The As­phalt Jun­gle

Automobile - - Contents - By Arthur St. An­toine

Know­ing when to go fast is just as im­por­tant as know­ing how— per­haps even more so.

“MY AUNT DRIVES faster than you—and she doesn’t drive.” An old friend was vis­it­ing from out of town, and by sheer luck I hap­pened to be pi­lot­ing a brand-new Fer­rari 488 Spi­der for a few days (tim­ing that did won­ders for main­tain­ing my “I live like this all the time” ruse). Yet my pal wasn’t com­pletely jok­ing; I even de­tected gen­uine ir­ri­ta­tion in his voice. “That Bim­mer just blew past us and made the stop­light while you were slog­ging along in sec­ond gear.” He looked over at the dash­board in front of me. “Dude! You’re barely break­ing the speed limit!”

I could only sigh. We were am­bling along L.A.’s Wil­shire Boulevard on our way to Mal­ibu, and yet again I was dis­pelling a myth as old as my ca­reer: namely, that I, as some­one who test-drives cars for a liv­ing, am al­ways wheel­ing on the ragged edge, tach nee­dle blast­ing through the red­line, tires on fire, fish­tail­ing from ev­ery stop­light and side­ways on ev­ery high­way en­trance ramp. But then, a leisurely 45-minute cruise later, we found our­selves at the foot of one of my fa­vorite moun­tain roads, a wrig­gling climb boast­ing turn af­ter turn, great sight lines, and only the oc­ca­sional glimpse of other ve­hi­cles. I gave the Fer­rari the spurs.

For al­most 30 sec­onds, my friend was silent. Then: “Stop! We’re gonna jump the cliff!”

“We’re not go­ing fast at all,” I soothed as the 488 knifed through an­other bend, the V-8 howl­ing through the open cock­pit. “The tires aren’t even sing­ing and—”

“Stop this car right now or I’ll tell ev­ery­one the New Or­leans story!” I pulled over into a turnout and looked over at the pas­sen­ger seat as I raised an eye­brow. “I thought you were dis­pleased with my aunt­like pace?” My buddy, now green-faced, shook his head, frowned, and gave me the fin­ger.

Fast, you see, is a rel­a­tive thing. For most of the driv­ing pub­lic, “fast” means flat­ten­ing the gas pedal on a city street or zigzag­ging through high­way traf­fic. Both are the hall­marks of an ama­teur. Let’s face it: If you dropped a pot­ted cactus on the gas pedal, you could make a Fer­rari ac­cel­er­ate at max speed. Zero skill is re­quired. (Of­ten, there’s even less than that on dis­play. Search “su­per­car fails” on YouTube. Pot­ted cacti would’ve per­formed bet­ter.)

My point is this: The no­tion of driv­ing an au­to­mo­bile fast on a pub­lic road is lu­di­crous. It can­not be done. Pe­riod. If you’re well trained and pru­dent and on the right open rib­bon of as­phalt, at best you can drive an au­to­mo­bile briskly—com­pletely in con­trol and with lots of mar­gin in hand (which is still more than the 90 per­cent—my friend in­cluded—have ever ex­pe­ri­enced). But ac­tu­ally at­tempt­ing to drive fast on the street … that’s not a tes­ta­ment to skill. That’s a yel­low flag sig­ni­fy­ing a “driver” with some­thing to prove.

I’ve been ex­tremely for­tu­nate in my ca­reer to have ben­e­fited from the wis­dom and in­sights of some of the world’s best driv­ers—among them, three-time world champ Jackie Ste­wart, Tran­sAm champ Dorsey Schroeder, and, at the Elf Win­field school in France, Si­mon de Lau­tour, the man who had pre­vi­ously taught fu­ture four­time F1 cham­pion Alain Prost how to drive a race car. One les­son I learned from ev­ery one of them: There’s a Grand Canyon-wide gulf be­tween driv­ing on a track and driv­ing on the street. Ste­wart is renowned for his calm pace and im­pec­ca­ble, “ul­ti­mate chauf­feur” pol­ish on pub­lic roads. Once, af­ter par­tic­i­pat­ing in a race at Road Amer­ica in Wis­con­sin, on the high­way I came up be­hind Schroeder (who’d been my coach that week­end). As I slowly rolled by, there he was: fin­ger­tips lightly graz­ing the wheel, eyes up and look­ing far down the road, cruise con­trol prob­a­bly set right on 55 mph—the very pic­ture of a con­sum­mate driver with noth­ing to prove to any­one.

