ROSS IN RANGE
A Rookie Does Road Atlanta the Panoz Way,
or
Total Immersion at one of America's Most Challenging Tracks

By John Ross

Copyright 2003 by John Ross.  Electronic reproduction of this article freely permitted provided it is reproduced in its entirety with attribution given.

    I wrote this piece almost four years ago for a racing magazine that did not print it, as it was too long.  Those who have read it think it offers some insight into teaching and learning methods.  What follows is a chronicle of my first experience as a student at a competition roadracing school, the first of three I would eventually attend. 

    For over 25 years I have driven modified, sixties-era 427 Corvettes on the street. Recently I decided to add another vehicle to my garage, something with similar power but improved chassis, suspension, aerodynamics, and brakes. In December 1998 I bought a Viper GTS (this is the coupe version) from Bob Woodhouse, a Nebraska dealer and racer who specializes in these cars and who has since become a good friend.

    The high speed characteristics of the GTS inspire spirited driving. Having never driven a car on a racetrack with turns on it, not even a parking-lot autocross, I began investigating driving schools. Viper Days are racetrack events sponsored by the Viper Club of America where you get instruction in your own car. Unfortunately, given the winter season and my location (St. Louis), a Viper Days event was not available. A call to Skip Barber’s school confirmed that they offer autocross and car control lessons in Vipers, but no racetrack time. One of the Barber reps suggested I take their competition course in a Formula Dodge. When I asked if that car would accept a driver with a 40" waist and a 54" chest, it was several minutes before the man stopped laughing.

    A few days later, serendipity struck: Justin Bell, one of the three co-drivers of the 1998 Le Mans GT2-winning Viper, announced he was starting a Viper-based roadracing school. That looked like the perfect answer for me, and I signed up for their inaugural three-day class. As I write this in February 1999, the first Bell class will be two months from now in mid-April at Moroso Raceway Park in Florida.

    Then, about two weeks ago, Bob Woodhouse called. "Sixteen of us signed up for the Panoz Roadracing School at Road Atlanta. Three days, starting Monday. The cars are those purpose-built Panoz GT-RAs. Tube frames, five liter Ford engines, 2400 pounds. One of our guys had to cancel. I thought you might like to take his spot."

    "This Monday?" I answer. "I’ll have to check my schedule. And I’ll need to call the school and see if they think I can fit in their car."

    "I already checked, and their car has more room in it than a GTS," Bob shoots back. Like any good salesman, he has done his homework in advance.

    "So...who’s going on this deal?"

    "Oh, a bunch of great guys," Bob says expansively. "We like to get together at the beginning of the season, brush the cobwebs off, get a little racing in, have dinner, you know. We’d love to have you join us."

    "Er... It sounds like everyone else has a bunch of racing experience. I haven’t even been on a skidpad."

    "Oh, no, these aren’t all full-time racers, no," Bob says, skirting the issue by uttering a perfect Clintonism. "We’re just going to go down to Braselton, have a good time, visit the Panoz car factory, maybe the winery, have dinner together..."

    "So, some of the people in this group have never gone to any driving school of any kind or done any sort of events like autocross or track days or whatever?"

    "Uh... yeah!" Bob says quickly. Yeah, that’s the ticket, I add mentally, as an image of Jon Lovitz’s character "The Lying Guy" on Saturday Night Live flashes through my mind.

    "Okay, I’m a go," I tell Bob, silently wondering what I have let myself in for.

    SUNDAY NIGHT

    My flight lands in Atlanta, I pick up the rented Neon, and drive to the hotel an hour away in Braselton. It is 11:00 PM when I find my room. My roommate Dan is awake, watching the news. We introduce ourselves, and talk for a bit about cars and racing. He tells me that on the track, the class will be organized in two groups based on ability and experience. Dan tells me he is in Group 2, the less-experienced group. On a chair in the corner is a fire-resistant racing suit, well-worn Simpson racing shoes, and a helmet with a thousand-dollar custom paint job. Hmmmmm.

    We turn off the TV and I fall asleep, only to be awakened by Dan’s admonition to stop snoring. I apologize and go back to sleep. The same thing happens, except this time my roommate threatens to kill me. I force myself to stay awake as long as possible. I wake up with the 7:00 AM alarm, tired but grateful to be alive.

    MONDAY

    At breakfast, Bob Woodhouse introduces me to the others in the group and we head off to the track. After taking care of paperwork, we meet our instructors, and the sixteen of us sit down in the classroom. Beaux Barfield, a cheerful young man with a sparse goatee and a tongue stud, uses the drawing board to illustrate traction, weight transfer, and the friction circle. He looks like a snowboarder all scrubbed and combed for his mother’s summer garden party. After a modest amount of chalk talk, we split into the two groups and go outside.

    Group One, I soon discover, consists of instructors from other nationally recognized driving schools and people who have been roadracing regularly for ten or twenty years. This group includes Ron Adee, winner of the 1998 One Lap of America, as well as Bob Woodhouse. Group Two is comprised of instructors for regional events, people who have been going to driving schools and track events for a few years, and me.

    While Group 1 practices some braking exercises in the race cars, my group repairs to the sprinkler-equipped skidpad. We take turns in a well-thrashed Nissan 300ZX, kicking the tail out with the throttle and then trying to recover before the car spins on the wet asphalt. Only one student at a time can drive, so somebody has the bright idea of getting in the back seat to "observe" before taking his turn driving. The idea catches on, and a few driver changes later, I climb in the Nissan. I discover that the back seat of a 300ZX is no place for anyone past kindergarten, let alone someone built like John Goodman. Meanwhile, driver Dan (not the Dan that threatened to kill me, but another Dan) is sawing away at the wheel like a demented sprint car driver, the suspension loading and unloading as the Michelin Pilots alternate between grip and wheelspin. After a few minutes of this, I get to extricate myself from the back of the car and strap into the driver’s seat.

    My first reaction is that the Michelin Pilots have good wet-weather traction, which pleases me as they are what I have on my Viper. My second realization is that catching the tail-out car before it spins is very much like landing a tailwheel airplane. For the next few minutes, I do a decent job of skid recovery and the instructor praises my efforts.

    Meanwhile, the million-dollar Panoz GT1-R Le Mans car is howling around the 2.5 mile track, the new team driver giving it a workout. We catch glimpses of it as it streaks by on the segments of track visible from where we are standing.

