It was just a taste, a whiff, a minute sampling of what it is like to live on the other side, which was all I could stand.
That was not a value judgment. It was a matter of conditioning, of growing up in an environment where excess was verboten -- where wealth, where it existed, was treated as a private matter and displayed in quiet contributions to a parish church.
There was even a school of thought that said wealth was evil, that rich men had a hard time getting into heaven and that, in terms of their eternal disposition, they would have been better off as members of the Lazarus League, begging for scraps from the tables of the wealthy -- sort of a theological trickle-down theory, if you will.
This was pounded into me. It was the catechism of my youth. But I never quite bought it, which is why I've remained fascinated by the fabulously rich and their toys. That is especially true for their cars, such as the 2005 SLR McLaren Super Sports GT from Mercedes-Benz, which I and several other auto journalists were allowed to play with here at the Virginia International Raceway.
It was a lark. What else could it possibly be? I mean, what is the socially redeeming value of a $352,000, 617-horsepower, carbon-fiber-body sports coupe that can zoom from zero to 60 miles per hour in barely 3.8 seconds?
There is none. On that score, the car is wonderfully indefensible, perhaps even vulgar, something akin to a Manhattan condominium trumped up with gold and marble. You don't need all of that to live; and you certainly don't need all of that to drive, but still . . . ..
It was my turn to go to the track. We had to wear helmets, which I hate because I have a hard time wearing those things without my eyeglasses fogging up. But I found one that fit and worked reasonably well. I put it on and approached the glistening black SLR McLaren.
The car's gull-wing doors were already open and pointed to the sky, giving the impression that the SLR McLaren was ready to fly. I entered the driver's side.
Earlier, I had taken several runs around the track in a 2005 Mercedes-Benz SLK350 roadster -- a "cheap" Benz at $45,500 with a 3.5-liter V-6 engine that pumps up a maximum 268 horsepower and moves from zero to 60 mph in 5.6 seconds. The idea was to familiarize myself with the track before getting into the more powerful SLR McLaren. It did the trick; but in this case, familiarity led to fear and loathing.
During my brief reconnaissance, I learned just enough about the VIR track to know that I didn't know anything.
But, accompanied by a professional driver, Jack Cassingham, I got into the SLR McLaren anyway. What can I say? Most journalists delude themselves into believing they will never die pursuing a story or column idea; and we automotive journalists are the most deluded of all.
Yeowww! The SLR McLaren took off so fast it scared the fear out of me. That big 5.5-liter V-8 engine did not growl or whine. It just whooshed. And all the while, Cassingham was telling me to head to the orange cone on the left side of the track, then on the right, and to . . . "Hey, watch it! Ease off! You're entering a curve!"
Cassingham meant well, and he certainly was being much kinder than my driving deserved, but he was driving me nuts. I completed the run without scratching, denting or cracking anything, or taking the car off the track into trouble. But I wanted to see how a real race car driver would handle the beast, and so I did two SLR McLaren hot laps with Carl Jensen, who is competition director of the Sportscar Vintage Racing Association (SVRA).
Jensen took the SLR McLaren around the track so quickly that I almost launched my lunch. Heck, a day later, as I'm writing this, I still feel nauseated.
But although we did a lot of hot runs at VIR, the Mercedes-Benz marketing people insist that the really great thing about the SLR McLaren is that it is an "everyday car," as in you can drive it to work every day, or take it to the shopping center every day, or run it to the country club every day.
Imagine that, a $352,000 "everyday car" that seats two people and carries no luggage.
It is the whimsical, high-powered chariot of a special few. Mercedes-Benz will build a total of 3,500 SLR McLaren cars by 2011. Of that number, the company expects to sell 500 in the United States.
Reigning car nut and NBC "Tonight Show" host Jay Leno has bought one. Mercedes-Benz is not saying much about the other 34 Americans who so far have purchased SLR McLarens. But they should be easy to spot on the road, with one exception -- me.
If you see me in one, it won't be because I've won the lottery or left my wife for Oprah. I'm working, and I'm doing so with an enormous amount of guilt. I'm just, well, trying to understand the meaning of it all.