After his 1959 Le Mans victory with an Aston Martin DBR1, Carroll Shelby stops racing. He learns that AC Cars in England are delivering their vehicles without a suitable engine and in the fall of ’61, convinces them that his modified Fairlane engines would do the trick. He calls the car the Shelby Cobra. It is born from a binding handshake between Shelby and Detroit’s rising star, Lee Iacocca. When the Cobra debuts in 1962 alongside Chevrolet’s new Corvette, it performs a lap at Riverside a near four seconds faster. Pete Brock finds this roadster to be the best platform on which to build a world-championship GT coupe.
The year is now 1964 and the readied Daytona Coupe is loosely related to its roadster derivative, reflecting more of an advanced evolution. Much like the Ferrari 250 GTO, it is set out to beat, the Daytona fits into the FIA ruling allowing manufacturers to re-body existing models for competition. With a 289ci V8, the Daytona is cited for racing in GT Division III. The closed car wins its first-class race at the 12hrs of Sebring in March of that year with Dave MacDonald and Bob Holbert behind the wheel. Later that June, Dan Gurney and Bob Bondurant bring their Shelby American-backed coupe a fourth overall (first in GT class) finish at Le Mans, a lap ahead of the best Ferrari GTO.
That same year, the highly revised Lola’s Mk6 GT lays the foundation for Ford’s new Ferrari-beating endurance racer. Initially, a standard Fairlane engine mated to a special force-feed lubricated transaxle is the driveline for this GT40. Shortly into development, the program is handed to Shelby who concentrates fully on the Ford program. Shelby revises the 427ci motor, this time from a Galaxie, and perfects the T-44 gearbox to create the GT40 MkII. The Cobra Daytona team is soon abandoned.
By 1966, Shelby is the first American constructor to win a title on the international scene in the FIA International Championship for GT Manufacturers thanks to the Daytona before. Ford shows great promise with GT40’s winning both the inaugural 24hrs of Daytona and 12hrs of Sebring. Nearly fifteen GT40s submit to Le Mans; eight are accepted by the ACO, six of which are prepared by Shelby American, three of which he campaigns himself. The 1966 Le Mans results in first, second, and third placements for GT40s, a class win, and the first overall win for an American constructor.
The culmination of three years of engineering, design, and research developed a winning car and winning team. Three years after the rejection by Ferrari, it’s Ford Motor Company that has the best endurance car in the world. Shelby proclaims, “My proudest moments are beating Ferrari for the World Championship in 1965, and working with Ford to win Le Mans in 1966 and 1967.”
It would take another thirty years for an American car to return a win at Le Mans.
THE RETURN OF SPORTS CARS
It can be said that the zenith of sports car racing at Le Mans was in the 1990s, from 1994 through to 2000 respectively, when nearly every factory constructor competed for a slice of international glory. The latest technologies combined harmoniously with the latest engineering achievements delivered super sports cars with performance and looks to match. Their styling was instantly recognizable; their visceral beauty beloved. Porsche, Nissan, Mercedes-Benz, McLaren, Toyota, Panoz, and Chrysler all fielded factory teams. Trading wins back and forth, these super sports cars beat out the prototype cars for overall wins at Le Mans in 1994, ’95, and ’98.
The resurgence in racing enthusiasm was largely due to the similarity between vehicles on the racecourse and those that prowled the streets and graced the driveways of their communities. Youthful longing leads to bedroom walls across the globe plastered with super sports car centerfolds of this time period. Virtual race-readied cars on the latest Playstation video game platform connected up-and-coming hobbyists with these new goliaths of road racing. Youths were able to digitally interact like never before with the cars they longed to pilot as 3D video game technology advanced to a point of full user immersion.
In the few years when these super sports cars filled the grid, they ruled racing. The classic era of motorsports had returned to the stage nearly forty years from whence Le Mans began.
In 1989, the Berlin Wall collapses and Apartheid ends. We say hello to the World Wide Web and the Seinfeld sitcom. At that year’s Detroit Auto Show a new concept is unveiled. Intended to gauge public interest, the concept is resoundingly approved before the show ends. Lee Iacocca calls the car an American classic, and tells the Bob Lutz fifty-person team, “Go build the damn thing”. The car will be absurd, it will be built, and it will be named the Viper.
