Ahead of us, the runway stretches seemingly into eternity, its physical dimensions masked by a shimmering heat haze. In the nearer distance, two giant red flags delineate the quarter- and half-mile posts of this makeshift drag strip. And to the right, as we stage on one of Luke Air Force Base’s two runways, there’s a menacing, flat gray F-16 Viper of the U.S. Air Force’s 56th Fighter Wing. Cool or what?That’s right: We’re racing a $20 million fighter plane. The chosen weapon is a Dodge Viper Competition Coupe, the racing version of the V-10 supercar. Strapped in tight, open exhausts blaring, I’m waiting for the countdown from the Luke tower to race the fighter, which is going to blast off using its afterburner for added impetus. Me? I have 520 hp against 25,000 pounds of thrust. It’s like sending out a peashooter against an Uzi.
As the tower radios, “Viper two, ready?” my pulse elevates and my breathing deepens. The Comp Coupe has a trick carbon-carbon clutch, and it requires a deft touch to get the car off the line without lighting up the slick tires or bogging down. If I get this wrong, there’s ridicule from the Dodge and USAF guys and humiliation in front of more than 100,000 people at the Luke Days air show. I tell the tower that I’m ready, but they don’t hear. A second, plaintive “Viper two, ready?” and I reply in the affirmative again. No response. The tower isn’t hearing me. Luckily, Corey “Slick” Hermesch, the F-16 pilot, is, and he calls in that we’re ready to race.
Almost immediately, the tower starts the countdown. I dip the clutch, engage first gear, and plant the tach “needle” on the MoTec digital gauge cluster at four grand. On “Go!” I release the clutch and try to balance power versus grip as the fat rear slicks attempt to make out with the concrete. The Viper hooks up pretty well after a bit too much initial wheel spin, and pretty soon it’s into second,
at which point the car snaps sideways-dammit!-and I have to correct and back off for an instant. Back on the power, it’s time to bang the lever into third at just over 6000 rpm. The quarter-mile flag is approaching rapidly-very rapidly-and a glance to the right brings the plane into view for the first time since we lined up.
The Dodge launches much better than the F-16, so the car is marginally ahead through the quarter-mile, but thereafter it’s toast. The Comp Coupe breaks the half-mile at more than 155 mph, but by that stage, Hermesch has left the ground, having held the F-16 on the deck at 224 mph (195 knots), somewhat beyond its normal rotational speed of 186 mph. It’s not as if the Comp Coupe is slow: in pre-event testing, we managed 0 to 60 mph in 3.2 seconds, 0 to 100 mph in 6.3 seconds, and we hit 0 to 160 mph in 15 seconds on this run.
This was the last of four races that we had lined up at the air show held at Luke AFB, near Phoenix, Arizona. The plan was that on Saturday, Herb Helbig-spiritual keeper of the Viper flame and senior manager of vehicle synthesis, chassis, and quality at Chrysler’s Street and Racing Technology-would race a 2006 Viper SRT10 Coupe against an F-16 flying in military power (nonafterburner) form, and I would take on the afterburner F-16 in the Comp Coupe. To give it more of a chance, the SRT guys had lightened the Comp Coupe by removing the antiroll bars, electric fan, and mufflers, among other modifications. The races would be repeated on Sunday.
The idea was originally concocted by Tony Estes, a past president of the Viper Club of America, and Cameron White, who were both honorary base commanders at the time. They thought the race would be a great way to raise money for the base’s Morale, Welfare, and Recreation Fund, which helps ease the burden on families who have service personnel posted overseas for extended terms of duty. The first race was run in 2002 and repeated in 2003. Before we turned up at the 2005 event, the score stood at three-all.
This year, we didn’t exactly advance the car’s cause, although we had one or two excuses. (Such as the fact that the planes have Pratt & Whitney jet engines. And the cars don’t.) Our first two races were somewhat chaotic, for a number of reasons. First off, Helbig noticed that when he lined up at the 8000-foot mark on the runway, the plane seemed to be a bit farther ahead. Like a thousand feet ahead. He reasoned that a $20 million fighter crewed by a highly competitive alpha male (in this case, Guy “Pepe” Brilando) needs a head start as much as Britney Spears needs more publicity, so he moved up, changing the distance over which the race was to be run. Theoretically, this handed the advantage to the car, which works better over short distances, except that Helbig never heard the countdown. Score one for the planes.
To add insult to injury, I fried the clutch on the Comp Coupe by running too many crowd-pleasing burnouts prior to the start. We lined up, Helbig handed over the radio we were using, and the tower asked if we were ready. Since the Comp Coupe had a dragging clutch and I couldn’t actually get it into gear, I was about as prepared as the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor. Eventually, the lever slotted home, and the countdown began. The launch and the shift to second were about perfect, but when I tried to shift from second to third, the lever was reluctant to come out of gear, and I had to wrestle it across the gate into-um-fifth. After the cursing died down, I had blown a certain win against Tim “Hulk” Hax. Two-nil for the planes. That night, Dan Knott, director of SRT, suggested that they would be making an automatic Viper just for me. Helbig was still ticked off, whereas I was a bit more sanguine. Then again, I don’t work for Dodge.
On Sunday, Estes made sure that the course was set up properly, and the Dodges rolled out as the F-16s completed their preflight checks on the other runway, about 300 yards distant. Helbig staged his Competition Coupe against Chris “Shep” Sheppard while the PA announcer asked the crowd who was going to win. They got it right. Helbig didn’t hear the countdown again, and he took off slightly after the plane launched. But it was close, because he ran the plane down over the quarter-mile mark and only just lost out at the half-mile. If he had left the line at the same time as the F-16, we might have clawed back to a victory. The end result, though, was planes four, cars nil.
Everyone kept telling us, “At least a Viper won.” But from our perspective, at least, it was the wrong kind of Viper. One suspects that the cars will come more heavily armed the next time this race takes place.