Jack Fried is barely audible under the stentorian sound of the supercharged four behind our heads. With two helmets worth of plastic and padding between his strained, soft-spoken voice and my assaulted ears, I'm only able to make out a few words of every other sentence. When we finally line up in the starting grid, Jack shuts off the engine on his Lotus Cup 255 and turns in my direction. "I've sold most of my track cars," he says, "This is all I need."
I hear that.
Photos Copyright ©2008 Brad Wood / Weblogs, Inc.
A few moments later the corner worker waves his index finger towards the entrance of the track. Jack pushes the starter button, engages first and we're off, making a hard left past "Sunrise" and down a short straight into the "Off-Ramp" corner at Buttonwillow Raceway. He builds up his pace slowly, taking care to get the tires' temperature up and making mental notes where patches of dirt have been left on the tarmac during the day's earlier off-track excursions.
By the middle of the second lap, Jack is pushing the limits of adhesion. But his inputs are smooth and consistent in a way that speaks volumes about his experience. He's got track-tard cred and it's evident through every corner. The deafening whine of the supercharger comes on earlier than before as we hammer through the "Bus Stop" and into "Riverside," where I see an orange Elise frantically fighting to regain grip. The orange blur darts left, then right and spins, coming to rest on the outer edge of the track. I have just enough time to raise my hand to point, when I hear Jack yell an appropriate expletive as he jukes to avoid the Elise by a wide margin.
After a few hot laps and one cool-down, we make our way back into the pits where I meet up with a few of the event's organizers. The weekend festivities are part driving school and part time attack, with the final event a few hours away that pits five classes of vehicles against one another to see which Lotus pilot can take the fastest lap around Buttonwillow's configuration 13.
The Lotus Challenge Series is in its infancy, with only three events under its belt as of yesterday. The second race at Buttonwillow saw a wide variety of cars and skill levels; from weekend amateurs who've gotten their first taste of on-track addiction to professional drivers piloting highly modified Elises.
Jim Navarro, the series' organizer, wants to create an event that brings Lotus owners of all stripes out to the track to experience the full potential of their rides. The classes are broken up into five categories: Naturally Aspirated Stock (straight from the dealer Elises and Exiges); Naturally Aspirated Modified; Forced Induction (Elise SC, Exige S, Katana Cars, etc.); Cup (Cup 240s, Cup 255s, S1 Elises and Exiges) and Ultra Stock (the 2-Eleven, all manner of turbocharged cars and anything that doesn't fit into the other classes).
Part of the reason I'm in attendance is to check out the Series, but I had an ulterior motive. Forced Fed brought out its 380 Elise to run in the Ultra Stock class and I desperately wanted to get some passenger-seat time on the track. I specify, "passenger-seat" because I've already driven the shop's Blue Beast on the street and that kind of power is not meant for public (road) consumption. Look for a detailed feature on it soon, but understand that it's turbocharged, has Ohlins dampers, a full cage and that "380" is on the low side of crank horsepower. My brief stint behind the wheel a few months back permanently skewed my perception of acceleration and I've been anxiously awaiting a chance to see how it handles a proper road course.
After a few more lapping sessions, I perform the human origami necessary to fit myself into the passenger side of the 380. The cramped confines of the cockpit require my left leg to be pushed far to the right to avoid interfering with the six-speed manual that separates me from Forced Fed's hired gun, Tom Dyer. Dyer, an instructor based at Infineon Raceway, splits his time between teaching at the Jim Russell racing school and the Audi Driving Experience, not to mention being an accomplished racer who recently tested the Muscle Milk Lola/AER ALMS car.
We're given the go ahead out of the pits and Dyer takes a quick lap around the track to get the lay of the land. His pace increases with authority as he manhandles the Elise through some of the tighter sections of the track, then laying into the throttle, rocketing off the apexes and subsequently bending my stomach around my spine. The power is too violent to be ethereal and too sublime to comprehend. Dyer's reactions are so quick and controlled, it's obvious why he's in the driver's seat and I remain a hack with a laptop. This fact becomes even more evident on the exit of "Grapevine" when the back end gets seriously unsettled and Dyer instinctually and without any hint of drama corrects left, right, and then left again, bringing the Elise right back into form at over 100 mph.
Two, three, four laps melt away and we're back in the pits discussing the run. Dyer maintains that the suspension needs a bit more tweaking, particularly out back, to bring the 380 up to its full potential. But there's no time for serious changes. Dyer and the turbo'd Elise get a few more sessions in before the main event and as the sun arcs towards the horizon, the first group of Loti are being placed on the starting grid.
The time trials have vehicles hitting the track in 30-second intervals, with Dyer placed at the front of the pack. It doesn't take long for the marshals to realize that their math isn't working. They'll have to wait for the first group of vehicles to complete their three-lap stint before the others can be let loose. The Forced Fed Elise makes quick work of the course and pulls off to park underneath the main building overlooking the track. Dyer looks pleased, as does John Modica, Forced Fed's owner, and Casey Horner, the shop's Chief Wrench Meister.
After all the cars complete their track attack, the participants gather around the podium to hear the results. Most of the cars are lapping the course in the low two-minute range, with the highest over 2:10 and the lowest around 2:04. But Jim Navarro and Jack Fried know the score. And after the rest of the racers get their times and trophies, the Forced Fed Elise and Tom Dyer -- competing in a class of one -- are recognized. The time: 1:55.8. A new course record for its class.
The Lotus Challenge Series has plenty of potential for expansion as the popularity of both the Series and the Elise/Exige are realized. With vehicles and drivers spanning the spectrum of tune and talent, it's going to make for an entertaining year for the campaigning teams and the crew that puts it together. We're hoping to make it out to another event later this summer and will be following the progress of the teams, and the Forced Fed Elise, in particular.
Hot laps at Buttonwillow