Dodge pulls the cover off the production car three years after uncloaking the concept. It is said that six cylinders from one V8 and four from another form the Viper’s beating heart. Trading the cast-iron block design for one of aluminum unburdens the car of nearly two-hundred pounds resulting in an engine whose outward photogenic appearance is indicative of the Lamborghini operation’s influence. The Viper RT/10 lacks exterior door handles and door-mounted windows. The “roof,” such as it is, is composed of a thin cloth lining which barely covers the open cabin. It is a homage to the original Cobra 427. It’s as modern and raw as a modern car could be though plush and refined when compared to its 1960s reference. It’s minimal and straightforward in design and intent. It’s a masterpiece culminated from the minds of Lee Iacocca and Carroll Shelby. It is a car designed, conceived, and built here in America.
Not until 1996 does a closed car greet the public eye. The body now rests on a stiffer chassis. Steel components are traded for those of aluminum to shed weight while power increases to near 450bhp. Despite appointments such as external door handles and windows, the closed car remains as rambunctious as the roadster. Dodge, showcasing GTS’s handling ability, positions the closed coupe for sales in Europe. Around this time, Chrysler approves the development of a racing program centered around the GTS.
THE GTS R
In the early post-war years of Le Mans, the competition’s sovereign rule was that only road-legal cars could compete; although, what constituted a road-legal car wasn’t all that strictly defined. At the time there were no class divisions. The cars that raced at the top of the field could very well be considered semi-restricted prototypes. It wasn’t until the early 1960s that the FIA formally executed a division between special-built prototype race cars and modified road cars. Here we begin to see limitations on engine capacities and the introduction of vehicle homologation. Ford’s 1966 victory over Ferrari, in many ways, can be tied to this regulatory effort – the GT40 was built like a prototype racecar and allowed a large displacement motor because Ford produced a large enough quantity of vehicles to count as a modified road car. This division paved the way for the GT40 while defining how the sport would later work in the 1990s with BPR Global GT and the FIA GT Championship.
To adapt the Viper for both European and North American circuits, Chrysler realized that they required outside assistance. Enter ORECA, they would re-construct the cars in France after receiving a basic chassis and integral components from Roush and bodywork from British engineering firm Reynard Motorsport. Having made claim on the overall winning 787B Mazda at the 59th Le Mans, ORECA, would lead the European effort while Team Canaska/Southwind would run the official factory team in North America.
The world would see a total of 57 GTS Rs, all of them technically made by Chrysler employees. Many, including the initial run of the first five test chassis’, would be campaigned by ORECA and Canaska/Southwind, though most would be sold directly to customers for use in whatever series would allow them. It is important to note the naming conventions used in this period. Streetcars were indeed within the Dodge marque, though Dodge did not sell the Viper model in Europe. Depending on location and region, cars campaigned in Europe wore the Chrysler badge while those in North America wore Dodge.
From a design perspective, the ethos of the streetcar remained. The iconic side exhaust of the original Viper RT/10 returned, which Dodge had done away within 1996 (the road-going GTS hadn’t been equipped with these). Its iconic side pipe exhaust was routed out the side of the car, just under the doors, halfway between the front and rear wheel wells. The hood was louvered. The roof and quarter panels fitted with intakes. A large rear wing, rear diffuser, and front splitter were added for aerodynamics. Optional lighting, placed in round notches above the grill, were available to drivers as an aid during endurance events.
The type-356-T6 7998.5cc motor, which sat just below the competition limits of 8000cc, remained virtually the same with light intake redesign to extract extra horsepower and reinforcements for endurance. Factory Team cars enjoyed the pleasure of a host of bespoke features. Brembo six-pot front and four-pot rear calipers were used, with carbon rotors employed in FIA races. Steel rotors were used in North American races, satisfying IMSA’s rules. The car’s four-way adjustable shocks by Dynamic, controlled BBS wheels mounted onto 30/65-18 (front) and 31/71-18 (rear) Michelin tires. Lightweight Billet forged aluminum spindles and fabricated cross-drilled wishbones unified the system. The floors were done of magnesium, the fuel cell of titanium, while the body was done in Kevlar-reinforced carbon-fiber. Onboard telemetry collected full track mapping of driver performance, measured brake-rotor temps, pad wear, shock travel, wheel speed, engine, and gearbox temperatures, amongst much else. For practice at Le Mans, a pitot tube was added to measure airspeed.
