Specialty Performance Team is a high performance service and tuning facility with over 20 years of experience servicing every component of the Dodge Viper. Dan Cragin, Manager, gives some insight to Viper magazine about his history with the Viper mark.
When I visited the 1989 Detroit Auto show to see Dodge's newest prototype car "The Viper," I had no clue that this vehicle would define my professional life for the next 22 years.
I began working for Dodge in 1983 when their idea of a muscle car had 4 cylinders and a turbo, the Omni GLHS. Gone were the glory days of big Hemis, V8s and Magnum engines. When rumors of a new Dodge V10 sports car emerged, I wanted to know everything about it. At first I thought there is just no way they'll ever build the Viper. It's too wild and exaggerated, just a prototype, a dream. But when Bob Lutz, then Chrysler's top operating executive under CEO Lee Iacocca said there was a good chance the Viper would be built, car guys went nuts. I was one of them. It took a lot of guts for a car company to build a car like this.
There was something magical about the early Viper production years. Anyone that had anything to do with the Viper was part of an exclusive and exciting club. I was one of the first to receive training on the Viper, a one-week course with Team Viper lead engineer, Pete Gladyz. Pete was the ultimate car guy, when he wasn't building cars he was racing them. Pete raced a little Turbo Dodge Laser and his competitors were always protesting his wins, his car was just too fast. Officials would tear down his engine and could never find an illegal part. I finally asked Pete how his car could be so fast. He said "well... I went down to the foundry and went through 100's of new blocks, heads and cams. I found the best flowing head, the block with the straightest bore centers and the cam with the most lift!"
Upon finishing the Viper training course, we got a ride in the not-yet-in-production Viper. I think it's ok to mention this now, but at the time Pete indicated that Chrysler corporate did not want anyone driving these cars as there were only 2 pre-production training units.
The first 1992 Viper our dealer received was delivered by enclosed carrier. The driver wore a custom Viper embroidered jumpsuit. The local press attended, taking endless pictures. People came to the dealership in droves, just to see the new Viper. The great thing was that while they were at the dealer, they looked at the other new cars. We never sold so many vehicles than when that first Viper was in the showroom. Halo vehicle, indeed! The first car sold, for 3 times the sticker price, to an older gentleman who owned a renowned limousine company. A gift for his young girlfriend, she took the car and was never seen again!
Of course with any new exotic, the celebrities had to have one. I had customers like Lenny Kravitz, Rosanne Barr, Slash (Guns n' Roses guitarist), Ed O'Neill, Jay Leno, Nicholas Cage and many more. One owner was very memorable, Chris Farley. Once he purchased his Viper, a green 1995, he came to me and asked me to show him how to drive it. He had never driven a stick shift! A few hours later he called frantically, "the car won't start." I told him, "Chris, you need to push the clutch in!"
I had a good friend and customer with a '93 Viper, who was a big record agent for bands like Nirvana, Guns n' Roses and Motley Crue. We were the same age and had tons of fun with his Viper. One day he mentioned that Dodge was planning a "Viper Invitational" at the factory. I investigated but discovered that it was only open to Viper owners. Boy was I discouraged. When Tom found out, he went down to our dealer, bought another Viper and registered it in my name just so I could go! Since then I have been to every Viper Invitational, but the first one was the most memorable.
The original factory, where the first Viper Invitational was held, was in the old Champion Spark Plug plant (New Mack) located in the middle of the projects in a really bad neighborhood. One factory worker told me if they had to road test a Viper, the passenger carried a gun! It was a huge old brick plant, the floors were 12x12 blocks of wood pressed into the ground and smoothed over from years of use. The tiny Viper assembly line sat right in the middle, with huge expanses around it. The workers let me help build a car and we had a big BBQ in the parking lot. The amount of pride these people had in the Viper was remarkable. Being able to meet the owners of the cars they crafted was very fulfilling for them.
