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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 4)

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.

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