LET’S FACE IT: IF YOU DROPPED A POT­TED CACTUS ON

THE GAS PEDAL,

YOU COULD MAKE A FER­RARI AC­CEL­ER­ATE AT MAX SPEED. ZERO

SKILL IS RE­QUIRED.

Yet even on a race­track, as I’ve learned in 30-some years in the busi­ness, there are de­grees of fast to con­sider. Many times in my ca­reer I’ve found my­self on a cir­cuit at the wheel of a high-pow­ered sports car or a price­less pro­to­type, and al­ways the co­nun­drum arises: How fast do I push this thing to learn what I need to learn (and do the car’s en­gi­neers jus­tice) but bring the ma­chine and my­self home in one piece? How slow is fast enough?

Re­cently, I flew to the Sil­ver­stone Cir­cuit in Eng­land to test a pro­to­type of the com­ing McLaren Senna su­per­car—a 789-hp, 2,900-pound, ac­tiveaero mon­ster that can leave even McLaren’s vaunted P1 suck­ing its ex­haust fumes. True to its im­pres­sive stats, the Senna proved mind-blow­ing—just shock­ingly quick, one of the quick­est road cars I’ve ever driven. In­deed, af­ter the first of our two lap­ping ses­sions, one jour­nal­ist in our group—a vet­eran in the biz—stripped off his Nomex and headed straight back to the ho­tel, mum­bling some­thing like, “I’m not driv­ing that thing any­more.” Nat­u­rally, there were a few snick­ers up and down the pits. But then I had a re­al­iza­tion: “To hell with the peer pres­sure. Bet­ter to stand up and say, ‘Maybe I’m not up for this,’ than risk crash­ing, de­stroy­ing a pre­cious pro­to­type, and pos­si­bly harm­ing your­self and the McLaren test driver bravely rid­ing shot­gun.” It was a gutsy call on my fel­low scribe’s part.

The next morn­ing, the twin-turbo V-8 still ring­ing in my ears, I brought up the pre­vi­ous day’s Senna test with a McLaren exec fly­ing back to the States with me. “I wish I could say I was an Ayr­ton Senna kind of driver,” I ad­mit­ted. “Al­ways on the limit, valiantly risk­ing it all to be the fastest man on the track. The cool guy. But I’m not. I’m an Alain Prost kind of driver.” Prost, “The Pro­fes­sor,” was a mas­ter at the wheel—the epit­ome of smooth­ness and con­trol—but he made a point of driv­ing only as fast as he needed to go to win races, a me­thod­i­cal mind­set he’d dis­played even in his early days at the Elf Win­field school (where he won that year’s stu­dent com­pe­ti­tion). Any­thing more, in Prost’s view, was need­less risk. Mind you, in my case, lap­ping in the McLaren Senna, “only as fast as needed” still meant 163 mph at the brak­ing marker at the end of Sil­ver­stone’s Hangar Straight and fly­ing through Turn 1 in fourth gear at 120 mph, the Senna nib­bling for grip as the g forces threat­ened to suck my head right through the driver’s win­dow. “Slow” is a rel­a­tive thing, too.

I’m con­tent let­ting oth­ers set pole po­si­tion. I’m not putting food on the ta­ble with my lap times; there’s no added re­ward for go­ing faster than nec­es­sary. Be­sides, in the back of my mind I al­ways re­mem­ber the best driv­ing ad­vice I ever got, which came not from Jackie Ste­wart or Alain Prost but from Clint East­wood’s Dirty Harry: “A man’s got to know his lim­i­ta­tions.” AM

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