"Here's where I went off in the F40," says Amir Rosenbaum, gesturing to a steep mountainside covered in scrub brush and rocks. We're doing an RV tour of the twenty-two corners on the Speed By Spectre 341 Challenge course, and this one, fortunately, faces into the hillside. "I went up the hill there, came back down, and drove out of it. The car wasn't wrecked, but I was definitely done for the day." As an afterthought, Rosenbaum adds, "This is a bad place to try a new rear brake-pad compound." Yes. And Tijuana is a bad place to try a new dentist.
Rosenbaum, the founder of Spectre Performance, is the man reviving the event formerly known as the Virginia City Hill Climb. From 1972 to 2002, a motley crew of speed freaks convened annually in Virginia City, Nevada, to pit man and machine against the many perils of State Route 341. Those hazards include blind corners, camber changes (sometimes between the two lanes in the same corner), and a very Wild West attitude toward guardrails. Turn seven, which includes all three of those exciting features, once launched a man and his Ultima GTR into low orbit. We stop at turn seven and peer over the edge.
"That one looked more like a plane crash than a car crash," Rosenbaum tells the crowd of increasingly worried-looking drivers. "There was wreckage a half mile from where he went off." That guy, amazingly, lived to tell his tale. Which, judging by a makeshift memorial at the edge of the cliff, apparently wasn't the case for someone named Bruce. "I don't know who Bruce was," says Rosenbaum as we pile back into the RV. I'm beginning to wonder what I've gotten myself into.
(Top right: Route 341, the race course, is normally the truck route into Virginia City -- coincidentally, three minutes, 41 seconds is a milestone time for a run up the hill. Bottom right: Amir Rosenbaum gives drivers a prerace tour of the course in an RV, pointing out the many opportunities for disaster. The 911 looks like a visitor from the future on the town's main drag.)
Back at the parking lot of the Silverland Inn, Jim Stewart tells me why he stopped doing the Virginia City Hill Climb. "It got too scary," he says. I'm hanging around waiting for my car to pass tech inspection, and Stewart is sizing up my ride, a 2010 Porsche 911 Turbo. Stewart's a Porsche guy, and when he tells me about his car -- a profoundly modified 930-series Turbo with a carbon-fiber front clip and "less than 500 horsepower," I can see how things might've gotten scary. The range manager for Storey County, Stewart keeps tabs on the 2000 wild horses that live in these hills. The horses are yet another daunting consideration for racers on Route 341. Because, you see, nobody tells the horses that there's a race going on.
I ask Stewart if he thinks I picked the right car for the job. "You picked the perfect car," he says. "All-wheel drive and turbos." Right on. I figured the turbos will preserve the flat six's power at altitude -- about 6200 feet at the finish line -- and the 911's trick all-wheel-drive system will help me claw my way up the hill. But, looking around the parking lot, there's only one other competitor who's using this particular vehicular formula. He's a hopeful young Kiwi named Steve Millen, and he's brought one of those newfangled Nissan Skyladies. There are rumors that his car might not be entirely stock.
A tour of the parking lot disabuses me of any notions that I might score a podium finish. Griggs Racing brought a supercharged Ford Mustang with $25,000 worth of suspension modifications and 305-width tires on all four corners. There's a local guy with an alcohol-burning Mitsubishi Lancer Evo. Lou Gigliotti, from LG Motorsports, is driving a 700-hp Chevy Corvette ZR1 that features a button on the shifter to send the exhaust into straight-pipe mode. "We call it 'the man knob,'
(Top: Ezra hugs the inside line. Averaging 85 mph requires major horsepower when many turns are marked 25 mph or less.)
And as fast as the 2010 911 Turbo is, I don't even have the fastest 911 here. That title would go to Alex Djordjevic and his 2001 911 Turbo. Djordjevic rattles off some stats. "It's got 1243 horsepower at the rear wheels -- it's been converted to rear-wheel drive because the all-wheel-drive system couldn't handle the power. It does the quarter mile in 9.3 seconds at 167 mph." Last year, this car hit 224 mph at the Texas Mile, and Djordjevic says he's ordered a new sixth gear from Ruf that will raise the top speed to 270 mph. I suggest that perhaps 1243 hp might be a little much for a two-lane road. Djordjevic agrees, which is why he's turned the boost down to 11.6 psi -- neutering the engine to a mere 750 hp. But the car is stripped down to 2600 pounds, so it'll probably still get out of its own way.
Finally amongst the heavy hitters, there's a Dodge Viper ACR, brought by old chum Mark Gillies from Car and Driver. The Viper's results won't count because it fails tech inspection. The rules stipulate a tire treadwear rating of at least 100, and the Viper's borderline-slick Michelin Pilot Sport Cup tires wear an 80 rating. I waste no time commiserating with Gillies, which is to say, teasing him about it. "Hey," I say, "You'd better find some shade. Your tires are melting." He replies with a colorful bit of British slang, as he is wont to do.