These early Vipers were beasts, though. Many new owners were not accustomed to the torque. Our dealer would sell the car on Friday and it would be in our body shop on Monday. Some memorable comments were "I power shifted into second and lost my steering!" or "the car just went sideways." This prompted me to start a car control clinic that morphed into open track events. To this day the Generation 1 cars still are a thrill, even though they would toast your feet with exhaust heat and the soft top would come off at exactly 158mph (don't ask me how I know this).
One highlight of my Viper experience has been my involvement in the Southern California Viper Club. I remember helping to organize the first meeting with first president, Drew Alcazar. Since that first meeting in 1993 with 6 people we have grown to a club of over300. One of our first events was at Coronado Island near San Diego, Ca. I sat down for dinner and introduced myself. I could hardly contain my enthusiasm upon discovering that I was sitting with Roy Sojberg (Viper program leader), Sandy Emerling (Body engineer) and Jim Royer (Viper engine designer). This was the holy trinity of Team Viper.
Roy Sojberg (now called Father Viper) shared a "dark secret" with me: he began his automotive career with GM. His supervisor and mentor was Zora Arkus-Duntov, the performance-minded engineer who transformed the first generation Corvette from all-show to lots-of-go!
My involvement with racing Vipers started early and remains a big part of my business today. It all began with car control clinics and shared track days with the Cobra, Ferrari and Pantera clubs. My customers loved their cars but did not know how to control them (we had a busy body shop). Once on the track with tons of torque and lots of tire, everyone was hooked!
In late 1995, I met Skip Thomas, who wanted to start a "Viper Racing League". This started an eleven-year relationship and numerous series wins for my clients. Skip named it "Viper Days." Mention that name to almost any Dodge Viper owner and images of action-packed, fun-filled weekends spent at world-class tracks will immediately spring forth. It was a popular series that combined the need for speed with a safe and educational environment that served as a training ground for countless Viper Club members and became a cherished institution of Viper owners around the globe. I was very successful in this series and used it as tool to promote my business.
Early on, I developed a relationship with Caldwell Development (CDI), who built the GTSR racing engines for Dodge, with help from John Caldwell and engineer Devon Rickey I learned how to build powerful, reliable engines. I found a young student with amazing computer calibration skills named Chris Jensen to make them run, I also met an incredible chassis engineer, Eric Messley who mentored me in vehicle dynamics. I knew that building good race cars was only half the battle, I needed good drivers. Luckily I had clients like Paul Mumford, Terry Rossi, Ross Murray, Samuel Hubinette and Eric Meselly, all of whom could drive the wheels off any car I built. With the advent of the Competition Coupe I was able to take many drivers to the next skill level. I went to Roush in Detroit to see the Comp Coupes being built and was able to work with some motorsports professionals like Jerry Mallicoat, Tom O'Dell and Matt Bejnarowicz.
One of the more memorable events with the Comp Coupes was rookie Paul Mumford (PMUM) winning in World Challenge. The Comp Coupe was new to World Challenge and had only been in one race. Paul was a young club racer with amazing talent but very little wheel-to-wheel experience. On a shoestring budget and rented open trailer Paul pulled into the pits of Laguna Seca Raceway with his Viper Competition Coupe. With his easy up and ice chest he pitted next to the full race teams with semi-tractors and trailers. With help from Eric Messley (EMI Racing) on setup and communications, Paul did the unthinkable, winning the GT race outright beating the likes of Bill Auberlen, Boris Said and Derek Bell. The win was bittersweet, because the Dodge folks wanted Paul to slow down as the car was new to the series and they did not want it restricted by winning too often-too early. Sadly, Paul died a few months later in a small plane accident.
Drag racing the Viper also became a popular past time for many of my customers. It began small and exploded as everyone wanted to be faster and faster. In our club we had special hats for the winners. It started with the twelve-second club, then eleven, ten and eventually got down to the eight-second club. I never got a seven-second hat but we were close.
Drag racing was great for business as everything would start breaking as the cars went faster and faster. It gave me the chance to create all kinds of new stronger parts. The power of the cars kept increasing. On our dyno, back in the day, if we could get 600hp to the wheels it was the holy grail. Over time as we added superchargers and turbochargers, 1000hp at the wheels became the new benchmark.