Our group finishes at the skidpad and we pile into the Group 2 van, preparing to go over to a different area to practice braking exercises. The Group 1 van comes racing towards us. Instead of stopping and letting everyone out, the instructor drives onto the wet skidpad and immediately throws the 12-passenger vehicle into a power slide all the way around the circle. In the front passenger seat, one of the Group 1 students sticks his arm out the window and waves at our group as the van circles the skidpad with its front wheels in full opposite lock. All of us in Group 2 are grinning as we drive off. This place is really fun.

    The 300ZX is a thing of the past. We are now in a batch of identical Panoz GT-RA race cars with NASCAR-type tube chassis, 9" Ford rearends with 4-link suspension, AP brakes, open side exhausts, and sheet steel interior with racing seats. I discover to my great relief that I do indeed fit into the car. I take an instant dislike to the curved-bargraph tachometer with its two-shades-of-grey LCD screen, but other than that, the Panoz GT-RA seems like a good car. It is noisy, but the steering is light, the power level is non-threatening, and the flywheel feels at least twice as heavy as the 13-pound L88 unit in my 427 Corvette. The chassis is very rigid, and that inspires confidence.

    Threshold braking and trail braking is the exercise, and a lot of drivers in my group are locking the front wheels and sliding through the cones in the trail braking simulation. I avoid this, and at the end of the session, find out that one of the instructors was pointing to my efforts as an example of proper braking technique. I am secretly thrilled.

    After a lunch of baked chicken, our group goes to the autocross exercise, laid out with small rubber cones at the edge of the parking lot. Panoz has built one GT-RA with an automatic transmission, mainly for corporate groups who sign up to drive the GT cars but have an employee who is ill at ease with a stick. It is this car that we use for the tiny autocross course, with the lever locked in Second.

    I volunteer to go first. The path I have to drive looks barely wider than the car, and there is a 2-second-per-cone penalty. I plod around the course on the first lap. My pace is so slow that some of the group remain three feet outside one of the corners, on top of some skid marks that an earlier driver had made when he came in too hot. Obviously, no one has any fear that I will do the same thing. We are timed for each of five laps. I pick up the pace on each circuit, and get waved in wishing I could do five more.

    I don’t hit any cones, but as soon as the others take their turns, it’s obvious I was driving too cautiously. All of them are much faster than I, though most of them hit at least one cone on every run. Some are locking up the wheels with poor braking technique. Seeing this, I feel okay about my performance.

    We learn that the GTR-1 Le Mans car is back in the pits after having crashed in turn 7, hitting the tire wall. I can’t help but wonder what a driver feels like after crunching a million-dollar race car.  Maybe he doesn't care.

    Our eight-man group now climbs into a batch of three GT-RAs for our first real track session. Three of us are driving, with two of the other five riding in the race cars as passengers, and three with the instructor in his Nissan Altima. I’m in my car alone.

    The Nissan leads us around a shortened course of about 1 mile, on a section of the full track that is relatively level. We are to follow the instructor’s line, and after three laps, the instructor will flash his turn signal on the straightaway, indicating that the first car should pull over and drop to the back and the other two cars move up one position. In this way everyone will have a turn being right behind the instructor. After each of us has had three laps following the instructor, we will stop and switch drivers to let three more of our group take their turns.

    The instructor for our three-car group is a pleasant, clean-cut redhead in his mid-twenties named Mike Johnson. He has a gymnast’s build and looks like he should be doing commercials for either milk or toothpaste. Later I will learn that Mike grew up in my home town of St. Louis, that we went to the same high school (16 years apart), and that I am friends with his aunt and uncle. At this point, however, I know none of this, and am concentrating on not screwing up.

    I start out second in line behind the Altima. I need to drive faster than I had expected to keep up with the car ahead of me. Mike is wringing everything he can from the little econobox, and the only place where I have to ease off the throttle is the second half of the longest straight. The first Panoz GT in my group is almost on the Altima’s bumper. I don’t feel comfortable getting that close, and stay back a bit, wondering if this will later cause negative comment. My lines are not as good as the instructor’s, and I know it. When my turn comes to drive right behind him, I force myself to shorten my following distance, and do much better.

    On the after-exercise evaluation session, Mike confirms my suspicions, stressing that my line looked good when I was following him. I take this as encouragement, and I insist on riding in the front seat of the Altima when my time in the Panoz GT is up.

    This ride is a real revelation. Mike spends virtually all the time either at full throttle or braking hard. The transitions between are both fast and smooth. When he downshifts, he uses a rolling motion of his right foot, and a cartoon lightbulb appears over my head: this is the "heel and toe" technique that I have read about for thirty years but never observed. I watch the turns and concentrate on the line he is taking. My ability to absorb information is reaching the saturation point, and I’m grateful when the session ends and we go back to join Group 1 in the classroom.

    After sketchboard discussion and review, all sixteen of us go outside and climb into the two vans to get a look at the full 2.5 mile Road Atlanta course. We cruise slowly around the track, stopping at each corner to look at and discuss the turn-in, apex, and exit points, all of which are marked with orange cones. Turn 12 looks especially interesting, and for this one, we actually get out of the vehicle and walk around on the track to get a better understanding of it.

    Twelve is a blind drop-off whose pitch would be appropriate for an intermediate ski run, funneling into a decreasing-radius right-hander onto the main straight in front of the grandstand. The instructors explain that proper position at the entry is all-important, as any error here will be greatly magnified by the time the car reaches the bottom of the hill. I believe them. The torn-up tracks in the grass and the scars on the concrete wall in front of the grandstand offer mute testimony to the truth of the instructors’ words.

    With our inspection of the turns complete, I assume it is time for another lead/follow exercise in the Panoz race cars. Not quite. Our instructors now tell us that they will demonstrate the racing line in the two vans, so that we may experience proper technique firsthand. The van I am in is piloted by Chris Hall, a transplanted Englishman and Formula One driver who looks like a just-retired Major League ballplayer. Well over six feet tall with a flattop crewcut and good teeth, one would never guess this man’s nationality without hearing him speak. Chris exudes good humor and optimism, which is immediately apparent on our familiarization lap in the 12-passenger van.

    Driving the huge vehicle with exactly the same technique one would use for a race car, Chris gives us a running commentary in his nonchalant British accent: "Brake to the turn-in...set the wheel and ease on the throttle, now hard on the throttle towards the apex...let the wheel unwind, stay on the throttle, continuing to accelerate..."

    The V10 engine is roaring. I glance at the other passengers and then the speedometer. With a series of turns approaching, we are passing through 70 MPH, about twice as fast as I would ever dare to drive one of these barges on a twisty road. I am paying no attention whatsoever to the line Chris is taking. My mind is overwhelmed by the fact that we have not yet crashed.

