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High Speed Dreams

Cigar Aficionado's Contributing Editor Drives One of the World's Hottest Race Cars--and Survives
Michael Konik
From the Print Edition:
Tom Selleck, Winter 95/96

(continued from page 1)

Tooling around in the SMZ, accelerating from zero to 120 mph in about as much time as it takes to get our family Volkswagen into second gear, I feel enormously cool, as though I--and my finely tooled machine--could handle any conceivable automotive challenge. But that's before the Grand Prix at Road Atlanta starts. Watching Millen race the Z, passing two Oldsmobiles in the first lap to take the lead, it is hard to imagine I'll soon be driving the same car at even half the speed. How, I wonder, can Millen possibly go so fast? How do the tires stay adhered to the pavement? How do the brakes handle such powerful momentum?

Am I insane?

My confidence is further shaken when, a few minutes into the race, one of the worst crashes in IMSA history occurs, a devastating T-bone job that sends steel and rubber flying a few hundred yards from the pits. Although not a Nissan car, the Nissan crew is visibly shaken. Millen, though, seems remarkably placid. "Not the greatest way to see your first IMSA race," he jokes, sitting in the pit lane, waiting for the restart. "These things happen," he says with a shrug.

Shortly after I shake Millen's hand, wishing him good luck on the rest of his race, he touches fenders with a Ferrari and crashes in the back straight, breaking his neck and skull. (Millen is now in rehabilitation and hopes to be racing by the end of the year.)

"Guess what," my wife tells me. "You're never driving a race car again."

After some tense negotiations in which the test-ride venue is moved from the heavily walled raceway to a more forgiving desert track in Rosamond, California--a 1.2-mile circuit, bereft of concrete walls, called the Streets of Willow Springs International Raceway--I receive spousal clearance to drive the fastest car I will likely ever experience, short of becoming pals with Roger Penske.

The car I am going to drive is the IMSA-raced 1993 Nissan 300 ZX Turbo, the "unbelievable" one Johnny O'Connell could not stop talking about. Not only does it produce over 700 ponies, but it spits out more than 600 foot-pounds of torque, close to double what the 1995 V8 can muster. This missilelike acceleration capability comes mostly from the now-illegal turbos, which give a momentary boost that is akin to being kicked in the butt by a rocket launcher. Knowing that a novice driver could easily be overwhelmed by such a motor, the manager of Nissan Motorsports, Frank Honsowetz, has arranged for O'Connell to take me through a series of educational training sessions, starting with slower, more manageable cars and working up to the one with insurance premiums the size of my house.

O'Connell takes me for a track walk around the Willow Springs course, pointing out the ideal spots for braking, downshifting and accelerating. He reads the track like an old salt scanning the sea. Scuffing the pavement with his sneakers, O'Connell tests varying levels of grip, discovering several "trouble spots" that may require extra caution. "You're definitely going to want to keep all the tires on the road here," he says, surveying a tight, 90-degree left-hander. "It's real easy to end up backwards in this car."

To "learn" the track, O'Connell and I begin the day in a stock 300-horsepower twin-turbo 300ZX, the kind you can buy off a showroom floor. My brother, also an aficionado of fast machines, describes this car as "sick." For him, that's a big compliment. With a professional racer at the wheel, the 300ZX handles flawlessly, biting off large chunks of corner without ever feeling "squirrelly," or loose in the back end. Riding in the passenger seat with O'Connell at the wheel is like being on a roller coaster: You feel as though you're about to be hurled off the track at every turn, but somehow you stay on, traveling at the limits of physics, where momentum, gravity and adhesion reach their climax. On the short straights he has the car doing well over 100 mph.

With a dilettante racer at the wheel, driving perhaps a mite more aggressively than his wife would like, the car can become nasty, sliding through turns on smoking tires emitting shrieks of dismay. When the turbos kick in, shortly after depressing the accelerator, the car gets sideways in a hurry if you don't have it pointed in the right direction. "Glad to see this thing comes with dual airbags," O'Connell jokes at the end of my test run, peeling his white knuckles from the door handle.

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