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|Hotchkis Track Day at the Streets of Willow|
|Written by Matt Malone|
|Tuesday, 23 March 2010 16:13|
A chance phone call lets one enthusiast spend a day at the Streets of Willow behind the wheels of a Corvette Grand Sport and a Dodge Viper
When you're lucky enough to have an automotive enthusiast and journalist friend with access to an impressive fleet of manufacturer press vehicles, track time, and a foldaway couch, it's a good idea to stay in touch. This was my case with Automotive Traveler's Rich Truesdell. Five years ago, Rich needed a backup photographer and second driver for a 3,000-mile trip from London to Maranello and back in a Ford GT and a Viper (which explains the photo here). I was fortunate enough to have the free time and frequent-flier miles to make the trip.
A few weeks ago, after not hearing from Rich in some time, I thought it would be a good idea to give him a call--you know, to catch up and see what's brewing. I'm glad I did. Rich told me that in two days he would be at Willow Springs with a Viper and a Corvette. Long story short, within hours I had purchased a last-minute plane ticket from Boston to L.A. and was packing my bags and helmet.
Arriving in California on a recent Wednesday afternoon, I met up with Rich at John Wayne/Orange County International Airport. Our plan was to drive both cars up to Willow Springs, about two hours away, so we could get an early start on track day. Having my choice of cars, I was most excited to drive the Corvette. I know, I know, I need to explain myself here. This was no ordinary Corvette. It was the new Grand Sport, a car I had yet to drive.
I've driven Vipers before, such as during the aforementioned trip back in 2005, which included stops at the Nurburgring, Le Mans, and a spectacular drive through the Austrian Alps. I'm familiar with the Viper, and I wanted to learn more about the Grand Sport. What exactly is a Grand Sport? Essentially, it's a Z06 without the LS7's 500-plus horsepower and a steel chassis instead of aluminum. You get the Z06's wider body, wider Goodyear F1 tires, functional brake-cooling ducts, and six-piston front/four-piston rear calipers with individual brake pads for each piston. The steel chassis allows Chevrolet to offer the Grand Sport in convertible form. And I must say this is without question one of the stiffest convertibles I've ever driven. There is zero cowl shake. The car feels extremely solid and comfortable.
Not considering myself a black-T-shirt-wearing 'Vette guy, on the two-hour drive to the track I was actually impressed. Modern comfort features like the dual-zone, automatic climate control and the heads-up display are nice, but I was not expecting the numerous smaller details that make this car so comfortable. If you don't have the automatic headlights on at dusk, for example, the Corvette will politely tell you "Headlights Suggested." A polite Corvette? Wait, it gets better. When you change lanes, the directionals flash three times with one input--very European--and this particular car featured the optional exhaust bypass valves. Under normal driving, the bypass valves remain politely closed to help quell the exhaust, but at full throttle the pipes open up and the LS3 sings with all 435 horses. With bypass valves, you can enjoy the best of both worlds: quiet exhaust in sleepy neighborhoods and increased HP +5 and engine note at full throttle. This feature is increasingly popular, and for good reason. When we arrived at the hotel two hours later, I was refreshed and impressed (with the car's respectable 24 miles per gallon as well as its overall comfort level). Pulling himself out of the Viper, Rich was a different story.
Driving the Viper Coupe on the street makes a stark contrast to sitting behind the wheel of the Grand Sport. The Viper is raw and proud of it. Gone are the automatic climate controls, traction control, cruise control, and whatever self control you thought you had or needed. Holding the Viper back on the street becomes an exercise in futility. Especially when you hear the Viper's sinister exhaust note crackling though the side pipes in full surround sound. Every input you give the Viper causes an exponential reaction. Sneeze at the wrong time, and suddenly you're three lanes over from where you started. A touch too much throttle, and you're facing the wrong way. No slack here, and that's the Viper's charm, the reason people fall in love with this car, myself included. Everything about the Viper is deliberate, engaging, and just a little bit scary. While this may be entertaining for some, others find the Viper too much for the street. Too focused, too raw, and too difficult to get in and out of. For those of you who try to charm this snake, the reward is great.
Early Thursday morning, we pulled into Willow Springs Raceway. About an hour North of Los Angeles near Rosamond, the Willow Springs International Motorsports Park includes the main track, the Streets of Willow, the Horse Thief Mile, and a kart track. On the other side of CA-14, you'll find Edwards Air Force Base, a temple to speed of a different sort. Willow Springs is an historic racetrack, its original 2.5-mile track dating back to late 1953. Hmm... late 1953? Does anyone want to guess what other significant automotive event happened in late 1953? Anyone? Bueller? If you guessed the birth of the Corvette, you're right. How fitting to enjoy the Corvette at a track that celebrates the same birthday.
