Or, how I finally learned to appreciate the Viper.
– Chandler, Arizona
“I’m just going to stay in the Viper.” That’s a phrase I never thought I’d say. Yet there I was, standing in pit lane of the Bondurant Racing School’s 1.6-mile road course, guarding a Viper TA 2.0 that I had just lapped during some lead-follow instruction sessions. I’ve always disliked the Viper. And I can still rattle off a long list of reasons why I'd never buy one. But on that day, in that environment, it’s the only car I wanted. I had an entire fleet of 707-horsepower Challenger and Charger Hellcat models at my disposal, but for the first time in my life, I was smitten by the Viper. Snakebitten, as they say.
I came to the Bondurant facility to experience the one-day High Performance Driving School that’s available to SRT owners and enthusiasts. If you ordered an SRT product after April 1, 2015, the registration cost of the program is included in the price of your vehicle (non-owners can still attend for $699). All you need to do is get to the Bondurant track, just outside of Phoenix, Arizona.
School’s In Session
The basic rundown of the SRT experience is pretty simple. It starts with a classroom session where you meet the instructors and get a little history about the legendary Bob Bondurant and the school he created. From there, you move on to five different activities with a variety of cars, each designed to teach core values like where to look (eyes up!), vehicle dynamics, car control, and how to follow a proper racing line. You run accident avoidance drills, you manhandle a skid car, there’s an autocross course, and you get time on the track in lead-follow exercises at high speed. The day ends with hot laps, Bondurant’s professional drivers giving the thrill rides.
The skid car is a Charger Scat Pack with what are basically hydraulic training wheels. This rig can raise or lower the front and rear of the car to provide more or less grip at each end. Here, you navigate ovals and figure-eights, intentionally throwing the car into a skid and learning how to modulate the rear end’s power to control the slide. For pros this turns into an exercise in drifting, and once you’ve got the hang of how the Charger operates, it’s great fun. (For the record, I only spun it once.)
I don’t anticipate most Challenger owners will ever use their cars for autocross runs.
At the autocross, you learn a couple of things: First, that keeping your eyes up and looking where you want the car to go are invaluable skills to master, and second, that the Challenger 392 is a hilariously bad car for a cone course. It’s big, floaty, hard to see out of, and requires a lot of corrections if you want to run through the exercise at high speed. That said, I don’t anticipate most Challenger owners will ever use their cars for autocross runs. That’s what Miatas are for.
Moving out to the test track, the lead-follow drills are the highlight of the day. Here, Hellcats and Vipers are the tools you use to carve out perfect lines on the incredibly technical course. Small elevation changes, increasing- and decreasing-radius turns, and slow chicanes all work together to teach you the proper racing line as you follow an instructor car. The pros first explain the track and point out especially tricky turns and appropriate braking points, then you’re in the cars for a couple dozen laps of the course, your instructor’s speed increasing as you become more and more familiar with the track. You use all the earlier lessons about vision and car control to pick up the pace. And moreover, you learn that each SRT product offers its own unique set of handling characteristics.
Hellcats Are More Than Straight-Line Bruisers
I took the Charger out first. This has long been my favorite of the Hellcat twins, offering the best blend of insane performance and daily livability. On the track, it feels like a handful at first, with heavy steering and big-car dynamics. You’ve got to brake early, turn in smoothly, and don’t punch the throttle when exiting corners. But as you work on smoothing out your inputs, the Charger rewards you with the sort of composed poise you wouldn’t expect from a 707-hp fullsize sedan.
It’s important to note that the cars tested here are basically stock, save for some upgraded brakes that better handle the wear and tear of constant track use. That means there’s still body roll during fast cornering, though the SRT seats do a decent job of keeping you in place. The roomy Charger interior allows plenty of space for your helmet, and overall forward and side visibility is great – hugely important things when you’re navigating a technical course like Bondurant’s.
The Challenger's steering is vague and the suspension a bit too cushy for track use, so learning proper braking points and smooth corner entry/exit techniques are key.
