You exit turn 16 with your foot flat to the floor. That's when you see the birds on the track. Of course they'll get out of the way, you think, they're birds, they fly, you say. Then you hit 140 MPH. Then you smack a bird. Hard.
The first reaction to hitting the bird is "what the fuck was that?" The second reaction is a hope that the next 24 hours don't have you hitting progressively bigger things. The third reaction is to not lift off the throttle at all. You have one of the greatest tracks in America to yourself and you only have two laps, you have to take advantage of it, even if it means committing birdslaughter.
The backstretch at Sebring is an airport runway. Like the rest of the track, it's the opposite of smooth. To your right is a concrete wall, maybe five or six feet off the pavement. At the end of the braking zone is a wall. A hard wall. If your brakes fail, you're going straight into it. It's a theme for the whole track, which beats up the driver and the brakes.
In fact, after just two laps, the pedal on the RS 7 goes flat to the floor. There are no brakes. At all. It's also exactly what I predicted would happen when I drove the RS 7 last summer.
That's the sign of a great race track. It flows yet it's technical. There are long straights and braking zones that want you to go as deep as you can. Sweepers that make you go flat out. It wasn't designed by a man in an office looking for ways to create passing zones with straightaways and narrow hairpins. It was built out of what they had.
In the 1940s, Sebring International Raceway was an Army Air Forces training base where soldiers were trained in the B-17 Flying Fortress. After the war, the potential was seen to make it into an endurance track that could rival anywhere in the world.
And it has for more than 50 years. This is a fast track that mixes in slow, technical corners.
Sebring is a track created because someone looked at the area and said "hey, this would make a great race track."It wasn't a study into passing zones or an attempt to make a signature corner. That doesn't make a great track. An idea, a vision, that makes a great track.
The same can be said for Daytona International Speedway and its 31 degree banking. In order to have sports cars at Daytona, the track needed to become a road course. But there was no way to avoid the signature banking.
So they didn't.
Instead, the banking is the defining element of the circuit. Getting on the banking is a kind of holy shit moment. A moment when the blood rushes to one side of your head.
On TV, you just don't realize how high 31 degrees is. When you're there, it feels like you're driving on a wall. It's so steep that the transition to pit lane can crack the windshield, which we were repeatedly warned about.
There is nothing particularly interesting about the Daytona infield. It's flat without reference points. The corners aren't that notable, but they aren't meant to be a Corkscrew, an Eau Rouge, a Parabolica. The purpose of these corners is to let sports cars race at one of the fastest tracks in the entire world.
Could you imagine someone on a computer today making this same simple track? I really can't. Instead, there would be focus groups saying "we need hairpins and chicanes to encourage passing," and then you end up with the infield road course at Indianapolis, which, while well intentioned, is as cookie cutter and generic as race tracks come.
Safety standards have gone through the roof in recent years, which necessitates runoff and soft walls in order to save driver's lives. This is a good thing, racing is safer than it has ever been.
But that also means we'd never see turn 12 at Road Atlanta become a reality.
You enter the corner over a blind crest. Enter too far to the left and you're in the weeds and then the wall. Enter too far to the right and your entry is too narrow, meaning you'll fly off the track into the wall on the left side. There is no room for error here. A little mistake and you are screwed, possibly monumentally so. In our short time on the track, we just couldn't get it right. Thankfully, we weren't going fast enough that it mattered, but imagining the consequences of getting it wrong are nearly enough to keep you up all night.
And no matter how many times you drive a track in a video game, you aren't prepared to actually experience the track itself. The elevation change and blindness of almost all the corners at Road Atlanta are nearly implausible. In fact, there are maybe five corners that aren't totally blind.
That isn't the sort of thing you plan on a computer. You don't just start building hills with sudden drops to blind drivers. Today's tracks seem to emphasize sight lines more than ever for safety reasons. I totally understand it, but then you realize that you'd never have a track like Road Atlanta if it were built today. I doubt that the plot of land that was used for Road Atlanta would even house a track today.
In 1957, Virginia International Raceway opened. It closed just 17 years later thanks to "economic hardships." It was rediscovered in 1998 and reopened in 2000 as a motorsports resort.
But the conversion to motorsports resort didn't mean changes to the track. As we were told during our visit, VIR's layout is the same as it was nearly 60 years ago. Its signature corner was Oak Tree Corner, which exists because the track builders didn't want to cut down a gorgeous tree.
The tree fell last year, and it transformed the turn. The apex moved a few feet and the line is now totally different. VIR is working with Virginia Tech to clone the original tree in order to plant it again.
VIR is one of those tracks that got a rare second chance at life, it came back from the dead. Some of the facilities have been modernized and additional asphalt has been added for multiple configurations, but that original track and its spirit still live on today.
And even though it was just paved and we could only drive it at 35 MPH, you realize just how technical this track is, how much you need to pay attention. And this fresh pavement has barely changed the complexion of the track at all. It's a bit wider in a few spots, but it's still VIR. And that's what matters.
These four tracks don't have the provenance that a track like the Circuit Of The Americas has with F1 and WEC events, but what they do have is history. Real, tangible history. COTA was devised from the start on a computer, with elements that are going to be its signature. And other than the uphill turn one, the rest of that track is a bit anonymous, a bit forced, a bit boring.
Sebring has character. There isn't a corner that doesn't have tire marks where a car smacked the wall or a bump that could break a suspension. Daytona has a banking that you have to respect, or else it'll bite you. Road Atlanta is the sort of track that I imagine happens when a man goes out in his backyard, drives a bulldozer around, says "this looks fun," and then paves all of it. And VIR, well, you can almost see Carroll Shelby in his Maserati rounding Oak Tree Corner with you on every lap.
These are the tracks that motorsports in America were built on. They weren't necessarily built as a business study or a profit machine. They were built to test man and machine in the most grueling possible way. They were built for fun.
And I'd drive these four over some science experiment in passing zones and runoff areas every day of the week.
Photo Credits: Raphael Orlove
Special thanks to Sebring, Daytona, Road Atlanta, VIR, and IMSA for opening the tracks to us no matter what time we arrived. Also thanks to Audi for the hot rod.