    "...now through the esses, don’t be alarmed, the van sha’n’t overturn, I promise you that, now a bit of brake here before setting up for Turn 5, this one’s a bit tricky..." The van is rocking from side to side, and it feels to me as if all four tires are sliding a little in each turn. "...full on the throttle, we’ve got a drift going," Chris explains, confirming my suspicions, "and our line is good, now up on the rumble strip and we’ve got this nice bit of straightaway in front of us to build some good speed..."

    By this time, my jaw is hanging open. Now that I have mostly accepted the counterintuitive concept that we are not going to crash, an overpowering thought comes into my head: I wish that every traffic cop and highway patrolman who ever stopped me for speeding could be made to take a van ride with this guy. Two more sharp corners and we are on the long backstraight, the four-speed automatic upshifting smoothly at full throttle. I glance at the speedo and it is swinging through 90 MPH. Chris begins to brake for the left-right dogleg, and then we will be at Turn 12.

    The van rocks on its springs as it negotiates the two turns, and I stare at the bridge with Michelin logo which looms up ahead. The track in front of us passes under this bridge and drops out of sight. Knowing what lies ahead, I feel a calm sort of horrified fascination, as if I were watching an impending train wreck.

    "Now back on the throttle, proper line is just under the ‘M’ in ‘Michelin’," Chris explains as the van passes under the bridge. The road drops out from under us, and the feeling is like the first descent on a roller coaster. "Stay far left, follow the old pit lane down, stay on the throttle, here’s your turn-in point, now right towards the apex..." My heart is in my throat as the van lists to the side, the tires just starting to slip. We clip the apex with the tires singing and drift smoothly back towards the left side of the front straight. Then Chris slows the van, the lesson over. I look at the other occupants and see that I am not the only one who is impressed.

    It’s now time for another session of lead/follow, this time around the whole race course. Group 1 goes first, but those of us in Group 2 are allowed to ride as passengers, either in the Panoz cars or with Mike in his Altima. I choose the latter, but discover he already has three riders. Bob Woodhouse is the only Group 1 driver I know, and he has a passenger, so I stand in the pits and watch.

    Half an hour later it is Group 2’s turn. I scrunch myself back into the racing seat, fasten the 5-point harness, and hook up the window net. Our rev limiters are set at 4200 RPM, where they have been all day. Soon we are motoring around the track, following Mike in the Altima. I keep up, but in spite of following the instructor’s line, I find myself braking into the apex and committing other assorted sins. After several laps of this, we head back to the pits.

    As we shut off the cars, I see that the Group 1 drivers are all eager. They are about to go out for open practice, and this is their last session of the day. The instructors give those of us in Group 2 our after-session comments, then admonish the Group 1 drivers that passing is allowed only on the two back straightaways. The instructors head off with their clipboards to various key points around the track to monitor and record the Group 1 drivers’ efforts. I stand in the pit lane and watch cars as they appear under the bridge at the top of the hill and make the sweeping downhill turn onto the front straight.

    In what seems like only a few minutes, the Group 1 drivers are pulling back into the pit lane and now it is our turn. This will be our last session of the day, so the instructors give us some final words on technique. Each time they refer to "Turn number so-and-so," I realize I don’t know which corner they’re talking about--I don’t have them memorized by number. The instructors remind us of the "Three strikes and you’re out" rule, which refers to spins and driving off the track. After either of these, we must pit immediately to talk to the instructors. Three such events and that driver sits the rest of the day on the sidelines. We go through a refresher rundown on the meanings of various warning flags, and it’s time for us to get back in the Panoz GT cars and put what we have learned to good use. Passing is not yet allowed in our group, so I ask Beaux to send me out last. I do not feel confident at all, and the last thing I want is to hold up the rest of the students.

    Road Atlanta has substantial elevation changes, which is one of the things that makes it such a great course for drivers who are familiar with its layout. Climbing the hill that follows Turn One, I realize that I have no clear memory of what the section which lies past the hill looks like. I instinctively revert to street-driving behavior, which is to stay in the center of the asphalt path. This takes me well off the proper racing line, and puts me in very poor position to negotiate the seven turns that occur in the next half mile of track. I go through them with brake lights flashing, well below the speed Chris had demonstrated in the fully loaded van. On top of this, it feels as if I am almost always in the wrong gear. This is no fun at all.

    On the long back straight, I begin to breathe more easily. The sensation of increasing straightline speed calms me, and I enjoy the ride. When the engine hits the rev limiter, stuttering at 4200 RPM, I shift into 5th gear about halfway to the next corner, let the speed continue to climb, and finally glance at the LCD display. I am appalled by what I see: The digital speed readout shows 67 MPH.

    Normally I can calculate gear ratios and speeds in my head, but I am so demoralized by the digital speedometer reading that I accept it at face value and start braking for the left-right dogleg that precedes Turn 12, the blind dropoff onto the front straight. I pass under the bridge at the proper point, but then follow a path that takes me down the middle of the hill instead of the left side. This makes me apex far too soon, but it doesn’t much matter, as I am traveling at a pace more appropriate to a public street than a racetrack.

    The next few laps are not much different, and before our session is through I see two other cars in my mirrors. There is no way I am going to force these folks to trundle along behind me, so when we get to the back straight I ignore the no passing rule, pull to the left side, slow down, and wave them by. They both go past with waves, and for an instant I feel a lot better, knowing I haven’t ruined someone else’s session. Two more cars pass me on the next lap, and then the checkered flag comes out, signaling us to take a cooldown lap and then pull into the pits. Relief passes over me, then a sharp pang of shame for feeling glad that we are quitting. Back in the pits, the others in my group are laughing and reliving the afternoon. I smile and act the part, but I feel like an impostor.

    As we walk back to where our rental cars are parked, I overhear some of the drivers from Group 1 commenting on the Panoz cars. One of them, an instructor at another racetrack, is complaining bitterly about the rev limiters. He is saying that there are times when you need to add throttle to gain stability, and at those times, hitting the rev limiter could cause a serious loss of control. I am not knowledgable enough to agree or disagree with this claim, but know that nothing remotely like what he is describing happened to me on any of the times I bumped into the stutter box during my track session. Then he says that Road Atlanta is a wonderful driver’s track but a bad teaching track because its blind corners make it so intimidating. The track he teaches on is pool-table flat, and I sense a bit of envy in the tone of his protestations.

    Most of the group have plans to go to a karting track in Gainesville for an hour, then on to a restaurant for dinner. Bob Woodhouse invites me along, but my heart is not in it, so I invent a prior commitment and go back to the hotel alone. There, I discover my roommate’s things are gone. He has booked a separate room to avoid my snoring.