Of course, with that much power coming from a supercharged V8, there’s always a ton of grunt available for quick exits and fast runs down the straightaway. The Charger doesn’t get squirrely under hard straight-line braking, but tap the brakes for a still-learning-the-course mid-corner correction and you learn another important factor of high performance driving: weight transfer. And in the case of the Charger, you’re throwing 4,570 pounds of big, American car around. Always remember, easy does it.
The Challenger Hellcat is about 100 pounds lighter, but you wouldn’t know that from driving it on the track. It’s surprising how, despite being based on the same general architecture as the Charger, the coupe feels vastly different. But it’s a seriously good learning tool. The Challenger's steering is vague and the suspension a bit too cushy for track use, so learning proper braking points and smooth corner entry/exit techniques are key. One wrong dab of power or a late-brake entry and the back tires will step out. It’s easily controlled if you remember the skid car exercises from earlier, but it’s obvious this sort of quick-turn road course isn’t what the Challenger was initially designed for, fun as it may be to hustle it around.
If I’m honest, the Hellcats' performances exceeded my original predictions. I expected big, floppy sloppiness, but that wasn’t the case. Cars like this teach you the importance of smooth transitions and easy power and braking applications so you’re not tossing all that weight around with sudden movements. Then you get in the Viper and it hits you, “Oh, this is how a track car should feel.”
It’s a pain in the ass to get in and out of the Viper, especially with a helmet on. It takes a minute to strap into the four-point harness that Bondurant installed in its test cars. The clutch travel is super long. The low roofline is horrible for vision. Those are your first impressions of the Viper as you saddle up in pit lane. But the moment you’re out on the track, the car rewards you the harder you push it. And in this controlled environment of lead-follow drills, once you’ve figured out the line of the track, it’s a hoot.
With every passing lap, I threw the Viper into turns faster and faster. The massive V10 engine screamed as I ran close to redline in third gear on the straightaway, a quick downshift to second keeping the motor boiling while I negotiated the quick chicane of Turns 1 and 2. I found tremendous feedback through the steering and chassis, all of the TA’s aerodynamic upgrades and sticky tires working to keep the car planted to the road. The Viper felt exponentially more balanced than the Hellcats – no surprise there. And it was all on my terms. There’s the common myth that with one wrong move, the Snake will come around and bite you, but a steady hand and smooth inputs increase driver confidence. At all points, the car could handle way more than I was throwing at it. But that only egged me on to push harder.
Afternoon laps in the Viper were nothing short of outstanding.
The Viper is an incredible track weapon. On the street, it’s rough and loud and horrible. But on a smooth road course, every single part of the coupe’s engineering works with you to rip off quicker and quicker lap times. It’s no wonder the even more hardcore ACR has set lap records at 13 tracks around the country.
By the end of my first two sessions in the Viper, I never wanted to get out. Every subsequent run saw me quickly reserving a Viper for myself. Yeah, the Charger was good fun, and the Challenger a sort of inexperienced-but-eager dance partner, but the Viper knew exactly what I wanted and how to deliver the goods. With the added knowledge learned at the Bondurant school throughout the morning, afternoon laps in the Viper were nothing short of outstanding. I promise, you’ll reach your own personal driving limits way before the car reaches its own.
The SRT Bondurant school isn’t about pushing your own limits – it’s about strengthening your skill and giving you more confidence behind the wheel. That’s powerful knowledge for spirited driving, but the basic principles are useful every single day.
Bondurant’s SRT program isn’t the only game in town, either. Whether it’s Ford’s ST Octane Academy, Land Rover’s off-road experience, or high-end programs from Aston Martin or Lamborghini, a number of car companies offer discounted driving schools for owners. Regardless of brand or car, they’re all worth doing. For folks who love driving, these automaker-backed schools are a unique way to feel the full capability of a brand’s offerings.
For me, the takeaway was that SRT products are more than just the sum of their available horsepower. Nothing about the Hellcats really shocked me, but I returned home with a newfound respect and admiration for the ridiculous Viper’s impressive track prowess. Without Bondurant, it’s something I might never have known.