The big wing jutted up in the parking lot like a mesa on the edge of Texas flatland. “Drop me off there,” I instructed the airport shuttle driver, and she raised an eyebrow at my schlubby travel clothes and ripped purple suitcase as she opened the bus doors. I was in Detroit for a week of filming with Roadkill, culminating in a Viper plant tour and the Roadkill Nights racing at M1 Concourse. Dodge asked if I needed a get-around car for the visit, and nothing gets you around like a 2017 Viper ACR special edition Voodoo II. The Voodoo first came out as a limited model ACR in 2010, and the 2017 model uses the same glossy black base with accents of red and silver, more black widow spider than snake. “Does Batman know you have his car?” asked my husband when I texted him a photo.
I squeezed my ragged luggage in the trunk and scooted the seat up until I could reach the clutch. I couldn’t really get out easily from that position, but I had a Viper for a week. Why would I ever want to get out? “Oh this car, this car is a man-catching machine!” said the parking lot attendant as I waited for the arm to come up, and she was right. I got two rings waved at me on the highway as I headed for Pontiac, Michigan. “Marry me!” shouted the passenger in a beat-up Cavalier.
Any of you who are regular readers know that if I was in a marryin’ mood, it would be the Viper I’d propose to. I’ve spent some serious daily driver time in various models of the snake, and I’ve enjoyed every second of it. The ACR is a nastier animal than the SRT or GTS configurations. It wanders and argues about low-speed steering changes and uneven lanes. It stops so fast you’ll punch the center display with your downshifting hand if you don’t have a grip on the shifter baseball, and it transmits every pothole and pea of gravel directly to your lower back no matter how many mattresses you’re sleeping on, princess. I loved it anyway, and a good thing, since Freiburger and Finnegan were filming at Milan Dragway, a good 60 miles from my hotel in Pontiac. 120 mile roundtrip for multiple days? Pricey for gas, priceless for joy.
In between commuting to the dragstrip, I also used the Viper for normal activities, like finding the best pie in the area (Achatz Pies in Beverly Hills, MI), creeping it nervously through a thunderstorm, and teaching one of our video guys how to drive stick (he did real good, no clutches harmed). My love for the Viper remained undimmed, and I was happy to get to win a few other people over to it. At the end of the week, Hot Rod Garage host, Tony Angelo, and I managed to fit all our gear into the back, and I offered him the keys for the drive to the airport. “I don’t really like Vipers that much,” he said, but he was willing to give the ACR a try. A few strong pulls later and he was giggling as foolishly as I had been all week. “It’s like a real race car, oh, it’s fun!”
2017 is a bittersweet year for Viper fans. Dodge is ending production, and Viper clubs all over are gathering to pay tribute to the snake. With that intro, let me turn it over to Benjamin Hunting, who took the Voodoo to the closing of Conner Assembly plant–the nest where Vipers are hatched.
“What serial number is that one?” I’m asked almost immediately after parking at Detroit’s Conner Ave Assembly Plant and stepping out of my ride for the day. This is the birthplace of Chrysler’s most potent – and most significant – sports car, where Dodge is celebrating 25 years of Viper production, and the front lawn is replete with as many examples of the V10-powered coupe as I’ve ever seen gathered in one place.
“001,” I reply, after hastily checking the dash plaque. This conversation would repeat itself throughout the day, requiring me to repeatedly assert my non-ownership of the black-with-red-striped Voodoo II packages Viper ACR, a one-of-31 edition that loads every single option into the track-ready monster. It’s a testament to the staying power of the Dodge SRT Viper’s over-the-top image that rolling in to a field of over 200 similarly-styled snakes in a Voodoo II package ACR still draws a crowd.
“Oh, I’ve got #006 waiting for delivery next week,” came the reply from the man admiring the car’s “I”LL CUT YOU!” vents on the front fenders and overpass-threatening wing perched on the rear deck. “I’m going to try to see if they’ll let me near it inside the factory. I honestly can’t wait.”
That’s right – they’re still building Vipers here at Conner Ave, although for how much longer is anyone’s guess. If you were to judge by the exuberant atmosphere on this sunny Saturday morning, you’d be hard-pressed to call this gathering a funeral for a friend – or, more accurately, a beloved family member. Dodge may have canceled the Viper after a quarter century of near-continuous production, but judging by the high spirits of the owners gathered here today, the party has no plans of stopping any time soon.
The inside of the plant is almost completely open, letting us wander throughout its massive confines hemmed in only by the yellow safety tape that keeps us from accidentally activating any important Viper-making machinery (or walking out with a souvenir or two). The further down the line you get, the more complete the frames, body panels, and engine assemblies become, culminating in the snake pen at the end of the building where finished rides await the chance to put a smile on the faces of their new owners. I strain to spot Voodoo II #006, but it remains elusive.
Of course, customer cars aren’t the only denizens of Connor Ave, as Dodge has put a number of significant Viper models on display for the faithful. There are Le Mans winners, prototypes, one of the earliest RT/10 models known to still exist, and land speed record holders all sitting shoulder-to-shoulder, along with a single Plymouth Prowler (that easily forgotten son-of-Conner-Ave) tucked way off in a corner. Wall art tracks the development of the Viper from Gen I to Gen V, with unusual, never-produced variants mixed in to catch the eye of the devoted. On my way out the door I overhear an SRT engineer talking about how he snagged one of the six dual-cam VVT Viper engines that were ever built before it could be sent to the scrap yard. As job perks go, that’s a pretty damn good one.
