After the extensive classroom sessions and drills that made up much of the first two days of Radford Racing School's four-day Grand Prix road racing class, I came into Day 3 very excited to fulfill a childhood dream by driving a Dodge Viper.
Day 2 introduced my class of three students to turning in both directions, as instructor Will Parker brought us onto (almost) the full circuit purpose-built by Bob Bondurant to provide tight technical turns and a brief blast on a short straightaway. We pushed our Challengers and ourselves to the limits, without a doubt, but by the third chilly morning, I felt a bit of a rhythm setting in—not quite as tired, not quite as sore, definitely ready for bigger and badder tests.
Part of my confidence came from two full days of excellent, almost subliminally effective coaching with the actual full-gas driving spaced out perfectly to allow for enough recovery. Part came from eating right and staying hydrated, as the instructors repeatedly advised, and letting my brain process all the information from the previous day overnight.
And yet, a bit of nervousness set in as my time in the Viper approached.
Dodge's Factory Racecar
Despite Radford GM Mike Kessler telling me so repeatedly beforehand, I still harbored some doubts about the Dodge Challenger Hellcat Widebody's efficacy as a track toy before arriving at Radford. But the previous two days left me incredibly impressed with the 4,470-pound modern muscle car's performance, thanks to using the Black Key to de-tune that supercharged 6.2-liter Hellcat Hemi to "only" 500 horsepower (not to mention the wider wheels and tires).
But the Viper seemed much more potent, a serious borderline factory racecar from Dodge that I remember as a kid reading could literally cook eggs on its door sills because the side-exit exhaust pipes got so hot. One of the earliest photos of my dad and I, too, shows us grinning in front of a classic white-with-blue-stripes Viper at the annual (until this past two years) Beverly Hills Concours d'Elegance, a pic that must have been taken in 1994 or 95, when the Viper still seemed sparkling new and unbelievably radical.
Radford keeps two Vipers on hand, a GT and an ACR that both employ the 8.4-liter V10 and six-speed manual gearbox. They weigh around 3,400 pounds—about a full thousand less than the Challengers—with the main obvious differences being the ACR's upgraded brakes, suspension, and aerodynamics. And these two borderline supercars certainly don't bother with any black key...
A Quick Warmup
Before Parker let us hop in the Vipers, though, he had us do a quick warm-up session back in our familiar Challengers. Warming up the Pirellis, getting back into the flow of hard cornering, heel-toe downshifting while braking, and full-throttle acceleration seemed like a good plan, especially since he warned us that the Vipers' tires would take four or five laps to get up to temp.
Again, I could feel the past two days of learning contribute to cleaner lines, better weight transfer, harder braking, and more effective front-tire grip. But the Viper weighed on the back of my mind. How much more hardcore would it really feel?
First Runs In A Viper GT
Climbing into the low-slung cockpit for the first time, the differences began cropping up immediately. Where the Challenger felt almost roomy, with plush seats, plenty of arm room, and a wide-spaced pedal box, the Viper felt truly tight, especially with a helmet on. I spent a good amount of time moving the seat around—only to find out later that the pedals can actually move fore and aft! Still, I felt constrained and almost crammed in, helmet already bumping off the roof before we even got moving.
The Viper's cockpit feels less than ergonomically excellent, with a strangely high emergency brake lever behind a squat shift knob. The pedals sit right next to each other, a welcome relief that I hoped might allow for some of the heel-toe technique I came into Radford having already mastered. The smaller steering wheel felt nice, though, as did the tighter bolsters on my 6'1" and 165-pound frame. Firing up the Viper unleashed that V10 roar and we got moving for a few slow getting-to-know-you laps. By the first turn, I knew we'd left Kansas behind in a big way.
As great as the Hellcat's supercharger whine sounds, the Viper V10 ratchets that intensity up to a whole new level. The suspension provides far less damping, enhanced by low-profile tires. The first few laps, I got the rear end wiggled out repeatedly and missed multiple downshifts before settling into my new missile. And I wasn't even in the ACR!
Prepping For F4 Cars Tomorrow
Adding the Viper experience onto the Radford Signature Four-Day course adds about another $1,500. But I'd argue it's a necessary expenditure to more smoothly transition to the raw Formula 4 cars for the last day—but more on them later, since they only come out to play on Thursday. Wednesday, though, we students got fitted for our F4 seats, a process that takes almost an hour.
