Mopar Fast Forward

Automobile Magazine senior editor EDDIE ALTERMAN sits down with
DAN KNOTT, director of Chrysler‘s Performance Vehicle Operations
and the man behind the amazing, Viper-powered Dodge Ram SRT-10.

The 2004 Dodge Ram SRT-10.

AUTOMOBILE MAGAZINE: The SRT-10 is obviously an outgrowth of the SRT badge, it’s the third after the Viper and the Neon. Why did you guys decide to do a truck this time?

DAN KNOTT: Well, part of it is that no one else has the heritage and tradition that we have in Viper. Nobody else has that engine. To grow that heritage into something like a truck is just awesome. Viper and Ram SRT-10 are a similar type of market in that we’re going after the enthusiast market, but of course it’s the truck enthusiast market, which is a good market-our competitors have found that out and we’re finding that out now. The whole idea of this SRT brand&#151street and racing technology&#151was to plug in to what’s going on the enthusiast market. In the tuner end, the SRT-4 has been just an absolute certifiable phenomenon, but it’s one end of the market. And then we have the Viper type of the market, which is another strong enthusiast market, more traditional. And then we said, Okay, how can we grow that and tap into another segment of the enthusiast market? How can we take this buzz of the Viper and what it’s created, and grow it and how can we show people that the Dodge trucks have the range to do something with this kind of performance?

So we took our Ram truck, which is an outstanding base vehicle, and asked how we could come out with a high-performance derivative and still “walk the talk,” which is what all my SRT products have to do. So we look at things like exterior styling. Bold, aggressive, in-your-face Dodge styling. Then we go after a race-inspired interior, with racing seats, steering wheels, Hurst shifter on the floor. Then we go after braking, steering, and handling. Delivering the performance to the road. Wide wheels and tires so we can put the power down, our new power-hop damper system so that you can put slicks on it and go wide-open throttle and still maintain traction.

We’ve lowered the truck, an inch in the front, two-inches in the rear, for handling. And we went with bigger brakes, so you have great stopping capability. And then you have the heart of it, the Viper engine, which nobody has. Outrageous performance, 500-hp, 525 lb-ft, 505 cubic inches, and a 508-watt stereo system. We call it four-by-five. The first 4×5. I think for us, SRT has to walk the talk. In all those areas I talked about, every SRT product you see will deliver on the promise.

AM:</font How do you make sure you are the leader in the segment? Because now, you’ve got the next-generation SVT Lightning coming up fast behind this truck. And the old Lightning just claimed a speed record for production pickups.

DN:</font It’s a tough game, because you’re constantly raising the bar. In this truck we’ll raise the bar for the performance truck market. John Coletti [of SVT] isn’t going to rest on his laurels and neither is Mr. Reuss over at GM’s High Performance division. So we’re all going to be pushing in the same direction. But as the engineers you have to ask yourselves What’s out there currently? Where do we think they’re going to go? But that’s only one part of it. The other part is how can we develop a product with the technology that we’ve got, and where are our leverage points? In the case of the truck, it’s easy. We had a great leverage point in the Viper powertrain.

AM:</font If you guys think that doing it with displacement as opposed to supercharging is the way to go, how much more room do you have in that engine, say if Coletti comes out with a bigger bottom end?

DN:</font Well our V-10’s been a around a while, and in ’03 we bumped it up. It’s a very capable engine and it’s got a great history. I think the performance level we have in the truck will be very competitive and we’ll stay there and see what goes on in the future.

AM:</font The segment is interesting: I don’t really consider the Chevy Silverado SS a player just because its horsepower is so far off you and SVT. But it seems like it’s high time that trucks started spawning new expressions of themselves.

DN:</font That’s why we’re thinking there’s room in the market for something like this. And we bring to it a piece that most people can’t bring to it, which is the Viper V-10. It would have been one thing to come out with a truck with performance cues and then put a hot engine in it. But our hot engine is one nobody else can do.

AM:</font And it originally started life as a truck engine. Shifting gears a second, are you predicting that Nissan and Toyota will come after you, too? Or is this primarily an American muscle phenomenon?

DN:</font It’s hard to say, but part of this whole issue with the enthusiast market that all of us are tapping into, is that this is where people are making their money nowadays. We don’t have incentives. The first time we do have incentives means I didn’t do my job with the credibility of the product. And some of my competitors do have incentives on their performance vehicles and when you stand back and look at it and say maybe they didn’t quite deliver on all of those things. But I think that the competitive market could drive some of those guys to come out with their own entry. I don’t see anything on the immediate horizon other than the Lightning.

