Motor Sports

CHRYSLER GOES RACING

by Larry Roberts

July 18, 1997

If you're a student of American motorsports history, you no doubt know that Chrysler was at one time a very big name in racing. It's big Dodge and Plymouth Hemis were the cars to beat on NASCAR tracks around the country and its Trans Am series pony cars were up there with the best of them.

Chrysler's current thrust into the American racing psyche centers around the rough-and-tumble world of NASCAR Pickups and while its Dodge contingent isn't leading the series in overall wins and points, its drivers have been getting a share of the spotlight and prize money.

But NASCAR tracks aren't the only path that Chrysler is taking back into the winner's circle. Over the past few years, the company has begun to make a name for itself in the stratified world of international endurance racing and its vehicle of choice is the Viper GTS-R. Even though they're fairly scarce (it's not the traditional purchase of the typical American middle-class family with 2.5 children and a need for space for a youthful soccer team), almost everyone who has even a borderline interest in cars has seen a Viper. It looks somewhat like a civilized version of a leftover Batmobile, and its V10 engine is the biggest in the business at 8.0 liters.

And one of the ironies of the Viper racing story is that the team that has undertaken the monumental task of knocking Porsche, Mercedes and the rest off of the Grand Touring victor's podium isn't located in the U.S. or even it the Western Hemisphere. If Chrysler is to gain international racing fame and glory, it will come out of a race car operation that is located close to the Paul Ricard race track in the south of France. Organization Exportation Course Automobile goes by the acronym ORECA and it's a long-time competitor in European motorsports events that are as varied as formula car venues and European ice racing championships.

ORECA won the lucrative three-car Viper contract from Chrysler by virtue of its past international successes and the fact that Chrysler is undertaking a major market penetration in Europe with its line of passenger cars, trucks and minivans. Competing with and winning with a relatively low-tech production-based car over there would guarantee a prestigious position in the minds of race-conscious Europeans.

Although the team is located in France, the development and testing of the cars is done by J&P Motorsports in Atlanta, while the engines are built at Caldwell Development Inc. in Southern California. The Caldwell operation is also an old-line racing firm that has done development work in the past ranging from developing the specifications for the SCCA Formula Atlantic series cars to putting together an all-new V8 powerplant for Indy car racing.

Being French, the ORECA team has it own particular goal and that is to win it's class at the venerable 24 Hours of Le Mans race. There are several long-distance races that lead to the Le Mans event, and in the equal-but-separate events, the Viper team has done very well. At the 24 Hours of Daytona in February, the ORECA Viper was fastest in its class, won that class and finished 12th overall against a field of purpose- built pure race cars. At Silverstone in England in May, an ORECA Viper won its class again and did so in the driving rain.

But as it often does in racing (especially when they last 24 hours), the ORECA team had bad luck at Le Mans. Two of the team cars went out in accidents and the remaining car was only able to manage a fourth in class against slower, but more reliable Porsche 911 endurance cars. Another privately-entered Viper (a '96 version that had run at Le Mans last year) finished fifth in the class but nine laps down.

There's always next year, however, and hopefully it will see an ORECA crew on the winner's podium at Le Mans waving the French Tricolor as well as the Stars and Stripes.

It's always nice to win in front of the home-town crowd.

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