Four Miles of Heaven: Road America

By Sam Jemielity

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Four Miles of Heaven: Road America:

****I’m at the wheel of the Jaguar XKR-S, a 550-horsepower supercar capable of doing 0-60 in 4.2 seconds. Pedal to the floor, I’m flying down the long back straightaway at the world-famous Road America racetrack. Should I glance down at the speedometer? Macho curiosity and the desire for bragging rights battle my innate survival instinct. I’d like to know just how fast I’m piloting Playboy’s 2012 Car of the Year. Then again, I’d also like to keep it on the track. The words of Jaguar’s public relations representative from earlier in the morning at the pre-track briefing linger in my ears. “The XKR-S has a top speed of 186,” he said. “But I don’t want anyone trying to get near that.” But by the time I hit corner eight or nine on the 14-turn, four-mile Road America track, the Jag has inspired my high-speed-driving confidence. So on the straightaway nicknamed Kettle Bottoms, I quickly look down. The needle is nudging 140 miles per hour. Time to back off — I’ve gotten nowhere near this Jag’s limits, but I know when I’ve reached mine.

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Every spring, the Midwest Automotive Media Association hosts a rally at Road America in Elkhart Lakes, Wisconsin. They invite member journalists and automakers to come together for two days of automobile nirvana. Manufacturers bring their latest, most buzz-worthy models for test-driving. For the journalists, it means the chance to drive some 100 or so vehicles on winding Wisconsin roads, the Road America track, off-road and autocross. It’s as if you went to an auto show and were handed the keys to every car.The weather’s beautiful, as is the lineup of machines authorized to be taken on the Road America track. Here are just a few: The Chevy Camaro ZL1. The 2012 Dodge Challenger SRT8, Charger SRT8 and Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT8. The 2013 Mustang GT and Mustang Boss 302. The 2012 BMW 335i and 328i sedans. The 2012 Porsche 911 Carrera S. The entire 2012 Cadillac CTS-V lineup: coupe, sedan and station wagon. The 2013 Hyundai Genesis Coupe 3.8 R-Spec. The 2012 Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution GSR. The 2013 Subaru BRZ and its Scion sibling the 2013 FR-S. The 2012 Mercedes C63 AMG Coupe and SLK 55 AMG convertible. And of course, the XKR-S.Other cars at Road America are designated for driving through the rolling southern Wisconsin hills surrounding Road America, including a 2013 Rolls-Royce Phantom Series II sedan, a 2012 Bentley GTC and Aston Martin’s 2012 DBS Carbon and 2012 V12 Vantage Carbon. Mercedes even brought out its jaw-droppingly cool 2012 SLS Roadster. Rounding out the group is the redesigned 2012 Audi A6 3.0 and Dodge’s buzz-worthy 2013 Dart lineup. With these and a dozen other slick new vehicles out on the roads, southern Wisconsin residents got the automotive equivalent of the Miss World pageant.I plan to spend my day, however, getting better acquainted with Road America’s hallowed track. In the safety briefing, GingerMan (M.I.) Raceway instructor Phil Mirenda reminds every driver that we are not there to win prizes or get the fastest time. The idea is to be safe, enjoy the vehicles and stay within your limits.
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With that in mind, my first few spins are sedate. I warm up in Cadillac’s gorgeously rakish CTS-V coupe, the slickly revamped BMW 328i and VW’s newly sportified 2012 Beetle Turbo. In the latter, awaiting my turn, I take note of the cars idling ahead. A Nissan GT-R is up front, driven by pro driver Brian Heitkotter, who is giving “hot laps.” Then the Boss 302, BMW 328i, Hyundai Genesis Coupe 2.0T, Subaru BRZ and Jaguar’s top-of-the-line sedan, the XJL. Behind them, it’s me in the Beetle. This is truly gearhead heaven.After my VW jaunt, I take a break to get a hot lap in a race-tuned Cadillac CTS-V. I gear up in a black OMP racing suit, head sock and helmet and get strapped in next to driver Andy Pilgrim. He pulls to the front of the line and we’re off with a thunderous roar. We scream toward the hard right first turn, and when Pilgrim brakes, I feel as if I’m going through the windshield. The five-point seat belt yanks me back. Pilgrim’s driving precision is awe-inspiring. He puts the front tires seemingly right on top of each turn-in point and apex cone as we drift through corner after corner. Except for the brutal braking, the CTS is surprisingly smooth throughout the lap. As we pull back into the staging area, I can feel myself grinning like an idiot.

