High Speed Dreams

Cigar Aficionado's Contributing Editor Drives One of the World's Hottest Race Cars--and Survives
| By Michael Konik | From 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.)

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.

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.

We're ready to race.

Honsowetz instructs me to flip the ignition switch. A light goes on. Nothing happens.

He tells me to push a little button labeled "starter." Neither watching auto racing on television, nor even witnessing the spectacle in person, can prepare you for the roar that you hear inside a race car when the engine comes to life.

It is loud. Gloriously loud.

With crew members pushing the car from the rear, I move the thumb-sized shifter knob into first gear and slowly squeeze the accelerator while delicately letting out the clutch. (In a recurring nightmare, I am unable to get the car out of the pits, alternately stalling the engine and lurching forward like a coughing jalopy.) Mercifully, the car pulls away smoothly, like a colt on new legs. Following O'Connell's guidance, I "scrub" the tires a few times, quickly turning them right and left to build heat. Running down a mental checklist, worried that I may have forgotten something--lights? parking brake?--I realize it is now too late. The first turn is staring me in the face.

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."