The SRT Viper American Le Mans Series team has a birthday to celebrate this weekend at Elkhart Lake.
The iconic V10-powered GT cars made their return to competition on Aug. 4 last year at Mid-Ohio, and with the ALMS skipping the Mid-Ohio round this season, the popular Elkhart Lake road course in Wisconsin will serve as the site for the snake’s one-year anniversary. It also marks the first repeat track the No. 91 and 93 SRT Vipers will visit after waging a four-race introductory campaign in 2012.
RACER spoke with SRT marketing and operations director Beth Paretta to gauge how the manufacturer views its progress since partnering with Riley Technologies to take on BMW, Corvette, Ferrari, Porsche and other brands in the hotly contested ALMS GT category, and also what’s needed to take home its maiden victory.
“All of us involved with the team have a lot of experience between us, but we have to keep reminding ourselves that we’re a new program, a new collection of people going racing together and with a new car to develop,” she said. We’re still getting to know each other, to know the competition, and even a year later, it’s still our first full season competing together.
“We started out of the gate last year with a lot of energy and excitement, dipped our toes in the water, but really went racing to see where we stacked up. There wasn’t a lot of testing beforehand. Those four races let us get the kinks out. To do pit stops, to figure out the equipment needed to go racing and to see where we were on lap times. That’s all pretty basic stuff, but it’s where our focus was coming into the ALMS.”
The team took what it learned during 2012 and made quite an impact at this year’s season opener in Sebring, and went on to take its first pole position and its first podium at Round 2 in Long Beach. Recently, the SRT Viper squad had its best race to date in Mosport, challenging for the win before settling for second and third.
Of all the metrics to chart the program’s evolution since Mid-Ohio 2012, an intangible one a change in expectations for the men and women who comprise the two-car team could offer the strongest sign of how far the SRT Vipers have come.
“It’s funny; at Mosport we were dicing with the Corvettes in the final laps and we ended up .2 seconds behind the winning Corvette and everyone on our team was so upset,” said Paretta. “Everyone was moping around, but I had to remind everyonehey, we need to get down to the podiumbecause we JUST FINISHED SECOND AND THIRD!
“That’s how far our internal expectations have come since Mid-Ohio. We get upset when we don’t win, which makes it hard to appreciate how far we’ve actually gone. As competitors, we’re always looking forward and rarely take time to stop and look where you’re at in the moment. You’re never happy with losing, but losing by .2 seconds is better than by two laps. We know we can find the few tenths needed to win.”
Making a trip to celebrate a win, as Paretta shares, is within reach but won’t come easily.
“What will it take to win?…I think we can go into every event with the belief that we can win, but I also know that every other [GT] team believes the same thing,” she remarked. “I think we have all the tools to win, the drivers to win, the cars to win and the crew that can get us that win. But to be honest, we’re not just looking at getting a win. We want that first win, don’t get me wrong, but we want wins. Championships.
“And when we’re ready as a team, I know they will start to happen. I’d love to say it will be this weekend, or some specific date on a calendar, but it’s a transformational thing. Every aspect of the team has to be ready to win, and we’re really close after just a year, but it’s big mountain to climb. We’re certainly not here because we thought it would be easy, but we also know it’s more a case of when, not if we can win.”
Another point of interest for SRT’s growth in the ALMS has been the exposure of the brand to new audiences. Most car enthusiasts are familiar with Chrysler and Dodge, but its high-performance vehicle and competition arm has only been moved to the forefront over the past few years.
“When we revealed the SRT Viper, we said it was to also launch the SRT brand as the pinnacle of the Chrysler Group, and in many ways, it’s a true factory campaign,” she explained. “There’s full factory involvement with this racing program, and I think it’s pretty unique, because we’re looking to it to bring awareness to SRT.
“If you look at the other brands in the series, they do a great job of marketing whatever cars they race and for the most part, they’re reinforcing brand awareness. Our job with the SRT Vipers has really been about creating first-time awareness, about putting the SRT name out there to a new audience through racing. And I’ve seen a lot of great traction and interest build from what we’re doing in sports car racing.”
On the competition side of the SRT program, Viper driver Tommy Kendall offered his year-to-year assessment of where the silver coupes stand in their on-track development process.
“It’s funny how the expectations have moved over the course of a year,” said the four-time Trans-Am series champion. “Going into Mid-Ohio last year, we all couldn’t wait to get racing again, the cars looked gorgeous, and among the drivers, we expected to shock the world and show everyone how fast the cars were.
“We left the track and we were the ones that were shocked at how steep the competition was and how far we had to develop the new SRT Viper package. I spoke with my friend Johnny O’Connell then and he said, Hey, it’s going to take at least a year to get to where you want to be, don’t beat yourself up.’ Now, we have a car that’s knocking on the door of that first win. It’s a pretty big advancement, if you think about how much work has been done to get us here today.”
Constant work to improve the cars between each race and especially during the off-season has accelerated the competitive timeline for the SRT Vipers, and with some Balance of Performance concessions by the ALMS, the team has become legitimate contenders at most tracks. A win at Elkhart, as Kendall details, certainly isn’t out of the question.
“The work to get the car developed involves gains in every little area,” he added. “I was talking to one of the senior team SRT members who said every single part on the car is at least in its third iteration. That’s how much they’ve developed the car beneath the skin, and it’s that kind of dedication that tells you why the cars are so fast. For the photographers out there, it’s like a picture that’s coming into focus.
“The strengths are getting stronger, and the weaknesses are being improved and reduced with every race. Elkhart will give us a good indicator of how far we’ve come since last year; we’ve done everything but win, and that’s the last item for us to execute. I think, if anything, that’s the real measure of where we’ve come since that first race at Mid-Ohio and can we win this weekend? You bet.”
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