Flat out, power-sliding in a Corvette ZR-1 at a hundred miles an hour was probably the wrong place to mockingly ask NASCAR driver Juan Pablo Montoya if he was "having fun turning right." Don't worry, he punished me for it.
Juan Pablo Montoya is one of the most successful race car drivers of the modern era. He's driven in Formula 3000, CART, Formula One, NASCAR and many other series. He's the only person to ever win the CART Championship Series, the Indianapolis 500 and the 24 Hours of Daytona all on his first go-round. He will certainly go down as one of the greatest drivers of all time.
Last weekend he was busy winning the Sprint Cup race at Watkins Glen, and on Thursday he pulverized my innards by mercilessly attacking GM's Milford Road Course, better known as the "Lutz Ring." The weapon of choice, a 638-hp Corvette ZR1, naturally. This car in the hands of an untrained driver is no better than giving a pistol to a 4-year-old, but for someone with skill, it's magic. We've driven ZR1s before, and though they are magnificent machines, we're happy to admit their capabilities generally exceed ours. Such is not the case for Mr. Montoya, even in the unlaced Chuck Taylor sneakers he wore to the track.
It was cresting the fourth turn on the Lutz Ring, approaching the concrete carousel with the suspension completely unloaded and the rear wheels cocked a few degrees sideways, when I realized this was going to be better than any amusement park ride ever. The Lutz Ring takes elements of all the best tracks in the world, mixes them with important engineering testing conditions, and creates one of the most entertaining tracks in North America. It doesn't suffer from the trouble of necessary spectator sight lines like most race courses; this is pure track design and it shows. There isn't a moment where you aren't thinking about how much grip will be available over the next rise or fighting lateral forces to keep in the seat.
When a guy like Juan Pablo is at the wheel, you're fighting for breath. He's fearless. After one get-to-know-you lap, he lets loose with a nearly creepy combination of God-like skill and Jedi-like concentration. No corner is ever fast enough, there's no such thing as a perfect line. You're just there as a witness to his obsession, if you black out in pursuit of speed, so be it. The things this guy does with a car make you question established scientific fact. Gravity, coefficient of friction, inertia, these are only speedbumps in his quest for a quicker lap time.
Those years practicing heel-toeing in a beaten old Corolla mean nothing, he does it with such lighting fast speed you wonder if it even happened. If you aren't balls-to-the-walls accelerating, the seat belt's tightening around your chest under relentless braking. I feel my spine protest its compression as he powers through the tight, Nürburgring-emulating concrete carousel, pressing towards oversteer around its steep bank. No matter what the corner the rear wheels are always alight, right on the edge of adhesion. You are in Juan's plaything and there's nothing to do but try to keep your torso from bashing into the door panel.
And the ZR1 sings. It sings a song of mechanical bliss that's almost joined the endangered species list. It's a machine being truly put through its paces by a skilled handler. If a car can be happy, this one is. Every turn is met with the tires sacrificing tread for friction, while the magnetic ride alternately soaks up bumps and keeps everything firmly planted. The limit here is what Juan decides. The gentlemen at Mazda call it "Jinba Ittai," the horse and rider as one, but this is like like watching that idea wrung through a filter of Gustav Holst's Mars, Bringer of War. It's an angry symphony in motion.
By the time it's all over, I'm sweating more than Montoya. Standing around in the hot August sun, chatting cars and race lines with a guy who's sure to be a legend is a little odd. Montoya has a reputation for arrogance, but maybe NASCAR has mellowed him a bit. He's happy to talk racing and leagues, he was really happy to talk about his recent win at Watkins Glen and sported a good sense of humor. Even though he's on GM's dime via their NASCAR sponsorship, he seemed generally impressed with the ZR1. Of course, he makes no bones about enjoying tail-happy shenanigans. He certainly ruined those tires with determination. Just don't cross him when he's getting into a corner.
Now, does anyone know a good chiropractor?