    After a hot shower, a revelation hits me: After shifting out of fourth at 4200 RPM, if the car was really going only 67 MPH it would have to have 5.13 rearend gears. I know this is not the case, and my gloom lifts a little. Then I force myself to recall the times in my past when I hit a learning wall while trying to acquire a new skill.

    Chewing on a sandwich in a booth at a Subway restaurant, I remember the story my late father told me about feeling that he was about to wash out of Navy flight training school in 1941. Dad went out to the flight line, stared at one of the training planes, and told himself that there was no reason he was less equipped than the other cadets to fly it well. Then, in every spare moment on the base, he sat in his plane, and visualized himself flying the plane just as his instructor demonstrated. At the end of flight school, my father had the fourth-highest score out of 700 cadets, and went on to become an aerobatics instructor.

    I finish my sandwich and go outside to stare at the Neon, pretending it is the Panoz GT-RA. It feels a little stupid, but no one is around to see me. Now I need a map of the track. There is one on my desk in the classroom, complete with diagrams of the proper racing line, but that building is almost certainly locked now. I drive down the interstate and locate a Wal-Mart and an all-night drugstore, where I find a book with a layout of Road Atlanta in it.

    For the rest of the evening, I work on memorizing the corners in order, and visualizing them appearing sequentially through the windshield of the Panoz racer. I imagine looking ahead, far down the track so that the corners do not take me by surprise. By the time I go to sleep, I’m feeling a little better about my prospects for tomorrow.

    TUESDAY

    We start the morning with a classroom session. One-piece cotton racing suits sit in piles, and we are told to each find one that fits before going out on the track. All of them are too small for me, and the instructors decide I can race in jeans and shirtsleeves. Then Beaux tells us we need practice on our heel-and-toe downshifts. We go out to the training area, get in the Panoz racers, and do the same trail-braking exercise through the cones as the day before, but this time with two heel-and-toe downshifts thrown in.

    I can’t do it at all. Despite the fact that my feet are size 11EEEEE, when I press the brake with the ball of my foot, I cannot manage to blip the throttle with the right side of my shoe. The edge of the sole keeps getting stuck under the throttle pedal, and my shifts are no longer smooth. I decide to forget trying to do two heel-and-toe downshifts in the turn, and do just one. That goal proves just as elusive. Half an hour of utterly fruitless attempts leaves me frustrated and angry, with all my visualization efforts forgotten.

    I get out of the car with a poker face, but soon discover that a number of the other students have been equally frustrated, so I let my disappointment show. Bob and two of the members of Group 1 tell me the same thing, that heel-and-toe cannot be taught in one morning session, and to concentrate on my lines. They point out that I was not chirping the rear tires downshifting the day before, so my shifts are fine. Then Dan, my former roommate, speaks up. "Practice heel-and-toe on your way to the grocery store, when you aren’t trying to do five other things." A good night’s sleep appears to have improved his attitude towards me, and I begin to feel better.

    The instructors tell Group 1 to get ready for open practice, and that the rev limiters on the cars have been reset to 4800 RPM. I tell Bob I want to ride with him. He looks a little anxious, and I realize he has promised someone else the spot. Bob sees the look on my face and tells the other man they’ll ride together on the next session.

    "I’ll take it easy the first lap or so," Bob tells me, but by Turn 3 his racer’s juices are flowing, the tires are heating up, he has more RPM available, and he is going for it. I am excited but not scared and I have three near-instant revelations, all of them very positive: First, what I am seeing and feeling are similar to my visualization efforts of last night; second, Bob is using the entire track to best advantage, thus demonstrating the "line" perfectly; and last of all, the Panoz GT will pull a lot more lateral acceleration than I thought, without the tires slipping at all. The third realization is especially apparent on uphill corners, such as Turn 1. I want to hit myself for failing to grasp the significance of gravity in the equation.

    On the second lap, I notice that Bob manages the entire set of turns and esses on the southeast part of the track without shifting out of fourth gear. I have been shifting too much and messing up my concentration. We pass two cars in the next lap, and I focus on the track, anticipating what the next corners look like before they appear and keeping my eyes scanning ahead. By the time Group 1’s ten laps are up, I am eager for my turn at the wheel. The change in my mental state from the previous afternoon is huge. As we pull in the pits, I tell Bob I want him to ride with me, and he agrees.

    Beaux waves us off, and I charge into Turn 1 more aggressively than I ever did the day before. The car tracks the proper line up the hill without a hint of sliding. I am so excited that I don’t start braking soon enough for the next turn and end up going through it on the brakes, getting no exit speed. My irritation lasts two or three seconds, for the esses and the uphill Turn 5 are approaching, and I’m busy visualizing how I will follow the line through them. My speed is much slower than Bob’s was, but my line is pretty good and I don’t touch the brakes. I’ll go faster the next lap I tell myself, then start preparing for the next series of turns.

    My lines are off some, but nothing like the day before. We get passed on the third lap, but it does not bother me. As the proper path becomes more familiar, I begin to concentrate on making sure I get off the brakes by the turn-in point and accelerate toward the apex. At one point I do this a little too aggressively in Turn 3 and have to back off. The car becomes unsettled, but I recover without stomping on the brakes, and focus on the esses and Turn 5. I go through them smoothly and faster than I ever have before. In Turn 5, my body is pinned against the side of the seat, the g-force feeling almost as great as what I felt at the same spot in the track when Bob was driving. After the exit, Bob gives me a thumbs-up. My spirits soar. There is no question about it: I am improving.

    The checkered flag arrives and I pit after a cooldown lap. As Group 1 straps into the cars, the instructors critique our performance. Though I’m doing much better than the day before, they still have lots of mistakes to point out. Turn 3 is giving most of the drivers trouble. I climb into the Altima with Mike Johnson, the instructor who watches that corner, to learn more about this part of the track.

    We get in position behind a retaining wall in a spot that overlooks Turn 3. Mike pulls out his clipboard with the various car numbers listed on it. The first two Group 1 cars go by, Bob driving the second one and gaining on the leader. Mike makes checkmarks on his clipboard, then glances up at the next car as it comes into view.

    "This guy will brake much too late, all the way into the apex, and leave with no speed whatsoever," Mike predicts. Sure enough, we see brake lights staying on almost all the way through the turn. "Brake harder, earlier," Mike advises. "You should have it done by the time you get to the end of the green-and-white rumble strip. Then you should be back on the gas." I look at the point he is referring to and realize I have never gotten back on the throttle that soon.

    After several laps, Mike tells me to critique the cars as they negotiate Turn 3.