Gillies brought the only Viper here, which might not be a coincidence. Back in 2002, early on the first day of the Virginia City Hill Climb, two people set off up the hill in a Viper. They didn't make it to the top.
The next morning, twenty or so cars stage at the bottom of the course while corner workers test their radio systems. I have no illusions of winning, but I still have a goal -- one that I hope won't lead me to do something regrettable with Porsche's lovely $147,000 car. I want to join the 3:41 Club, so named for the drivers who've completed the course in less than three minutes and forty-one seconds. That requires averaging about 85 mph, and only forty-seven drivers have done it in the history of the event. So, while the 911 Turbo is undoubtedly a monster, it's also unmodified -- rare in this crowd -- and entry to the 3:41 Club is by no means a gimme. The course record, set by Rosenbaum in his Ferrari F40, is 3:10. Some of the guys with the faster cars are talking about beating the record, but we're all about to get a hard-won understanding that 3:10 is outrageously, unattainably fast.
I watch some of the other drivers take off up the hill. It's early and tires are cold, so the big-power rear-wheel-drive guys are setting off gingerly. I, too, plan to take it easy on my initial runs, but when I have a chance to use launch control, I'm gonna take it.
Yes, I picked a 911 Turbo with the PDK dual-clutch automatic transmission. Look, if I were going to buy a 911 Turbo for myself (delightful hypothesis, that), then I'd get one with a manual transmission. However, I'm trying to set the fastest time possible up this hill, and Turbos with the PDK gearbox are simply quicker than Turbos without it. If Porsche engineers are going to stay up late designing a super-robot transmission to make their cars faster, the least I can do is use it.
And launch control in a 911 Turbo is something to behold. Put your left foot on the brake, pin the throttle, and the 3.8-liter flat six revs to about 6500 rpm in anticipation of what comes next. And what comes next is bulletlike, near-Bugatti Veyron acceleration. There's just no waste in the system -- no wheel spin, no pause between shifts. When you pop your foot off that brake, it's like gravity's suddenly gone sideways.
Of course, after I leave the line with proper drama, I slow right down. Besides the cold tires, there's the fact that I don't know the road. If you've ever been to a track, you know that you don't learn it in ten laps. Maybe by twenty laps you've got the line down. After that, you can start working on trimming your times. But I won't get twenty runs up this hill, and most road courses aren't 5.2 miles long. Right now, I don't even know which way the corners go. And, unlike a modern road course, there are no cozy runoff areas here. If you make a mistake, you're either going into the mountain or off of it.
I take it easy, perhaps a six-tenths pace, trying to map the course in my mind -- this corner leads to a nice straight, but this one doubles back on itself. Don't want to get those confused. I also see that the road flattens out near the top of the run, completely changing the car's handling. Most of the way up, the car is pointed uphill, transferring weight off the front end and making the car want to understeer. Then, all of a sudden, the front end has grip and the car becomes more neutral. Or perhaps tail-happy. That Viper accident happened near the top, I believe.
I finish my run, coming across a bridge in front of the local sheriff's office (a nice reminder to slow down), and turn back onto an open public road to head back to the starting line. For all the fear and stories of mayhem, that was just really...fun. I mean, I just drove a 911 Turbo on my own private road with complete disregard for the speed limit. While cops watched. How great is that?
Back at the line for my second run, I decide to ramp it up a little. The Spectre officials, quite sensibly, aren't telling anyone their times. But this 911 Turbo has the Sport Chrono package, which, in addition to jacking the torque peak up to 516 lb-ft, also includes an actual timekeeping function. So the next time I leave the line, I start the clock before I pop my foot off the brake.
Dialing up the pace on the second run reveals another diabolical challenge of this road. The problem is not so much the blind corners but the high-speed ones where you can actually see your line. Especially the right-hander at the end of the long straight.
Now, say the 911 will hit about 130 mph up the straight. If the straight ended with a hairpin, that would be tricky. But presumably, if you botched it up, you'd at least scrub a lot of speed first. But the straight instead goes into a wide corner that can be taken at perhaps 90 mph. So if you stay on the throttle a moment too long, if you head into that corner at 95 mph instead of 90, you go over the edge in a hurry.
Back at the top, I stop the clock and check my pace. My time is admittedly ballpark, but it looks like I'm already edging close to the 3:41 Club. I guess that's what happens when you have 500 hp and brakes that could squeeze a smile out of Nancy Grace. And I'm still learning how to get the most out of the car--even with the PDK in ultra-aggressive Sport Plus mode, for instance, you need to shift manually or else the transmission will sometimes upshift early and bog the engine. But mainly, this car makes its massive abilities available to whoever's at the wheel. A monkey could drive a 911 Turbo almost as fast as I can, but a pro couldn't drive it much faster. Marinate on that for a while.
