Jeffrey A. Meyers treats us to a day at the Monticello Motor Club…
Flashback: twenty-seven years ago, my nineteen year old eyes welled with tears of joy as I tore open the envelope from the Skip Barber Racing School at Lime Rock Park. I poured over the one page letter that read something like this:
You are to report to Lime Rock Park on Saturday, September 28, 1987 for a full day course including instruction on the race track. You should arrive at 8:00 am for a briefing. Please bring this letter with you as proof of payment in full . . .
I stared at the letter in disbelief and asked myself “How did this happen?” My mind raced as I searched for answers. My parents!! Of course! My incessant whining about going to a driving school finally paid off. I ran upstairs to thank them . . . but they hadn’t a clue what I was talking about. The wheels in my head spun as I tried to figure who my racing benefactor had been. I struggled with names, none of which I believed actually could afford the cost of this class. The weight of this puzzle began to feel heavy.
Now this was the moment, with 20/20 hindsight, that I should have just taken the letter with me the day of the class and fulfilled my fantasy. Alas, I didn’t. I was afraid of traveling the 2 ½ hours to the track only to be turned away. So, I called. My fear was realized when the woman on the phone revealed that all of this was a mistake. I was on their mailing list, it seemed, and they pulled the wrong name. No apology, no offer of condolences, or, gasp, a free course anyway. Nothing.
I could still feel that Skip Barber letter in my hands 27 years later when I received another letter just a few weeks ago, this time from Chevrolet. It was an invitation to attend the Stingray Precision Drive event at the Monticello Motor Club. On the track. With instruction. With food. For free. It seems that karma has come back around, Corvette Karma.
Ninety seconds later, I was signed up online. It all seemed too good to be true, but confirmation emails and reminder emails gave me a pinch and assured me I was not dreaming. My friends were like “What the F%$#!?? I just grinned ear to ear. “Karma, my friends, karma.” How did I get so lucky? I am still not sure. In today’s tech world, the electronic universe probably tracked the fact that I have a 2000 Porsche Boxster. Perhaps unbeknownst to the electronic Gods I purchased that car used in 2008, the only way I could afford it was after the original owner ate more than 50% in depreciation. Could it be that the marketing gurus tracked that I have a law degree? If so, they likely missed that I am a New York State employee not earning the big bucks of New York City lawyers. I prefer to believe it was just that tidal wave of karma that couldn’t be held back. It really doesn’t matter. I was so happy I could pee myself.
Speaking of which, at the gate at Monticello, I am now holding in my power drink and green tea after my two hour drive. I am waiting amongst Ferraris, Bentleys, BMWs, Jaguars, other Porsches, and of course, some Corvettes to get inside for our afternoon session. I could hear the roar of the 2014 Stingray’s enormous 6.3 liter 460 hp V8 going around the track at the end of the morning session. It is a perfect day. Sounds trite, but really, it is perfect. Blue sky, 65 degrees, fall colors on the trees, drying leaves rustling. Top down, the sun warms my head. One of those days that reminds you the northeast is a great place to live.
Just as I start scanning for a discreet shrub, we roll. We funnel down into a single line, jostling for position as Type As are wont to do. The anticipation is palpable. We all just can’t wait. The Corvette crew awaits us with smiles as we register and work our way into the lounge area for introductions and food. We are given white, red, or black rubbery wrist bands and separated by color. We learn about the new Corvette in a briefing and are told about the three “modules” that will make up our day. Some classroom, some driving, rinse, and repeat. Snacks in between. Sweet.
My module starts with the “Precision” course, a short clockwise loop with several right hand turns of varying complexity and a few nice straight portions. We are encouraged to pick third gear for the manuals, which I greedily requested because I consider myself a “true” enthusiast, even though the fastest cars on earth these days are sophisticated automatics. Our leader suggests we stay in third saying the big V8 has enough grunt to pull out of the turns. We can downshift into second if we want, but no need.
