It's not every day-even in this gig-that you find yourself on America's greatest racetrack trailing a car you've dreamed about since second grade. But
there, up ahead, cresting the hill before Laguna Seca's Corkscrew, is a Porsche 917/10. And it's no ordinary 917 (as if there is such a thing), but the
actual 1972 Can-Am championship winner, the car that broke McLaren's five-year streak of dominance in the series. Driven by both Mark Donohue and George
Follmer, the 1000--hp wundermachine was so utterly superior that many have blamed it for the death of the Can-Am. I'm actually gaining ground on the
legendary car. Somebody kick me.
The fantasy lasts just long enough to realize that all is not right with the Porsche. While the car I'm driving-the Aston Martin Vantage GT4, a
race-prepped version of the V-8 Vantage-is no slouch, there's no way it's capable of hanging with the 917, even if Michael Schumacher were behind the
wheel. Based on the dark smoke escaping the 917's exhaust and the fluid accumulating on the Vantage's windscreen, my best guess is that the 40-year-old,
seven-figure Porsche is running a little rich. When we pass the pit entrance, it promptly exits the track. I consider following to find out what's up, but
then I realize that only a fool would bring the Aston in before the car's owner beckons. In this moment and on this day, I am no fool.
The Aston is owned by 53-year-old Kevin Buckler, four-time winner of the 24 Hours of Daytona, former freestyle skier, owner of The Racer's Group racing
team, founder of Adobe Road Winery, and-as if he needed anything else to pad his résumé-now sole proprietor of Aston Martin Racing USA. Buckler's
Aston Martin venture is a big departure for the guy best known for renting a fleet of Porsche 911s to gentlemen racers.
With future plans to reveal and a new car to show off, Buckler invited me to an informal track day at California's Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca. He failed to
mention that I'd be sharing the track and paddock with a rather intimidating lot of vintage race cars and their well-heeled owners. If I had known, I might
have sewn up the torn pocket of my fire suit.
About this event: It's nothing official, just a bunch of guys who rent the track for a couple of days to exercise their machinery. Dominic Dobson, former
IndyCar driver and now chief development officer of the LeMay car museum in Tacoma, Washington, is the trail boss. Dobson limits the invite list to 30, but
participants are allowed to bring as many cars as they want. The quality of the machines in the paddock speaks to the depth of Dobson's Rolodex. I could
throw a football in any direction and hit a car valued at hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of dollars-two Porsche 935s, a McLaren M8B, a Ferrari 250
GT, a 1955 Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR, another Porsche 917, and . . . well, you get the idea. There's even the 1968 Howmet TX turbine-powered race car; it
mostly sits with its tail in the air as mechanics try to get it running. Woof.
At $200,000, the Aston is one of the least expensive cars in attendance, but it has its place for when, say, the Ferrari isn't jetted quite right and you
just want to run some laps. When it's my turn to drive, I pop open the hollowed-out door-the car's skin is identical to that of the ordinary V-8
Vantage-and slide into the deep Recaro race seat.
The GT4's interior is stripped, but it's got that bare, race-car coolness. It's full of the kind of details you see only on professionally built race
machinery, like the one-piece carbon-fiber center console, the perfect petite roll-cage welds, and the nearly hidden fire-suppression system. In this case,
the pros are from Prodrive, the British firm that once built and campaigned the Subaru rally cars driven by Colin McRae. Motorsport legend David Richards
runs both Prodrive and Aston Martin, which likely means that the word "synergy" gets bandied about regularly in Aston board meetings. Prodrive's expertise
is especially comforting because the Vantage GT4's chassis is made from aluminum extrusions, while the roll cage is the typical mild steel. Cages are
usually welded to the car with big, reassuring load-distribution plates; here, the cage is bolted to the chassis.
The Vantage is also home to a technology increasingly found on street cars-paddle shifters. While the GT4 is available with a manual gearbox, two artfully
shaped paddles live behind the wheel of my test car. The right one triggers an upshift; the left, a downshift. The car's computer does everything,
including operating the clutch.
