What’s It Like to Test Drive a Racecar?
Article Published by: nytimes.com
In the shadow of snowcapped mountains near Salt Lake City on a cool yet sun-splashed day in April, I pulled on a racing helmet and special neck brace and was strapped in behind the wheel of a brand-new, $400,000 Ford GT supercar. In front of me was winding racetrack. And inside me was a familiar feeling: fear, plain and simple.
The GT I roared around in that day was the roadgoing version of the racecar that in 2016 had won the 24 Hours of Le Mans in France for its racing class. Ford’s victory was the culmination of an epic effort to repeat the company’s legendary win in 1966. I had followed the new GT around the world for more than a year, but that day in Utah was my first crack at actually driving it, and the experience renewed my relationship with why I love fast cars — but also with why I’m not a racecar driver. Pro drivers also feel fear, but they do something with it that’s entirely different from amateur enthusiasts like me.
This ultrarare GT (only 1,000 will be built through the 2020 model year) was designed to conquer Le Mans. The new model is powered by a walloping 647-horsepower engine located between the rear wheels and the driver, a “mid-engine” design that provides optimal balance and handling. Top speed is a staggering 216 miles per hour. And all that brawn was wrapped in delicious aesthetics. Jaws dropped when Ford unveiled the GT in Detroit in 2015, and the car that eventually hit the streets in 2016 is essentially identical, defined by sharp, aggressive lines, a low roof and a pair of aerodynamic flying buttresses arcing from the engine compartment like sweptback wings.
A professional driver — someone who started with go-karts around age 10 and worked his way up to a major racing series — puts terror to work. The cars are designed to exist on the edge, and the edge isn’t meant to be entirely respected. But the edge isn’t meant to be flagrantly violated, either.
This is a critical dividing line for the sport and what separates the great drivers from the rest of us mere speed lovers: the ability to judge the difference between too far and just far enough.
I was reminded of this in Utah. Beyond dealing with fear, the driver of a fast racecar must adjust his attitude toward time. To take a practice run — they’re called “hot laps” — with a pro is to live a few seconds in the future the whole time. The key factor when laying down a lap is to force your eyes to look ahead, to find the next point at which you want the car to arrive.
The trick is to do this at stomach-churning velocities. It’s also vital to be tidy. Slipping the tires around in a plume-of-smoke way might seem cool, but it cancels speed. The key to laying down a fast lap is to find the quickest line around the track — the “racing line,” usually etched in the black rubber laid down as the tires heat up — and to avoid deviating from it. Which isn’t to say that you drive in an overly fussy way. I took my hot laps in the GT with Joey Hand, a pro who drove the Le Mans-winning racecar in 2016. Hand could negotiate the Utah track at blistering velocities, but he was more than happy to let the car shimmy and wiggle here and there, just for kicks.
This is where the fear kicks in. A skilled professional wants his car at the edge of its capabilities, mainly so he knows exactly where the edge is. I personally don’t want to visit that edge, for several reasons, not least because I’m not interested in being the guy who wrecks the $400,000 supercar.
Not that Utah was my first time. I’ve enjoyed my share of hot laps and piloted a wide range of cars around tracks. I’ve been shown how to do it by people who’ve driven for a living, and I’ve crossed the 100 m.p.h. divide on plenty of occasions. And maybe if I were 25 years younger, I’d be more aggressive. Colleagues and acquaintances aren’t strangers to pushing the limits, to “never lifting” their right feet from the accelerator.
When I feel the fear inside, I take it as a cue to back off. And the fear was easy to feel in the GT, which is a surgical instrument for carving up winding tarmac. The brakes are astounding, so slowing down from terrifyingly high speed is nothing. The dual-clutch transmission channels the power impeccably to the rear wheels and is swift to snick through the gears, up or down. The steering was telekinetic. And about the power: It struck me as inexhaustible.
With my first lap, I assessed the racing line, with my instructor riding shotgun — and intermittently reaching over to lend an assist with my steering. With this arrangement, I dived into corners, trying to hit the apex of the turn, balancing braking and clutchless gearshifts while preparing to get back on the throttle to roll aggressively into the straights, where I could put the hammer down and relish the GT’s preposterous speed.
The amateur’s chink in my driving talent, I’ve learned, is a tendency to get stuck in the present. Don’t dwell on the apex after you hit it — get your eyes ahead to the exit, your hands will steer the car to where you’re looking, to the next target. This makes me less fast by a country mile than a pro, but once I shake the habit and learn the line, I can usually rack up some consistent laps. “You aren’t slow,” I’m often told.
Each of my laps clocked in a bit north of two minutes, while some of the less fearful gents in my company that day could get around in 1:55 — and yet the pros were about 10 seconds faster, an eternity in racing terms. I was, as usual, satisfied with my consistency, but ultimately, the GT was sort of wasted on me. At Le Mans, the racecar could exceed 200 m.p.h. with regularity on the legendary 3.7-mile Mulsanne Straight. A better fit for my abilities would have been a racecar with half the horsepower. Nonetheless, the visceral thrills of such a beastly, beautiful automobile could not be overestimated. It’s one thing to know that zero to 60 m.p.h. in three seconds will press your heart against your spine, but it’s another thing to feel the compression in your chest.
Speed is the most modern of human creations; when we first developed fast cars in the early 20th century, the species broke decisively with its ancestors — the concept of speed was feebly derived from trains that topped out at 50 m.p.h.
That was a frightening pace if your frame of reference was a swift horse. But we’ve left it in the dust. When I pulled off my helmet at the end of the day in Utah, my immense respect for speed and the cars that can produce it in abundance hadn’t lessened. If anything, it increased. I’ve learned to live with my fear. In fact, in a racecar like the GT, I enjoy it. I just don’t embrace it quite like a pro.
About Michael Smeriglio Racing Corp.
The Michael Smeriglio Racing Corp., MSIII Racing, has won the Nascar Whelen Modified Tour Championship three years running. Along with his driver, Doug Coby and crew chief, Phil Moran they are creating a dynasty in short track racing on the east coast.