Driving the Acura ARX-01b LMP2 racing car that Duncan Dayton's Patrón Highcroft Racing piloted to so much success last year in the American Le Mans Series wasn't as intimidating as it might have been. You see, I've driven around Sebring International Raceway before. The last time was in 2002. In a rented Ford Windstar.
The ARX-01b provided a slightly different experience, to say the least. I'm not completely new to powerful racing cars. I've driven early 1990s IMSA prototypes such as the Intrepid GTP and the Nissan GTP. With 800-plus hp propelling only 2000 pounds, they were plenty fast. But this Acura is almost twenty years newer and a whole order of magnitude more advanced. Think Ferrari Enzo versus F40, and you get the picture.
After two five-lap sessions, I'm called into the pits, and my dream drive is over. Before I strapped myself into the car, Duncan Dayton told me that no matter how fast I went, I would not get a job as a team driver (read: so don't crash). Indeed, I wasn't as quick as the pros, but at least I didn't make a fool out of myself by augering the car into a tire barrier or circling the track at a snail's pace. More important, the Acura ARX-01b now displaces the Ford Windstar as the most exciting car I've piloted around Sebring.
When I asked Patrón Highcroft driver David Brabham if he had any pointers, he said, "Make sure you warm up the carbon brakes as well as the tires, especially the fronts." Warming up is a big part of the pre-run process. The first step is for the team to plug in a meticulously built metal cart that heats the engine oil and water. Once the oil temperature is more than 100 degrees, a laptop computer is connected to make sure everything is up to spec, and the 500-plus-hp, 3.4-liter V-8 is fired up.
When it's finally time for my run, a crackle over the radio from team manager Robin Hill tells me to go. "Don't stall, don't stall, don't stall," is all I can think. With nearly the whole team watching, I lightly feather the incredibly sensitive throttle and let out the grabby, AP Racing carbon/carbon clutch. No stall; I'm off.
The first lap is for familiarization. The team just wants to make sure that the car is OK. I pit, the crew gives the Acura a quick once-over, and I begin session one at speed. The first thing I notice is how wonderful it is to have a six-speed paddleshift transmission in a race car. Purists might think that a real car needs an H-pattern gearbox, but that's not true in the racing world. The ability to bang off 10,000-rpm upshifts and perfect, auto-blip downshifts is nearly essential in a car that can corner and brake like this 1700-pound Acura. And boy, does it ever corner and brake. It's not the power that impresses; it's the insane ability to take fast corners with the throttle pinned to the floor. The relative smoothness of the Acura over the severe bumps on this historic circuit and the fantastic traction control system that allows you to put the power down early and hard are also very impressive.