I’ll be writing a couple of stories this week over at TTAC about the Rolex 24, which is a terrible thing to watch on television, but a glorious event to experience personally. As an invited guest of one of the participating manufacturers, the level of access I had was bonkers, yes, but even for the man on the street who buys his ticket from the window, it’s one of the rare opportunities to walk through the garages, go stand next to million dollar cars on pit lane, even shake the hands of the drivers.
I got a voicemail from Acura PR a few weeks before the event, asking me if I wanted to attend the race as their guest. As I was listening to the first few seconds of the voicemail, my brain was thinking “No.” I’m not prone to accepting junkets from OEMs, and I often mock those who do. These sorts of things are normally pretty awful—you’re led around in a group by a PR person, they feed you constantly, give you presents, and send you home. Most of the “press” in attendance never even write about the experience. It’s borderline bribery, and it all makes me feel a little uncomfortable.
And then, I heard these words. “There will be a lead/follow session on track in the NSX, with Juan Pablo Montoya leading.”
I damn near dropped my phone. Yes, of course I’ll go. I’d parachute in just for that. But there’s a truth about lead/follows at press events that nobody ever tells you.
At most performance-oriented car launches, there is some lead/follow component. There’s a pro driver up front, normally a lower-level sports car racer or maybe a Conti series driver who’s affiliated with the brand, and he drives the car at about 60-70% of pace. Then you have somebody from the OEM or another driving coach sitting in your passenger seat, and they tell you exactly how to drive the car and yell at you if you stray from that direction at all. The tires never squeal, the brakes never lock up or go into ABS, because the journalists are driving very, very slowly in comparison to what the car is actually capable of doing.
Why? Because legal departments say so. I know of one OEM PR team that had to go through a six-month battle with their legal team for a drive event. The lawyers insisted that before any journalist could drive the car, they had to go through a full “chalk talk” with driving instructors, they had to cap the speed for the drivers leading the sessions, and they could only take it to one of a few approved circuits where there were no walls to hit.
Of course, the writers don’t tell you that. They talk about how they tested the car to its limits, and they talk about driving dynamics, and “understeer at the limit” and all this nonsense when, in reality, any capable racing driver with a Toyota Camry SE could post a better lap time on the same circuit than they just posted in a 500 HP supercar. Long and short of it is that it’s nearly impossible to determine the actual capabilities of a performance car at these things.
But I had a sneaking suspicion that Acura might be a little different. After all, they let me drive their GT3 car unaccompanied at Gingerman raceway last summer—but that was a restricted event for only 5 drivers, all of whom (including me) had significant wheel-to-wheel racing experience. The list of writers that Acura invited to this event included some people who I don’t think have ever taken a lap in anger, and this wasn’t Gingerman, which has exactly one corner where you can hit something—this was Daytona, a banked oval speedway. People could literally die. Dale Earnhardt did die there.
So when the 30-minute track session on Friday night finally arrived, I wasn’t sure what to expect. We were told that we’d get about three laps of the road course. Not only was JPM there, but his teammates, Simon Pagenaud and Dane Cameron, were also there to do some of the sessions. Each group consisted of one lead car and three followers, all in road car versions of Acura’s wonderful supercar. But I had asked Acura to ensure that I was right behind JPM in the first group of drivers, and as such I found myself seated in a red NSX on pit lane, nervous as fuck as I watched Montoya put on his iconic Colombian flag-colored helmet and get into the blue NSX in front of me.
I figured that he’d been given explicit instruction to keep speeds reasonable, and to make sure the journalists were in close proximity. Behind me in the third car was Kim Wolfkill from R&T, who has a few actual starts in the Rolex 24 under his belt. I didn’t know who was in the fourth and final car. As the sun went down, I figured that it would be cool to have this experience, to drive on track at Daytona under the lights, even if it was just a 50% parade lap.
And then JPM squealed the tires and took off like a bat out of hell. Holy shit, here we go.
There was no 50%. There was no sighting lap. There was only Montoya, driving like it was the last lap of the Rolex 24 and he was going for the win. And it was my job to keep up, despite having never seen the track and also, you know, not being Juan Pablo Montoya.
I damn near looped the car in the first turn out of pit lane, because there was absolutely no heat in the tires and I had (foolishly) put the car into “track” mode before heading out. JPM rocketed down the straight in front of me, so I collected the car and tried to catch up, trying to remember the line I had seen my friend Jesse Lazare take in his McLaren earlier that day in the Continental Tire race.
And then we hit the banking. Holy mother of God. I was terrified about the grip level (or lack thereof) that I was experiencing in the infield, and I realized that I had never tried to collect a loose car on banking before. What would I do if the car started oversteering coming out of NASCAR Turn 2? I had no idea. So I kept speeds at a reasonable 120 or so, which was still faster than I felt like I wanted to go at that point. But I had Wolfkill in my mirrors and JPM disappearing in front of me. So I went faster.
As I came out of the bus stop going into NASCAR Turn 3, I saw JPM going flat around 3 and entering 4 completely flat. Foolishly, I thought to myself, “Well, if he can do it, so can I.” I’ve never been so white-knuckled in my life. As I passed the Start/Finish, I saw 167 MPH on the speedometer.
Entering the infield again, I searched for the entrance to Turn 1, which came faster than expected. I went far too deep, and had to engage ABS to make the turn. The Continentals had, thankfully, come to life a bit, and I was able to stick a little closer to Montoya this time through the road course. I had to remind myself to keep my eyes up and focused on my line, because seeing JPM flick the car through the turns, inducing oversteer and then catching it on exit, was mesmerizing. There was no way for me to keep pace, not with my skillset, but he hit the brakes enough to allow me to catch up every now and then.
The following lap and a half went by in a blur. I knew that the car would stick on the banking now, so I was completely flat, approaching nearly 170 before slamming on the brakes for the bus stop. Montoya used all the curbing on the exit, so I followed him across. Aha. That’s how he was getting so much speed for NASCAR 3 and 4.
Unfortunately, the session was over far too soon. Wolfkill had stuck with us for the whole session—with his prior experience, he probably wanted to go faster but my lines weren’t as good as they needed to be to get maximum exit speed. The third driver, however, had decided he wanted no part of it and backed off completely.
Montoya’s reaction to the NSX was epic.
I was shaking a bit when I got out of the car—not of out fear, but out of exhilaration. JPM was raving about the car, talking about how great the brakes were, how neutral it was.
Then he saw me.
“Man, you were so slow!” he laughed. “I know you weren’t flat in the banking.”
“Not on the first lap!” I replied.
Pagenaud and Cameron followed with flat-out sessions of their own, determined to outdo each other. During the fourth and final session, with Cameron leading, there was an open seat in the last car, so I jumped in again. I flashed the car in front of me in the banking on NASCAR Turn 1 and passed underneath, which is a total no-no in lead/follow sessions, but in this one? Hell, it seemed like anything was okay. This time, the tires were warm and my confidence was high, leading to speeds of almost 180 MPH this time entering the bus stop.
Again, for those who don’t know, I can’t state enough how fucking crazy that is. Many of the cars in the race weren’t going that fast. Nobody but Wolfkill and me were approaching those sorts of speeds, because most of the 10 or so writers in attendance weren’t comfortable doing it, but what if somebody had outdriven their comfort zone or their talent? What would have happened if somebody had hit the wall? These were street cars, not caged race cars. They are not designed to hit a SAFER barrier at over 150 MPH.
As such, I don’t expect that anything like this will ever happen again. It probably shouldn’t happen.
But, good God, I’m so glad it did.