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Four Miles of Heaven: Road America
  • June 18, 2012 : 19:06
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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.

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.

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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