When Viper first hit the streets in 1992, it was released to a buying public who hadn’t experienced such unbridled automotive performance for more than two decades. It’s possible that the average consumer’s driving prowess had regressed after years of operating meekly powered economy cars. Unfortunately a number of RT/10s met an early demise as a result, at times with tragic human consequences. Skip Thomas thought something needed to be done and in 1995 launched Viper Days as a way to offer driver instruction to new Viper owners. As customers’ skills progressed, naturally there was a desire for competition. A time trials series known as the Michelin Challenge joined the program and within a couple years the Viper Racing League (VRL) became the top step of the Viper Days ladder. Skip, with the help of his daughters, ran the organization for more than a decade before handing the reigns off to some of the participants. I was a kid in the mid 90’s so my only exposure to Viper Days was through second hand issues of Viper Quarterly. Sadly, Viper Days was no more by the time I was able to buy a Viper in 2016.
You can then imagine my excitement upon hearing the band was getting back together for a final show! What a final show it would be as Viper Days Reunion was held at Road America in beautiful Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin over August 26-29. Road America is one of the nation’s most storied and picturesque race tracks commonly known as “America’s National Park for Speed”. The reunion organizers really swung for the fences by having the event act as a support series for the professional GT World Challenge America race which would be occurring simultaneously. Reunion participants would therefore be turning laps with fans in the stands!
The event kicked off on Thursday evening with a meet and greet at the sprawling Osthoff Resort in downtown Elkhart Lake. It was open to anyone whether you were looking to relive the glory days or experience them for the first time. Following registration, a collection of Viper race cars joined a field of World Challenge series cars on display next door in front of the historic Siebkens Resort. The street was closed to traffic allowing fans to get up close to the cars and teams with the back drop of live music. Many members also took the opportunity to explore the scenic town of Elkhart Lake with its numerous shops and restaurants.
On Friday morning participants drove through the track tunnel into the vast 640 acres that make up Road America. Continuing ahead, climbing the hill into the track’s paddock, all visitors passed through the snake pit. On the right side of the road, street Vipers from all generations were lined up on display. On the left, under and all around large tents, factory race cars as well as track prepared street Vipers were being prepared to strike. It’s not uncommon to see large gatherings of production Vipers at various special events, but it’s been more than a decade since greater than 20 factory Viper race cars (GTS-R, Competition Coupe, ACR-X, GT3-R) were in one spot! It was an impressive display that drew both fans and crews from the professional teams into the area for a closer look.
Track activities for the Reunion were divided into two groups – Race and Time Trial. No further derivations amongst the cars were made as this outing was more about fun than serious competition. As such all types of Viper race and track cars would be running together. Drivers began each day by attending one of Skip Thomas’ famous driver meetings. After the necessary good natured banter, Skip with assistance from Bob Woodhouse and Jon Brobst reiterated to all the level of respect required for such a high speed, high consequence track as Road America.
Fans were then treated to their first bite of Viper track action as both the Race and Time Trial groups ran together in a practice session. Forty four V-10s across all generations of Viper roared around the circuit’s famous curves. After which, the competition cars joined all the street Vipers for a car show back in the paddock. It would be judged by Viper royalty which included original Team Viper members Roy Sjoberg, Herb Helbig, Ken Nowak and Dick Winkles who were joined by current Chief Design Officer with Stellantis, Ralph Gilles and his wife Doris.
Show judging was handled much in the same way as the event’s racing – fun rather than serious competition with awards to be presented later that evening. Unfortunately a severe storm washed out the next competition practice session. Once the heavy rain finally moved away it was time for a barbecue dinner in one of Road America’s many trackside facilities. Following the feast the aforementioned car show awards were handed out with accompanying smiles and laughter. The good times only grew as Steve Ferguson hosted a Q&A session with the original Team Viper members in attendance detailing some of the unique methods through which the original Viper reached production.
On Saturday racers were met with better weather as qualifying kicked off the day’s activities. With the grid set there was plenty of time prior to the race for all attendees to visit in the pits sharing memories or checking out the cars in detail. Anticipation grew steadily as afternoon arrived and the Race group took to the track behind Jon Brobst in the ACR Extreme pace car. As the green flag flew, Ben Keating blasted towards turn one from pole position and would build a significant gap to win race 1 going away piloting his GT3-R (the same chassis with which he won the GTD class at the 2015 Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona)! Michael Merritt took second in his ACR Extreme followed by Jim Stout in his Competition Coupe. The Time Trial group followed and it was John Kim setting the quickest lap at 2:22.956 with his ACR Extreme with Ralph Gilles’ ACR-E in second and Mike Kirsch in third driving Bob Woodhouse’s legendary Comp Coupe.
Following track action everyone headed back to the Osthoff Resort for Saturday night’s Grand Banquet. Dinner was followed by trophy presentations for the day’s racing activities and then an auction of Viper memorabilia. Skip Thomas acted as head auctioneer with a level of comedy that kept the crowd laughing and the bids climbing. When the final hammer fell, event proceeds totaled an astonishing $49,393 which was donated to Camp Courageous in Manchester, Iowa! Special remarks from Roy Sjoberg, Herb Helbig and Ralph Gilles on Viper past and future(?) closed out a wonderful evening.
It was a beautiful Sunday morning in Elkhart Lake, yet the thunder remained as the Time Trial group took to the track for an 8 a.m. wake up call. Cable Rosenberg would take top honors setting a blistering time of 2:12.650 in his monster 2013 Viper. John Kim and Ralph Gilles filled out the podium in their ACR Extremes. There were some great battles on track in the Race group, but it was another dominant performance from Ben Keating in his GT3-R. He took his second win setting an incredible 2:04.358 lap time in the process. Jim Stout crossed the line second in his Comp Coupe and Keith Anderson grabbed third in his 2008 ACR. Trophies were presented in Road America’s victory lane as the Reunion came to a close.
Though this was my first glimpse at Viper Days in person, it’s clear as to why there was such enthusiasm for this event to take place. Even still, it wouldn’t have happened without the hard work of Skip Thomas, Skip’s family, Bob Woodhouse, Bob Strickland, Cheryl Kirsch and Steve Ferguson. It was meant to be a one off finale, but the crowd is already chanting for an encore. Could a reunion tour be in the works?
The thunder remained as the Time Trial group took to the track for an 8 a.m. wake up call. Cable Rosenberg took the top honors with a blistering time of 2:12.650. John Kim and Ralph Gilles filled out the podium in their ACR Extremes. Ben Keating took his second win with an incredible 2:04.358 lap time. Jim Stout finished second and Keith Anderson grabbed third place. Trophies were presented in victory lane as the Reunion came to a close.