It's 5:15 AM when the second wake-up call arrives, but I've been up for almost an hour. Despite crawling into bed a little after midnight, I don't feel like a Koala after a eucalyptus binge – quite the opposite, actually. I'm wired, electric, ready to run a 26-mile marathon and then tackle the southwest face of El Capitan. It's been a long time since I've felt this kind of energetic surge without the help of everyone's favorite stimulant, and right now, I won't need caffeine, gaurana, taurine or a single B vitamin for the next three months. My bags are packed, my inbox is clean and I'm headed out the door with helmet in hand. Today is the day I break 200 miles-per-hour and I've finally got the tools to do it.
Follow the jump to find out if I succeed.
Photos Copyright ©2009 Damon Lavrinc / Weblogs, Inc.
These "tools" consist of a deserted stretch of airfield and a selection of Italy and Germany's finest, provided by the kind folks at World Class Driving. WCD has been in the States since 2006, building on the highly successful model originally pioneered in Europe of offering everyday stiffs and supercar cognoscenti a chance to drive the most exotic rides available to man. They deal in dreams, and their currency reads like the Hamptons garage of a disgraced hedge fund manager.
You name it, WCD probably has it. Like Ferraris? They'll put your butt into the bucket of a 599 GTB, F430 or Scuderia. Lamborghini more your style? Pick an LP – 560 or 640. It's yours for the taking. The list goes on. Audi R8? Done. McMerc? Prepare yourself for the ultimate GT experience. And they just acquired an Alfa Romeo 8C Competizione; one of the first imported into the States.
While WCD's core business is primarily comprised of day-long excursions where drivers get to experience the joy of piloting five supercars on the road, they've just launched a unique program that allows a lucky group of 12 to 15 the chance to push themselves and their dream machines further and harder than prudent on public roads.
The 200 MPH Club, the brainchild of Jean Paul Libert, one of WCD's founders, began last December, where we were invited to participate in the Club's inaugural run in Miami. After a day of instruction in a variety of vehicles, participants are given the green light to tackle the task of breaking the double century. But as we found out, it's so much more than the pursuit of top speed.
At the core of the 200 MPH experience is one thing: fun. The kind of four-wheeled entertainment that can only be enjoyed when Armco isn't an issue and the tarmac extends far beyond the limits of adhesion. Our day begins about an hour outside of Miami where an abandoned airfield serves as our playground. The surface isn't quite autobahn baby smooth, but it suits our needs to a "T," and the main runway stretches over three miles.
After a round of introductions and a brief chalk talk, we're divided into groups of four and sent out to one of three workshops consisting of coned-off mini-circuits. Each section is designed to build up your high-speed skills and familiarity with each supercar, making for a dream combination of instruction and adrenaline.
We start on a short course involving a low-speed right-hander leading into an abbreviated straight. This terminates into a hairpin, leads out onto another straight and then into a high-speed left. Another short run dips into a 90-degree left and then a constant radius bend puts us back at the start. The weapons of choice: a silver Audi R8 and a gleaming orange Lamborghini Gallardo Superleggera. Five laps each. This is about to get good.
The list of instructors reads like a who's who of European racing legends and up-and-comers, and at the first workshop, we'll be sharing the confines of the R8 with DTM ace and LeMans veteran Vanina Ickx (yes, Jacky Ickx's daughter). Each instructor has the nerves to stomach a stint with hacks like me behind the wheel, and with Vanina's stern, staccato instruction from the passenger seat, there's never a sense that things will go pear-shaped.
We start with a low-speed run over the course to get a feel for the car and the corners, but halfway through the first lap, I'm already being egged on by my Belgian professor. By the time I make it to the third lap, the rhythm of the makeshift course is starting to settle in and the R8 is proving to be... a bit boring. Like almost every modern-day quattro-equipped Audi, understeer and oversteer are virtually nonexistent. Mechanical grip is perfectly matched with the 4.2-liter V8 and unlike our time with the R8 in the Autoblog Garage, the manumatic gearbox is thoroughly unflappable. After my fifth lap I pull off to the right, get a few compliments and corrections from Ms. Ickx and then make my way to the Superleggera.
Strapped into the driver's seat, I get a quick briefing on gear selection and braking points. I snatch the paddle on the right, engage first and pull away. At part throttle, it's abundantly clear that the Lambo is a completely different beast compared to its corporate cousin, and as soon as I mash the gas into the carpet, I'm sold. Damon needs a Gallardo. I'll break the bad news to the wife later.
Few things can prepare you for the full-throttle thrust of a Lamborghini V10 and even fewer get you ready for the brakes. On my way down to the hairpin I lift off, shift down from third to second and engage the anchors, nearly stopping behind my turn-in point. Time to recalibrate my innocent ideas of physics. Back into first gear, I make my way around the 180-degree turn, begin feeding in the gas and rocket towards the next bend. At full-chat, the V10's blare sounds like nothing in the known universe. Try to imagine an extraterrestrial's war cry and you're not far off.
Laps tick off faster than I can count, and each time, my confidence grows, my senses become more aroused and my preconceived notions about a supercar's capabilities are thrown out the slit-sized window. Chasing after 200 mph is sure to be fun, but for a guy that's never been interested in straight-line speed, this is Cloud Nine and it's only 10:30 in the morning.
I down a bottle of water in the back of a Dodge Caravan on my way to the next course and am greeted by Nelson Philippe, a yellow Ferrari F430 and a white Lamborghini Gallardo LP560-4. This course, a medium-sized oval that's run counterclockwise with a chicane on the back straight, ups the speed in the bends and in between.
