Development and History
The idea to develop a modern-day Cobra-like sports car was first floated in late 1988 at Chrysler’s Advanced Design Studios. Within months, a full-scale clay mock-up was presented to Chrysler president Bob Lutz by styling boss, Tom Gale. The car then appeared as a concept at the North American International Auto Show (Detroit) in 1989 and public reaction was so enthusiastic, that chief engineer Roy Sjoberg was directed to develop it as a standard production vehicle.
The Viper project engineer was Roy Sjoberg and, together with engineer Dick Winkles, they assembled ‘Team Viper’ in early 1989, comprising 85 hand-picked specialists. Lamborghini, at the time a Chrysler subsidiary, cast a prototype V10 aluminium block in May ‘89. Development proceeded apace, and the production body was ready in the fall of that year and a prototype chassis was already tested in December. Launch approval was given by Chrysler chairman Lee Iacocca (of Ford Mustang fame) in May 1990, and in November 1991, the Viper was released for review to the media with the first dealer shipments commencing in January 1992.
In May 1991 Carroll Shelby drove a pre-production pace car ahead of the start for the ‘91 Indianapolis 500 race, appropriate perhaps in that Shelby, the father of the Cobra, was called upon to drive it. Design cues from the legendary, bare-knuckle Cobra Daytona, penned by Pete Brock, are evident in the Viper’s muscular design and aggressive styling.
Le Mans 24 Hours
The first racing version, the Chrysler Viper GTS-R, was introduced in 1996. The cars were constructed by Chrysler themselves, and in Europe by Reynard Motorsport and Oreca. In total, 57 Viper GTS-Rs were built, the chassis being fabricated by Reynard in the UK with Oreca doing the assembly and race preparation in France.
Although the Viper GTS-R finished tenth overall on its Le Mans debut in 1996, the car’s first win in the GT2 class came in 1998, marking the first GT class win for an American made car since the Shelby Daytona Coupe’s win in 1964. The ’96 Le Mans race saw no fewer than four Vipers entered of which only one failed to finish. The following year in 1997, two Vipers finished in fifth and sixth places in class. No fewer than five Vipers were back to do battle in ’98, this time coming home in eleventh, thirteenth, nineteenth and twenty-first places, with one DNF. For the last Le Mans 24 Hour race of the decade, Vipers occupied eight places on the starting grid, with the top finisher crossing the line in tenth place. All of this racing exposure at the highest level brought vast experience to the company, and enabled the Viper to be continually developed throughout this period. In all, the Viper notched up three class wins at Le Mans, another three victories at the Nürburgring 24 Hours, and two 24-hour victories at Spa.
Team Carsports Holland and Toine Hezemans
Hugues de Chaunac’s Oreca team credits their growth during this period to the success of the Viper. At first, Oreca ran their own cars in the BPR and FIA GT series, and following their success, they were asked to take charge of the customer cars for Chrysler. This was a whole new world for the French outfit, but they performed the role with professionalism thanks to the experience that they themselves had built up. One of the customer teams was Toine Hezemans.
Toine Hezemans recalls, “In 2000, we bought this Viper [chassis #C38] from Oreca because it was probably the most reliable, fast car that you could buy at that time, in its class.” The car was a completely new build and Hezemans took it straight to Valencia to test. “We drove for two days and nothing went wrong, it was really a very good car. For the first two or three races, we drove it standard like it was and then in order to beat the Lister, we had to modify things,” he added.
Swiss engine builder, Heini Mader, was charged with overseeing engine development. Hezemans recalls that they lowered the engine and relocated it slightly back in the chassis. Changes were made to the air intake system primarily to get more air into the engine. Modified camshafts were fitted, but initially these gave the car too much torque, and so reprofiled cams from Switzerland were installed which improved the car’s handling.
The main aerodynamic change made to the car though was to re-route the hot engine air, which normally came out under the car and behind the wheels, to instead come out of the top of the bonnet, effectively pushing the car down. Hezemans also fitted a new front splitter, which he visually copied from the Mercedes GT1.
Toine Hezemans admits to modifying almost everything on the car, and even moved the oil tank to the rear of the car. However, this necessitated very long lines that carried the oil to the engine up front, but he admits this was a mistake as the dry sump pump wasn’t strong enough to cope. As a result, they got air into the system which is why the car didn’t even start at the Monza race, because the bearings failed through lack of oil.
The suspension was modified and the rear wing was moved further back. The Hezemans team was constantly working to lighten the car so that it was under the limit, which enabled them to reposition the weight to improve overall balance. “But the big improvement,” Hezemans pointed out, “was that I put a sequential gearbox in the car. Oreca was still using the old H-pattern gearbox, and so I installed a Holinger sequential gearbox, it was a fantastic gearbox. The gearbox alone improved the car by five or six tenths of a second per lap, because the shifts were much quicker. The others complained, but I said it was in accordance with the regulations. That really helped a lot, and by improving everything on the car, we were able to gain more than a second and a half.”