We do an orientation lap first, with the lead Chevrolet driver talking to us through his headset and broadcast on our stereo systems. He tells us where to look, where the turn-in points are, where to brake. Then he amps it up for the second lap. The car is firmly planted, the tires feel like velcro against the pavement. Turn-in is crisp and precise. As I downshift (I know, I don’t have to, but I can’t resist), I don’t have to “heel and toe” to match the engine revs as the car does this automatically. When I grab second – the exhaust growls like the car is pissed. I am giggling like a school girl.
I am third in line, in front of me is Yuki, a fellow I chatted up while waiting in line. Nice guy, but Yuki is a bit overwhelmed by the track. I can completely understand this – on a track you get to use the entire width of the pavement, there is no center line to guide you; it’s visually intimidating. Nevertheless, I am respectfully glued a car length back from Yuki’s rear bumper as the lead driver eggs Yuki on to close the gap that is enlarging between them. “Come on car two, close up the space!” I am still giggling, tossing the Stingray into the turns with wild abandon, egging it on to slide . . . or push . . . or something. It won’t – and it is not because I am such a wonderful driver. This is a hero car; it turns mere mortals into racer wannabes who can really race. I start wondering how I can get me one of these and do track days with it on the weekends. I start calculating payments, the costs of tires, brakes, track memberships. The g-forces in the turns and the way the Vette slams me back into the seat is like crystal meth – addictive at its very core, making its user do anything possible to feel that rush again and again. Lap three, lap four, MORE. . . but then the session is over. Thankfully we have two hits of meth “modules” left. I check my teeth in the mirror to see if they have gone dark and crackly.
Then we are shuttled back to the home base and half of us pile into waiting Chevy Suburbans so we can go to the second module, the “Track” portion. I feel like a snitch for the DEA, going to meet my handler as I duck into the third row of the big black ‘Burban, the tinted windows ensuring the street punks and dealers don’t know I am out to get them. Monticello is a configurable track, something the Chevrolet crew worked artfully to ensure that we had minimal downtime between sessions. It is big enough to contain the 2.5 mile loop for the Track Module while running the Precision and Skills modules simultaneously for other attendees.
Half of our crew heads on track, while my group heads into the waiting trailer to meet with Adam Andretti for some coaching. Yes, that Andretti family. Adam enthusiastically talks about increasing radius turns, decreasing radius turns, the best way to brake (in a straight line prior to turn-in), the power of being smooth, setting up the suspension by deft inputs to throttle and steering. He further enlightens us with the engineering achievements of the new Corvette including the massive Brembo brakes that he points out are 13” in diameter, the same diameter of many economy car wheels only 25 years ago. “Have confidence in the brakes, run these cars – abuse them – that’s why we are here!! Use our gas, tires and brake pads while you can!” My hands started to shake toward the end of the classroom session; I needed another bump.
I beg the organizers to be placed behind the lead driver, this time the 1985 Indianapolis 500 pole sitter Pancho Carter in a silver Camaro SS. I am in a manual Stingray again, purely by luck due to it’s placement behind Pancho – I am not complaining. Pancho guides us around an orientation lap as we had done before, but this orientation lap disorients me with g-forces. Pancho is running 2/10ths, I’m running 6. This is going to be interesting. Poor Yuki is with us too – this time in the fourth/last position. Lap 2, I am starting to hoot inside my helmet with glee as I struggle to keep Panchos 5/10ths pace – I’m at 9. “Car four, come on and keep up!” I hear Pancho bark over the audio system. I see Yuki pull into pit lane at the end of lap two and start to worry – not so much for Yuki, I must humbly admit, but for myself. Pancho dials it up to 6/10ths . . . I am at 11.
The big Vette refuses to become unwound even under my unartful turn-ins, ham footed throttle and brake inputs – I’m “braking bad” here – seriously. Aware there is a heads-up display within my line of sight, I still see right through it other than the tach as Pancho pulls away on the straight. I refuse to let Pancho bark at me. I try to look far ahead for the entrance cone and apex markers. The blood inside my head is pushed to the right, then left, then right again through the corkscrew portion. I run over the striped curbing waiting for traction to let go. The sticky Michelin Pilot Supersport ZPs, made specifically for this car, refuse to give. On one lap I am so determined to stick with Pancho, I forget to downshift through that corkscrew – I lumber through it in fourth – the motor doesn’t care, but I do and grab third after the last transition and am thrust back into the newly designed seats. From what I have read, these are vastly improved over the old – all I know is that I am planted in them while being coddled at the same time. I like. At one point, I am convinced my blunt force inputs are going to pitch me off the course and onto the grass – I brake lightly while the wheel is turned. My stomach turns, but the car is un-phased – had this been my electronic nanny-free Porsche Boxster, assuming I could have accelerated that hard to get up that much speed, I am fairly sure I would have been spinning.