    "Looks good... looks good..." I say as two cars speed by. "Good line, but he’s taking it easy," I decide as one car goes by more slowly. "Coasting through the turn, no throttle, but a decent line, needs to get his braking done a little earlier..." I am pleased that I can easily see when the drivers are using good technique, and I visualize myself in the car doing the same. Then another Panoz GT comes over the hill.

    "Uh-oh," Mike says as I stare at the car. The driver does not brake early or late. He shoots straight off the track onto the grass without appearing to even try to make Turn 3. Mike has a sardonic grin on his face as he makes a mark on his clipboard. "Fair amount of that going on this morning," he comments. As I watch the driver on the grass check for oncoming cars and pull back out on the track, Mike talks into his radio, telling Beaux to black-flag the guy when he gets to the other side of the track.

    Twenty minutes later, it’s Group 2’s turn again and I’m back on the racetrack. Bob is riding with another driver, but that’s okay. I am eager to put my newfound knowledge of Turn 3 to good use. I know Mike is watching as I brake early and then step smoothly on the gas pedal. I go through the turn cleanly, realizing immediately that I could have been more aggressive with the throttle. The other turns go equally well, and I’m feeling a lot better. I actually start to feel the rear end get a little loose in Turn 7. This is getting to be fun.

    Only one car passes me, and a couple of laps later, I begin to see why. One of the instructors holds out a yellow flag, and after the next turn I see a race car sitting in the grass, pointing the wrong way. This is the second time I’ve seen a car off the track, and I later find out there have been many others this morning, in both Group 1 and Group 2.

    We have a couple more sessions before lunch, and my confidence continues to improve. I am beginning to look forward to Turn 12, the blind downhill that feeds into the front straight. Anxiety is being replaced by excitement.

    All of a sudden, I see an instructor waving a black flag. What have I done? I wonder. I pull into the pit lane and see other cars have pulled in as well. Cars behind me in my mirrors are exiting also. Everyone has been waved in, the morning session cut short by two or three laps. We soon learn why: Too many "off-track excursions," as they are called. I feel cheated. At no time was I out of control, and I know my driving was steadily improving.

    At lunch, the instructors talk amongst themselves, and they are clearly worried. My impression is that they fear they have lost control of our class and don’t know how to get it back. There is a new rule: No riding with other students, only instructors may be passengers. Later, I mention privately to the instructor that my ride with Bob Woodhouse was a big help to me. He says in too many cases it was a bad idea and it seems pretty clear that he doesn’t believe my claim. It doesn’t matter; I’m ready to go out and practice.

    While Group 1 has the track, I stand at Turn 5 with Chris and his clipboard. When the cars come by, the big Englishman points out that half the drivers are turning in too early. I immediately see the result: the wrong exit angle, necessitating much too tight a radius in the charge up the hill that opens onto a half-mile straightaway. Bob and some of the others have it right, and their speed is a lot higher. I visualize driving the path they are taking, carrying extra speed down the straight to Turn 6.

    I go out fourth when Group 2 takes the track, with Mike Johnson riding with me. I want to use my new insight about Turn 5 to quicken my pace. On the first lap I take the line Chris has pointed to as the proper one, and immediately realize I am using nowhere near all of the tires’ grip. This is a huge confidence builder, and I promise myself I will use full throttle much sooner on the next go-round. I am also ready to increase my speed on Turn 12, the blind drop-off.

    When we get to 12, Mike reaches over and pulls on the steering wheel to change my line. I see how the path he’s helped me drive is smoother and more of a constant radius. The car is too noisy for verbal communication, and when we get to Turn 3, Mike gesticulates wildly. It looks like he’s doing a seated version of the hokey-pokey, and I have no idea what it is he is trying to convey. The same thing happens on the approach to Turn 5. When we get to the back straight, I slow down and stay left so that the car is quiet enough to ask Mike what he was trying to tell me.

    "Brake into Three, then throttle—no coasting. Up the hill towards Five, brake and downshift to third." The first instruction makes sense to me, the second does not.

    "You don’t need to brake on the uphill to Turn 5."

    "You would if you went through Turn 3 as fast as you should." Oh, I think, momentarily deflated.

    "Okay, but I’m going to stay in fourth," I tell him. "Too much for me to do right there." Perhaps it is my imagination, but in my peripheral vision I swear I can see Mike rolling his eyes and trying not to laugh. I grin and floor the throttle, before anyone behind can get close enough to pass. "Must be hell, having to limp around the track this way for ten laps," I yell into the wind noise and engine roar.

    Mike gives me the thumbs-up on my next pass through Turn 3. I go through it fast enough that I have to brake a little before Turn 5. I see Mike’s right hand twitch as I brake, and I know he is trying to get me to make a 4-3 downshift through force of will.

    In the following laps I continue to push my speed up until finally the car gets loose on Turn 3 and I blow the setup for the next turn. I’m back on the line for Turn 5, and I see Mike nodding at my recovery.

    When the checkered flag comes out, I realize something wonderful: In spite of the long slowdown on the back straight, no one has passed me this session, and one of the three cars that started ahead of me is still in sight. I have held my position for the entire ten laps. This strikes me as nothing short of amazing. I want Group 1 to finish so I can go out again.

    While Group 1 practices, I stay near the pits and stare at Turn 12. I am nowhere near the speed through 12 that I saw when I rode with Bob Woodhouse in the morning. A big part of that lack of speed, I make myself admit, is due to fear of slamming into the concrete wall. I watch the best drivers race through Turn 12 and force myself to analyze the situation.

    The proper line, staying left, makes you drive straight at the wall until the turn-in, and that’s the scary part. If you lost the front end at the turn-in, you would go straight into the wall. Then I realize that you will never slide the car at the start of the turn-in, that’s where the tires have their greatest grip. In addition, the car’s speed is still climbing at the turn-in to 12. If you’re going to lose it, it will happen near the apex, where the car is going the fastest and the tires are most heavily loaded.

    If the rear end gets loose at the apex, you can ease off the throttle. Assuming you do absolutely nothing to fix the problem, you will spin or slide as you exit, down the straightaway and maybe onto the grass, but you will not slam straight into the wall if you have entered the turn with the proper line. When I realize this truth, most of my fear vanishes, and I can’t wait to get back on the track and be more aggressive with this section. In about twenty minutes, I get my wish.

    On the first lap of this Group 2 session, I drive through the first part of the course the same way I did the previous round. When I get to Turn 12, I follow what I know is a good line but this time I get more heavily on the throttle as the car descends the hill. The suspension compresses as the course flattens out, and the steering gets heavier on my turn-in. I flash by the apex faster than I ever have before, and then I’m on the front straightaway. The car has felt planted the whole way through. I feel great.