The year is 1996. It’s Canaska/Southwind that debuts the competition GTS R, for the North American IMSA GT class GTS-1, at the 24hrs of Daytona. Their car number 84 spins and suffers rear suspension failure in the infield. The leading car, car number 98, places 29th overall and a dismal 225 laps behind the winner. At the 44th Sebring, their results improve with both Canaska entrants finishing 35th and 12th overall. ORECA debuts in later April, at the BPR Global GT 4 Hours of Jarama running GT1, but fails to finish. Both teams partake at Le Mans. Of the four competing cars, the best car finishes 10th overall, wearing Canaska/Southwind livery.
Canaska/Southwind terminates their involvement with the Viper program at the start of 1997 leaving Team ORECA to make the sole appearance for Viper in the IMSA GT class with a lone car at Daytona, placing15th overall and 3rd in class. By now the FIA’s new GT Championship had replaced BPR. ORECA then makes a switch to GT2 class to avoid excess exotic material usage in GT1 and returns to Europe for further development. An auspicious start for ORECA results in a 1-2 class finish. At Le Mans, ORECA’s best of three competing cars finishes 5th in class and 14th overall completing 278 laps. The team goes on to take an additional six victories in the 11 race season to clinch the 1997 GT2 championship.
But it is in 1998 that the Viper’s dominance becomes imminent. At the hands of Justin Bell, Luca Drudi and David Donohue, chassis C7 and the ORECA team take the GT2 class win at the 24hrs of Le Mans finishing 11th overall. This finish went down in history as the first GT class win for an American-made car since Shelby’s Daytona Coupe in 1964. Viper’s dominance is strengthened as ORECA wins all but one event in the 10 race schedule to clinch another GT2 championship later that year. ORECA repeats their formula in 1999, taking another Le Mans class win and GT2 championship. That makes two GT2 Championship winning seasons and 24hrs of Le Mans class wins two years in a row but can the Viper make it a third?
By 2000, Chrysler’s home rival Chevrolet raises the stakes with the Corvette C5-R. For the 24hrs of Daytona, the battle between the Factory Dodge and Pratt & Miller’s Corvette Racing teams for GTO class honor came down to the race’s final hour on Sunday morning. Chassis 21, driven by Olivier Beretta with Karl Wendlinger and Dominique Dupuy alongside, would take the outright victory over the best Corvette C5-R with a final margin of just over half a minute. Viper triumphs as the first American production-based car to take Daytona.
CHASSIS GTSR C31
7,998.5cc V10 Engine
620bhp at 6,500rpm
6-Speed, Borg Warner T56 Manual Transmission
Front Suspension: Double Wishbone, Coil Spring, Fully Adjustable Dampers
Rear Suspension: Double Wishbone, Coil Spring, Fully Adjustable Dampers
4-Wheel Ventilated Steel Disc Brakes
Following an undefeated 1999 season in the American Le Mans Series (ALMS), and repeat success at the 24hrs of Le Mans and the aforementioned yet staggering overall win at the Rolex 24hrs of Daytona, Viper positioned itself as amongst the most successful production-based American sports cars ever. Built-in February of 1999 and prepared for the 2000 season, we are introduced to the vehicle offered here, chassis GTSR C31. It is one of the final Chrysler Factory Works Team cars and differs significantly over customer cars thanks to specialized skunkworks components. Throughout its tenure, GTSR C31 (C31) ran as both numbers 51 and 91.