At the end of the session, I am chatting with the others as we wait and I am asked how fast I hit on the straight. Pancho says he kept his Camaro in third which redlines at 110 mph on the straight. I realize I never looked. I was so focused on Pancho, the race line, the fact that I was off of the race line, shifting, forgetting to shift; bummer. Good thing there were not only one but two in car cameras – one pointing at me, the other pointing through the windshield. The video records images of me, my view of the track, and contains data including gear position, speed, engine speed, track position, and more. I can’t wait to see it. I can’t wait to share it. I can’t wait to see how fast I actually went down that straight – I know I was deep into the rev range of fourth gear at one point and redline in fourth is a whopping 143 mph. Hey – who knows, I may have even hit . . . 115!!
At the end of the session, we shuttle the Corvettes back to the club house. I drive an automatic for the short jaunt. It shifts beautifully – better than I do, of course. At this point, we have some down time before the next session. Conde Nast magazines partnered with Chevrolet for this event and I got to wander around and grab swag from Wired, Golf Digest, GQ, Bon Appetit and Architectural Digest. Golf Digest has this really cool configurable putting green and free Adidas hats. Wired has an awesome prototype of a virtual goggle that took us outside the 80th floor of the freedom tower. Bon Appetit helped bring fantastic food (even for us vegetarians) and Nespresso coffee – yum. I waddled back to my car with my arms full of magazines, hats, golf balls, and other goodies. Gotta get while the getting’s good!!
The third and final module is the “Skills” portion and contains a small loop with two cone weaves set up. I anticipated that this would be a bit anti-climactic after the second session, but I was wrong. We were instructed to start out in “Eco” mode which not only adjusts the engine management settings (allowing the car to obtain a stellar 29 mpg on the highway) but also the magnetic suspension settings. After the briefing, I GP sprint to the car just behind the lead driver (I know, I am a pig). We tool through the weave at a decent pace and I am greeted with a cushy ride, yet still capable of aggressive turns. The second lap, we toggle the mode to “Touring” and repeat. A bit firmer through the cone weaves, still nice power delivery and cornering prowess. Lap three, we toggle to “Sport” and start to have real fun again. The fourth and what was scheduled to be the final lap, we toggle to “Track” mode and hammer down. I am grinning again, ear to ear, laughing maniacally in my Arai Edwards replica helmet. We stop at the end of the fourth lap and I am ready for my experience to end . . . when I hear “Bonus Lap” over the car stereo. Awesome!! We go again. When we stop, I hear “Bonus Lap” again! Oh, these guys are good! Just a little taste, make sure they are addicted, then re-light the glass pipe. I’m gonna need rehab and some serious dental work.
We tool into the parking area and head into the last classroom session and de-brief. It’s been almost 5 hours since the Precision Drive experience began. It seemed like 30 minutes. I wish my work day would pass this fast, but I guess that’s why they call it work. As a group, we give our hearty thanks to the Corvette crew and applaud loudly. We were told that we were the first 300 consumers to drive the new Corvette Stingray – I feel like one of the elitist of the elite. We have all had one hell of a fun day, one I will never forget.
When I was a teen, my best friend who is three years older bought a 1968 Corvette with a 327/350hp motor and lovingly restored it. Perhaps as payment for my efforts assisting him, he let me drive it, often. It was an animal, a brute, highly capable, visceral. The next model year, the Stingray came out. That name has been absent in the Corvette line since 1977. It’s back, and in my opinion, this new car is worthy of that namesake. The car is an animal, powerful, it is visceral, but it is at the same time luxurious in a way that the old cars just can’t muster. I tip my hat to the Corvette crew and send my hearty thanks for being invited. Now if I could just figure out how I can get karma to let me to do all of this again . . .