AM:</font How much high-horsepower expertise was drawn on from your Mercedes-Benz colleagues?

DN:</font In the case of the truck, not a significant amount. We and AMG have similar kinds of objectives. And we continue to have discussions with them about how to leverage each other’s knowledge base. We’d be fools if we didn’t. So we continue to learn from them, and I think they’re learning some things from us. And they don’t have a Viper type of product, with this level of raw horsepower [without super- or turbocharging.]

AM:</font Yet you seem to be matching each other horsepower for horsepower. I don’t want to stretch this point too much, but what are the things that separate you and AMG? Besides the fact that one is Mercedes-Benz and the other is Dodge? What’s the difference in approach?

DN:</font I think there’s some level of refinement that a Mercedes brand has versus an SRT at this current point. The markets are different, so the expectations from the consumer are a little different. That’s not to say that we have any less refinement, it’s just a different type. I think we’re going to grow to that place over time. Secondly, AMG has a fair amount of resources that they can leverage, and my resources are a little bit less. But I’m going to leverage them for as much as I can and vice versa.

AM:</font Talk about some of the challenges of turning a Ram into the SRT-10. Not only with the brand and its promotion, and getting SRT away from something that’s strictly Viper, but also the challenges of making a truck perform like a muscle car.

DN:</font Frankly, it was a big challenge. First, we started with a great truck. That’s a fundamental. It’s not like we’re starting with a product that’s a huge stretch. The base truck handles very well and has a very good set of brakes. But what we did in the case of the SRT-10 was said Okay, we’ve got 500 horsepower and 525 foot-pounds that we’ve got to get to the road. How do we do that? We lower the center of gravity, lower the truck, and we knew we had to go after something like that power-hop damper. We studied several different alternatives and what we ended up with was basically a damper mounted on the top of the diff that, as the rear axle starts to wind up, forces it down. We also went with a snubber under the rear leaf springs, so as it starts to compress, you get loads on the wheels. And it’s so effective that we can put slicks on it and open the throttle all the way, and it stays stuck to the pavement. So getting the power to the road was critical. And making that early decision to get those snubbers and that damper in there was critical.

One of the issues with designing and developing a product like this is that you have such a short development time. We’re moving toward less-than-24-months kinds of programs, and the only way you can do that is if you sit down right up front and you say, Based upon all these people out there racing, out there walking the talk, and doing it everyday, what does our expertise have to deliver? We can’t wait until we’re all the way down stream to say; Gee we hope we don’t need to put a damper on that rear axle. And the more expertise you’ve got, the more easily you can make those decisions up front.

Another area that we went after was the spoiler on the back, which is a functional spoiler that does provide downforce. So in the wind-tunnel testing, crosswinds, straight-ahead, we do get downforce from it. And we do get downforce from the front end in terms of how we designed the fascia and splitter. The exterior jumps out and grabs you, but it’s also extremely functional. A bit of that NASCAR influence. One of the things you see on the SRT-10 is that in NASCAR truck racing, we close the grille off and funnel the air where we really want it to go, and typically you don’t see that on production trucks. So what we’ve done is diverted some of the air so we can get a highly efficient air flow up there. The other thing is on a truck that goes 150 mph, is that you get a lift, so you have to divert some air to help keep the front end down.

The other challenge to a truck that weighs 5000 pounds and has to deliver good handling is you’ve got to lower the suspension, and go with performance shocks, which in this case are Bilsteins, and the result has been pretty impressive.

AM:</font What’s the one key message that the SRT-10 delivers?

DN:</font When you look at what we’re trying to deliver with the Ram, I think we’ve done very well. I’m really happy with how we’ve delivered the SRT cues. I kind of think that when people walk up to a vehicle, there’s a promise that already starts to establish in their mind. And you walk up to the SRT truck, and first of all it’s very aggressive and in-your-face, but it looks like it should handle and perform well. And I’m happy to report that it does all of those very well, and for me, as I start to build this SRT brand, it’s really critical that we do that and we don’t take any step backward. So I think there’s one key message and that it that the truck delivers, it walks the talk. It’s another notch in the belt of the SRT portfolio.

So what’s it going to be, gearheads? Dodge or Ford? PVO or SVT?
Ram SRT-10 or F-150 Lightning? If you’ve got something to say about
the greatest American performance rivalry since the Mustang met the
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