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High Speed Dreams

Cigar Aficionado's Contributing Editor Drives One of the World's Hottest Race Cars--and Survives

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I throw the shifter to second, where it engages with a pronounced crunch. Lacking the synchronizer (a device that allows the easy selection of gears) of a normal street car, the Nissan IMSA Z does not shift smoothly. In fact, O'Connell says he often shifts without using the clutch. On my first change of gears I can feel a weighty transfer of metal, eerily akin to prison doors slamming shut.
Coming out of the first turn, a sharp right-hander, I give the car its first taste of octane. For a fraction of a second, it accelerates demonically, like Porsches I've been in, wildly fast, but nothing beyond physical comprehension. Then the turbos kick in.
The car leaps up the track, as though it were momentarily airborne. I can hear myself yell "Holy shit!" as the back end searches for traction, propelling me into what seems like another dimension of time. One blink and I'm 100 yards down the track.
The whole experience takes about a second.
Approaching the third turn the car is screaming for third gear. I comply, and the transmission heaves heavily. One more inch of throttle equals a violent burst of turbo-charging, bringing the car up to speeds I don't want to know about.
The fourth turn, a carousel-like downhill left-hander, is the first serious test of the Z's brakes. I press firmly but steadily, careful not to light up the tires with an imprudent lockup of the wheels. The brakes squeal inelegantly, noisily. But they work better than any I've ever stepped on, slowing the car from a blur to a crawl in a breath. The G-force, which the Nissan people estimate at two, is so severe as to be painful. Even with the lung-crushing harness pressing me into the driver's seat, my head still bangs around the cockpit as the car decelerates, jumbling my vital organs like so many eggs in a blender.
Stepping back on the gas, I'm cautious about standing on the pedal, flooring it as I might in a street car. The next section of the track, a sweeping half-circle to the right, is prime wipeout territory for the disrespectful driver. Knowing the ridiculous power of the Z's turbos, I have plenty of respect. Even so, the back end whips around as I roar uphill in a straight line, finding fourth gear for the first time.
Following a short left-handed turn, the fastest part of the Willow Springs circuit looms ahead, a gentle downhill curve leading into a decent-sized straightaway past the pits. O'Connell says this section ought to be taken flat out, in fifth, at maximum revs. Hearing the engine's vicious howls as the turbos blast to full pressure, I forgo the ultimate gear and settle into a leisurely coast at around a buck and change. For about two seconds I can relax.
On subsequent laps I accelerate faster, brake harder and turn sharper, leaving less margin for error. My lap times improve incrementally, and my understanding of the car's capabilities grows with each turn. Not once do I feel as if the Z is getting away from me, about to hurtle off the track into a fiery crash. But not for a second do I feel comfortable, either. The speed is too much, the force on your body is too brutal. The stakes are too high. Nothing about the experience is what I would call "fun." Fun is never this intense. Even when I finally get the car into fifth gear, employing all the horses at maximum revs, traveling I don't know how many miles per hour, driving a machine such as the Nissan Z does not leave me suffused with joy.
I am a wreck.
Sure, I've kept the car on the track, never once going sideways or endangering the lives of innocent bystanders. And thanks to O'Connell's superb training tips, I've managed to drive the Nissan Z at what the crew members call "the upper end of the amateur talent range." But really, as I slither out of the car after less than 15 minutes of driving, I'm a complete wreck. I feel seasick, bruised, short of breath, as though I've just gone 10 rounds with a professional boxer who has no regard for dilettante journalists.
"That was amazing," I tell O'Connell as I slump against the car. "But I just discovered something really important."
"What's that?" he asks.
"I no longer want to be a race car driver."
Driving home to Los Angeles at the interstate speed limit, a laughably slow pace not worthy of the Nissan Z's second gear, I daydream of the race car's roar, its smell, its incomprehensible acceleration. I relive each turn, each moan of the brakes, every gut-wrenching downshift. And I realize collecting miniature soldiers perhaps wouldn't be so bad after all.
Michael Konik is a contributing editor of Cigar Aficionado.
High-Speed Actor
While at the Grand Prix of Atlanta, studying the techniques of Nissan drivers Steve Millen and Johnny O'Connell, I ran into an aspiring racer better known for his off-track occupation: Craig T. Nelson, star of the hit ABC sitcom Coach, now in its eighth season.
When not portraying football coach Hayden Fox, Nelson, owner-driver of the Screaming Eagles racing team, spends 13 weekends a year driving a 550-plus horsepower Lexus-powered World Sports Car and a 610-horsepower Oldsmobile-Spice World Sports Car, the International Motor Sports Association's fastest class. "I was sheerly a fan until I had the time and money," he says. "I needed something more physical, more active than golf. More difficult. I guess it was sort of a midlife crisis."
Nelson discovered his obsession with speed during a pro-celebrity race in 1991. Since then he's worked steadily up the miles-per-hour ladder, graduating to 190-and-above territory. "Mastering a race car is a slow learning curve," Nelson says. "Sort of like acting school."
Dilettante to dilettante, I asked Nelson if he ever feels like he ought to be back in a television studio, leaving the rubber-burning to the professionals. Does this racing business ever frighten him? "The fear scares the crap out of you," he says, laughing. "Everybody feels it. Everybody sometimes thinks, 'I can't do it.' When the fear becomes paralytic, that's when you're in trouble. All you can do is get seat time, watch others do it better and gird yourself for the next level, for the next brick wall."
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