Campaigned as vehicle no. 91, C31 was fielded by the 1999 ALMS Driver’s Champion Olivier Beretta alongside ’99 Driver’s Champion Runner-up Karl Wendlinger and Le Mans winner Dominique Dupuy for that year’s ALMS. The schedule was greatly expanded upon from the previous season including an additional four races, three of which held outside the US- the ACO’s 24hrs of Le Mans, bookended by ALMS races 3 and 4.
The 12hr endurance race at Sebring on March 18 marked the team’s first pursuit. The result is a class victory for C31, and a 1-2-3 finish for Viper Team ORECA making for a fabulous photo finish in a display of utter dominance by the now legendary team.
The thirteen-mile circuit at the 2000 Grand Prix of Charlotte would be next. C31 would take its class victory, and claim 7th overall.
The third round of the 2000 season is the first ALMS race held outside North America. C31 would once again take a class victory, placing 8th overall.
The ACO’s 24hrs of Le Mans in June 2000 would fit here. Karl Wendlinger, Olivier Beretta, and Dominique Dupuy drive C31 (as car 51) to Viper Team ORECA’s third straight class victory. The 333-lap finish is Viper’s best Le Mans performance to date. Given the serious competition that the Pratt & Miller’ C5R posed, the win is one of the most significant as the pressures to overcome another American-Born racecar deepened the Viper-Corvette rivalry.
The ALMS continued in Europe for Round 4. However, due to it being so close to Le Mans, ORECA would run C35 at this race which took a class win at the 1000km of Nurburgring, placing 8th overall. C31 did not compete here.
C31 breaks its winning streak in Round 5 at Sears Point, albeit marginally. C31 would place 2nd in class and 9th overall behind its sibling ORECA Viper driven by Donohue and Archer.
Round 6 raced Mosport. C31 would take a class win and place 4th overall.
The Corvette takes a class win in Round 7. C31 and ORECA would complete the journey around the Grand Prix of Texas circuit a mere 3 laps below the best Corvette, with a 10th overall placement.
C31 takes the Round 8 class victory at the Rose City Grand Prix in Portland, OR, and places 10th overall.
The 2000 Petit Le Mans took place at Road Atlanta. C31 was in first place and dominated the entire race until an untimely failed battery on the last pit stop caused an unexpected delay resulting in C31 placing 4th in class, and 12th overall.
C31 would claim the title of class victor again and place 8th overall at the 2000 Monterey Sports Car Championship, Round 10 at Laguna Seca Raceway.
The penultimate ALMS race, the Grand Prix of Las Vegas, proved yet again to be a class win for C31 and ORECA, 7th overall.
The 2000 Race of a Thousand Years, an endurance circuit in Australia on New Year’s Eve, was the final of the twelve ALMS races. Uniquely, this is the sole instance of an ALMS race at this circuit. C31 would again take class victory, its ninth instance that season and 3rd overall.
This example was nearly unbeatable winning 7 of 10 ALMS races it entered in the GTS Class. In total, 10 wins throughout the 2000 season for Team ORECA easily gave them ALMS Championship, with 266 total points, capping a three-year win streak. Second place was claimed by the Porsche GT2, 82 points back. More importantly, though, Viper beat its biggest rival, the factory-backed Corvette C5-R, by a staggering 130 points. History was written in dominating fashion but all good things come to an end. 2000 would be the last year of the factory-backed Team Oreca Vipers. C31 is widely regarded as one of the winningest Viper’s in history and is arguably one of the most significant race cars of our generation.
LIFE BEYOND ORECA
The Chrysler-backed Viper racing program officially ended in 2001. A year prior, Chrysler and ORECA had begun work developing an LMP class vehicle which resulted in ORECA abandoning their Viper teams. Of course, Vipers would continue to campaign under a multitude of private groups.
In 2001, C31 was left overseas and as it would turn out was accidentally sold to the privateer team, Brookspeed in the UK, most likely approved for sale by someone under the Daimler side of the company that didn’t care about a used up American race car. This would turn out to be a massive oversight by someone who surprisingly must have been unfamiliar with what the Viper had just accomplished. For two seasons, Brookspeed would campaign GTSR C31. Records show C31 achieving a 2nd place finish at Donington in 2001 before returning to Daytona in 2002, for a 6th in class result. Modifications were kept light, but later became significant in order to remain competitive. In 2005, the car retired and was placed in storage.