Today we would have full access to the Streets of Willow track, a shorter, tighter 1.8-mile course constructed back in 1987 (shown in the upper right-hand corner of this photo and referred to as Willow Springs Stadium). Our host would be John Hotchkis of Hotchkis Sport Suspension. John's passion for motorsports is immediately evident. His company routinely conducts on-track testing to fine-tune the performance of their products, and this day he had generously invited us along. By the looks of the early morning testing, the Hotchkis cars were impressively fast and all-day strong, especially Shannon Hudson's killer-green '69 Valiant. The Valiant had been a pro-street-drag car, but after bolting on a Hotchkis Track Pack, along with disc brakes from Right Stuff and wheels from Curtis Speed, it looked at home on the Streets of Willows twisties. After the testing was complete, John opened the track for everyone to play. What a host!
So, how was the Grand Sport on the track? Well, I feel an apology to Chevy is in order here. As an admitted automotive snob who often drives Ferraris, GTRs, Ford GTs, and Porsches, I have never given the Corvette the credit it's due. This latest-generation C6 Grand Sport is a remarkable car. There, I said it, and I'm not embarrassed. On the track, the Grand Sport's easy-going road manners are set aside, and it attacks the pavement with both ferocity and poise. I really loved the "Competitive Driving" mode. It allowed the Grand Sport to get surprisingly loose powering out of corners without the fear of total loss of control. The cornering Gs this car generates seemingly defy physics. When I remembered to look up at the heads-up display mid corner, the G meter was registering a spleen-rupturing 1.3! No doubt due in part to the sticky Goodyear F1 tires and wider Z06 stance. Braking on the Grand Sport was very composed. Despite a soft pedal, I never felt any fade after repeated hot laps.
The only problem I had was with the sluggish automatic transmission. While well-suited for street use, it was not responsive enough for the track. I found myself downshifting early to anticipate the lag. Perhaps the next-generation Corvette will offer a twin-clutch transmission and a more aggressive shifting mode for the current automatic.
The Viper on the track could be best described as serious. Serious speed, serious braking, and serious cornering Gs. No electronic babysitters for this car! The steering is extremely quick, and with 600 horsepower and 560 pounds-foot of torque things happen fast--real fast. The Viper's seriousness forces you to pay full attention, all the time. You become very involved, incredibly focused, and, in my case, even possessed. Push the Viper hard, and you are constantly teetering on the thin edge of control. Charm this snake just right, and you feel like a hero. Get it wrong, and you're bitten, spinning backwards in the blink of an eye, praying no one hits you. With 600 horsepower on tap, the straight-line speed of the Viper was astonishing--easily breaking 110 miles per hour on the short, 1,000-foot main straight of the Streets of Willow Springs.
In the corners, this snake can slither, if you have the confidence and finesse to push it. Braking is firm and fade free lap after lap. Everything on this car feels industrial strength. Taming something so wild on the street is oh-so gratifying on the track. It's a shame most Viper owners will never understand their cars on this level. For that matter, it's a shame most sports car owners never experience the true potential of their cars. The only thing I would change about the Viper? How about a larger gas tank? After two hours on the track, your fuel is spent.
With so many other cars, including a few vintage Mopars, attending the day's events, Rich had the opportunity to get some car-to-car tracking shots of the Viper with its predecessors. Although we weren't stretching the envelope, with Rich signaling to get tighter from the back of the pickup truck we were following, it was almost as scary--especially given the Viper's width, and the way you can't really see the corners of the front fenders. After the Mopars cleared the track, a group of Camaros took over, one from each generation.
As the day wound down and our low-fuel lights signaled the end of our hot laps, we thanked our host and his crew. I left with a whole new respect for the work John puts into his products. He was very hands-on and had a genuine concern for everyone's enjoyment. This is clearly a case of someone's passion leading to the development of good products, and that's the type of equipment I want on my car. Packing the gear back into the Viper and Grand Sport, I actually felt bad for the cars. Sort of like when you take your dog to the beach and let him run. Putting the leash back on just doesn't make you feel great. For anyone reading this who owns a sports car, unleash it. Find a track day event and enjoy your car the way it was designed and engineered to be used. Both you and car will be happier for it.
Then we climbed back into the cars, with Rich choosing to be more comfortable in the Corvette for the 200-mile drive to Temecula. I can't say I blame him, but I'm not complaining since he handed me the keys to the Viper. Heading South, I got on the phone and told Rich I needed one more burger fix. I'm from the East Coast, and we don't have In-N-Outs in the Boston area. While I know he would rather have stopped somewhere for BBQ, his passion, he indulged me... again. That's the kind of great friend he is.