We never should have had that conversation.
My 11 year old son had begun to show an interest in sports cars. The only things that non-forcibly draw him out of the computer room are episodes of Top Gear and talking about a Pagani Huayra, a Lamborghini Huracan, or an SSC Tuatara.
I’ve had a similar interest in cars, since a similar age. In the days before the internet and GPS verified velocities, the only talk about the fastest production car in the world was a throwaway line in the Guinness about a Ferrari 512 BBi "being rumored to approach 200 miles per hour." My exposure to exotic, fast cars was limited to the pages of Motor Trend, Robin Master’s Ferrari 308, and a poster of a Lamborghini Countach. The most exotic car my family ever owned was a Volkswagen Microbus that we got rid of after a month because my mom hated driving a straight shift.
One Saturday morning, my son and I are out, just the two of us. His older brother is off at a retreat, and my wife and daughter are having a girl’s day out. Knowing he has no interest in doing important dad stuff like picking up an air filter for a riding mower at Lowe’s, I’m looking for something for us to do together. So, I come up with a game (h/t to Up!) where we count cars. He gets Mustangs, and I get Camaros. It’s totally not fair, and I soon have to add Challengers and Chargers to my targets, just to try to keep it close. Then we see a Corvette, and another… and another. I recognize it as a Corvette Club gathering, and we decided to hunt it down, since I know the guy who runs the local chapter.
Sure enough, we find them gathering in a Wal-mart parking lot, and there’s my friend. We get there just in time to say "hey", and then the ‘Vettes have to head off to be in a local Mardi Gras parade. My son thinks standing next to a real sports car was the coolest thing ever.
The next Monday, I head to my buddy’s cabinet shop. On Corvette Club days, Mark resembles most people’s preconceived notions of a Corvette owner. Mid-fifties, tall, with a graying beard, garish leather Corvette branded jacket, and aviator sunglasses. During the week, he runs a custom cabinet shop with his two sons. I’ve known Mark for more than twenty years now, and I know he’s not an aging baby boomer just posing by the car. Mark cut his teeth on dirt bikes and drag racing in California in the 70’s. He used to own a street racing El Camino known as 1BDELKY. When I first met him, he still had a banana yellow 1969 Camaro drag car with a 600 horsepower big block. Soon after I met him, however, he sold the Camaro. He invested the money in his kids. They couldn’t ride in or work on the Camaro, but dirt bikes were fine. For a while. Then it was a boat and wake boarding. And then, as it happens, kids grow up, and he’s sitting around looking for something to do on the weekends.
His Corvette is a 2008 base model. Not a Z06 or a ZR1 or a Grand Sport, or a special edition of any kind. But it’s driven and it’s driven hard. Parades, road courses, drag races, Power Tours, you name it. 100,000 miles on the odometer and the shredded tire mounted on the frame with "176.8" written over it is testimony, not only to the capabilities of Chevrolet’s base model Corvette, but also to his ability and desire to push it to those limits.
I tell Mark that my son would love an opportunity to ride in the Vette. In a parade, or just down the street, he’d be over the moon. "Well, as it happens, in three weeks the Corvette Club is going to Talladega Gran Prix. Y’all c’mon and everybody can ride."
It drizzled rain on nearly the entire two hour drive to the track. Cool and overcast as we arrived, I was worried the cars wouldn’t be able to run. But the rain had stopped, and the clouds were breaking, and we’re told the track dries itself quickly. TGP is a great little track. The 1.4 mile long, U shaped track was originally designed for motorcycles, but lends itself well to amateur track days, I’m told. The longest straight is less than half a mile long, so top speeds will only be in the 110s-120s. That’s like regular Atlanta traffic speed, right? And the track is designed with wide, flat runoffs with no safety fences to cause a wreck if a car goes off track. That’s a good thing, right? And there’s an ambulance available. Umm…
While we’re waiting for the track to dry, my sons and I take a look at today’s line up of cars. Sassy, Mark’s burgundy 08 C6, is at the head of the line. There are 2 C5 Z06s, favorites with the track day crowds for their high horse power value. There’s another bright red base model C6. There’s a pair of Grand Sport models with more horsepower and better handling than stock. There’s a C6 with a terrible paint job, and a tuned rebuilt engine, and a C5 with a swapped-in, tuned LS3 motor. A Porsche Carrera and a Caymen S. The stars of the day are a white 60th Anniversary edition, a C6 Z06 Carbon, and a Nissan GTR. All three of these cars are in the $100,000 range, and in the words of Richard Hammond, "are properly quick."
The safety briefing is going well, until the track marshal mentions that his collarbone is nearly, completely healed, and he should be getting the pins out soon, so be careful in turn two.
The next step is a parade lap, which has a couple of purposes. First, it lets the drivers get familiar with the track, and the proper lines to take into the corners. Second, it dries the still damp track. Third, it lets those of us not driving have a conversation I really shouldn’t have.
Because of his age, they won’t let my youngest son ride in cars going all out, but Mark makes up for it a little by letting him ride in Sassy at the head of the parade lap.
I’m standing in a group with Chad (Mark’s oldest son) and Cole (Mark’s youngest son) and a couple of others. The conversation focuses on the three fastest cars, and the fastest drivers. The 60th Anniversary edition is fast, and has a good driver, but he’s more concerned about paint chips than lap times. The GTR is more video game like, than car like, with all wheel drive and electronic guides and limiters and boosters and… The owner had traded in his ZR1 for one, because the ZR1 required more effort to drive fast, while the GTR was nearly point and click. The Z06 Carbon, however, was the stuff. Probably the closest thing a regular driver could get to a full out C6.R race car, and the driver was good.
