Race-driving SRT Hellcats and Vipers: tales from the dark side

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2016 Dodge Challenger SRT Hellcat in Plum Crazy purple

2016 Dodge Challenger SRT Hellcat in Plum Crazy purple

To say that high-speed driving isn't particularly green would be an understatement.

But elements of the skills taught at driving schools across the country are vital for any driver to know.

Those include how different cars handle, depending on whether the front or rear wheels are driven, and how to recover from a skid.

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That's why Dodge now provides a full-day high-performance driving session at the Bob Bondurant School of High Performance Driving to everyone who buys one of its 2015 or 2016 SRT models.

Those include the Challenger Hellcat coupe and the Charger Hellcat four-door sedan, plus the Dodge Viper GT two-seat sports coupe.

The session includes professional instruction and time on the school's race track outside Phoenix.

Dodge Vipers at Bob Bondurant School of High Performance Driving

Dodge Vipers at Bob Bondurant School of High Performance Driving

Buyers who are qualified by the driving instructors can test the Dodge Viper ACR racing model, the fastest Viper that's legal for street use.

But every Dodge/SRT participant circulates through all the SRT models, including Hellcats with both automatic and manual transmissions. (The Viper is manual-only.)

Those Hellcats, by the way, have a supercharged 6.2-liter V-8 producing 707 horsepower and 650 lb-ft of torque, putting them among the most powerful four-seat cars sold anywhere, and certainly the least expensive.

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So in the well-known "fish out of water" school of story assignments, your faithful reporter was assigned to go drive Dodge/SRT performance cars at high speeds and report back.

For the record, the few times we remembered to check the digital fuel-economy displays, they showed numbers between 10 and 15 mpg.

But who cares about that? It was clearly not why we were there.

Dodge Challengers at Bob Bondurant School of High Performance Driving

Dodge Challengers at Bob Bondurant School of High Performance Driving

The one-day Bondurant session is effectively a sampler of the different skills and techniques the school teaches in longer courses that can last up to four days and cost as much as $5,000.

It starts with skid training, in which a rear-wheel-drive Charger is fitted with outrigger casters on hydraulic jacks.

These let the instructor slightly lift the front or rear ends, including side to side, to reduce the tire traction and induce a skid under even light power.

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Those who grew up in snowy areas tended to think we might have a slight advantage here, courtesy of patient parents with gritted teeth in snowy parking lots teaching how to handle skids.

The secret is to steer into the direction of the skid—and then to apply power gently to accelerate out of the skid when the car is pointing in the right direction. The first skill is fairly well-known, but the second part is perhaps less so.

And the power available even in a non-Hellcat version of a Charger required a deft touch on the accelerator to prevent the rear end breaking loose in the other direction.

Pretty much every participant experienced at least a couple of complete 360s (or 720s) after overcorrecting, courtesy of instructors wily enough to reduce traction at crucial moments.

Still, knowing how to correct a rear-wheel-drive car during a skid was a crucial safety technique for everything that followed (and one we had to use at much higher speeds a couple of times).

Dodge Charger skid-pad car at Bob Bondurant School of High Performance Driving

Dodge Charger skid-pad car at Bob Bondurant School of High Performance Driving

Next up was the slalom course, marked out in cones on a huge, flat asphalt surface, intended to teach a collection of skills for track driving.

Those include fast acceleration and hard braking, setting up the correct cornering line, accelerating out of turns, how to handle decreasing-radius corners, and how to navigate sudden kinks in the track.

After one low-speed practice drive for every participant, an instructor set a time for us to try to match.

(He complained loudly and often about having twisted his ankle, thereby excusing any higher-than-normal times that participants might equal. Uh huh.)

This was one where practice and familiarization paid off, with lap times cut by a few tenths of a second on each circuit of the course, which took the instructor about 25 seconds to complete.

Everyone muffed some part of the course at least once, ruining a specific run, and we were only able to take half a dozen laps.

For this exercise, our driver's pride could happily have kept us there for hours shaving off more time.

Race track at Bob Bondurant School of High Performance Driving

Race track at Bob Bondurant School of High Performance Driving

After a break for lunch, the final part of the day was track time.

We rotated through the various iterations of the Dodge Challenger SRT (with a 485-hp, 6.4-liter Hemi V-8) and the Challenger Hellcat, fitted with either an 8-speed automatic or a 6-speed manual.

The Challenger offered the same pair of engines, but no manual. Then there was the Dodge Viper GT, with a 645-hp, 8.4-liter V-10 and a 6-speed manual gearbox.

The track itself included the traditional long straightaway, a series of curves and esses (a couple of them blind), a switchback, and the always-challenging decreasing-radius corner.

For us, the Viper was by far the easiest car to drive, with prodigious grip and tighter, flatter cornering than the large and heavy Charger sedan.

2016 Dodge Challenger SRT Hellcat in Plum Crazy purple

2016 Dodge Challenger SRT Hellcat in Plum Crazy purple

The challenge of the Hellcat Challenger and (even more) Charger road cars is that they have to strike a balance between acceptable daily ride and comfort and the ability to handle that 707 horsepower safely.

That means a very stiff suspension underneath with a softer ride on top for those tedious runs to the mall.

We found the combination occasionally surprising on the track, as irregular pavement occasionally caused the Hellcats to land in a slightly different place than expected.

We learned the behavior and accommodated to it, but the Viper felt utterly predictable—in part because we're nowhere near enough of a driver to find out what happens at speed when you do push it to its limits.

Race track at Bob Bondurant School of High Performance Driving

Race track at Bob Bondurant School of High Performance Driving

Track laps rewarded steady practice and course learning, though we passed on a couple of our last chances to let the truly good drivers among the journalists have their time.

Our time at Bondurant finished up with a couple of hot laps by Viper racer and newly deemed "Head Viper Instructor" Justin Bell.

Those were hellacious fun, and showed us just how far off our skills were even after the laps we felt proudest of.

Professional race driving is a remarkable skill. And the athletic stamina required to wrestle a car like the Viper around a track at peak performance at speeds varying from 40 to 160 mph in just seconds is worthy of great respect.

Which brings us to the final honor of our day at the track: a chance to meet the school's namesake, legendary GT racer Bob Bondurant, in person.

Bob Bondurant on his 83rd birthday

Bob Bondurant on his 83rd birthday

At 83, he not only rides along on hot laps with racers like Justin Bell—"Hey, it's the boss, he wants to see how well you drive his track!"—but even knocked off his own hot laps at the end of the day.

Bondurant celebrated his 83rd birthday that day, with a lusty rendition of "Happy Birthday" sung by all participants during the lunch break.

His wife Pat gave him a large photo of their wedding, which took place on the Monaco Formula 1 track—much to the irritation of F1 mogul Bernie Ecclestone when he found out, they chuckled.

And that's why race-driving courses are always worthwhile: because you learn all sorts of things, including basic driving skills.

Meeting a childhood hero is just icing on the checkered-flag birthday cake.

Fiat Chrysler Automobiles provided airfare, lodging, and meals so High Gear Media could bring you this first-person report.

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