When Mike Pappas sped across the finish line at Lexus’ “License to Thrill” competition last month, his only focus was having fun. The auto enthusiast was stoked to be among the first to test drive the Lexus IS 500 F SPORT Performance, competing alongside more than a dozen other everyday car aficionados. In the back of his mind, he knew his fast times from the race’s two preceding rounds meant he had a shot at first place.
Pappas took the crown, an achievement that, unbeknownst to him at the time, came with the keys to the first-ever IS 500 — Lexus’ most powerful IS to date. Modest and easygoing, Pappas told G/O Media Studios that the prize was the last thing he expected. “You’re shitting me,” Pappas said he uttered on the podium. “You guys are going to give me a car?”
The 33-year-old from St. Louis is a self-described “car guy” — a passion that stems from a lifelong proximity to cars. Pappas’ family has owned a car dealership since 1977, and since graduating from college more than ten years ago, Pappas has helped run the family business.
“Growing up, like a lot of kids, I liked cars,” Pappas said. “At some point that kind of took off.” By his late teens, he was regularly participating in HPDE (High Performance Driving Education) and track days at the Gateway International Raceway across the Mississippi River in Illinois.
Thanks to their upbringing in the automotive industry, Pappas and his brother developed a unique enthusiasm for sporty cars as kids. Later on, their appreciation expanded to the Lexus IS series.
As soon as Pappas heard that Lexus was bringing the IS 500 to market, with an iconic 472-horsepower*, naturally-aspirated V8 engine, he wanted to buy one. “A hundred percent, the car was cool,” Pappas said. “I was just thrilled that they were going to come out with a V8 in an IS again.” The car seemed perfectly suited to Pappas’ daily life: potent but small—and perfect for commuting.
Pappas’ excitement for the IS 500 turned out to be fruitful: He was invited to participate in Lexus’ “License to Thrill” competition, where he and 13 other like-minded fans would drive the IS 500 before the rest of America, competing for the right to buy the vehicle early.
On an uncharacteristically rainy day in July, the group traveled to the Arizona racetrack from all across the country. They were met by a team of Lexus Motorsports professional drivers, who coached the hobbyists on everything from braking to handling, providing them with encouragement and tips to help them whittle down their lap times.
With “sport mode” turned on for a boost in power and responsiveness, Pappas sped around the track, clocking in at 01:37:822, the second lowest time of the round. By round two, he had slipped into first place — a narrow lead that he kept in the third and final round, cementing his victory.
Pappas told G/O Media Studios that he didn’t change his technique between rounds: His main focus was “driving the heck out of the car” and taking in the experience. “I was just excited to be able to see the car in person, before it’s released,” he said. Pappas took the opportunity to push the car to its max, putting the IS 500’s innovative engineering to the test. “They put a V8 in for a reason,” he said. “I drove it like I stole it. I was braking as late as possible and then hammering the gas as soon as I thought I could.”
Beyond taking full advantage of the IS 500’s capabilities, an element of nostalgia helped fuel Pappas’ win. It had been more than ten years since he had driven on a racetrack — but as soon as he got behind the wheel, he felt the familiar thrill of the past. “It re-lit that fire of how fun it is to drive a car to its limits,” Pappas said. “How did I let that get away from me for so many years?”
Pappas isn’t alone in his elation over the race. He’s still in touch with fellow competitors, all of whom relish the experience of hanging out and tearing it up with other big-time car enthusiasts.
The victory still feels unbelievable. “I’m absolutely thrilled.” Pappas said. “Winning a car is surreal — especially a car that you’re this excited about.”
*Ratings achieved using the required premium unleaded gasoline with an octane rating of 91 or higher. If premium fuel is not used, performance will decrease
Angela Wang is a freelance writer living in Queens.