First, the instructors demonstrate where and where not to step while climbing into the Ligier F4 cockpit. All the carbon fiber and aero bits require extra attention before putting both feet right on the seat bottom, which is actually something of a misnomer since at this point, the seat bottom greeting our bottoms was made of solid metal. Radford staff looked at our position on the bare metal to get our body types in mind. Like the Viper, the pedals can adjust front-to-rear, but more importantly, a set of differently shaped padded seat inserts can slip in to brace the thighs, hips, and torso. Then, head protection, including HANS, needs to fit above the shoulders to allow for enough steering articulation.
Luckily, the pedals on Number 22 did not need adjusting (perhaps fitted for Jenson Button, who it turns out also cycles at around the same pace as me?) but they tried two different seat liners before I could take the right almost-prone position to allow for use of the three teensy pedals way mounted way down into the carbon-fiber nose with a heel sill below them. Then, we stuffed a couple more inch-thick pads around my quads and knees, to prevent too much bumping around, and finally I felt comfortable—or, as comfortable as they told me I might get. And in fact, one of our classmates simply would not fit, which left us feeling sorry that he wouldn't get to share in the fun. To anyone hoping to drive an F4 car at Radford, make sure you share your measurements accurately beforehand!
Back Into The Viper
After the wiggle-worm F4 fitting, we spent the rest of the afternoon in our two Vipers (only one other student shelled out, thankfully, leaving one for me) and one Challenger. And Parker also opened us up to the full track, throwing in the Maricopa Oval to allow for higher speeds through the track's almost straight-line chicane sections, plus a bit more elevation change, not to mention a frequently perplexing decreasing radius turn to help hone our skills in the unforgiving Vipers.
My compatriot in the ACR spent most of his time in front, which only seemed fair, though I stayed on his tail pretty much the whole time in my less prepped car. Coming out of the Maricopa section, a new sensation hit me—for the first time in my life, I felt the effects of downforce! Having that ACR in front helped, since I could see it hugging the tarmac while going up and down over a slight rise, over which I then followed. But I also got to see the benefits of better suspension, since I could feel the chugging of a bit of understeer when my GT's heavy front end (8.4 liters is no joke, it turns out) overwhelmed its less refined setup. I lusted after the ACR, without a doubt, but understood a paying customer certainly takes priority. And even in "just" the Viper GT, for the first time on the trip, I felt like I was truly racecar driving.
I might once have felt like the first two days at Radford provided plenty of physical exertion, but the Vipers left me sweaty and sore in a new way so I took a few more breaks than usual throughout the afternoon to stay hydrated. Turns out, I'd not adjusted the climate control and had heat blasting instead of A/C—so really, a true racecar experience. I also jumped back into my Challenger for a couple laps to test what I thought I'd learned in my old reliable muscle car. All of a sudden, the Challenger felt akin to painting with a big brush. Fun, still, but every mistake magnified. No wonder Radford starts students in these things.
Bonus Rounds To End The Day
To wrap Day 3 up, Radford planned a few bonus rounds for me. First, new instructor and up-and-coming racer Brock Nelson took me for hot laps in both the Viper GT and ACR, proving the difference between the two cars handily. But he also showed me a few new details to focus on, braking hard while two-foot driving, plus hitting full throttle even earlier thanks to a slightly wider line and zero fear of oversteer.
Next, as a teaser for Radford's latest (and at-the-time-unannounced) partnership, I took a 2021 Lotus Evora GT out for 20 minutes of solo laps on the full road course. Revealed only now, at the end of February, Radford will join Utah Motorsports Campus and Atlanta Motorsports Park as official Lotus Track Experience locations for owners and fans of Colin Chapman's iconic brand. And lapping that Evora proved everything about Chapman's famous maxim to "simplify, then add lightness" as the 3,100-pound mid-engined sports car, despite being down on power at (again "only") 415 horsepower, took the turns so beautifully, with perfect poise and a hint of oversteer available on exit if you keep that gorgeous six-speed shifter in the right gear for the supercharged 3.5-liter Toyota V6 to stay in boost.
Radford Racing School's partnership with Lotus should come as no surprise, given the 62/2 project from Ant Anstead and Jenson Button that employs Exige underpinnings. But the deal will also extend to the Evora's successor, Emira, when deliveries begin later this year, as well as forthcoming electrics like the Evija hypercar and teased "lifestyle" models to follow.
If I thought the Viper provided a perfect transition to driving an open-wheeled car, the Lotus helped just as much, even during my brief time behind the wheel. Hopefully, Radford can add that as another goodie available to big spenders at the four-day course. Until then, click through to learn what it takes to actually drive a zero-nanny Ligier Formula 4 car for Day 4 at Radford Racing School.
Sources: radfordracingschool.com, rodeodrive-bh.com, ligierautomotive.com, and youtube.com.