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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 2)

We switch seats again, and he shows me where I am making mistakes, where I'm a few feet off "the line," where I might consider braking earlier, where I ought to be shifting more quickly. "On a good turn, you're unwinding the steering wheel as you come out of the turn, not dialing in more," O'Connell says. "The sooner you can safely get back on the throttle, the faster you'll go." And that, of course, is what this business is all about.

On my second try in the 300ZX, I more or less hit the right marks, guiding the car more or less where I want it to go. O'Connell pronounces me ready for the Steve Millen-designed "Stillen."

With 465 available horsepower, this $67,000 GTZ is among the fastest production-based cars on the road. Outfitted with fat Yokohama racing tires and a down-thrusting tail fin that bisects the rear window, the Stillen grips the track like a plunger on linoleum. Despite the additional power and speed--reaching 120 mph is almost too easy in this rocket--I actually feel more comfortable than in the stock car. O'Connell says that's natural. "Everything about this car is designed for a racetrack. You wouldn't want to drive this thing as your everyday car, going to the grocery store. It's too wicked."

Indeed, when the turbos kick in, the Stillen sounds vaguely evil, belching out contralto snarls, as though it were an angry lion weary of being taunted by a chair and whip. To anyone who likes fast cars, the Stillen's mean-spirited growls are the automotive equivalent of a Beethoven symphony. It is a beautifully nasty machine.

"You ready for the race car?" O'Connell asks, posing what may be one of the most unnecessary questions ever uttered. I've been waiting for this moment for as long as I've known what a clutch is, from the time my dad let my brother and me sit on his lap and steer his cherry-red Mustang along the shores of Lake Michigan.

The crew gets me outfitted in an official Nissan fire suit and helmet, replacing my clunky sneakers with slim, lace-up racing boots. No matter how amateurishly I may drive the Z, at least I feel like a million bucks, which is only several hundred thousand more than it will take to replace the car if I total it.

O'Connell and Honsowetz, the Nissan Motorsports manager, sit me down for a final briefing, stressing the importance of handling the throttle gently. "This car will jump up and bite you if you're not careful," Honsowetz reminds me. "Have a good time. But be careful." So powerful is the engine in the Nissan IMSA Z, it will produce wheel spin in fourth gear, creating a frightening fishtail effect at over 100 mph. Having the nose settled when the turbos engage is imperative for the novice driver. To do otherwise guarantees an express ticket to spinout land.

Suitably awed by the Z, as though it were a loaded gun pointed at my temple, I clamber in through the "window," settling into a cocoonlike interior, which lacks a radio, cup holder or fuzzy dice. Dials and gauges and switches surround me, like the cockpit of a fighter jet. "The only gauge you need to worry about is the tach," O'Connell says, pointing to the instrument panel above where the steering wheel would be if there were a steering wheel. (At this point there isn't.) "This car likes to run at fairly high revs, but let's try to keep it under 7,500." O'Connell indicates the water and oil pressure gauges. "You probably won't have a chance to look down at these," he says seriously. "If they're overheating you'll probably know anyway."

The crew helps me get hooked into a five-point driver-restraint system that harnesses me to the seat like industrial glue. "You're going to thank me for this," one of the guys promises. Even before the motor is running, before the cockpit warms up to 125°F, I get a sense that the interior of a racing car is not a comfortable place. How guys like Millen and O'Connell endure two and three hours at a stretch straitjacketed into a rumbling sauna is inconceivable. So much for the glamour of being a professional racer.

The crew finally clicks the removable, Frisbee-sized steering wheel into place. My helmet is securely fastened to my head. My body is fastened to the car. The car is fastened to the street by gargantuan, spongy cakes of rubber.

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