NHRA

The Chrysler Corp. has long been known for its performance vehicles, and a great many of those have excelled on the racetrack. But those racetracks have typically been ovals like NASCAR Sprint Cup venues, where Dodge won the 2012 season championship. Or they’ve been drag strips, where Chrysler has fielded some of the most outrageous machines ever to travel the quarter-mile, including 2013 NHRA Pro Stock champion Jeg Coughlin’s Dodge Avenger.

In the beginning: Chrysler’s long and storied history on road courses cannot be forgotten, either. In fact, it’s still making road-racing history.
Of course, road racing has a steep learning curve. The curve began in 1965 at Daytona International Speedway with the 12-hour Daytona Continental, a precursor to today’s Rolex 24 at Daytona. That’s where Scott Harvey and Peter Hutchinson entered a lone Plymouth Belvedere. Its class competition included the Shelby Cobra Daytona coupe, the Jaguar E-Type and the Chevrolet Corvette. The Belvedere didn’t win, but it was a start. Dodge began to make its mark.

In 1967, Chrysler returned to the now-24-hour race with a Dodge Dart, entered by automotive journalist Brock Yates with co-driver Charles Krueger. It didn’t win either, but came in 15th overall in the 59-car field after starting 38th. It ended up third in class, too.

The diminutive Dart might have lacked the then-new Ford Mustang’s cachet but certain models knew their way around the track. In 1966, Dodge quietly offered the D-Dart, a stripped-down lightweight, its 273-cubic-inch, 275-hp V8 packed with racing parts, including Doug Thorley headers and a heavy-duty Hurst four-speed transmission. It caught the legendary Bob Tullius’ eye; he drove one in the new SCCA Trans-Am series and won the Sebring season opener. Also in the race: Bob Johnson in a Plymouth Barracuda. Just 50 lightweight ’66 Darts were sold. Far fewer survive today; if you have one stuck in your barn, consider it your retirement package.

Trans-Am continued as Chrysler’s series of choice. The cars resembled their road-going counterparts so closely, the “Win on Sunday, sell on Monday” adage genuinely applied. Legends like Swede Savage campaigned a Plymouth
Barracuda, Sam Posey a Dodge Challenger, racing against Mustangs, Chevrolet Camaros and AMC Javelins. It was a true muscle-car showdown until 1973, when rules changed in favor of European sports cars, Porsches in particular. It wasn’t until 1989 that Trans-Am returned to its muscle-car roots and Dodge was back in 1992, once again making for a true Detroit Three battle.

Getting Smaller: Chrysler has long had factory-backed motorsports programs, but perhaps that little lightweight 1966 Dart, sold to customers in a race-ready package, foretold its road-racing heritage. Eighteen years later arguably one of the most surprising Chrysler road-racing success stories was with the Dodge, Plymouth and later Chrysler Neons, the 1994 economy car with a sub-$ 10,000 price tag. Few suspected what a blast the little car would be, whether equipped with the SOHC 132-hp four-cylinder or the DOHC 150-hp version. Beside decent power and torque, handling was surprisingly good stock, and the car responded remarkably well to simple and usually inexpensive upgrades. In 1996, the company introduced the American Club Racer model and soon after, the slightly less stripped-down Road/Track.

In 1994, the company even exploited the Neon’s road-racing talent with the Neon Challenge series, first run at the 1994 Detroit Grand Prix. A mix of journalists diced with celebrities such as ZZ Top’s Frank Beard, “Saved by the Bell” star Mark-Paul Gosselaar and “Wings” star Crystal Bernard.

A touring series evolved, and many PPG Neon Challenge drivers later raced on larger stages. Neon Challenge races saw the likes of Jeff Altenburg and Nick Esayian. Even established stars like ex-Formula One racer Desire Wilson raced—and won—a Neon Challenge. Neons continue to race and win amateur road races and autocrosses all over the country, certifying the basic affordable goodness the car offered from day one.

Modem times: The mid-1990s were a long way from Chrysler first racing that ’65 Belvedere at the Rolex. Since it was introduced to the public in 1989, the Dodge Viper has begged to be raced, and the VIO’s bellow began making its particular brand of noise in 1996.

It all came together in 2000. Atop Daytona’s standings: a Dodge Viper GTS-R, winning overall, defeating all prototypes and the other GT cars to boot. With Olivier Beretta, Karl Wendlinger and Dominique Dupuy piloting, a Viper not only won, completing 723 laps, but four more Vipers finished third, fifth, sixth and seventh. Together, they completed 3,457 laps, or 12,306.92 miles, in 24 hours.

The factory Vipers did not return to Daytona the next year; the company began placing more emphasis on its NASCAR program. The Viper took a break from the legendary 24 Hours of Le Mans, where it won the GTS class title in 1998, 1999 and 2000. After all, the Viper had more than made its point as a genuine world-class sports car in both domestic and international races. Certainly this didn’t keep private owners from racing Vipers, with wins in Sports Car Club of America races. A Viper-only touring series, the Viper Challenge, helped spawn some true motorsports talent.

In 2013, a dedicated factory effort acknowledged one goal: Return the Viper to the road-racing podium in the U.S. and abroad. The SRT Viper team debuted last year and won its first season out. The team also won the 2014 IMSA Tudor United SportsCar Championship GTLM driver and team championships.