Following a horrific crash during the 2002 Spa 24 Hours[km1] , with Anthony Kumpen leading the race by a lap in #C38, the Hezemans team was without a car as the Viper was completely burned out. With chassis #C38 a write-off, another chassis had to be found quickly. Hezemans explains, “We purchased a chassis (#C38b) that was laying around at Anthony’s that we built up quickly. We had to get a lot of parts from Oreca and other suppliers, but by then we were making a lot of the parts ourselves like noses, backs and doors, and so it could be done quickly.”
The Toine Hezemans Team Carsports Holland Viper raced for three seasons between 2000 and 2002. “The only reason we stopped with the Viper,” Hezemans confesses with a hint of sadness, “was because there was no longer any support from Oreca or from Chrysler, and as there was no further development on the car, it quickly became outdated.”
What the drivers had to say
I started off in 2000, so 2002 was my third season in the Viper. I had been driving with the team Paul Belmondo before moving to the team of Toine Hezemans, Team Carsports Holland, in 2002.
Team Carsports Holland developed the Viper, and although everybody was starting to develop the Viper, we probably had the fastest car in the field. Mike Hezemans and I made a really good team pairing, and we lost the championship by a really very small margin. We were always up there, and so 2002 was one of my best racing seasons.
There were a lot of rumours in the paddock as to why our Viper was so fast, and there are still rumours going around now, many years later, as to how we built such fast cars. Toine had a different engine builder than most of the others, he went to Mader to develop the engines. Later on, we did it in-house because we had our own engine dyno and our own tuners right here, and then everybody started coming here with their Viper engines. But Toine was actually the guy who made it all happen, he brought all the good guys together because everybody used to take their engines to Caldwell, they were the official tuner for Viper. So he made a big change during this Viper era.
I had a scary moment that season at the Spa 24 hours. I remember we were leading, a lap ahead of everybody else, so we had a comfortable lead. It was about 23h00 at night, and I remember as I went down to Eau Rouge, I passed a Porsche. I lapped the car but he pressed into the back of my car, it was a huge crash. The fuel tank exploded, so the only thing that everybody saw was a huge ball of fire coming down the hill towards Eau Rouge. The car was pretty much destroyed, but we built it up afterwards and we won with it. Crashing out with a back marker who makes a stupid mistake while you're leading is not a nice moment, I can tell you.
My best moment in the Viper was the win that we had at Donington. We struggled throughout the season to win, and although we always had the speed, there was something that prevented that win from happening. Then finally one race before the end of the season we got the win that we deserved, and that is something that you never forget.
Driving for Toine Hezemans was really special, I was his longest driver except for his son. He is very tough and if you're not fast he will just tell you. But we had a very good car with a very good engine, and we had a good team that built the car.
I was an up-and-coming young driver mainly racing in Formula cars when I got the opportunity to race in GT cars. The very first GT car was the Viper, and it was unbelievable. For me, the power was the most challenging thing, the first time I stepped on the throttle it was unbelievable, there was just so much power to control, but I really enjoyed it. We went to Zandvoort, my home track, in the middle of winter and there was snow everywhere. My first laps were a real thrill and since then I have fallen in love with GT racing. I stopped Formula racing and I jumped into endurance racing from that point on because I just loved racing these cars.
We had two wins that season (2001) in the FIA GT, at Budapest and the last race at Estoril. Obviously winning in the FIA GT, it was a kind of world championship, so for us it was really special. It was my first year in GT racing, I am still the youngest ever race winner in FIA GT so being that young and winning against some of the big endurance names, I was really happy to do that.
The fun part about those days was that you could develop the car by yourself, but now if you buy a car you can't touch it. We worked a lot on the aerodynamics, Toine made a new splitter and it fell off a couple of times in the beginning, but we made it really strong. We managed to get a lot of horsepower out of the engine so it was fun to drive because the top speeds were really high. At the end of the day I really loved that era because you could play with the car and make it better, I think we had the quickest car out of all.
Because we developed the car so much over the winter, it was not reliable in the beginning. We actually missed the very first race at Monza, we blew up the engine because we had some issues with the oil getting to the engine. So, for the first race we scored zero points, and that was the hardest part, but then we made the car more reliable and we could make up for that.
It was a lot of fun to race with the Hezemans family. My dad goes way back with him to the 1970s when he raced with Toine. We have so many stories from those years, it was a real experience. They developed the Viper in the best possible way to make it quicker, sometimes we paid the price because initially some parts broke but later on we made it much more reliable. But there was always action, there was always something going on with those two guys.
The Viper was very successful, and we were mainly fighting other Vipers for the win. We took seven podiums in the whole season with two wins, but I think most other races were won by another Viper, so it was definitely the most successful GT car at the time. I have raced a lot with these muscle cars, and it really got me into endurance racing. It is a car that is special, people really like the car and drivers who raced them all loved the car, so it was one of the most special GT cars out there, and it still is.
The Viperwizard was founded by Kees Mets, a Viper enthousiast for many years. He owns a couple of Vipers and started doing maintenance on other Vipers, most of them members of the Viper club Benelux.
After a while it started to get really busy, resulting in founding this company. The Viperwizard is now the only specialist in the Netherlands and people from all over Europe come to Middenmeer for maintenance, advice or parts.
The Viperwizard is part of Flaim BV.
*all used parts are free of VAT
*all new parts have 21% VAT on them.