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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

Everybody dreams of spending his fortune differently. Some people fantasize about building collections of art or wine or miniature soldiers. Some plan to acquire acres of land on which to roam undisturbed. Some dream of traveling far and well. And some of us dream of having toys. Airplanes or yachts or Harleys. And cars. Fast cars. Absurdly fast cars. Cars that can get you in serious trouble.

I have often pledged to my wife that when I am a wealthy man I will own a race car. We'll take it to a different track each weekend, where I'll drive at speeds that in our family car would inspire stern lectures. If I feel like going 120 mph, no highway patrolman or wife or inadequate engine can stop me. Mine, I pledge, will be one hell of a midlife crisis.

You can understand then why I nearly cried tears of joy when the people at Nissan Motorsports offered me a chance to drive their factory race car--the one shown on ESPN every other week or so; the one that costs about $350,000; the one nobody but professional racers get to drive.

In honor of the 25th anniversary of the Z, one of the world's classic sports cars, Nissan was willing to make an exception.

When I first see the car in person, at Road Atlanta Racetrack in Braselton, Georgia, it is naked, with its engine and gears exposed, stripped of artifice. The #75 body and aerodynamic wings are strewn about the ground, like afterthoughts. In preparation for the Grand Prix of Atlanta, held at Road Atlanta in April, mechanics fiddle with the important parts--the valves and hoses, the innards of the monster. With neither a steering wheel nor tires, the Nissan Z racing car looks like a tamed beast, a defanged tiger.

When the techies fire up the motor, though, the thing roars, the way only a 700-plus horsepower engine can, sending an insanely thrilling rumble through your ears, chest and belly. It shoots a pleasing tingle through your core.

While the crew does last-minute tinkering, I meet team Nissan driver Johnny O'Connell, 33, a redheaded, boyish speed demon who seems tickled to be allowed to drive this preposterously powerful machine. Moments before putting his life on the line, taking Road Atlanta's nefarious corners at up to 170 mph, O'Connell does not meditate. He doesn't pray. He doesn't sit alone in a corner, sulking intensely. All he wants to do is talk about the fun of driving a race car.

"This is a great car," O'Connell declares, motioning toward the V8-powered Z. "But last year's twin turbo..." He smiles widely and shakes his head. "Unbelievable."

Primarily because of the world of auto sports politics, the International Motor Sports Association made Nissan's twin turbo illegal for the 1995 campaign, in an attempt to level the playing field in the GTS-1 class by reducing the allowable horsepower. Still, Nissan Motorsports takes its racing seriously, relentlessly searching for ways to make its cars go just a little bit faster than everybody else's. There's more than just a love of speed involved in this quest: Successful race cars mean increased sales. And fierce drivers like O'Connell and his teammate, Steve Millen, the winningest driver in GTS history, always threaten to take the checkered flag.

For race weekend in Atlanta, my "getting around" car is a '95 300ZX twin-turbo SMZ, a $60,000 leather interior, designer version of the showroom Z, with dual chrome pipes, a big spoiler wing and a stylish T-top. Commuting to and from the track, I take perverse pleasure in revving up the turbos at red lights, blowing away teenage motorheads driving what they previously believed to be muscle cars. (OK, I admit it. I'm having my midlife crisis a little early.)

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