BAM. BAM. BAM. The woman in front of me clacks a pack of cigs against the gas station minimart counter before paying. I put down a few bucks for my first coffee of the trip and walk out into the night. It's 4am and our Audi RS7 sits idling in the cold Virginia air. We have five hours of driving ahead of us and seventeen behind us. Even with heated seats, air suspension, and 560 horsepower, this 1300 mile road trip is destroying me.
If the Audi RS7 isn't the perfect road trip car, it's pretty close. You sit in leather seats, heated, so comfortable you never once get sore. You can set the radar cruise control and the car will slow the car for you if someone in front slams on the brakes. You have a lane departure system that doesn't just warn you if you drift over the white lines, it steers the car back into your lane. You have your own air conditioning settings, every one of your passengers has another.
You have sound insulation so good that you never raise your voice while cruising, but if you do want to hear the car working, you can drop five gears in the ZF 8-speed auto and hear the V8 crackle and bang on the overrun. You have cylinder deactivation, so even after lapping a couple racetracks, the overall mileage sits at over 21 mpg. Even then you have so much power that merging is never, ever, ever an issue. The way that a regular car gets up to sixty, the RS7 gets to a hundred and ten.
But here I am at this middle-of-nowhere rural Virginia gas station, forced to finally give in and drink some coffee because my right eye has been twitching for the past ten minutes. It's the lowest point of the trip. Travis says he's not safe to drive any more at all. The whole plan has been to drive from Daytona to New York City in 24 hours, keeping time with the Daytona 24 while hitting three race tracks in the middle, and if I can't keep up, we pull over and find a hotel. The trip would be a bust.
The coffee works.
The gears in my brain start whirring away again and my eye stops twitching. Through this whole road trip I've had a plan: resist eating any sugar, resist having any caffeine until it is absolutely necessary. It's paying off, and I get us back on 95 and point straight for Washington D.C., where Patrick George will meet Travis and me and drive us the final leg back to New York.
There's something about thousand-mile road trips that are particularly mind-melting. Maybe it's something about how the landscape changes as it rushes past the window. Maybe it's something about the highway, and how you end up driving alongside other cars for miles and miles and miles. They turn off and you stay on, meeting other vehicular strangers tagging along for another stretch. Sometimes they're benign, sometimes they try and run you off the road, like one stepside 1990s Ford F150 did somewhere in north Florida.
Whatever it is, the trip that Travis and I are on might be the most brain-destroying road trip I've ever had. The day before, we flew into Daytona, picked up a red Audi RS7, six-figure pricetag and twin turbo 4.0 liter V8 and all. We immediately b-lined for Sebring, where they agreed to let us do a few laps of the track all by ourselves. As it turned out, we didn't have the track exactly to ourselves, as there was one random guy wandering on the racing line, a school of 30 people in Ferrari jackets hanging out near the back straight, and one bird that decided to meet the RS7's hood at over 140 miles an hour.
Sebring is unforgettable: completely flat, one corner melts into another, the sun sets into your eyes down the back runway straightaway. Sebring is also almost impossible to comprehend if you've never driven it before (Travis and I never had outside of video games). The back course is flat and featureless. Maybe that right hander you're coming up on is an opening-radius bend that leads onto a little straight. Maybe it's a kink that leads you into a 90-degree corner with no runoff before a concrete wall.
And it's all a blur. We never put our helmets on, nobody told us we had to. We only managed two laps each because the one track official had to get home before it got too late. We were in such a daze that we almost left all of our bags behind, tucked out of sight behind pit wall.
We drove another few hours back to Daytona and after one short night of sleep we headed out to the Speedway. Before we even had breakfast, we get put in a different RS7 (our red car was on winter tires and wasn't allowed on the banking) and are let loose on track. Maybe that's when my mind started to go. I swear you can feel your brain leaking out your ear when you're on a 31 degree banking at 120.
Just as the Daytona 24 prepared to start, we left. We were going to Road Atlanta, where they have the 1000 miles of Petit Le Mans later in the year. Florida fell behind us, flat and boring and almost what you could call warm.
South Georgia looked even shittier than north Florida. Half the billboards are faded and falling apart, the other half are for massage parlors that advertise trucker parking.
Oh, and pecans. Lots of pecans. We bought them sugar-coated, tasting like cookie dough. And I bought three pounds of peanuts, which were curiously not labeled goober peas.
My sanity was really deteriorating in north Georgia. I'm used to road tripping in shitty old cars, where you keep the windows down and take in the scenery in sound and smell. The RS7 is a quiet tank, tearing through highways, completely sealing you out of the landscape. The cruise control flattens the hills and all you really have to do is dodge the bad drivers, like a '90s Pontiac Grand Prix that wanted to drift into our lane.
And then we got off the highway, ran through a few country roads, and found ourselves at Road Atlanta, right as dusk is setting in.
