My love affair with the Z51 was renewed the next morning at the Virginia International Raceway, a charming old road track that had gone to seed before being restored recently. (Paul Newman, who drove a Porsche there, called VIR "heaven on earth.") Fairly long (3.27 miles) and quite fast, it features a sassy set of ess-curves that let the Vettes kick out their tails with the vivacity of fashion models prancing down the runway. Soon thereafter, you encounter the memorable Oak Tree Turn, a double-apex right-hander that rewards close attention. You can nail the first apex much faster than at first seems plausible, but if you are then emboldened to carry too much speed into the considerably tighter second apex, you're likely to make an unwelcome spectacle of yourself. Black-and-white photos on the clubhouse walls show many an able driver of old stranded in the tall grass past the Oak Tree after having made this mistake. All the C6s could handle this turn admirably-as well they might, since their suspensions were developed in part on this track-but the Z51 was the star of the show. Its mighty brakes required just a gentle, last-minute stab to set up at the mouth of the curve, and its suspension was nimble enough that you could throw the car sideways, false-apex it by aiming straight at the tree tucked inside the turn, and apply power to drift to the true apex for a gravity-defying launch onto the back straight.
Ah, that back straight. Nearly a mile long, it features a blind hilltop two-thirds of the way along that all but audibly dares you not to lift. The course worker in the roofed flag tower by the hilltop would deploy a yellow flag if a deer or a disabled car were waiting on the other side to put an end to your lap or your life, but it took me three tries before I could persuade my right foot to keep the pedal to the floor. The Corvettes' small-block, 6.0-liter engines got slightly breathless up the hill, and for all my ham-handed trickery, I was unable to clear the hilltop at much more than 130 mph-fully 56 mph short of the cars' claimed top end-but that was still plenty fast. Sure, a Ferrari 360 or a Mercedes-Benz SL55 might nail that hilltop at 150 mph or so, but that's what you get for an extra hundred grand on top of the Corvette's MSRP.
The standard suspension is available with Corvette's Magnetic Selective Ride Control (MR) package. Advertised as the world's fastest damping device, it employs a computer-controlled variable electromagnetic field that coagulates iron particles suspended in the fluid near the damper valves, stiffening an outside corner the moment it starts to deflect. But although Chevrolet has been refining the MR system since it debuted in 2003, it seemed to me to make the car feel heavy and to overcorrect on rough roads. To do it justice on the track, I asked Corvette chassis developer Mike Neal to let me ride shotgun with him for a couple of laps. As you might expect of an automotive engineer driving a car he helped build on a track he knows well, Neal was blisteringly fast, smacking the tires across the apex alligators with the force of a dropped piano, and by switching the MR on and off, he demonstrated that it does keep the car flatter, especially during rapid lane-changing maneuvers. But body roll isn't really an issue with C6 Vettes in the first place, and behind the wheel on the track, I again had the sense that the MR system was overcompensating a bit at high speeds, detracting from the car's inherent stability. So, unless you're after a fully loaded C6, I'd advise passing up this rather pricey ($1695) option.
Back home in California, I drove a C5 Z06 for five days, then switched to a stock C6 convertible for comparison. Packing 405 horsepower in a svelte (3140-pound) frame, the Z06 is most purists' favorite Corvette, and it wasn't hard to see why. Driving this Spartan street racer on freeways-with its snarling exhaust note, Calvinist suspension, and virtually enough torque to twist the tires off the rear wheels-was like saddling up a giant rabbit. But let's face it, folks, extreme cars are a lot more fun on racetracks than on public roads. Purposeful as a handgun and about as subtle, the Z06 was at its best smearing down crayon marks of tire rubber on smooth roads, but the undulating surfaces of San Francisco's elevated freeways could send it into a tizzy, throwing me around in the belts like a plastic action figure in a kid's lunchbox. Like many pseudo-racing cars, it was apt to shake at idle, emitting odd creaks and groans and oily odors, and its dark, dank interior-an eternal complaint about Corvettes-made it almost a relief to shut the thing off and get out.