When we're invited to drive GT4 cars at Monticello Motor Club, who are we to complain?
Photography: Andrew Link
The following article is presented in two parts. 'Cause we classy like that.
Sometimes, things just go so right. Like, say, being pulled aside at the New York Auto Show a month ago to be invited up to Monticello Motor Club to check out Aston Martin's Vantage-based GT4 race cars. Like the weather finally remembering it’s supposed to be spring and delivering up a cloudless 75-degree day. Like finding out that not only will you be able to ride around the track in said Aston Martin race car, you'll also be able to drive it. Not right away, of course. Race cars are finicky things, requiring a lot of T.L.C. between laps. Tires must be checked, noise levels measured, napalm-grade fuel shunted into the tank. Better-known journalists with bigger audiences must go first. So you wait. You watch. You lean up against the Armco like a trackday Tom Sawyer and watch the black Aston you’re gonna drive tear past over and over again, spitting out a roar like God after He stubs His Toe. Until your time comes. The Aston pulls into the garage—a stealth fighter covered in corporate logos—the doors pop open, and your coworker scrambles out, grinning and sweating in equal measure. You pull on your balaclava, jam the helmet on your head, and - if you're like me - grumble under your breath as you try to finesse, finagle, and finally force your glasses onto your face through the helmet's gun slit. But once they're on, it's into the Aston. Not the driver's side, not at first; the club’s pro driver has first crack, to show you what this thing is capable of. He tells you his name is Corey. As you introduce yourself, a technician who is almost certainly not paid enough reaches between your thighs like one of the Hustler Club’s finest to hook up your five-point harness. Corey tells you he's been doing this for 16 years, which impresses you. Then he tells you he started when he was four. Suddenly, you’re feeling rather insecure. And old. Corey winds the Aston up the road to the entrance to the north track; the marshal waves him on, and he punts it. It's the speed he carries through the corners, the impossible way the car tracks straight and level through bowline knot bends without a note of protest from the tires, that startles you. Every turn sends your helmet slamming into the sides of the racing seat, every hard shift sends it back into the headrest. A spec Miata makes the mistake of being on the course at the same time; Corey slices its line in two on a tight right turn, jumping in front of it en route to what the speedo says is an 185 kph top speed on the back straight. 115 mph. (It seemed faster at the time.) The two warm-up laps wind down, and Corey brings the car back to the. An awkward clamber from the passenger's seat is followed by an even more awkward climb into the driver's seat - complete, again, with the stoic technician fumbling around near your junk. But finally, the belts are on, the steering wheel in place, the door closed. It's time to drive a goddamn race car. Turn the key to on. Pull the red nipple on the dash that starts the flow of fuel. Press the glass Start button. The V8 lives. Push the button for reverse. Follow the technician's directions to back out - the sight lines are only slightly better than the view out of a submarine. Pop the car into drive, and purr up the hill to the track. This seems easy enough. The paddles control the gears; just don't downshift too fast, Corey says, or else it won't shift at all. Oh, and don't hit the brakes hard enough to engage ABS. Up pit lane now; the marshal gives the go-ahead, so you punch it in second gear. The mighty roar is all but muted in the cabin, inside the helmet, but you know it's there, the way you know the moon is yanking on the seas. The Aston picks up speed with linear fury, but honestly, you've accelerated faster. A McLaren MP4-12C, a GT-R, even a CLS63 AMG or a Corvette Grand Sport - they all build speed faster, if the seat of your pants is as a reliable calculator. And then you hit the first turn, and you realize why this thing is a race car. The grip seems absolute, body roll absent. Cones along the track indicate where to point the car’s blunt nose; just look, point and squirt. Corey flashes hand signs like a Navy SEAL, indicating when to downshift or hit the brakes. The first corners pass by slowly. You’ve seen what the Aston Martin can do in the hands of a professional, but you’ve spent more time on the john in the last month than you have on a track in your life, and you don’t want to be That Guy who stacks the six-figure race car because he thought he was better than he was. Everybody in the auto journalism world knows That Guy. Nobody likes him. But once the back straight rolls into view, you mash the throttle to the firewall, and unleash the thunder. Up to the top of second—bang—shift. Up to the top of third—bang—shift. Towards the top of fourth…the braking point is coming up fast…why the hell didn’t Aston put a red line on this damn tachometer, brake brake BRAKE… You turn harder, you brake later, you push the gas pedal further. The rear end goes squirrely for a fraction of a second before the traction control catches, suddenly making clear why Aston Martin elected to keep it on for the journalist test-drives. You’d bet good money that somebody would have spun it by now otherwise. But it wouldn’t have been you. No, you know that for sure as you power through the turns on your second lap, onto your third, and then into the last one; as you kiss 110 mph at the end of the back straight; as you wind through the final turns at what feels like the knife’s edge of control, hands spinning, eyes scanning, synapses firing as fast as that glorious-sounding V8. And just like that, it’s over. Corey signals to pull into the pits and head to the garage; you flick on the blinker, downshift to second, and pull off the track and onto the access road. Hands trembling as the adrenaline ebbs from your blood. It hits you that you’re incredibly warm, and the air you’ve been breathing is thick and stale. “What’d you think,” Corey asks? You give it a second. “That’s one hell of a job you’ve got there,” you reply, aiming for John Wayne-like understatement. Pull into the garage. Put it in park. Turn the ignition switch and kill the fuel. The crew opens the door; twist the harness loose and scramble out. You pull off the helmet—and, sure enough, you’re wearing a shit-eating grin. Sometimes, things just go so right.