A well-known personality in the vintage and historic racing industry, Richard Freshman of Fossil Motorsports Inc., was on assignment when he “discovered” C31 years later. The original intent was to find one of the very few 1971 Hemi Cuda Convertibles to fulfill a rare Mopar requirement of a private collection. Instead, he crossed paths with this special Viper and consummated the purchase on behalf of one very lucky collector. Freshman, under order of his client, then directed the total chassis up restoration. He consulted with the likes of Terry Scarborough of TS Racing who serendipitously had Florent Boisseau, team member of ORECA c.2000, under his employ. Consultation with ex-driver, Karl Wendlinger resulted in a restoration that modeled and mirrored the car’s 2000 Le Mans Winning mechanical specification and livery. Receipts on file reflect in excess of $500K – a considerable sum resulting in a show-winning, concours and race-ready rebuild.
From then on, this successful Viper has lived a pampered and somewhat sheltered life. In 2009, appearing alongside a Ferrari 375mm, it was a participant at the Avila Beach Concours d’Elegance. Bound to be welcomed at events worldwide, C31 is eligible at the Le Mans Classic, Sebring Classic, and Daytona Classic as well as a variety of other events.
Today, the never wrecked C31 retains it’s original subcomponents, chassis, suspension, coachwork, motor, gearbox, and drivetrain. It is accompanied by significant documentation and spares and is regarded as one of the winningest Viper’s in history. Perhaps more importantly, C31 carries with it a more abstract attribute. It should be said that this Viper has had a profound effect on the cultural life of the motoring world today. Its 2000 Le Mans-winning livery is the very same that was digitized for Sony Playstation’s Gran Turismo 1, 3 and Le Mans video games. In the game, when selecting a simulation Viper GTS R to race digitally at Sebring, it’s chassis C31 you’re using. Both Gran Turismo titles are renowned as two of the greatest and most far-reaching video games of all time.
It could be said that C31 is the most important American sports racing car in contemporary history. If not, then it is certainly the most relevant.
THE NEXT CARETAKER
A car such as Chrysler Corporation’s GTS R, with its in-house styling, gives credence to a similar theory of European design but reflects a more peak development. It is the collaboration and the melting of minds across a multitude of firms. It is hard to overstate how radical a car the GTS R was for Chrysler in the 1990s. Here was a company best known for minivans and front-drive compacts producing an all-out super sports car in the classical sense which went on to win at the highest levels. The Viper GTS R represents the last great vehicle development program in automotive history. It is a program that should have never happened, will never happen again, and yet, as aggressive as ever, the GTS R soldiers on as an unabashed example of how supercars are built in America. In this decade, nearly thirty years post-design, these GTS Rs continue to deliver a remarkable array of possibilities as they were campaigned in period at Le Mans. They are both beautiful and eminently usable.
Today, the great masters remain in the highest of institutions. The Simeone Foundation in Philadelphia, PA retains the sole remaining 1921 Duesenberg, which raced the 1921 French Grand Prix, the year of the first international win for an American car. Simeone, too, retains the most original Cobra Daytona Coupe and Le Mans raced GT40 MKii. As younger generations of car enthusiasts grow old, it will be the legendary Viper GTS R of this glorious time period that will be welcomed alongside the aforementioned cars above in commemoration of America’s continued racing success abroad. By 2001, ORECA had as much as three class wins with the Viper at Le Mans and a championship on both sides of the Atlantic.
Now in the 20th Anniversary of its championship, Viper C31 is offered to the public. Of the three Le Mans winning Vipers, Chassis C7, victor of the 1998 Le Mans, is owned and maintained by Chrysler residing in their private collection and will never be sold. Chassis C22, the 1999 victor, is in a private collection overseas and will also likely never be sold. It is this car, GTSR C31 with it’s all original drivetrain, the sole Le Mans winning example in private hands in the United States, regarded as one of the winningest Viper’s in history, that is now available to the public.
- Exterior Colour Red
- Interior Colour Blue
- Drive LHD
- Chassis Number # GTSR C31