Okay, you've read the tag line, and I can honestly tell you that no matter how implausible it may seem, it's true.
I know, I know, you're sitting there saying, "Yeah, right, I'd never get sick of driving a Viper on a track!" Yeah, that's what I said, too. But, you'd be surprised at how hard driving a fully prepped Viper lap after lap is, and how much it takes out of you. However, in the interest of journalistic integrity and a dedication to bringing you, the reader, the most complete and entertaining story, I pushed myself to the limits and sacrificed body and spirit.... Oh hell, it was a blast and I'd do it again in a heartbeat, even if I did end up stiff, sore, dirty and humbled by the end of it all!
No Mickey Mouse Vacation
So here's the deal. We got a letter in the mail announcing that the Justin Bell's Viper Driving School was down in West Palm Beach, Florida, at Moroso Motorsports Park. Three days of driving prepped Vipers at whatever limits felt comfortable. It took about two seconds to make the decision it needed to be a story Being based in Lakeland, a mere 3 hours away, we're practically locals. But for the rest of the country, here's what we'd suggest: When coming down to Florida for your winter vacation, drive right on past Disney, their annoying tea cup ride and $13 cheeseburgers, and keep going until you hit Palm Beach. Moroso's road course beats Space Mountain hands down.
Besides having more fun than anyone should be allowed, there are some serious benefits to attending a high performance driving school, not the least of which is that it makes you a better driver. And for those of you who think you already know how to drive, take our word on this, too: You don't. Really. Going through a high performance driving school is a humbling experience for a lot of people. We've all hot footed our cars around town, played Bob-Dodge-And-Weave on the interstate, and have maybe even executed the perfect no-lift powerslide through a corner a time or two, but you know what? You got nothin'! Strap your keister into a five-point harness, fit a brain bucket to your noggin, and go at it with someone sitting in the passenger seat who really does know what they're talking about. Better yet, let them take you for a ride, and you'll see what I mean.
Which brings us to my next point. All you Viper owners out there who want to start adding go-fast goodies to your newest toy need to realize one very important point-that Red thing sitting in your garage is already more car than you can handle, just the way it sits. Just because you own one doesn't mean you know how to drive it. And that's not sour grapes; it's just a fact. Every student in the class I attended owns a Viper (with the exception of that one Lamborghini Diablo owner, and he said he's going to replace it with a Viper), and they all agreed that as it comes from the factory, Dodge's Viper is more car than most people are capable of handling, and in the wrong hands it's just plain dangerous. And unless you've attended a driving school and gotten some professional instruction, you are the wrong hands. You should consider the cost of this school right along with the purchase price of your car.
So, who are the guys that know what they're doing? Well, unlike most schools, The Justin Bell's Viper Driving School actually has its namesake leading the class-Justin Bell. Who's Justin? Well, his Dad is Derek Bell, who's raced and won The 24 Hours of LeMans, among other things, so Justin's grown up with the stuff. Justin has raced in many different types of cars over the last nine years, culminating in a relationship with Dodge that resulted in his winning of the '98 LeMans GT2 World Championship. Now stop and think about that-the guy who piloted the Viper to the podium at LeMans is sitting in the passenger seat, giving you pointers. And it wasn't that he was just there for my class because I was doing a story for a magazine-he's at every class. And what's more, he's not the snotty, arrogant, professional European sports car driver you'd expect. He's a down-to-earth guy who's easy to talk to and joke around with. He just knows what he's doing behind the wheel, whereas you and I don't (I'm not sure that can be stressed enough).
The other instructors in the school are handpicked by Justin, and all are current sports car racers with FIA and SCCA experience-and they're all also real decent guys.
Okay, let's cut to the chase. In these types of stories, the magazine guy always tells you that they learned a lot, it was fun, they were stars and blasted to tremendous speeds, it was a great experience...blah, blah, blah. I spun a Viper. What's worse, I was the first guy in the class to do it, though two others would follow. That was on day three, and it's part of the school. It's not encouraged, but it is expected. What did I learn? That when you're going through a corner and trying to downshift, mistakenly grabbing Second instead of Fourth brings the back of the car around, at which point you're just along for the ride. What else did I learn? Those low concrete track barriers look like the Great Wall of China from the driver's seat of a Viper that's in the middle of a nice, slow spin that started at 60 mph. That was day three and had nothing to do with thinking I was better than I am. Fortunately, the only damage was to Moroso's grass-I owe you guys some sod.
On day one, I got chewed out by one of the instructors during the braking exercises. We were supposed to accelerate to 80 mph, then brake and bring the car to a halt in a short, measured distance without locking up the tires. Stopping wasn't the problem-accelerating was. How do you accelerate a Viper to 80 mph and hold it at that speed until you have to hit the brakes? I figured I'd hit 80 mph in the middle of Second, then put it in Third to maintain my speed coming into the cones. The problem was I grabbed Second like I was on a drag strip. Not a smart idea when the course is wet and you're playing with 550 horses. The tires went up in smoke and the car got all squirrely before I took my foot off the gas and coasted to the cones, where the nice instructor explained to me that I would not bang gears again. Hot rodding isn't tolerated in the school, and with good reason. That one had everything to do with thinking I was better than I am.
The school was full of surprises. We learned what we were or weren't capable of, we were allowed to push $80,000 cars to our limits for as many laps as we wanted, and a world champion driver was an integral part of our instruction. But perhaps the biggest surprise of all was that they use new 4-door Neon ACRs as teaching tools. Everyone in the class was pretty underwhelmed by the thought of running around the track, skid pad, and slalom course in 4-door "kiddie" cars, but I'm here to tell you that the Neon rocks!
