, mounted in the conventional fashion and not pushing the driven wheels into the pavement, doesn’t encourage slick shifting like the S2000’s transmission does. Still, that roughness can be appreciated in this context. It’s a visceral car that rattles and shakes and makes the driver sweat. The exhaust also exits underneath the doors. That definitely adds to the sense of occasion and cabin temperatures.
If this input-related roughness is a detriment, then the steering can help compensate for that. Here, the way the Viper’s wheel writhes around in the driver’s hands is something anyone will appreciate. “It will noticeably tighten and squirm when going over curbs. It’s weighted nicely; probably about twice as heavy as the Honda’s or the Chevy’s. You actually can develop a relationship with the front end of the car.” It’s able to steer more accurately than its dimensions would suggest.”
“It only took me two sessions before I was confident about where I was placing the nose.”
Changing Character at Speeds
The truth is, Kevin’s Corvette and S2000 are better cars at slower speeds. More deployable power made it easier to get the Corvette to carve a cleanish line around Buttonwillow and its many second and third-gear corners.
Predictably, his Buttonwillow times in the Viper were nearly six seconds slower than what he managed with his Corvette. Too much entry oversteer and difficulty putting the power down in the slow stuff, mostly. “It would oversteer into Riverside at 100, then understeer out. Not my idea of a good time.”
The post-weekend inspection of the Viper revealed the alignment was way off. Big curbs can do that. With 0° toe in front and a minute amount of rear toe-in, the neutralized Viper became what it was always meant to be. Wisely, they finally upgraded from the stock pads to a set of Hawk DTC-80s up front and DTC-70s in the rear.
While it could never be called docile, it does soften a little over 80 miles an hour. The gearing is a factor here. Second gear takes you to 90 miles an hour, but the wings play an even bigger role.
This meant that Kevin’s next visit to Willow Springs went swimmingly. With only a mild amount of understeer in the high-speed sections, it absolutely decimated the competition. It confidently entered Willow Spring’s Turn 8 at 146 mph and carried the level of speed through some corners, which forced even a seasoned driver like Kevin to recalibrate his vision in order to avoid staring just ahead of the long hood before him.
“We were confident enough to move up into TT1 one that weekend, even though our trim meant we were well below what we could’ve achieved. We removed the passenger seat to trim thirty pounds, but we still had another 190 we could’ve pulled had we had the time to prepare. At the end of the day, we won TT1 and put in a 1:25.2—just a few tenths off the TT1 record.”
“I’ve never had to adapt to a car quite like this one. It has a split personality,” Kevin chuckled. “At high speeds, I’ve learned to trust it. It just does what I ask. All I really had to change in my driving was where to look. Landmarks and other focal points arrive so damn quickly!”
“In the slower corners, I’ve recognized that it’s very much a point-and-shoot kind of car,” he began. He simply cannot roll the entry speed as he’d like and still find the delta looking strong at corner exit. With a car this powerful, it makes sense to lower the minimum speed slightly if it helps it fire cleanly off the corner and down the following straightaway.
“Metering out power is a real challenge, though we’re planning on rebuilding the differential. That might help.”
As the sun sets on any circuit he’s just visited with the Torco Viper, Kevin has to pinch himself. He was chosen to drive a car considered too unwieldy for most, but he’s proven that it just takes the right touch. Winning every one of the six Time Trial events he’s entered so far and demonstrating what it can do on modern tires has won him quite a few more fans. Bearing in mind that it’s not far from stock at the moment, we have to wonder what it’s capable of when Kevin finds a bigger budget and a little more seat time.