Cry all you want about how the racetrack should be the first place where you have to row your own, but the world is moving on. And Buckler, who sells and
rents race cars for a living, has long known that sequential manual gearboxes can scare off potential customers. Speaking selfishly, the more folks who
appreciate the track and racing, the better it is for those of us who have been rabid about this stuff all along. (If you think I'm reaching, consider the
raft of new tracks that have been built in the past decade. I can name a dozen without really trying.)
Back to the car: Another benefit of the automatic 'box is never having to be the noob who stalls in the pits. Race clutches are maddeningly binary, either
engaged or not, and with little cushion to modulate. Here, the computer works the clutch like a pro as I merge onto the track. I'm just in time to see a
squat, bright-blue car streak past. It's a rare 1959 Lister bodied by aerodynamicist Frank Costin, with a small-block Chevy that sounds awfully similar to
the Aston's motor. The GT4's deep blaaaat of an exhaust note is a bit surprising, however, for the engine's 4.7-liter displacement is small
compared to the Chevy. It also sports four valves per cylinder and double overhead cams, not pushrods. I expected something higher pitched and more
European in flavor.
The Aston's engine is stout but not overpowering. With 430 hp hauling around roughly 3200 pounds, the GT4 can best be described as balanced-enough thrust
to get you in trouble, but not so much that you're scared of the throttle. The latter assumes that the GT4's standard traction control is switched off.
Yes, it's yet another driver aid (anti-lock brakes are also standard), but as the Aston's tail slithers through Laguna's damp Turn Nine, I'm grateful for
Once the track dries a bit, I give the GT4 the cane, blasting downhill into the relatively tight Turn Two. The Aston's binders scrub off speed easily; I
leave the car in third, probably a gear too high, but the engine has enough poke at 3000 rpm to not mind. A couple of corners later, I try a midcorner
downshift, which the computer works with ease, automatically blipping the throttle and easing the clutch out with such finesse that the side-loaded car
Up through Turn Six, then the Corkscrew, then back down the hill, and my God, I love this track. There's a flow and rhythm that's so rare in
modern circuits, most of which feel disjointed by comparison. After finessing the car through the first few laps, I significantly pick up the pace, trying
to hang with a Porsche 935 that disappears whenever the pavement straightens out. The adrenaline's flowing, and I'm driving far over my head chasing the
Porsche, missing apexes, drifting nearly off track at the corner exits, and fighting to keep the rear end from trading places with the front.
This trip to Idiot Land is destined to end in the wall, but the Aston feels best when manhandled, when you pitch it into corners and pound on the brakes.
I've gained an uncanny-and undeserved-confidence in both the car and myself. I'm not this good. But the GT4 is an ally here, the proverbial pussycat on the
track, a machine with a clear communication conduit to the tires and predictable and logical responses. All I need is another 300 hp and the 935 is toast.
That's not to say the Vantage is perfect. For one thing, it's a bit hard to see the car's front corners, which makes accurate placement a challenge.
There's also a slight delay between when I pull the upshift lever and when the computer responds with a head-snapping shift. But mostly the GT4 feels like
a tank, a singular block of metal that seems barely bothered after a full day of hard lapping.
The 935 pulls into the pits, and I follow. There are just a few minutes left before the track closes for the day, so Buckler sends me back out for one
final lap. I charge through the first half of the circuit and then ease through the rest-I've made it this far without crashing, so why risk a last-lap
disaster? By the time I pull into the garage, a small group of people has formed nearby. The guys are using their hands to describe a car fishtailing
through a turn and debating the right line through Rainey Curve. Save the exotic machinery littered about, the language, gestures, and laughs are no
different from what you see at the scruffy club races I usually attend. And that, of course, is exactly how it should be.
The Details: Where and how to race the GT4.
At the moment, the Vantage can be tweaked subtly to race in all of the major American road-racing series, and there will surely be a home for it when the
American Le Mans Series and Grand-Am are no longer separate. This year, the U.S. version of Europe's Vantage GT4 Cup will offer a field full of identical
Astons in a one-make series similar in concept to the 911 GT3 Cup.
Should you take the plunge, we'd recommend a couple of options. The first is the upgraded traction-control system ($10,000) that offers five levels of
intervention. The standard traction control smothers progress like a pillow to the face and is pretty much unusable unless you're really green. And then
there's the air-conditioning system, which sounds frivolous until you've sat on the grid in a July heat wave.