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A reader letter and reminiscing about automotive mayhem

Admitting that you have a problem is the first step, right? Well, here goes: Hi, my name is Jason, and I have slightly destructive tendencies.

With that said, my personal problem is less of a desire to actually break things, it's more that I tend to laugh a lot when I've discovered some unfortunate automotive component's limit. So you can imagine my amusement when we received a letter from a reader today suggesting that we conduct "a track test of representative cars in each segment to see how long they last on a track with continuous driving before the brakes overheat, causing fire, or until the transmission fails in spectacular fashion."

That is so up my alley.

Of course, the email was forwarded to me by executive editor Joe DeMatio-my boss, let's not forget-who asked "Don't you have experience in getting brakes to burst into flame on the track?"; Why yes, yes I do. And I proudly announce that those two incidents were the result of pure scientific testing.

Kind of. I actually mentioned the first one in a story. It was in a Lexus IS-F, which I was driving around Mazda Raceway at Laguna Seca during the press launch. The organizers of the event allowed no more than two consecutive laps, followed by a cool-down lap, and then the car needed to be brought back into the pits. I asked if I could do three (or five or ten) hot laps in a row, since this was, after all, a somewhat track-focused hotrod version of the IS. Answer? No, but doing three hot laps in a row was fine. So I did.

Laguna Seca is notoriously hard on brakes, and so I wasn't all that surprised that the front brake pads burst into flames as soon as I came to a stop in the pits after three 10/10ths laps. The surprising part was that there was no loss in pedal feel and no brake fade prior to that.

Ditto with the Ferrari 599 HGTE I managed to nearly incinerate at Ferrari's Fiorano circuit. Some sort of errore communicazione (no, that's not real Italian) had some unsuspecting track official forbidding me from doing a cool-down lap. That resulted in my first four-wheel carbon-ceramic fire. Cool.

I swear on my BMW that I don't abuse press cars, though. As much fun as it sounds like--getting to beat someone else's car until it's nothing but a pile of smoldering ash--it comes at a really big cost. And I don't mean the cost of replacing brake pads and rotors: if the next journalist gets in the car and the brakes are mushy, the car gets blamed for it. And that means lost sales, which means lost jobs, which means people get hurt. I definitely don't like hurting people.

Rental cars? Now that's a different story. Oh, for some reason, I become positively demented when it comes to rental cars. The Lincoln LS had the first electric parking brake I ever got to play with, and thus the biggest rear-wheel brake fire I've ever seen. The Tercel got jumped about four feet high, and landed so hard its hubcaps all flew off simultaneously; that was hilarious. The Cavalier tolerated endless--endless!--redline neutral drops... burned tire like a champ. The automatic-transmission Mustang wouldn't burn tire at all, though -- until a friend peed on the rear tires to reduce grip. I think that was the same Mustang whose brake rotors I got to glow white hot--now that was cool. The Pontiac Sunfire survived about fifty full-throttle reverse-drops at 30 mph. The Neon didn't even survive one. (It's cute little "Hi!" face looked so sad on a flatbed.)

Ah, good times. Of course, I don't recommend trying any of these things at home--and by all means not to your own car. And I definitely wouldn't try any of these things for the purpose of a story in our magazine.

I will say, however, that getting a modern car to blow up, even on the track, would take a long time. Firstly, they're very robustly engineered. Second, they have computers and sensors that pull the plug on your abuse long before gears come flying out from under the hood. We recently had something like fifteen cars at our All-Stars track day, and no matter how hard we drove them, they all emerged no worse for the wear.

Okay, so the Buick LaCrosse might have coughed up a huge plume of oil smoke from its exhaust after sitting for a lunch break following a couple of very, very hard laps. Oh, and the Nissan 370Z limited itself to 6000 rpm and cut power output once the engine oil reached some near-meltdown number like 300'F. The Genesis Coupe's automatic locked itself into fourth gear temporarily, presumably to help cool it down. But that's it.

Oh wait, come to think of it, I did absolutely destroy one press car's brakes. It was a 2009 Infiniti FX50S, and it was with the permission of Infiniti. We had some big concerns with brake fade on the FX. Infiniti took our concerns seriously enough that they offered to retrofit all FX50s with the European-specification brake pads. The Euro pads, we were told, resist fade better than the original U.S.-spec pads, but at the expense of more dust and noise.

Anyway, to test the new pads, I put the FX through the most ridiculous abuse cycle I could come up with without making myself vomit.; I did six full-ABS stops from 60 mph, which accomplished nothing other than giving me a headache. Without allowing the brakes to cool, I then did eight full-ABS stops from 80 mph before the pedal finally started to go soft. I probably could have continued but... why? The point had been proven.

The point being: you'll probably be re-greeting your lunch before the modern performance car runs out of capability. Notice I say "performance car." I personally think a 24-hour Prius endurance test is in order.

[The brake rotor pictured is from that Inifiniti FX50S. Ouch, right?]