He'll Always Have Jersey

Below the Beltway
(Eric Shansby)
By Gene Weingarten
Sunday, March 12, 2006

Some weeks ago I confessed in a column that I'd been popped by a New Jersey state trooper for going 82 mph on an interstate. This resulted in many earnest e-mails from concerned citizens chastising me for Setting a Bad Example for the Nation's Youth. But I also got one letter, from Dan Carney of Herndon, calling me a pantywaist.

Eighty-two is nothing, Dan said, and invited me to accompany him as he test-drove a 2006 Corvette. Dan is a writer for automotive magazines.

Chevrolet has come out with a new six-speed Corvette, a vast improvement over its previous five-speed model in the sense that it has a whole extra gear no one will ever use. Dan explained that, to an automotive writer, this is a highly significant engineering development, because it creates an important pretext to get a hot demo car as a loaner.

My own car is a 15-year-old Mazda 323 with an engine the size of a KitchenAid countertop appliance. This is a car that, when manipulated properly by an experienced driver such as myself, can accelerate from zero to 60 in the time it takes a potato to rot. But Dan's challenge appealed to me, for two reasons:

(1) A guy does not like to be called a pantywaist. A guy likes to think of himself as a studly, fearless individual who isn't afraid of anything, not even fear itself. Not even the fear of fear itself.

(2) I figured, he may be an automotive writer, but he's still a citizen with a driver's license to protect. He's still going to have to observe the laws of the road, right?

So I immediately said yes, and Dan said swell, and he told me where to meet him: at a racetrack.

It turns out Dan is not just a writer, but a race car driver. He owns a Formula Ford car, which is one of those triangular things that ride so low to the ground they look like flatirons skidding on ice. You know those cars. You often see pictures of them in the newspaper, upside down, airborne, crashing into grandstands.

Anyway, Dan arrived in his blue Corvette loaner, and I have to say, I was immediately put at ease. Not only is Dan a laconic, sauntering, unthreatening, cowboy-smiley sort of guy, but the first thing I noticed, to my amusement, is that his bad-boy Corvette had an automatic transmission. Dan listened laconically as I derided this pathetic sissy of a car with its weenie little slushbox. Then he laconically instructed me to (1) sign a paper holding the racetrack harmless if I expired, and (2) put on my seat belt and shoulder harness, and shut up.

In technical automotive-writer terms, this puppy had about 400 horses, which is roughly 320 horses more than my Mazda. They were loud, grumbling horses. I did a little thought experiment to imagine what it's like riding in a 400-horsepower automobile: I pictured a small stagecoach being pulled by 400 thundering appaloosas, and inside the coach is a school-marm, in a big, flouncy schoolmarm dress with petticoats, which are soaked.

In as casual and manly a fashion as possible, I asked Dan how fast we would be going, and he said he doubted we would exceed 110 mph. This didn't seem all that fast until I saw the track, which looked to be the size of a suburban driveway.

It turns out that the Jefferson Circuit at Summit Point raceway in West Virginia is not a track like Indy, but rather something with hairpin turns and straightaways no longer than about 800 feet, which seems even shorter when your eyeballs are being pressed back into your brain. A 'Vette with the pedal to the metal will do zero to 60 in 4 1/2 seconds, and we were done with the straightaway in six seconds flat. At which point Dan applied the brakes at 110 mph at what seemed to be waaaay past the last possible moment, but the tires bit, and we screamed into the turn, the car hugging the road like Huggy Bear. I know that is a terrible analogy, but I was incapable of thinking coherently at the time, and that is what I wrote in my notebook.

At least, I think that is what I wrote. I took copious notes during the 10 minutes we were on the track, but can read almost none of them due to G-force-induced horizontal distortion and lateral hand tremor. When we were done, we had to take a "cool-down" lap because -- I swear -- the tires were smoldering.

Then Dan handed me the wheel. I buckled in, did my best to look cowboy-laconic, hit the accelerator, and -- I don't want to brag, here -- I handled that 'Vette like a senior citizen in a fedora negotiating the streets of Lantana, Fla., en route to an Early Bird Special.

It's okay. I'll always have my traffic ticket. Did I mention I was doing 82?

Gene Weingarten's e-mail address is weingarten@washpost.com.

Chat with him online Tuesdays at noon at www.washingtonpost.com.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company