And I wasn't alone in my thinking. On the last half of day three we were given unrestricted seat time until the class was over. The rules were simple: keep the Viper under 4,000 rpm (in any gear you like), and you had to have an instructor with you in the Viper. Four of the school's six Vipers were available for the exercise, and there were also five Neons, which we could take out on the track and practice with. Now, for the most part, there were only two Vipers on the track at any given time, while there was a waiting line for the Neons. That's right, our class let two Vipers sit there idling while we stood around waiting for our turn in a Neon!
Are we crazy? No. The fact is, the Neon is a killer little car that handles unbelievably well. As a point of reference, we were taking corners on the track at 60 mph that would be labeled 25 mph if they were freeway off ramps. And you should see what the instructors could make them do! We were told that a Neon will actually hold its own on a track against a Viper, given equal drivers. The Neons can brake much later going into a corner, and they can actually go through the curves and corners faster than a Viper. Sure, the Viper blows by them on a straight, but in the corners, the Neons rule. And with the exception of the roll bar and five point racing harness, the school's Neon ACRs are the same as the one sitting on your dealer's lot, right down to the air conditioning.
The final surprise came at the end of day three; we lost the last 35 minutes of track time due to an infamous Florida deluge. That wasn't the surprise. The surprise was that not one of us in the class was disappointed. In fact, I think we were all a little relieved. None of us wanted to stop voluntarily, but the driving and concentration was beginning to take its toll, and we were getting exhausted. Every one of us walked away with a tremendous amount of respect for the pros who spend hour after hour concentrating on every single corner, gear selection, and brake depression. It may not look like it, but it's a lot of work.
So, how fast did I actually go? Well, I came off the long straight and went into the corner at a tick over 111 mph. I know that because all the Vipers are equipped with complete on-board telemetry, which monitors mph, rpm, braking, and a host of other things. That may seem fast, but another guy in the class hit 162 mph on the same stretch, which is hauling. However, his rpm was also way over 5,500, which blew away Justin's imposed 4,000 rpm class limit. Now, to put this all in perspective, Justin covered that exact same piece of real estate at 174 mph, and he never went above the 4,000 rpm limit. We were all given the opportunity to compare our telemetry readings against Justin's, and by observing where he shifted coming out of a corner or hit the brakes going into it, we could see where the times vary. Compared to the 162 mph run, we could see that the student shifted into Fourth coming out of the corner, while Justin hit Fourth in the middle of the turn, giving him more speed coming out of the corner. Going into the turn at the end of the straight, Justin stayed on the gas long after the student had taken his foot off of it, and then Justin went right from the gas to the brake, with no coast time, whereas we all had a tendency to take our foot of the gas, coast a second, then hit the brakes.
Now in the Neon, though not equipped with telemetry, a quick glance at the speedo showed me I was hitting around 95 mph on that stretch, with the A/C on, and wasn't worried about losing it, screwing up a shift, or coming out of the turn wrong.
We learned a host of other things, including braking, apexing a curve, heel-toe shifting (while keeping your foot on the brake, you blip the throttle with your heel to bring your rpm up, downshift, and take your foot off the clutch, the whole time continuing to brake, all the while going through a curve, which is every bit as difficult as it is to describe), slaloming, and a whole lot more. But for the most part, what I came away with can be summed up in four things: I'm not nearly as good a driver as I thought (though I'm a lot better now than I was), racing is addictive, Neons rule, and if I modify the brake and gas pedals in my Dakota so I can heel-toe, I should be able to shave a good two or three minutes off my morning commute!
Hey Buddy, I Heard Your Wife's Fast!
There's no doubt about it-life is better if you involve your spouse in your hobbies. I can tell you from experience that if she has a fun car to drive, she isn't going to be upset with you for spending time and money wrenching on yours.
I taught my wife to drive a stickshift about two years ago, knowing that some day she would be behind the wheel of a performance car. Driving is fun, and cars are a huge part of my life, and if she wasn't able to share that fun, it wouldn't be as enjoyable for me.
Justin Bell's Viper Driving School has a one day program geared toward the ladies, and I signed her up. My thinking was that she'd come out a better driver (not that she wasn't good to begin with), she'd get a taste of SCCA racing, and most importantly, she'd have a good time. I knew I'd made the right decision when she got off the slalom course and said, "We need a Neon with a roll bar!" Ever since then, it's been "apex-this" and "heal-toe" that. With her behind the wheel, we made record time on a recent trip to Atlanta in a rented Neon. If I could come up with a way to afford a race car, I'd get nothing but support from her. I'd also probably get very little seat time.
In the one day class, you spend a lot more time in the Neons than in Vipers, and that was fine with her. The Neon isn't intimidating, and a lot of the students, men and women, felt more at ease in the Neons. Women also know their limits and don't push them, unlike men. Suzi thought the Viper Venom was too much car, and didn't like that feeling. Most of the men in our class agreed, but we men push the limits, whereas women usually don't. As a result, we men spin Vipers; women don't. The instructors told us that women actually make better students because they take instruction better and don't think they know everything. If you go through the Justin Bell Viper Driving School, sign your wife or girlfriend up. It'll be the best investment in your hobby you'll ever make.
Is there a down side? Just one: Suzi got the unofficial "Most Improved Driver" award for the class, beating my best slalom time by over 1/10th of a second in the process. "Don't tell me how to drive anymore," was her only comment to me. I've created a monster!-and it's the smartest thing I've ever done.