Chris “The Wolf” Winkler got his first taste for the track at the Jim Russell Racing Drivers School in Mont-Tremblant more than 20 years ago. Over the course of his semi-pro career, Winkler has done everything from claim an SCCA championship to going wheel-to-wheel racing on quarter-mile tracks. If it’s got wheels, he’s raced it.
Last year Dodge tapped him to drive the 2016 Dodge Viper ACR (American Club Racer) in a quest to attain the undisputed title as the world’s fastest street-legal car. Since then the 2016 Dodge Viper has claimed 13 single-lap track records, setting a new mark for number of records held by a production car, and Winkler has been behind the wheel for eleven of them. Winkler, who works for Dodge as an SRT® Vehicle Dynamics Engineer, not only knows how to wring every 100th of a second out of the 2016 Dodge Viper ACR, he also helped build it.
Here we caught up with Winkler to talk about his accomplishments on the track and what sets the 2016 Dodge Viper ACR apart from its legendary predecessors.
Redline: What originally got you into racing?
CHRIS WINKLER: I wanted to get involved in cars and racing out of college. I crewed on a friend’s open-wheel car and went on to Jim Russell Racing Drivers School outside of Montreal. They were the coolest at the time because they allowed passing. I did their annual graduate runoff and won. That gives you a free year of racing up at their school. I took rookie of the year. The next year I won their series and that gave me a free ticket to their international championships in England. I went over, got one day to learn the course, and came in second. It would have been interesting to come in first since winning got you a year in a manufacturer’s cup series, second place got you nothing!
Which track did you enjoy taking the Viper ACR on the most?
Any track with a lot of elevation change and blind corners is the most challenging. The flat tracks and the modern tracks have their quirks but there’s nothing like the thrill of traversing the elevation changes typical of older tracks. Road Atlanta is one of my favorites, even though they eliminated one of the most exciting turns in racing by adding an S-turn to slow cars down coming in under the bridge.
What’s the most challenging corner out of the tracks you’ve driven?
I didn’t drive Laguna Seca for this campaign but it has turns 5, 6, the Corkscrew, and then turns 9 and 10. They have elevation changes and camber changes that make you commit the car early on until you reach the exit. In these superfast turns like the ones at Laguna you’re crossing your fingers for a good portion of them and hoping for the best.
What are a few things that set the 2016 Dodge Viper ACR apart from its predecessors?
The tire contact patch on the road for starters. The Kumho® Ecsta V720 tires are the equivalent of any DOT race tire. Kumho® has stepped up every time for FCA. We gave them a shot at the ACR and they succeeded beyond our expectations. The tires have great drivability at the limit and fantastic grip. The rear tires are fantastic for power delivery. The suspension, the BILSTEIN® shocks are tuned for the ACR. And the Extreme Aero Package transforms the car. Aerodynamic grip, produced by downforce, is essentially free grip. There’s no penalty or compromise in another performance area. It just helps you all around and it works better at high speeds than low speeds (1, 101 lbs. of downforce at 150 mph and 1, 533 lbs. at 177 mph). It’s part of what makes the Viper ACR such a great car.
Where would you like to set the next lap record?
It would be nice to go the ‘Ring (Nürburgring). That’s the elephant in the room anytime we talk about this kind of thing. We couldn’t go earlier because they shut it down for lap record attempts. We’ve been waiting for them to improve the track.
You can tweak everything from the suspension to the aero package on the 2016 Dodge Viper ACR. Was there much variance in your setups for each track?
We’re going to share the tweaks we had for each of the tracks and publish the setup sheets for each run. The differences are very minor off of the standard set up, a click or two of shock or a half-inch of ride height. It’s a sensitive machine. It’s a racecar for the road and appropriately it responds like one.
What makes the ACR so unique even within the Viper range of cars?
We were able to use spring rates (600 lbs./in. on the front, 1, 300 lbs./in. in the rear) we have never come close to before and that helps the aero platform.
What do you consider the most significant track record to date for the 2016 Dodge Viper ACR?
We blew away the lap record at Laguna Seca and did it with Randy Pobst. He’s one of the best drivers there. He can somehow master the track with any car. We beat a $1 million hypercar by 1.24 seconds. It’s a significant margin. Right now it’s hard to imagine a better track car based on a car you can drive on the street.