-Will Sabel Courtney
__________________________________________________________________________ Going into turn one at Monticello’s North course I thought it would be faster. Granted, I have driven other, faster, cars before so knowing what kind of thrust large amounts of horsepower can provide is nothing new, but The Racing Group (TRG)'s Aston Martin Vantage GT4 didn’t provide that initial “What did I get myself into?” scare. Uphill into the first turn I was asking for more grunt. The initial startup procedure offers a reminder that yes; this is a racecar that demands strict operating guidelines in order to fully realize it’s potential on track, and avoid an ill-fated mistake. Fuel pump on, buttons pushed here and there, key twisted, then one of the most satisfying sounds to a gear head, that turbine sound of the starter turning over the motor that usually comes from an Aston Martin and the je ne sais quoi it produces. But when it comes to racing, horsepower isn’t the only thing that matters and even horsepower doesn’t guaranteed winning. The Vantage GT4 gets by with a thing that has produced results ever since racing was a sport: Grip. You associated racing with speed, and granted they usually have tons of it, but without grip they’d be victims of gravity’s harsh tendency to not forgive. So with almost 300 kilograms (roughly 660 pounds) shaved off the road-going Vantage the tires have the innate ability to produce loads and loads of grip, one thing that can overcome speed. Being a little hesistant through turn 1, I brake way too early—the four-piston monoblock calipers matched to steel rotors provide tremendous, fade free braking—and I have to power through the turn 50 feet before reaching the apex. It’s not the most traditional racing line, but I get a feel for the capabilities of the car quickly. Most noticeably, rotation under throttle lift is direct and predictable, even if you come into an apex a bit too vigorous and have to lift, the car will follow the steering with no complaints. It’s a nice reminder that you have multiple ways of getting from A to B. Using the road-going Vantage’s six-speed automatic transmission with torque converter, shifts aren’t dual clutch quick, but they are violent—imagine being hit with a football in the head with Drew Brees QB’ing. You’ll never mistake a shift, but after repeated laps, I feel like the brute force would wear you down more quickly than in competing cars. By the third lap I’m really starting to get into a braking, turn-in rhythm so I figure the time is right for more throttle towards the exit of the turn, however, due to traction-control (I thought his was a race car!) I’m severely limited to how much power I can put down. By all accounts, the local hot shoe who was providing hot laps for orientation would’ve been 200 feet ahead by the time the Aston actually started putting full power down. I understand why the “insurance switch” is on there (considering they allowed five journalists with no track time in the car drive) but it would’ve been exciting to see the difference. Not having a writer stack an Aston racer is definitely TRG’s prerogative for the day. Another quirk that kept me from ultimately going as fast as nerves would have allowed was the extremely low seating position. I’m 5’8” and I could barely see out of the front screen. Low center of gravity, I totally get it but this was almost unnecessarily low. Not seeing the apex on certain turns is not only sketchy, but really discomforting. After the allotted five laps I was starting to become quite comfortable in the car, the learning curve is subtle enough to wring out some fairly fast laps within the first few minutes of piloting the car. However, this is still a race car and it still demands not only mental ability but physical endurance, something which takes years of practice and the willingness to put this before family, friends and free time. Seriously, it’s not easy. Yes, these cars can only be afforded by the wealthy or the truly talented who are lucky enough to get sponsors, but you get money from being a hard worker and that dedication is what it takes to squeeze the most out of the GT4. Sure, you can buy anything with money but you cannot buy skill and dedication to a sport, which requires an insane amount of skill. The Vantage GT4 is the perfect stepping stone for the few that can get in one.