Introducing Honorary Founding Member Herb Helbig. Anyone who has been around the Viper Nation for any length of time and is curious about the vehicle’s creation knows of Herb who is affectionately known as the Grailkeeper.
Herb grew up in Plainview, NY on Long Island. His Mom worked in the local school district and Dad was as manager at an oil company. Herb knew early on he wanted to be in the auto industry and needed an engineering degree as his ticket to Detroit. With the degree in hand from Clarkston College, Herb started with Chrysler in 1972. His first role was in the rear axle lab as a development engineer and moved through various roles including R&D, steering, and suspension. Prior to joining Team Viper, Herb was the Development Supervisor in the Transmission Lad. Herb was select for the Chrysler Institute of Engineering program and received his master’s degree from the University of Michigan.
Herb learned of the Viper while working on his original ’29 Ford steel highboy roadster with a ’39 flathead V8 in Jan ’89. He was listening to radio interviews about people’s favorite cars at the North America Detroit Auto Show. Virtually everyone said the Dodge Viper and he wondered why he had not heard of it. Herb went to the show to see it and made a beeline to the Dodge exhibit but could find this Viper. Then it hit him, a huge crowd was surrounding the car like a group of zealot teenage girls at a Taylor Swift concert (can you tell where I was Tuesday night in DC). It took some time to work his way to the front, but Herb says, “The car was stunning, amazing, absolutely gorgeous. I also thought there was zero chance Chrysler would ever build such a beautiful car. It was so not Chrysler. I left the show feeling kinda sad thinking such a bad ass car would never see the light of day.”
In the coming weeks, Herb heard about the “secret meeting” thru the grapevine and crashed the invite only meeting with a fellow supervisor Denny Zeiger. At that meeting, he thought the car had a chance and called Roy Sjoberg to setup a 30-minute interview. They talked for 2 hours. Herb asked if there was a chance he could make the team and Roy said “oh, you made it after the first 15 min – I just wanted to pick your brain.” The next day, Herb told his Chief Engineer, Jim Wagner, about the opportunity, and he said, “go for it.” When Herb joined the team, he laments, “I was so stoked, I didn’t sleep for 3 nights.”
On the team, Herb’s had various roles in chassis powertrain subsystems. As the organization grew, Herb was the Sr. Mgr. Vehicle Synthesis, Chassis Design and Quality. If you are like most, then you are asking yourself, “What the @#$% does that mean?” In Herb’s words, “Vehicle synthesis meant I was responsible for making sure the Viper met or exceeded all the vehicle and customer objectives/expectations. Also, meant that when something was screwed up I usually got blamed somehow.”
With the car’s legendary status, Herb was asked when he knew he’d be forever connected to Viper. Herb said, “I never really considered the immortalization thing, but I knew things were going to be different when I got the nickname “Grailkeeper” in 1996. My wife, Deb, is pretty sharp and when she realized how much of my time the project was absorbing, she knew this was a big deal.” She became a member of the “Viper Widow’s Club” immediately. “Never in my wildest dreams did I ever think my life would change as it did. I used to often get asked what it was like to have my job. My answer was ” Imagine when reality exceeds your wildest dreams”. Oh, so true.
The nickname, Grailkeeper, came about as Herb held off many internal and external forces who wanted to “enhance” the Viper beyond its original intent. You know, things like automatic transmissions, ABS, traction control, and other features that were more comfort than function. It is rare to have a person with the power and influence to protect a vehicle, little lone one that instantly exploded onto the scene with hanger-oners trying to make a name or marketing people who wanted to sell volume.
Herb is known for racing an F-16 Viper and losing by a facia. Word has it, that he got to know the pilot over cocktails. Herb realized the pressure the brass were putting on the crew by stripping the plane of every non-essential piece and with enough fuel to take-off and barely land. Feeling bad and in the lead, Herb is rumored to have slightly lifted. Not sure if any of this is true but repeat it to everyone you know! The video is on YouTube – judge for yourself.
Throughout the years, Herb’s fondness for Jack Daniel’s Whiskey is legendary. Herb started buying barrels that the Viper Team and others shared. There have been eleven barrels with all types of Viper themes – one including the Demon. Herb makes a trip to Lynchburg, TN once or twice a year to sample and select each barrel’s progress. The bottles, whether full or empty, are cherished collectables of the car, the man, the Team, and the myth!
I retirement, Herb and Deb are enjoying winter in the Keys and spending time with their granddaughter. Herb continues to be involved in the Viper Nation. He attends large events with Team Viper, most recently the Pittsburgh Vintage Grand Prix, driving his 2009 Viper VOI10, working on his cars (1932 Hi-Boy, Prowler, etc.) and trying to infect as many as possible with the Spirit of Viper.