    In another mile, I discover something astonishing: I am actually gaining on the car in front of me! Turn 7 is the corner that opens onto the mile-long back straightaway, and I remind myself that every additional mile-per-hour I achieve on the exit will be carried the length of the entire straight. I get a good drive out of 7 and find the adage is true; halfway down the straight the other car pulls to the left side of the track and waves me by. I’m tasting blood now. Who’s next?

    Near the end of the straight I see that the next car ahead of me is about four hundred yards away, and I concentrate on my line. When I go through Turn 12 and end up on the front straight, I see that I’ve gained at least a hundred yards on him. My technique in Turn 12 is working.

    Through 3, then 5, I take up more of the distance between us. On the long back straight, I close in but I’m still fifty feet behind and it’s time to start slowing for the dogleg 10A and 10B before Turn 12. If I continue as I have been, I will catch this car right around the spot where the track falls out from under us at Turn 12. This, I realize, would not be good. I brake early for 10A, slowing the car to what feels like a crawl. The car ahead of me pulls away, taking 10A cleanly.

    I’ve deliberately given ground because I am certain that the driver ahead is going to take Turn 12 more slowly than I am. I get on the throttle and go through 10A in third gear, determined to get the perfect set-up for 10B so as to exit it with the most speed possible. I’m at full throttle by the apex of 10B, the rear end just barely starting to get loose, and then I’m charging towards the bridge. I shift into fourth gear just before the tach bumps the rev limiter, the bridge flies by overhead, and the road disappears underneath me as my right foot stays planted on the floor.

    The car ahead is at the bottom of the hill, starting his turn-in. I concentrate on my line, but part of my mind is aware that I am gaining on him, even though I’m not all the way down the hill yet and my speed is still building. As I start turning towards the apex, his car is getting closer and closer. I roar through the apex with my engine about to bounce off the rev limiter, and shift into fifth gear. I’m sixty feet behind him and in about three more seconds I’ll hit his rear bumper, just like NASCAR. We’re on the left side of the front straight, and I feel my car enter his slipstream and speed up slightly. I pull to the right and slingshot past with about a 20 MPH speed advantage. Every nerve ending in my body is alive. Damn! This is the drug they don’t sell.

    Much sooner than I expect, the checkered flag comes out for the final time. It is 5:00, time to put the cars away, listen to the critiques, go on a tour of the Panoz plant, and eat dinner at Chateau Elan. As I climb out of what I have come to think of as "my" car, I can’t stop smiling.

    "You were passing people this afternoon," Chris Hall says to me. Perhaps it’s just the British accent, but it sounds as if he is saying this so as to convince himself of the fact, like the man in the movie Jurassic Park who says "That’s a dinosaur!" upon seeing one for the first time. Mike Johnson tells me I’m still too timid in Turn 3, but when I press him, he admits that everyone else is, too. Eric Foss asks me if I’m ready to drive in the rain, for that is the forecast for tomorrow morning. Beaux is busy thanking everyone for settling down in the afternoon session and not getting him fired by continuing to run the cars off the track at every opportunity the way we were doing six hours earlier.

    School over for the day, we walk down to the Panoz factory where they now assemble the roadster, and later this year, the Esperante road car. A nice young man in an Italian suit shows us a bunch of race cars they are in the process of building. These cars are just like the ones we’ve been driving, only this batch, like the street roadster, have the new 4.6 liter DOHC Mustang Cobra engine instead of the 5 liter pushrod unit. The cars are being built for a women’s racing series.

    The fellow from Group 1 who complained about the rev limiters tells our host they are fools if they don’t put smaller-piston master cylinders on the cars to reduce pedal effort and improve brake feel. I can see the Panoz rep wondering how to handle this guy, and he ends up doing a very diplomatic job.

    We learn about the technology used to build the Panoz AIV (the roadster’s stupid acronym for "Aluminum Intensive Vehicle") and see stacks of formed aluminum frame rails and body panels. Panoz has built over 500 of these little pickle-shaped roadsters over the last three years, and hopes to soon be selling that many each year. Build quality, to my eye, is flawless.

    The rep confesses his irritation that so many potential customers confuse the Panoz AIV with the Plymouth Prowler. Bob Woodhouse thoughtfully reminds him that A) Chrysler spent $30 million in advertising to establish the market, thereby jump-starting demand for this sort of vehicle, and B) Chrysler wimped out and put a V-6 in their car, handing the market for a V-8 competitor to Panoz on a silver platter. The rep reacts in such a way that it is obvious he hasn’t thought of these things. Privately, I ask this man if the engineers have built a test mule with a 514-inch SVO crate motor in place of the little Mustang stem-winder, and he looks at me like I’ve lost my mind.

    Workers in another part of the plant are painting body panels for a GTR-1 racer. They are using a BASF paint that has seven different colors in it, which "flip" dramatically with changes in the viewing angle. I have never seen this before and am enthralled. They take us outside, and there is a Panoz roadster they have just finished with the same paint. It is stunning. The paint costs something like $400 a quart, and is a $3000 option on the roadster. I stare at the car and decide that’s a bargain.

    Our tour over, we return to the hotel to clean up, then head across to Chateau Elan (Panoz’ luxury hotel/spa/winery) for dinner. The food is excellent, and all sixteen of us spend much of the meal reliving the day’s track sessions.

    Talk soon turns to the relative merits of the Panoz GT-RA as a race/training vehicle. The experienced drivers seem to feel that the combination of high brake pedal effort and light steering makes the car difficult to drive really well, especially for beginners like me. Lower pedal effort would doubtless make the car a little more user-friendly, but how much I cannot say. One thing all of us agree on is that we hate the huge ratio gap between fourth and fifth gears in the Mustang transmission. One reasonable solution would be to fit taller ring-and-pinion sets to the 9" Ford rearend, so that you’d use second, third, and fourth on the track instead of third, fourth, and fifth.

    The fact is that Panoz got these cars all built in a matter of months this past fall, which was a feat in itself, and they are damned impressive. I am reminded of the adage that the good should not be the enemy of the ideal.

    By the time dessert arrives, the instructor from the other driving school who was the most vocal in his criticism of the Panoz GT has changed subjects. Now he is disparaging the Dodge Viper. Given the fact that he is completely sober and that the half-dozen Viper owners at the table are all potential clients, I find this behavior most puzzling.

    As dinner ends, my former roommate Dan gives me one of his cigars. Maybe he didn’t really want to kill me after all...

