The merger of the two U.S. sports-car racing series—the American Le Mans Series (ALMS) and Grand-Am—means that the wild LMP1 Le Mans prototypes will be outlawed in North America. Before these beasts are replaced with slower cars and consigned to history, Larry Webster climbed into a 2013 HPD ARX-03A at Sebring. He had enough time for 15 laps but completed only six. He emerged from the car disoriented, tested beyond his ability. What follows is an incomplete account of the drive, the only bits he remembers.
Time: 5:20 P.M. Location: FRONT STRAIGHT Speed: 145 MPH
An invisible hand has cupped my chin and is pulling me headlong out of the cockpit. The force stretches my neck, my helmet rising clear of the small windscreen. The hot wind piles into my face like some kind of nuclear hair dryer.
My lid is meant for closed cars and doesn't have a face shield or the aerodynamic aids that would keep the rushing air from yanking me out of the car. The situation is manageable, but just before braking for the first corner, the ARX leaps over one of Sebring's infamous bumps. The car hopscotches across the concrete, my helmet flipping backward so the chin bar is in front of my eyes. I can't see a thing.
Time: 5:05 P.M. Location: PIT LANE Speed: 0 MPH
I slide my legs down the dark tunnel and fall into the reclined, perfectly fitting seat. I can feel three things: a clutch pedal that's used only for takeoff, the usual brake and throttle. With the engine off, I push the gas pedal through its travel. It's far longer than in a street car to make it easier to modulate the HPD's 325 lb-ft on corner exit. There's also a traction-control system, adjustable via a knob to my left, on the crammed dash. The tiny steering wheel is best described as a yoke, with enough area for two handholds and little else.
Most of the vital information is displayed on the wheel—selected gear, shift lights, and the button that automatically limits the car's speed to 50 mph for the pit lane. Paddles on the back of the wheel run the six-speed sequential gearbox. Matt Niles, one of the HPD engineers on hand, keeps his instruction simple and shows me a handful of things, skipping over 90 percent of the switchgear but emphasizing that he'll be monitoring the car's onboard data system in real time. There will be no hidden mistakes.
Niles's briefing takes 10 seconds. When he's finished, I ask if there's anything else I need to know. "Basically," he says, "the computer controls everything. It won't let you screw up."
So it's impossible to crash?
I press the starter button and the 3.4-liter, 535-hp V8 settles into a frantic, 2000-rpm idle. Someone releases the jacks and the car flops to the ground. I click the right paddle for first gear, which engages with a violent thunk. The speed limiter is activated, so even though the throttle's floored, the ARX slowly chugs out of the pits.
Once on the track, I hit the limiter button but neglect to take my foot off the gas. Freed of its electronic tether, the engine explodes the car forward, my head bouncing off the headrest. Before I think to release the throttle, the V8 screams past its redline to the computer-controlled limiter, which automatically saves it from death at the hands of the clueless. I've been on track for roughly 500 feet.
Time: 5:20 P.M. Location: ENTRANCE TO TURN ONE Speed: 145 MPH
Can't. See. A thing. But inexplicably, I don't lift my right foot off the gas. Already bewildered by the car's speed, my synapses have been lit up by my helmet flipping over my eyes, which must be why I don't reflexively slow down. All I can do is frantically readjust my lid, restoring sight in time to see the turn-in point for the first corner flash by. There's no time to brake, so I jerk the wheel to the left. A concrete wall defines the inside of the corner. The car cuts toward it with such ferocity that my helmet slaps the side of the cockpit. I hold my line and maintain speed. Don't even want to think about what happens if I don't pull this out.
Time: 5:16 P.M.Location: TURN SIX Speed: 130 MPH
When asked how to get through this right-hander, the Honda's regular driver, German Lucas Luhr, let out a dismissive huff: "Ja, you can go [flat] all the way through. It's supereasy." In other words, any monkey can keep the gas floored. This monkey feels skittish, the tires are so reticent that they may as well be mute, and there's no perceptible body roll. The electrically assisted power steering offers surprisingly little feedback.
