Riley Mark XXII Track Day Car: First Drive

Riley Technologies is best known for building Daytona prototype race cars. But what if they built a version that any idiot could drive? That's the Mark XXII, a Corvette V8-powered, decontented Daytona prototype. Why? Because racecar. With training wheels.

Rule # 1: Any car with "Mark" in its name is automatically cool. Rule # 2: Drive like there's an egg between your foot and the gas pedal and you don't want to crack it.

"Eck, eck, eck, chuff." I've just stalled leaving the pits, to the braying amusement of my so-called colleagues. C'mon. This car's lightweight flywheel makes launching from a dead stop a bit, you know, ticklish. Unlike in a typical sports car, whose inertia-loaded flywheel — engineers will tell you — stores kinetic energy and smoothes the operation of the reciprocating engine, getting going in the Riley MkXXII demands the finesse you'd use to, say, defuse a bomb on the tilt-a-whirl.

The flywheel's low rotational mass lets the V8 spin up quickly, giving it a great deal of flexibility for things like leaving corners behind in a hurry. I hope to do that shortly, on Monticello Motor Club's 3.6 mile course, but first I'll have to roll this little bastard out of pit lane.

A few more stutter-steps, another halting "eck, eck, eck, chuff," and a second round of hoots. No matter. I'm about to find out why an afternoon spent lapping a racetrack in this car is worth any embarrassment, even pit lane's "trundle of shame."

The flywheel is just one difference between the Riley MkXXII and a typical road car. Riley calls the MkXXII a track-day car, but its template is the Riley MkXX Daytona prototype racecar. That's the one we've seen rounding Daytona International Speedway's modified road course for 24 hours each winter since 2003. But where the MkXX prototype hews only to its series' rules, the track-day car's been altered further to help drivers new to the conjugal purity of racing cars and racetracks develop the skills that marriage requires.

The numbers confirm something special is at hand: 2,300 lbs and 500 hp, or 4.6 pounds per horsepower. That's dream-car spec for driving purists. The test-model MkXXII is riding on racing slicks, though the base version comes with street-legal Michelins. Behind my head is a Corvette LS3 V8 tuned by CRD Engineering, a North Carolina-based supplier of racing engines for the Grand American Road Racing Association's (or just Grand Am's) Rolex Sports Car Series.

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Introduced for the 2003 season, the closed-cockpit Daytona prototypes (or DPs) scrubbed speed from the erstwhile Le Mans-derived open-cockpit Sports Racing Prototypes that had topped the grid previously. Race organizers touted the DPs' safety on Daytona's banked oval sections, as well as their cost-effectiveness for Grand Am's bread-and-butter privateer teams. Riley's version starts at $405,000, a fraction of a typical Le Mans prototype's sticker price.

Compared to a Riley DP, the track-day car looks like a bargain at $225,000. The price slash reflects changes made for the sake of simplicity, ease of maintenance and giving student drivers a more manageable racecar experience (Read: less chance of them clobbering a wall), compromises that would likely cost precious seconds in a typical Grand Am race.

Structurally, the cars are similar, though the track-day version lacks some of the racecar's pricey, weight-saving strategies: The side impact structure is fabricated steel, not carbon-fiber composite; the body is made from a laminate of fiberglass and Kevlar, again, not carbon-fiber; the suspension has been simplified, with a double wishbone in the front and five-link in the rear instead of the prototype's twin wishbones and pushrod-type suspension.

If the DP car is the MkXXII's father, the late-model Corvette is its half-sibling. In addition to the engine, Riley's harvested the hubs and bearings, half shafts and rack-and-pinion steering with hydraulic power-assist, which replaces the racecar's competition-ready electronic steering, from the 'Vette.

Buyers can also up-fit their track steeds with 600 hp ($9,500) and 650 hp ($13,750) LS3 tunes or a 650 hp-700 hp LS7 V8 ($20,500). They can also ditch the V8 altogether, and choose a 650 hp BMW V10 ($35,000). Other options include cockpit air conditioning for $8,200, ABS brakes for $15,000 and air jacks for $4,325.

Indeed, it's a peak-earning-years proposition, but the result is a DP-like experience at a big discount. One obvious benefit of the cost difference is the car's accessibility to racing schools. Monticello Motor Club recently announced it's launching the Riley Advanced Racing Experience, which combines two days of instructed flogging of the MkXXII with velvet-ropes treatment: two nights of luxury in NYC and a private helicopter to cover the 90 miles separating Manhattan and Monticello. At $28,500, it's a splurge package for Wall Street bonus babies and well-heeled bucket-listers. If that works, it's no stretch to assume other, less-swanky track programs might arise. I know a few regular Joes who'd fork over a couple weeks' salary and sleep six to a pup-tent for a few hours with this car.

Prior to my stalling adventure, I'd strapped into the five-point harness behind the undersized racing helm and was immediately giddy at performing a real-live racecar ignition sequence from a bank of switches. The first sparked a whine from the fuel pump, the second the sharp bark of that unmuffled Corvette V8. At my fingers are shift paddles that actuate a Sadev six-speed sequential transmission (aka "dog box," for the distinct whine of its straight-cut gears).

Finally, a few deep throttle draws here, a clutch slip there, and we're underway. Immediately, I'm acclimating to the steering, which requires no more that a wrist movement to initiate a turn, but I'm grateful for the Corvette rack's smooth mercy. With the approval of Monticello's chief instructor Jason Holehouse, who's riding shotgun, I'm upping the pace for lap two and the car's utter lack of roll and the vastness of the slicks' adhesion emerge. A twinge of future obsession starts somewhere at the stomach level, and rises. I'm thinking I need this thing in my life. A few quick calculations later, and I've relocated to a pop-up trailer in the desert, where I'm living on dried beans and armadillo — just to make the first payment.

On lap three we touch 140 on the straight, and I grab for the brakes. But I'm too early for their immense stopping power, and we enter a hairpin at what feels like single-digit speeds. On lap four, I'm pushing my luck, thanks to some positive feedback from the right seat, and the giddiness mingles with adrenaline, into a strange amalgam of first-unhooked-bra and oh-no-are-your-parents-home-already? This thing is ridiculous fun. Bucket list, kidney-for-sale, Indecent Proposal fun.

Laps five and six go by in a blur, except for a couple of instances when i'm reminded of that old saying — the one about driving like there's an egg between your foot and the accelerator. Mashing the pedal with the wheels pointed anywhere but straight ahead, or making unsmooth moves of any kind, and the car issues a snap reminder that we're not in a Miata anymore, Toto.

I arrive back in the pits, wrung out. Remember how you felt when they turned off the power at the end of a ride on the bumper cars, and all you wanted to do was get back in line for another go? Multiply that by 10. Make that 100. Anyone know any good recipes for barbecued armadillo?

Video Credit: Iain Browne, Fast Lane Daily