I asked them why they liked Corvettes so much, and the answer came back in dollars per performance. Corvettes, especially with the C6 edition, had been lauded as the leaders of the performance to value segment. A quick look on Top Gear’s Power Lap board gives some insight. The base model Corvette (with an LS2 engine, 08 and up have a more powerful LS3) shares lap times with an Aston Martin Vantage (ebay price $150,000) and a Ferrari 575M ($220,000 on the duPont registry). The Z06 is in the neighborhood of a Porsche 911 GT3 ($200,000) and a Ferrari 360 Challenge Stradale ($160,000 on the duPont Registry). The ZR1 is bracketed by a Porsche Carrera GT ($469,000 on eBay) and a Koenigsegg CCX (none found on eBay or the duPont Registry, likely north of $1,000,000).
And this is where the conversation took a turn for the worse. Why is the Corvette cheaper? "Because it’s got a turn signal indicator out of an Aveo, that’s why." The interior of the Corvette has long been the only thing keeping it from being a true world competitor. Writers love the performance, but hate the seats and the switch gear and the cheap plastic on the dash. But for these guys, the feeling was "why the hell should I care if it’s got a custom made light switch, does it make the car faster?" It made perfect sense to me, at the time.
My youngest finished his parade laps and my 13 year old hopped in for some hot laps with Chad. Chad is a professional wake boarder when he’s not building cabinets, and has motorsport in his blood. He laps the track in the 1:12 to 1:13 on a pretty consistent basis. Just watching from the stands, it doesn’t look that fast. Except for the fact that the Z06 Carbon, conspired against by a wet track and cold racing slicks managed to spin off the track and do a double pirouette before reaching turn 2. I was comforted by the fact that a trip off the tarmac did not result in a cartwheeling car with a 150 foot tall fireball, as the Fast and the Furious indicates, but I was still concerned that an experienced driver in a good car could go off so quickly.
After that group’s session ends, my 13 year old gets out of the car grinning like a 13 year old who has found his dad’s porn stash. I ask him how fast they got on the back straight, and he says "at least 150… maybe 180." Chad indicates the real number was about 110. I laugh internally at my naïve son and how he could mistake 110 for 180.
Then we assess the damage to the Z06 Carbon, so named because of its abundance of carbon fiber pieces and parts. The carbon fiber air splitter is destroyed, but the car is in good shape, otherwise. No biggie, the owner says, a new splitter should only run about $2500 bucks. For what it’s worth, my daily driver is a truck that I bought for $2700.
Well, each of the boys has had a turn, so now it’s mine. Cole, who is a professional motocross rider when he is not building cabinets, is my driver.
When you drive the same vehicle, every day, you get used to it. You know what it accelerates like, you know how it brakes, you know how it turns. Your brain starts forming pathways of comfort. Stay on that path, and everything is great. Step off the path, and your brain starts telling you that bad stuff is about to happen.
You enter the track at turn one, with modest acceleration, since you are entering in a curve. And by modest, I mean faster than any vehicle I’ve ever owned is capable of. We are still accelerating, when the well worn neural pathways in my head meat start saying it’s time to slow down because OH CRAP THAT’S WHERE THE Z06 RAN OFF AND THAT RAILROAD TRACK EMBANKMENT LOOKS A LOT CLOSER THAN IT DID FROM THE GRANDSTAND!
Let’s pause for a moment, so I can tell you how my brain works. I’m a Type S, non confrontational, risk averse personality. I’m also an engineer. This means that, whatever situation I’m in, my brain immediately goes to failure analysis mode.
We hit the brakes, and my brain, timidly, is ok with that. This is a performance car, and these are specially designed brakes, specifically made for this situation. Fine. And then we turn. Turn 2 is a nearly 90 degree left turn, which we are taking at the limits of the car’s handling, which is approximately, 1 g. 1 g is equal to one gravitational unit, which means my body is throwing basically its full weight against the passenger door. Additionally, I’m what some might call stout, or husky… if they were being kind.
Failure analysis brain starts working. The door is fine, I’m sure, let’s see how many contact points are there for the door that keeps if from opening? Well, there are the hinges, but those are designed to swing open, and there is one, the door latch. The door latch that is likely pulled from the stock GM parts bin and is made by the lowest bid contractor to keep the door shut on a 3 cylinder Geo Metro.
I manage to keep the scream inside my head as turn two is over quickly, leading into a right handed hair pin. Cole keeps a different line here than everybody else, telling me later that it’s because keeping to the inside means he’s got more room to correct for a mistake when one happens.
Out of the hair pin, and in to a sweeping left hander that again pins me against the door and the bargain basement latch that is the only thing keeping me skidding across the asphalt. This sweeper leads to the back stretch, where full acceleration is available. Surely we’re doing a hundred and fifty, easy. Hard on the brakes again, another damn left into a chicane. Most American races ‘turn left’ because it protects the driver in his left hand drive position, but I’m not in the left hand seat, am I?
A quick burst down a straight, and we’re back to turn one. Cole laps the track in 1:10 like clockwork, and there are 13 minutes left in this session.
But then, something happens. Those brain safety pathways start expanding a little bit, with every lap. I’m learning the track. I know when to pre-load my weight, when to tuck in, and what the limits of the driver and track are.
By lap 3, Cole and I are talking. Carrying on a conversation while pushing a car, a driver, and a passenger to their limits. I even manage a glance at the speedometer on the back straight. 115 seems plenty fast.
Our session ends and driver and passenger and car take a break. The Corvette is an amazing car. Daily driver during the week, and weekend warrior. Cole is an amazing driver. His 1:10s are the fastest laps of the day, faster than the GTR or the ZO6 Carbon.
The passenger? The passenger is wishing he’d worn his brown pants, and trying to figure out how to justify the purchase of a track car to his wife. Something with a strong door.