If race car bug bites you

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YOU want a race car. No, in fact, you need a race car. Maybe you’ve crunched the numbers and they show that owning a race car will save you money in the long run. It almost doesn’t make sense not to own a race car, does it?

First off, yes, you are delusional. Second, I completely understand.

Your dream of owning a race car is a common affliction among a certain type of driver — the kind who loves the rush that comes with speed and has likely suffered enough tickets and points on his licence that he has started looking for alternative places to get his fix.

Which naturally led you to the race track. The situation probably worsened after your first few visits, because if you’re like me you developed a race track problem. You dreamed about your best laps and conspired to get more. Pretty soon you were taking your road-legal sports car to the track every other weekend. Depending on the size of your wallet, that car might be a Mazda Miata, a Chevy Corvette or a Ferrari.

At some point, that car wasn’t quite fast enough. Its tyres were ground down and the brakes were worn out. That’s when you realised a race car was the only cure for your race track problem.

You could leave a race car at a garage at the track, and you wouldn’t have to buy new tyres for your regular car all the time. It would be safer, and on and on with self-serving excuses.

Better yet, buying a regular old car is a headache, but choosing a race car is a joyous, blue-sky kind of occasion. The possibilities are fun and exciting.

Not cheap

Be forewarned. The old adage about owning a boat applies equally to race cars. The happiest days of a race car owner’s life are the day he buys it and the day he sells it. Upkeep can be phenomenally time consuming and madly expensive. You could find yourself rebuilding the engine after as little as a few hours on the track.

While any number of road-legal cars can be outfitted with roll cages and upgraded mechanicals to serve race track duty, let’s skip those for models built specifically for the purpose. You’re no longer taking half steps, after all.

The Ariel Atom, which is made in North America by TMI AutoTech Inc and starts around US$64,500 (RM216,075), is a consideration. It’s a very basic car, with a Honda engine in the rear and an open body made out of steel tubes. There are no doors to contend with and the driving experience is extremely visceral. The wind shears into your face at 100 miles (161km) per hour and the car darts around like a dragonfly. (It’s produced in both the UK and the US.)

Feeling exposed

Like any good race car, the Atom is light and the acceleration is fabulous. The downside is handling at the extreme can be quite dodgy — it’s easy to spin — and the open bodywork can leave you feeling quite exposed. I’ve driven the Atom on a race track buzzing with high-powered Dodge Vipers and Porsche GT3s, and I could have poked my hand through the Atom’s bodywork and touched another car as it blazed by.

Want to kick the tyres of an Atom? Well, you can’t exactly pop over to a dealership and zip around the block. Instead, try the Ariel Atom “driving experience” offered at one of my favourite tracks, Virginia International Raceway. A half-day costs as little as US$525.

If you’re looking for an open cockpit, you might consider something like an SR3 from UK-based Radical Sportscars Ltd. Prices start at about US$100,000.

No windshield

A Radical has neither a roof nor a windshield, but the wheels are enclosed with fenders — a good thing in case you ever mistakenly brush against another car. The Radical feels more substantial and stable at speed than the Atom. It even has room for two seats. (The driver sits to one side, rather than at the centre of the car.)

Akin to the Atom, the Radical is both simple and hardcore. The brakes are hugely powerful but have no anti-lock braking system, and the car has no traction or stability control. You are the master of your destiny.

Here’s the other thing about many true-blue race cars: The bodywork is engineered to utilise something called downforce. Basically, a rear wing and other body features capture the wind and transfer it onto the body of the car. This keeps the car stuck to the road, letting it go faster around a corner than the traction of a tyre would normally allow.

Downforce doesn’t apply when you’re going slowly, so actually getting it to work can be a mental challenge. Go faster so you don’t fly off the track. Talk about counter-intuitive.

Driving lesson

Which brings me to a US$175,000 entry from Slovakia-based Praga Racing, the Praga R1. Completely enclosed, it looks like an LMP1 race car you’d see at Le Mans, and the company says it produces as much as 1,900 pounds (860kg) of downforce when driven at high speeds. (That’s a heck of a lot.)

The owner of the company, Dusan Maly, recently put me inside one of his cars at the Monticello Motor Club in upstate New York. The car has only a four-cylinder engine with 210 horsepower, and at first I was somewhat underwhelmed. It handled perfectly but wasn’t crazy fast.

Maly shook his head and said: “You’re driving it like a regular car. Stop using the brakes. You have to make the downforce work.” He told me I needed to go way faster on the corners, until the point when I was sure I was going to fly off. “Then you’ll feel it.”

That was hard to conceptualise and even harder to do. One’s sense of self-preservation intervenes. Nonetheless, I pushed through my trepidation. There was a moment on a curve when the Praga felt loose and sketchy and then, 5mph faster, firm and planted.

Rental opportunity

Monticello is a private club, and it has both Radicals and Pragas available for rent to members. Next May, it will offer non-members a US$15,000, two-day programme where they can drive a number of Radical models and the Praga R1 and a more-powerful turbo variant. It’s called the G-Force Experience, as the club promises the chance to pull a full three G’s on the track.

As if you needed another reason to want that race car, the feeling of cheating physics at its own game is a momentous one. So it might only make your race track problem even worse. — Bloomberg


This article first appeared in The Edge Financial Daily, on November 17, 2014.