(Right: The Porsche waits outside the Delta Saloon, home of the cheerfully named Suicide Table)
Waiting my turn down at the bottom, I hear anecdotal evidence that the 911 Turbo is possibly the hardest-launching car that anyone here has ever seen. I can believe that, because through the first two gears, the car feels like it's on the verge of pulling a wheelie. And in fact, a 997-series Turbo will occasionally lift the inside front wheel off the ground when powering out of corners. Ask Hurley Haywood to demonstrate sometime.
Another frequent comment concerns the Porsche's noise. Apparently, it makes quite a din on takeoff as it bangs up through the gears. Inside, you're too preoccupied with driving to pay much attention to the cacophony going on behind you -- in my notes, I wrote "noise like Lucifer yawning," and I'm not really sure what I was talking about. I might've been suffering from the effects of too many launch-control starts.
By the end of the day, I feel like I've got a basic handle on the course. But I'm still erring on the side of caution. I'd rather come out of a corner a little too slow than go into one a little too fast. As Rosenbaum points out, there are no prizes. Ultimately, the Spectre 341 Challenge is you against yourself, and I'm trying not to become my own worst enemy. That said, at the end of the day we see our times, and I pushed hard enough to join the 3:41 Club. On my fifth run up the hill, I clocked a 3:34 -- for historical context, about three seconds off the early-'90s record time for a closed-wheel car, set by an Audi Sport Quattro, which was basically a homologated Group B rally car. The Porsche has more speed in reserve, but the question is whether I'll be bold enough tomorrow to try to find it.
I awaken with the answer to that question: No. I accomplished what I set out to do, so what do I gain by pushing harder? If I knock off four seconds, so what? I don't get a kiss from Jessica Biel. I don't get a cash prize. I'll drive reasonably hard and hope for the best, but I won't be catching the big guns, who were all in the 3:20s.
Of course, human nature (or at least, my version of it) being what it is, I still find myself howling up the hill the next morning -- at perhaps imprudent speeds. It's all just too entertaining. It's so much fun that I start giving people rides to share the wealth.
And on one of those runs, with a passenger, I set a 3:33 at an average of 88 mph, good for fifth place and about ten seconds behind Millen in the GT-R. That I can finish on the same calendar day as Steve Millen is a testament to the 911 Turbo, a car that some people continue to underestimate because of its rear-engine layout and consequent weight balance (or rather, imbalance). But the 911 is like a killer whale -- sure, it isn't ideal to have a car's engine behind the rear axle, just as it isn't ideal for an aquatic predator to have lungs. Fish make more sense than killer whales. But a killer whale always has a lot of fish in its belly.
For my part, I decide to quit at lunchtime. Frankly, on the 3:33 run, I had a moment where I scared myself. Braking off the long straight, I lined up wrong and early-apexed the fast corner. I actually blurted "Oh shit!" before reining it in with a few feet of pavement to spare. When you involuntarily say "Oh shit!" at 130 mph, it's probably time to call it a day.
(Right: Rosenbaum loaned his helmet -- unfortunately, a size too small; but maybe the noggin-squishing helmet actually provided extra motivation to reach the finish line in a hurry.)
Bidding farewell to Rosenbaum, I tell him, "I might be able to go a little faster, but more likely I'd just make a mistake trying. So I think I'll leave while this is a happy story instead of a tragic one." Unfortunately, it ended up tragic anyway.
On what was to be his last run of the day, Alex Djordjevic went off the road in his 911 Turbo at the same spot where I scared myself out of the competition. He was killed. Perhaps seasoned racers take this sort of thing in stride, but I found this news deeply unsettling. It's strange to hear about a racing fatality and realize that the sick knot in your stomach is empathy. This must be sort of what it feels like to miss a plane that ends up crashing -- like you got away with something.
After what happened, it's tempting to view this road as a malevolent entity. But it's just a strip of pavement. Whether that represents a nerve-racking flirtation with disaster or a day of pure jollies depends on what you expect to accomplish. And the people who seemed the happiest were the ones who had no particular agenda. Like Dean L. Smith, who ran an ancient De Soto Firedome 8 and could sometimes be spotted in the driver's seat, napping, between runs.
Or, for that matter, Amir Rosenbaum. He of the 3:10 Ferrari F40 didn't break the 3:41 mark all weekend. Because he wasn't driving the F40, instead spending his wheel time bombing up the mountain in a cherry big-block Chevy El Camino, proving how much fun you can have when you've got nothing to prove.
(Top: Ezra reasons that buying Speed Stick will actually enable him to drive in a speedier fashion, since he can turn off the Porsche's air-conditioning without worry of unseemly B.O. Right: Straightenin' the curve, flattenin' the hill. This sign is an understatement.)