    WEDNESDAY

    It has rained during the night, the track is wet, and it is sprinkling a little as well. We spend a little time in the classroom discussing techniques to use in the rain, then it’s off to the track. Mike Johnson takes Group 2 around the track in the van, sliding the tires a little bit in each turn. Though I know what to expect, the experience is still astonishing. The instructors give a few final suggestions, then turn Group 1 loose on the track.

    As on the day before, I go with Mike to Turn 3 to watch. The cars are definitely going more slowly than they did in the dry. "You can go a lot faster than that, even in a downpour," Mike says with barely concealed amusement. "But they’ll figure it out." A few of the drivers slide the rear tires a bit, but no one spins or leaves the track.

    When it’s our turn, I charge Turn 1 at what I think is a fairly brisk clip and am surprised when the car sticks solidly. I motor smoothly through Turn 3 at about one-quarter throttle and smile as I imagine Mike chuckling at my caution. Turns 6 and 7 are tighter than the other corners but have lots of width, so I get a little more aggressive, finding out where the rears want to break loose.

    After Turn 7 is the back straightaway. On this, the third day, the instructors have set the rev limiters at the highest level they ever use, 5200 RPM. We have been told that with this setting, the best drivers can hit 135 in the dry before having to brake for Turn 10A. I hit 5200 in fourth gear and decide not to shift into fifth as 10A is coming up. There is a downhill section before the corner itself, and I want to give myself plenty of room. I look at the digital speedo and it reads 46 MPH. It must be connected to a random number generator I tell myself. I later learn that in the Panoz GT-RA, 5200 RPM in fourth is 122 MPH. It is the fastest I have ever driven in the rain.

    I ease on the brakes and realize I could have waited a little longer. Turn 12 arrives a few moments later, and once again discretion takes hold of me and I cruise through it in fourth gear at about two-thirds throttle.

    On subsequent laps I pick up the pace little by little, finally making the rear end squirm on about half the turns. Driving fast in the rain is kind of fun, and I pass a couple of other drivers. I am most aggressive on the uphill turns, 1 and 5. At one point I go through 5 at full throttle and get up on the painted rumble strip with both right wheels. The rear starts to slip as the water-covered paint is slicker than the wet asphalt. I try to correct out of it without lifting, but on the third fishtail I give up and back off the pedal just enough to stabilize the car before returning to full throttle. Chris is watching this corner and at the after-session evaluation he grins and says to me "You’re getting the feel of it."

    Late in the morning, the sun comes out and the track begins to dry off. On our last session before lunch, the "line" is almost all dry, but the asphalt on either side of it is still wet. This makes for very interesting driving conditions. The group as a whole does very well, with only one or two spins, and no huge blunders. Everyone in my group seems to be exhibiting about the same degree of caution. In this session I don’t pass anyone, but neither do I get passed.

    During lunch, the instructors praise our wet-weather driving and discuss drafting, "stealing the line," and other racing strategies. They illustrate the best passing techniques and get us thinking more about competing. This is the last day, and we will be quitting at about 3:00. By the time we get back out on the track for our last few sessions, the sun is out in full force and the asphalt is completely dry. Group 1 goes out first, then it’s my turn.

    I feel great. The difference between now and 48 hours ago is like black and white. Instead of my being overwhelmed, the corners are appearing in my mind sequentially before the car gets to them. Turn 5 is exciting, and Turn 12 feels like the world’s best roller coaster. I pass two cars before the ten-lap session is over.

    During the critique, Beaux reminds me that I am going through the apex to Turn 12 with a car-width of asphalt between my car and the edge of the track. He explains that in a heavier, faster car, carrying more speed, this could cause a problem on the exit. "You’ve got a Viper GTS, don’t you?" he asks with a wicked grin.

    The message is received. During Group 2’s next track session, on each lap through Turn 12 I force myself to keep turning in until my tires are about to touch the rumble strip at the apex. At the critique session, Beaux gives me a big grin and a thumbs-up. Then I go see what Eric has to say. There are more turns than there are instructors, so on different sessions, some of the instructors move to cover different corners. This time, Eric has been watching Turn Six. This corner is a wide right-hander at the end of a half-mile straight. It requires a downshift to third, and because it’s followed immediately by Turn 7, it is one of the corners I haven’t much thought about. Eric changes that.

    "You’re braking way too early, and too long. Six is a big, wide turn, and you’re going through it not nearly as fast as you could be. Of course, if you go through Turn Six with more speed, you have to be ready to brake harder for Turn Seven. It comes up in a hurry." I nod in understanding. Turn 7 is the tightest one on the track, leading into the mile-long back straight. As an afterthought, Eric drops the bombshell: "I’ve been talking to the other instructors--Turn Six is the only place on the track where you’re losing time to anyone in your group."

    This comment floors me. It is like a hypo full of pure adrenaline injected straight into my heart. The Group 1 drivers are climbing into the cars for their last track session, which we’ve been told will be eight laps. I don’t want to wait half an hour for my last session, I want to go now.

    I put my mind to work visualizing all the turns on the track, with special emphasis on Turn 6. Then word comes on the radio that one of the drivers has spun and hit a tire wall on the other side of the course. The driver is unhurt, but the car is damaged. One of the instructors pulls a spare car into the pit lane to take the place of the damaged one for the Group 2 session.

    Shortly after I hear the news of the crash, Group 1 is waved in. I keep watching as the cars pull into the pits. My car has not shown up. I ask what number car was crunched. They tell me, and it is not the one I have been driving. Then my car appears, coming into the pit lane. Its driver happened to be the last to exit the track, which puts my car at the end of the line in the pit lane. I will be the last one out. Perfect, I think to myself. Let’s see how many of the other seven drivers I can pass in eight laps.

    When Beaux waves me out, I leave the pits like it was a real race. As I charge up the hill in Turn 1, I see that I am gaining on the car in front of me. I pass him on the beginning of the straight after Turn 5, about 1/3 of a lap into my session. He doesn’t count, I tell myself, he’s still warming up.

    I carry my speed on the straight much deeper into Turn 6, then brake hard and downshift. I get off the brakes and turn in hard while getting back on the throttle. I clip the apex with my body pinned against the side of the seat. The tires do not slip. Eric was right, the car will go a lot faster here than I was letting it.

    Eric was also right about Turn 7 arriving more quickly, but I’m prepared, and in good position. The tires slip just a little as I pass the apex, then I’m getting the front wheels straight as soon as possible. This is another thing the instructors have pointed out: a car will accelerate more quickly when the front wheels are straight than when they are turned. This is obvious if you analyze it, but lately my mind has been too busy to think analytically.