Back on the lawn, it’s time to take a picture and then get this show on the road. After being captured in all their multi-colored glory by the photographer dangling high overhead, most of the cars around me get ready for the next stage in the day’s celebrations, a 15-mile, police-escorted parade from the plant to the M1 Concourse in Pontiac where Roadkill Nights is staging street legal drag races on Woodward Avenue and reserving a paddock just for Viper owners. In a cacophony of choppy cams and flashing blue lights a phalanx of Detroit’s finest sail in on their police bikes, lining up along the side of the road to lead us from the promised land.
Just before getting back into the Voodoo II, I find myself talking to Wes from Maryland, a self-described “military knucklehead” who’s in the middle of transplanting a Gen V body onto a Gen IV frame. “I picked up a wrecked Gen V for $25,000, but I couldn’t get a new frame anywhere,” he tells me. “So I’m here at the plant taking as many pictures as I can of all the chassis and platform details so I can figure out what needs to get cut, stretched, and moved to make everything play nice together.”
He says that ever since he put pictures of the project online, he’s gotten so many questions and messages of support about it that he’s gotten more done in the last 30 days than he did in the first six months. “It was originally a Carbon Edition car, but when I’m done with it it’ll be a T/A.” This fantastic Frankenstein creation will also probably be the most Roadkill Viper on the planet.
Our conversation is cut short by an official looking finger pointed in my direction by someone holding an equally official looking clipboard, directing me to line up two cars behind the Dodge Law Enforcement Viper that’s leading the pack (behind the actual, badge-carrying officers riding in the Dodge Chargers). I’m honored to be at the tip of the fang as we pull out of the assembly plant to begin the slow, raucous, and exceptionally loud convoy to M1. My side mirrors are filled with gearheads of all ages taking pictures and waving from the sidelines, Vipers stretching back as far as the eye can see (it’ll take one and a half hours for all 200 cars to make it to the paddock) police bikes that blaze by with startling regularity to block off side streets and make our lives easier while introducing misery into the weekend commutes of unsuspecting Detroiters.
Suddenly, I’m distracted from the reverie around me by an insist message on the Viper ACR’s gauge cluster. It’s not telling me how awesome the car is, or how incredibly fortunate I am to be given the keys to this beast for a ceremonial cruise: it’s pointing out how stupid I must be to have forgotten to fill the tank before leaving the hotel this morning. LOW FUEL, LOW FUEL the car complains, and it’s with a cold clarity that I realize I’m about to be “that guy” – the one who ran out of gas driving in car he doesn’t even own in a parade of Vipers.
Anxiously, I text Elana, Roadkill EIC and the caretaker of this ACR for most of the previous week to ask how far I can drive with the gas light on. “Maybe 30 miles,” she replies, but at these slow, stop-and-go speeds I can foresee a flatbed in my future should I decide to push my luck. It’s then that fate intervenes. In a bid to bunch up the long trail of cars behind us, the entire parade grinds to a halt at an intersection marked by a Marathon station, its faded logo shining like a beacon to under-prepared idiots like me.
I crank the wheel and screech in to the closest fuel pump, which of course refuses to accept my Canadian credit as a legitimate form of legal tender. Cursing my useless plastic, I run into the gas station where I accost a very confused attendant holding a mop and a bucket. “It’s the car with the giant wing!” I exclaim, stuffing a $20 bill in his hand and spinning on my heel to run back to the pump. Seconds later 91 octane is flowing into the ACR’s greedy tank in my best approximation of a NASCAR pit stop, to the hoots and laughter of genuine Viper owners passing me by at speeds low enough to register the shame on my face.
My twenty bucks spent, the pump clicks and I’m back behind the wheel, angling the ACR’s aero-laden front clip carefully back down onto the street. Eventually, another snake wrangler takes pity on me and a hole opens up in the line, letting me sneak into the parade, tail between my legs. It’s then, however, that I realize I’ve been presented with perhaps the rarest of opportunities: four clear lanes of boulevard, a sympathetic police escort, and a chance to snag my number 3 spot and extend the stock car racing metaphor as much as possible.
Throwing caution, and perhaps my last ounce of reasonable doubt to the wind, I pull out of line and hammer the throttle as much as I dare, blasting past ten, then twenty, then fifty crawling Vipers at a whopping 45-mph, fingers crossed that the cops still zooming down the street in the far lane will ignore my lack of decorum until I can regain my position at the front of the pack. In my mind I can picture scowling faces in imaginary Detroit Race Control screaming into headset mics and commanding my crew chief to send me to the “tail-end of the longest line,” but fortunately for everyone my fantasies don’t ever manifest themselves that fully in the real world. It’s not until the lead car is in sight that a uniformed officer in a patrol car pulls up beside me and suggests commands me to “get back in line!”
Once I’ve obliged, the rest of the trek to the M1 grounds is pleasantly uneventful – or rather, as uneventful as a train belching over a hundred thousand horsepower through sidepipes can realistically be on public streets. Parking the car on the concourse, I look down at the fuel gauge before shutting the car off and realize that had I not made my pit stop, I definitely would still be out there on the boulevard instead of here with the Roadkill Nation, celebrating not just the Viper, but every car out there killed by bean counters, market forces outside their control, or changing tides at the company that brought them into the world. As row after row of ACR, GTS, RT/10, GTC, GT, and T/A cars pull in alongside each other, however, I realize that the Viper family isn’t just steel, glass, and big honkin’ V10s – it’s muscle, love, and heart. And none of that is going away any time soon.