In 1996 I had a new GTS. The first GTS was a whole new car and everyone wanted to see what it would do at the dragstrip. I had a new tune and tire combination on my car and was going to run it with the club at the drags. My regular driver couldn't make it and a good customer of mine, Doug Dye, introduced me to a fellow named Lyle Larson. Lyle was a professional drag racer who ran alcohol dragsters among other cars. I asked Lyle to drive my car. He asked me some questions about the car and asked "what if I break it?"
I replied matter-of-factly, "I will call a tow truck." Lyle said he was my new best friend. Lyle got in the car and clicked off an 11.62 quarter-mile, which was spectacular for a near stock GTS. This started a relationship with Lyle that has lasted to this day. Doug, who introduced us, unfortunately lost to Lyle.
Some time later, on another trip to the drags with the Viper Club, one of my customers said they wanted me to meet someone. His name was John Force and I had never heard of him, but they told me he was top drag racer. He had a new GTS just like mine. Lyle knew exactly who this guy was and told me, "I want to run head to head with him in your GTS." So I went over to John and asked him to race. John said no, "I race for a living and have plenty of time on the track." Lyle kept pestering me so I went back to John and said "why don't you want to race, are you scared?" Of course, once I found out what he raced and who he was, I was so embarrassed. To this day I'm the guy who asked John Force if he was scared to drag race.
I became involved in one-mile drag racing early on, well before the Texas or Mojave mile were around. I had prepared numerous cars for the "Silver State Challenge," a ninety mile road race out in the Nevada desert. It was a great event with speed classes from 100mph to Unlimited. Early on, they started another side event called the "1-mile shootout." The goal was to go as fast in the mile as possible. It was a bit scary as the road was small and crowned and did not have a real big slowdown area. The big goal was to hit 200mph. You might think it would be easy, but at almost 7000 feet elevation the cars could not make the power to do it. The first year we tried it, we brought a supercharged car. At sea level it made 12psi boost, but at altitude it only made 4psi. Well, the event went on for years and nobody broke the 200mph barrier.
Enter Hugh Hoard. Hugh had a 1997 Viper he drag raced and was absolutely fearless—he was determined to break the record. We modified his Viper specifically for the mile, adding twin superchargers, NOS injection, an automatic transmission with overdrive a 2.73 ratio rear end and dual parachutes. It was a beast, capable of eight second runs in the 1/4 mile at 160mph (at sea level). We made a few passes to shake the car down, then decided to go for it. Hugh had had trouble slowing the car down in the space provided so we opted to use the parachutes on the next run.
Hugh left the line with superchargers howling and a 450hp shot of NOS. It was a sight to see! You could hear the engine screaming as he hit high gear, his car making the only sound in the desert, we could hear the car reach terminal velocity and knew he had completed the mile. Then tragedy struck, a huge mushroom cloud of dust and smoke filled the horizon, I knew Hugh had crashed at over 200mph and was probably seriously hurt or killed. The car had full safety equipment and roll cage, but at 200 your chances are not good. My heart was in my throat as we raced to the end of the track.
We found the car, damaged and on its side, just off the road. There was Hugh, with the paramedics, laughing and totally fine, unfazed. He had released the parachutes at over 200 just as a gust of wind blew the car sideways. He somehow managed to gather it up and keep it near the road. His only comment was "guess I better call the little lady, before someone else does."
Another memorable experience with the Silver State Challenge was an unlimited class Viper we built. This class could go flat-out for 90 miles and was dedicated to full race cars. We built the car for one of our vendors and it was a real challenge to get it done. We had never built a car like this before and did not have time to test it at speed. I took the car out to a deserted spot in Nevada and ran it flat out. I was young had a little more courage back then, but knew I had to validate the car before the driver did.
I brought the car up to full speed, the speedometer pegged on 200. It was a seven-mile stretch with a very small bend in the road about 4 miles in. I came up to the bend and started to turn the car but... it would not turn. I turned the wheel more and the car still did not turn. It was one of those out of body experiences, everything kind of slowed down as I watched the edge of the road come closer and closer, just as the front tire started to hit the roadside dirt, the car started to change direction and with a little wiggle made its way around the corner. My heart was in my throat and I could not breathe. I slowed down to 60mph and made my way back. Turns out we did not have enough rake in the car (the front was too high) and the car was getting lift in the front, making the front tire contact patch too small. To this day, I have never driven that fast again.
