Last May, Matt Newman bought a Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT, the muscle-car version of Chrysler’s hot-selling SUV. He was hooked at 470 horsepower and paddle shifters, so when the salesman went for the close with a free day of driving at a race track, it was almost overkill.
“I was like, ‘Dude, that’s just a bonus,”’ Newman, 36, a Hackettstown, New Jersey, poker player, said last month between laps at New York’s Watkins Glen International track, handling the same turns navigated by Mario Andretti, Jeff Gordon and the Stewarts -- both Jackie the Scotsman and Tony the Hoosier.
Chrysler Group LLC offers a day of driving and instruction at storied tracks such as Daytona International Speedway, California’s Laguna Seca and Watkins Glen to anyone who buys an SRT vehicle. Auburn Hills, Michigan-based Chrysler holds about 90 events a year at 48 race tracks across the U.S.
The track days fuel the passion of SRT’s fervent, high-income fan base, Ralph Gilles, who heads Chrysler’s product design and SRT, said in an interview.
“People are completely unaware of how much engineering depth is in the product,” Gilles said. “They get a chance to safely experience the cars and they know they have that kind of margin on the real roads.”
Chrysler made SRT, which stands for Street and Racing Technology, into a sort of brand two years ago. It serves as Chrysler’s premium line, ranging from the $40,000 Challenger SRT to the $102,485 SRT Viper, which used to be a Dodge and is now the only model sold exclusively as an SRT. Other SRTs are sold in less-powerful renditions as a Dodge, Chrysler or Jeep.
The souped-up cars get noticed on the street and help generate buzz among valuable consumers. Average household income among SRT buyers is $200,000. Most are managers or professionals, married and with a four-year degree. SRT buyers also tend to own more than one Chrysler vehicle, Gilles said.
“This customer is a high-value customer,” he said. “If they fall in love with SRT, they usually buy another Chrysler Group product, especially if we take care of them.”
The Grand Cherokee SRT starts at $63,000, more than double the starting price of the cheapest Jeep Grand Cherokee. The extra $34,000 buys almost twice as much horsepower, Brembo racing brakes and a push-button launch control, which automates a tire-squealing takeoff.
SRTs, which have wowed reviewers as diverse as Road & Track, the New York Times and Wired, blend modern technology with the automaker’s racing history. While Chrysler has added small cars such as the Fiat 500 and Dodge Dart to its lineup, these 21st century hot rods bring some old-school fun to the most competitive lineups Detroit has offered in a generation.
“A performance brand raises your image and they have gained some street cred,” Michelle Krebs, a senior analyst with Edmunds.com, a website that tracks auto sales, said in a telephone interview. “It also beefs up the bottom line.”
SRT deliveries have increased 23 percent this year, Gilles said, helping power Chrysler last month to its 42nd straight sales increase. The automaker, which has made money the last eight quarters, doesn’t disclose numbers of SRT sales.
The higher-margin models are helping Sergio Marchionne, chief executive officer of Chrysler and its majority owner, Fiat SpA (F), narrow the profit gap with its larger U.S. competitors. Chrysler reported a modified operating profit margin of 4.5 percent in the second quarter, compared with Ford’s 6.4 percent operating margin for its automotive operations and 5.1 percent at GM, excluding its financing arm, according to Bloomberg Industries.
Other, more-established premium brands offer their customers driving experiences. Buyers of certain Jaguars can take part in a performance driving academy at professional race tracks in Las Vegas or south Florida. Ferrari offers a two-day driving event for about $13,500, depending on the location.
The day at Watkins Glen, which hosted its first professional race in 1957, starts at 8:30 a.m. with breakfast and a briefing from Ricky Haynes, 52, a former Nashville mechanic turned stock-car racer.
In Newman’s class of about 40, as many as half were repeat students. Some were there because they bought an SRT model; others paid $500 to attend. For new students who don’t buy an SRT, the price is now $699. The events are sold out through the rest of the year, Haynes said.
The vehicles, SRT versions of the Challenger, Charger, 300 and Grand Cherokee, are production vehicles. Haynes tells the drivers to wear helmets, which Chrysler provides. Drivers should hold the steering wheel with two hands, one at 9 o’clock, the other at 3 o’clock, and keep both arms slightly bent. And push their speed when possible.
“We’re here to have a good time,” Haynes says. “We treat these cars like race cars. We beat the snot out of these things.”
The driving day is broken into four events.
Driving dynamics is an introduction to the Glen’s 11-turn, 3.4-mile (5.5-kilometer) road course as it’s used for IndyCar races. Two drivers follow a professional in packs of three, trying to keep pace. They learn where to turn, when to brake and when to accelerate.
Between runs, Haynes, wearing a headset and holding an umbrella to keep out of the sun, relays constructive criticism from the lead drivers: Keep pace and think one step ahead. Smooth is fast.
Next comes the autocross, where drivers take three runs on a short route, zagging between orange safety cones and trying not to hit them. A good run is about 30 seconds, Haynes says, including two seconds added for each cone hit.
After lunch, drivers participate in a drag-style face off, with a light tree, a quick start and stop, followed by 20 seconds through a series of tight turns.
Then the drivers head back to the road course and take things up a notch. In the morning session, speeds topped out in the 80s. In the afternoon, some drivers push it above 120 mph on the course’s two straightaways.
“This program allows them to see the differences between the cars, and there are very distinct differences,” Haynes said. “The Jeeps and the 300s: They’re the sleepers that get people’s attention.”
It also can move some metal. Louis Scamardella drove up from Brooklyn for the day. He has wanted a Chrysler 300 SRT for a few years, but is waiting until he moves to Long Island, where he won’t have to park his vehicle on the street. After the day at Watkins Glen, he added the Grand Cherokee SRT to his list of possible replacements for his Subaru Outback.
“My Subaru does not feel the same afterward,” Scamardella said.
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