Moving from one pro to another, I jump into the Nissan GT-R piloted by Brian Heitkotter. He’s a pro driver for Nissan who started his racing career in the virtual world of Gran Turismo. He entered the GT Academy contest, where tens of thousands of virtual racers competed in the game for a spot on the real-world Nissan racing team. After winning the contest, Heitkotter went on to make the podium at the 2012 24 Hours of Dubai — not bad for a guy who honed his skills on a gaming system. Heitkotter is scary fast in the GT-R; he flies through Road America’s four miles, all the while casually making small talk about GT Academy and racing as if we were cruising to pick up milk at the corner store.

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The hot laps with the pros are thrilling, but I want back behind the wheel. I see an unoccupied white Lexus IS-F sitting like a pretty girl all alone at a dance. The IS-F has stellar handling in the turns, a ton of power on the straights and one of the best engine notes I hear all day. And it’s flat-out fast. I’m not three quarters of the way done with the lap before I’m coming up on the tail of the car in front: a Lexus GS350. After my lap in the Jaguar XKR-S, it’s on to the 2012 Porsche 911 Carrera S. I hop in next to David Donohue, a race car driver in the Grand-Am Rolex Sports Car series who won the 24 Hours of Daytona in a Porsche (as did his legendary father Mark some 40 years earlier). Donohue explains the Porsche’s PDK dual-clutch transmission, which in a nutshell means the 911 has the next gear up or down already available as you accelerate or decelerate, creating ultra-quick shifts. The 911 also has launch control, so even a neophyte can get off the line like Helio Castroneves. Under Donohue’s instruction, I forgo everything I learned in driver’s ed and simultaneously floor the gas and press the brake. I wait a moment until the “launch” signal appears on the instrument panel. I pull off the brake and the 911 jumps off the line, pinning me back into the seat. I take the first few turns cautiously until Donohue tells me to push it harder. He has me braking later into turns and accelerating sooner out. I’m driving the 911 much more aggressively than I would have by myself. “Don’t lift,” Donohue says, so I mash the gas and we whistle down the back straightaway. “How did you like the PDK shifts?” Donohue asks when we return. He answers his own question: “You feel like a hero from the sound of the engine.” He’s not kidding.

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Another heroic vehicle is the Mercedes-Benz SLK 55 AMG convertible. As I slide into the cockpit, the previous driver is marveling at the Mercedes. “It’s one of the best of the day,” he says. “I caught a BMW by turn five and couldn’t go fast. I want a do-over.” Sorry, buddy, my turn. He’s right; the SLK 55 is a joy to drive, as any roadster worth its salt should be. It handles brilliantly through the turns and I push it hard through Kettle Bottoms. I don’t reach Jaguar speeds, but 130 miles per hour with the top down is plenty fast to get my pulse high into the triple digits.I get the chance to get some driving tips from GingerMan Raceway’s Mirenda, and he advises steering more smoothly. I spend my final leisurely laps trying to follow his advice. A spin in a metallic red 2012 Mustang GT gives me a chance to enjoy the V8’s beautiful muscle car baritone, while the all-new 2012 Mazda CX-5 compact crossover is surprisingly quick and agile enough to have fun, especially in the curves — a great buy for lead-footed soccer moms.I round out the day enjoying the amazing track with two powerful, fun-to-drive American revivals: a slick black-and-gray Dodge Challenger SRT8 and Ford’s ballsy Taurus SHO. The perfect ending to an epic day at Road America.


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