One of my most challenging and exciting experiences was my involvement with Viper Drifting and Mopar. In 2003 I had done preparation on a Competition Coupe owned by Marco Rad (Las Vegas Viper Club President) and campaigned by NuFormz Racing. It was used in a new motorsport called "Drifting." Up until that point I thought drifting was just controlled burnouts by a bunch of chest banging kids. I could not have been more wrong.
I went to a few events with NuFormz and met Sam "The Crazy Swede" Hubinette. I was immediately impressed with the skill it took to slide a car around the track, tires smoking and not coming in contact with the car you had to beat. Sam was the Swedish Ice Racing champion; he sure knew car control.
For the 2004 season, I was approached by Mopar to campaign an all-new production based Viper in the Formula D series with Sam Hubinette. I enlisted Archer Racing for technical support and logistics and we were off. For years I had learned to make race cars grip, now I had to learn how to make them slip. This was a challenge. With the help some of amazing chassis technicians, Russ Meyer and Tom O'Dell we found the right setup. It was a nerve-racking year full of close competition, dependent on one last heat with Reese Millen for the title. We came in second!
Over the years I have been able to work with some amazing companies on product development and racing related efforts. We've developed brake packages with a then-new company called StopTech, exhaust systems with Borla, supercharger systems with Paxton, engine management systems with AEM and Pectel. It's always been very satisfying to find ways to improve the snake!
Working for Dodge I was able to make some great relationships with many folks involved with the Viper. Bob Lutz was a car guy and owned an old Cunningham Hemi powered race car. Whenever I found some information on the history of that car I sent it to his office next-day and before I knew it, we were on a first name basis. Bob even visited our dealership to see our great "Viper Program," owners were amazed. I worked with Arrow racing on our Viper engine warranty work as they were contracted by Chrysler to repair Viper engines. Whenever we had an engine issue, the motor came out, went to Arrow for a complete teardown, inspection, rebuild and dyno test. Once fixed, it was returned and we dropped it back in the car.
Bill Hancock, an old time Dodge engineer and part of the famous Ramcharger group, ran Arrow Racing. Calling him a "good old boy" would be an understatement. He had been a little sour with some of the Viper Techs as a few of them were sending motors back under warranty that appeared to have had been used for racing (excluding myself), so I scheduled a meeting with him. Bill and I had a great talk. But upon finishing when I asked if there was anything I could do for him, he looked me dead in the eyes, wagged his finger at me and said, "Don't ever lie to me, boy!"
I made friends with an engineer named Charlie Brown who ran the engine development department for Viper. One day, I called Charlie and told him we developed a twin supercharger system for the Viper engine that worked great. Typical engineer that he was, he commented, "you have exceeded the design limits of the engine." When I told him we tested it on the track and the drag strip without any issues, he dismissively remarked, "won't pass our endurance test." Which turned out to be running an engine at 70% of peak power for 60 hours! We never tried that with twin superchargers!
I have had occasion to meet and talk with Dick Winkles who has been in engine development and calibration at Dodge for years and is responsible for the Viper engine. I always got the feeling he did not care for me. He was always cordial, informative and to the point. I once sat with him and Ralph Gilles at a Viper race once, Ralph asked Dick if the new me, he only said "Oh yeah, I sure do." I kept thinking that us tuners must be on his bad side, as we're always pushing the limits of his engines and mostly likely adding to the minor issues they see in the field. Recently I met a Powertrain engineer who works with the Dart. I mentioned Dick and told him I'd never gotten a smile out of him. He smiled and replied that, "if Dick agrees to talk to you, then he must like you!"
Moving forward I am so proud and pleased to be doing what I have always wanted to do, working on one of the most amazing cars ever made. I continue to meet incredible people who share my passion. I hope to be doing this for the rest of my life.