Any residual confidence I had after the first course has evaporated by my second lap in the F430. My instructor points out that I'm braking too hard (again with the recalibration) and turning in too early. Although I'm enjoying my time in the Ferrari, compared to the Superleggera, it feels ponderous and perpetually on the edge. I'm able to quell any oversteer with quick corrections, but the combination of rear-wheel-drive, the mass over my shoulder and some seriously abused Pirellis is making for a sketchy experience that I'm all too happy has come to an end. This is the first time that I'm pondering something I would've never thought possible – I'm not feeling the Ferrari – and it won't be the last time.
Nelson is waiting for me in the Gallardo when I pull into the pits, and after exchanging a few comments with my previous instructor, we're off. The Lambo already feels like my favorite pair of jeans by the time I make it around to the chicane, and my mentor has provided me with a few tips on negotiating the cones and going wide into the last left-hand bend. On my second lap, the pace quickens, my corner speed is significantly higher and I'm able to blast through the chicane keeping steering inputs at a minimum. Another lap. More speed. Fewer corrections. This is where it's at. And just as my confidence is at full boil, the back end steps out... wide.
I've been through enough HPDEs and track days to know that lifting is suicide. But my muscle memory lets me down. I trail off the throttle, slide sideways, almost come to a stop and then dip right back into the long pedal. My sense of embarrassment is quickly replaced with the realization that this is the environment to push a car to its limits. I've got acres of asphalt, an equitable instructor and a vehicle that needs – no, deserves – to be exploited. This is four-wheeled freedom. So let's try that again, shall we?
I waste no time getting back up to speed, and when the offending corner and its talentless attacker meet again, I'm ready. I carry the same pace through the bend, but on the exit I lay into throttle harder than before. The rear swings sideways, I keep the gas planted and experience the culmination of my childhood dreams. I'm powersliding a Lamborghini and feel totally in control.
I get the Gallardo back in line with a minimum of drama, take my last few passes and head back to the start. Hopping out, I've got a Joker-sized grin that would make Adam West defecate in his tights and Nelson tells the instructor in the F430 that most of my problems have been solved. He looks at me, smiles and says in a thick accent, "That's 'cause the all-wheel-drive saved your ass." Laughs all around, and I graciously take the shot. But I want another stint in the Ferrari. The two of us hop in and after a few laps my antagonist seems pleased with my progress. "You need to start left-foot braking. It suits your driving style. Practice that and you'll be twice as good." I ask a few questions over the Italian soundtrack and jot down a handful of mental notes. Needless to say, I like this kind of homework.
The next course is designed to take us above 170 mph. Baby steps that – according to Jean Paul – will bring us closer to the "different world" we'll experience at 200. But when we arrive, two of the three cars aren't around. The Ferrari 599 has run out of rubber and the Mercedes-McLaren SLR is throwing an ABS code. The prior run group is wrapping up in the Maserati Gran Turismo, but after a few spirited laps around the high-speed oval, it comes into pits with a flat. Two-way radios begin blaring, orders are issued and within 20 minutes I'm inside the silver McMerc running down the straight at 155 mph. Compared to the previous two workshops, Miss Daisy may as well be riding shotgun. After three laps, six high-speed sweepers and a top speed of 167 mph, I walk away unimpressed. Simply put, the McLaren is an overpowered GT that feels cumbersome at the limit and bloated in the bends. After a lengthy discussion with one of my hosts we agree that the SLR is good for two things: burnouts and powerslides. But it does them both extremely well.
After a catered lunch, we're shuttled out to the starting point to begin our attempt at 200 mph. The selected fleet includes the Audi R8, Ferrari F430 and my new best friend, the LP-560. The local Koenigsegg dealer (this is Miami, after all) was kind enough to bring out a CCX for those who want to experience the Swedish supercar from the passenger seat. I decide to put that off until later and hop in the R8. Aware that the Audi's 187 mph V-max won't get me near the double-century, I figure it'll be a good way to acquaint myself with the long right-hand bend that leads onto the three-mile straight and the braking point coned-off at the end. I come out of the corner slower than desired, straighten out and hit an even 170 mph before I'm forced to mash the middle pedal. A nice attempt, but hardly mind-blowing. Where's the Lambo?
I quiz the Gallardo's previous pilot -- who hit 202 -- on gear selection and corner exit speed before waiting for what seemed like a decade to get behind the wheel. My time finally arrives and within seconds I don my helmet and slither into the Lambo. After a quick briefing on the rules (don't lift violently, and brake when I tell you to), I pull onto the corner, shift from first to second and starting laying on the speed. By the time I exit wide onto the straight I'm almost at the top of second. I take a beat, look down at the tach and grab third just as the rev-limiter kicks in. Fourth comes up fast, while fifth and sixth arrive achingly slow. My first glance at the speedo confirms what my eyes are attempting to convey. I've already passed my previous top speed and I'm barreling towards the horizon at 177.
There's a surprising sense of calm at 185 mph. The landscape begins to blur in your peripheral vision and once you crest 190, things go fish-eye. Five mph later, the manic whir of the engine fades into the distance, the weight of what you're attempting becomes increasingly apparent and, in this case, you begin begging the orange dunce caps that mark the braking zone to sprout legs and move 50 yards further away.
Just as I'm instructed to lift, I glance down at the analog speedometer and the needle is just a hair above the magical mark. I've hit 199. Time to call the wife.
Photos Copyright ©2009 Damon Lavrinc / Weblogs, Inc.
Travel and lodging for this event were paid for by World Class Driving