Sebring and Daytona were bizarre because they both happened so fast, events in and of themselves. Road Atlanta was bizarre because it felt like such a remote stop on a long trip, like some island vignette in The Odyssey that you forgot about. One minute we were on a remote country road, the next we were at the gates of a racetrack, getting a welcome by an E30 full of Jalopnik readers, and the woman and her daughter running the track. The mom and daughter team led us out onto the course, us in our RS7, them in the track's C7 Corvette.
It's hard to stress how bizarre it feels to be on Road Atlanta, let alone for the first time, let alone in the dark. It feels like every corner is blind, and there are hills so steep that you think the car is going to topple end-over-end.
How many laps could we do, we asked? "As many as you need," was the warm reply.
So Travis set out and ran four or five laps, the tires squealing through the final chicane, the engine stretching us to 140 on the rolling back straight.
Travis pulled in and let the car cool down, the brakes tinging and the cooling fans on full. We probably warped the steel rotors back at Sebring. And just like that, I got in and ran four laps of my own. Travis, the World's Worst Passenger, played instructor.
You can probably tell there isn't a lot of flow to this story at this point. There wasn't much flow to it when it was happening either. One moment I was driving up the highway through Georgia, then I was getting thrown sideways on a racetrack. I kept having to pull back on the gas because I couldn't remember just how tight the next turn was.
But Road Atlanta itself has rhythm, with the uphill esses and the decreasing double-right onto the back straight and the massive crest before the final turn. It was like we were getting away with something, something illegal, something unbelievable, something unreal.
Just as quickly as we entered, we left again. I watched the Carolinas disappear at ten over the speed limit, night falling, fried chicken sandwiches and fries punctuating the miles.
VIR was our last race track. We got there at about 12:30 in the morning, pitch black with no track lights on. I got to run one lap, at no more than 35 miles an hour because they recently repaved the course and the surface wasn't fully cured.
I thought that Road Atlanta had elevation change, but it was nothing compared to VIR. The downhill roller coaster is worthy of its name, turns spilling down into each other like vomit down my shirt. Wait, that didn't happen. Nevermind. But it was like that.
Again, the whole thing was over before it started. Enter the track, take in the stars, run the corners, then leave.
And that's about when the Road Madness set in.
Dark all around. Mile after mile of highway where we were the only car on the road. For what could have been an hour, I-85 North was ours.
Tall, unchanging trees lined the road, blocking out any change in a landscape. We were so deeply bored, we turned the headlights off for a second to see what the world looked like. Everything went absolutely pitch black. It was just us, a little leather-lined capsule in the endless cold. It was so bad that this became acceptable:
And after two hours Travis was done. Demolished. The trip suddenly seemed so long, like we'd been on the road for days. It seemed like we had days more of driving to do. We pulled over, made a driver change, and I got my coffee.
Things pick up.
I get my second wind because I've finally used my Rocky-style southpaw caffeine punch. Travis gets a second wind now that he's not driving. The blur of the road is welcome, and watching eighteen-wheelers fall away behind us on our radar cruise gives a sense of accomplishment.
We finally pull into D.C. around five, bloodshot eyes and all, and get Patrick George. He gets behind the wheel (and almost immediately gets snapped by a speed camera doing 65), and Travis and I pass out.
One last stop for gas, then the strange sensation of driving from D.C. to New York with no traffic. The sun crawls above the horizon.
The Manhattan skyline grows in the windshield.
And we're home. New York, the finish line at Jalopnik HQ north of Little Italy. The tires squeak on the packed snow lining the curb. We're an hour early, there's no one to meet us.
The outside of the RS7 is splattered with salt, the inside with pecan crumbs.
We go home, shower, meet at a bar, and drink our victory as the real Daytona 24 winds to a close. In honor of the Audi, I find myself a German beer, Travis and Patrick find Irish coffees, and we all promptly fall asleep at the table.
In some ways, this road trip was a test of the RS7. It cooked its brakes in two laps of a racetrack and they never felt the same after that, but it was pretty close to the ultimate grand tourer. It is short one seat in the back and arrest-me red isn't a good choice for practical motoring, but it's a monster when it comes to road tripping. There's a particular way you can drive the car, using the cruise control stalk like a hand throttle, the car picking up two, five, ten miles an hour at your request in a very satisfying heave.
In other ways, this road trip was a test of us, the drivers. Yes you can stream across nine states hitting four racetracks in barely over a day (providing you have a car like an RS7), it will just ruin you. We were coddled and warmed and relaxed by the car in every way imaginable, and still we descended into Road Madness when the highways turned hopelessly monotone in the deepest hours of the night.
Even the most powerful cars of today aren't a match for the unfathomably vast roads of America. They will make your two-ton car feel minuscule, and they will swallow you whole in the dark.
Stay rested, and bring a set of midnight-piercing headlights with you.
Photo Credits: Raphael Orlove