    My exit speed out of Turn 7 is good, with the result that I pass my second car halfway down the back straight. Two cars are visible ¼ mile ahead, nearing the end of the straight. They vanish on the downhill section leading to the dogleg 10A/10B, then reappear just before they have to start turning. I have observed this visual phenomenon several times in the last two days on this section of track, and it never fails to surprise me just a little.

    It takes me another lap to catch the next car, and I pass him at the beginning of the back straight. The other car that had been with him the lap before is nowhere in sight. Two laps later I pass a fourth car, this time on the drive out of Turn 5. When I get on the long back straight, I catch a glimpse of someone far in the distance. I concentrate on going through 12 as fast as I possibly can, and the engine hits the stutter box just as I start to unwind the wheel after the apex. The rear end twitches, and I shift into fifth as my mind flashes back to what the instructor from the other school said about the rev limiters being a safety hazard.

    Halfway around the course and I see that the car I am chasing is a little closer. Turns 6 and 7 are coming up, and I’m determined to get the best possible exit speed out of 7 so as to carry it all the way down the mile-long back straight. I charge into Turn 7 with just a little more speed than before, and the rear tires slide just a little farther than on the previous lap. I keep my foot planted on the floor and whip the wheel to the left to reduce the skid. I feed in more steering correction... and then the steering wheel hits full opposite lock. The skid becomes something I can’t drive out of and immediately turns into a 360. Damn.

    I’m in a race car aimed straight down the longest straight on the track, and I’m sitting still. The stench of burned rubber fills my nostrils. I put the transmission in first and accelerate up through the gears. At speed, I can’t decide if I’m feeling a new vibration which would indicate I’ve flat-spotted the tires, or if it’s my imagination. I also cannot remember if spins where you stay on the track require you to pit and talk to the instructors, or if it’s only running off the track that dictates an immediate pit.

    With only three laps to go before the whole three-day session is over, I am not about to risk wasting my remaining track time. I cruise through the dogleg and then drive through Turn 12 on the proper line but at about ¾ speed, to show appropriate contrition. If they want me in, I think, let ‘em wave that black flag at me. By the time I enter Turn 1, I’m driving flat-out again. The spin has cost me too much time, though, and I finish the final three laps of the session without passing anyone else.

    On the cooldown lap after the checkered flag, I think about my passing four cars. I got lucky. They were taking it easy, it being the last session of the day and all. There are a dozen explanations other than any real skill on my part, but I am much too happy to care. I haven’t had this much fun in a car in a very long time.

    Beaux understands why I didn’t pit after my spin, and tells me it’s cool. Eric praises my efforts on Turn 6, and the tech guys tell me I did not flat-spot the tires. Word comes down that the driver of the damaged car will be billed $640, which everyone who has seen the vehicle says is much less than they expected.

    The instructors give us our certificates, and explain that we are now eligible to come back and rent the Panoz GTs on "lapping days," where we will get 40 laps of heads-up racing (just like we’ve been doing) for about $800. Hands are shaken all around, and we all head our separate ways.

    FINAL ANALYSIS

    From my experience at the school and from talking to others, I have several comments.

    The Panoz Roadracing School is a high-quality operation on one of the most challenging racetracks in the country. The instructors are very good, with high levels of driving skill, an engaging attitude, and a clear ability to impart their own knowledge to the student.

    The Panoz GT-RA is a very good car, purpose built for racing. It offers a tremendous amount of crash protection for the driver. It is less expensive to fix if you crunch it than a production street car of similar performance.

    It needs different gearing so that the driver never has to use the fifth gear that was put in the production transmission for street-car gas mileage. The Panoz GT might benefit from changes to the braking system that would give lower pedal effort and therefore better brake feel.

    Comments about the chassis set-up need to come from drivers with much more experience than I. The decision-makers at the school should review their reasoning as to where to set the rev limiters. If engine life is the issue (and I can’t believe this would ever take priority over safety), raise the cost of the school $100 to cover the price of more-frequent rebuilds. At a cost of $2200 for three days, Panoz is a bargain among racing schools.

    The curriculum of the Panoz Roadracing School is demanding, and gives the student a full 250 miles (100 laps) of racetrack time in three days. The instructors praise the students for good technique but also push the students to better themselves by always offering a way to be smoother and faster. This can make a novice feel overwhelmed, especially in the beginning. I am 100% in favor of this style of teaching. Racing is demanding and forces the competitor to think about many things at once. The Panoz school is similar to the "total immersion" language classes in that the Panoz instructors force the students into complete involvement at the earliest possible time. When things begin to click, progress can be very rapid.

    My only possible criticism about the curriculum was the period spent on heel-and-toe downshifting. Almost every racer I talk to feels that this technique cannot be learned quickly. Perhaps the hour-long exercise was designed to get the students working on it, so that they will practice on their own over the coming months and years. If that was the reasoning of the instructors, then I retract my complaint.

    2003 Postscript:

    The skills I learned at Road Atlanta stood me in good stead for the track events I entered in my GTS.  After doing well but boiling the brake fluid and warping the brake rotors on the 170MPH back straight at Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin, I replaced my Viper's calipers and rotors with Porsche GT2 endurance racing pieces, and ended my braking problems forever.  This changeover bumped my car up into the Supermodified class in the Michelin Challenge (a Vipers-only series.)  Competing with a stock motor (under warranty) against cars with 550hp-600hp, I was Eastern Region champion in 1999, which was a complete surprise to me when the trophy arrived by UPS several months later.

    The Viper was so pretty and such a nice street car that after my Oct. 2000 stroke, I was leery of risking it any more on the track.  Driving it on the street was anticlimactic after 2500 miles of flat-out track use.  I sold it this spring to an Indiana Viper Club of America member.  He plans to terrorize some of the same tracks with it that I did. 

    I've got another track car, this one purpose-built, about 85% done.  It's a 1954 Corvette body with a '57 windshield frame and hardtop grafted on, a competition tube chassis and cage underneath, modern steering, suspension, and brakes, a quick-change rearend, Jerico 5-speed, and a dry sumped, all-aluminum tall-deck 540 Donovan under the hood.  The engine made over 750 ft-lbs. of torque on pump gas, and the car is about 1000 lbs. lighter than the Viper was.  My friend Warren Mosler is having his wizards at Mosler Automotive in Florida (home of the MT900 and twin-engine Cadillacs) do the work.  I hope to enter it in one of the Nevada open road races in 2005, and maybe even One Lap.  Even if I don't race it at all, my ten-year-old daughter Lucy will like riding around in it.  On the ground, on the water, or in the air, she likes light equipment with BIG motors.  Powerful stuff, that DNA...

                                                                                                         John Ross  12/8/2003