This lack of communication is the hardest thing to overcome. Given time, I think I could get used to the speed, the downforce, the way the carbon brakes scrub speed like you've plowed into a concrete wall. But I don't have that subconscious feel for what the car is doing.
Luhr alluded to this, calling the car's signals "subtle and quick." From the cockpit, it feels more like I'm driving a simulator. You have to use your eyes to suss out what the car's doing, not the seat of your pants.
No doubt the HPD's outlandish capabilities are making the situation worse. At 200 mph, a prototype like this produces around 5000 pounds of downforce. Even at 130 mph, I can feel the steering get a little heavier. For context, in the hands of a pro, a P1 car can fling through the average high-speed corner nearly twice as fast as a modern supercar. A Ferrari Enzo doesn't have a prayer of keeping up.
At this point, I haven't had a whiff of a signal that I've overcome the car's grip. This makes sense, as I'm going relatively slow, but in the back of my mind, I hear Luhr's warning: "The [space between] where you are in control and where you lose control is very small."
In other words, this isn't a sloppy Labrador of a racing car: The limit rests on a knife edge. And you're either on the good side or the bad.
Time: 5:22 P.M.Location: CUNNINGHAM CORNER (TURN 10) Speed: 50 MPH
If the mere speed weren't enough to make this drive a challenge, the humped front fenders block vision everywhere but straight ahead. Once I turn the wheel, I have no idea how close I am to the course-lining curbs. Some of them are low enough that the car's inch or so of ground clearance is adequate, but in this section, the outer ones are nasty, tall and sharp like those of any suburban housing development. If I hit one, I'd probably knock off the front splitter. Replacing that part costs $150,000. If I total the car, I'm on the hook for a lifetime's wages.
Time: 4:50 P.M.Location: PIT LANE Speed: 0 MPH
Greg Pickett, the ARX's 72-year-old owner, wears a fist-sized, diamond-encrusted ring. At first glance, it looks like the jewelry awarded to Super Bowl winners. While the rock wasn't issued by the NFL, most footballers are probably familiar with Pickett's work. In 1998, he and his son Mike founded CytoSport, the supplement company that produces Muscle Milk ready-to-drink protein shakes.
Pickett's the racing guy you've never heard of. He's a wheelman with numerous professional championships, and up until last year, he was still driving his ARX—a task most men half his age aren't fit enough to tackle.
He looks at least 15 years younger than his age. "What's your secret?" I ask. Pickett flashes a knowing smile and says one word: "Protein."
Time: 5:19 P.M.Location: BACK STRAIGHT Speed: 165 MPH
Holy mother of djsgrppalsfgh.
Time: 5:22 P.M.Location: BISHOP BEND (TURN 14)Speed: 110 MPH
The data says this section of the track, which looks like a fairly tight left-hander, can be taken flat-out, at roughly 150 mph. You know what? Screw the data. At my sluggish 110 mph, the car feels like it's at the limit, as if I go any faster, I'll overcome the tires' grip and slam into the wall. But here's the rub with aero-focused cars like this: The faster you go, the more the rushing air presses the car onto the track, and the more grip you have. So while every instinct is telling you to go slower, the solution is to speed up. You gotta have faith in the wings, but at this point, I'm an infidel.
Time: 5:35 P.M.Location: TURN ONE Speed: 160 MPH
The crew has just flashed the "Pit" sign. This is my last lap, my final chance to overcome my fears, use all of the car's capability, and match Luhr's cornering speed. According to the data, Luhr reached 168 mph on the front straight, brushed the brakes, and cranked the wheel. He then cornered at more than 3.0 g's, roughly three times greater than the best street car and three times more stick than I've ever felt. Here's the thing: I'm not a brave man. I know this, but on this last lap, I need to show myself, but especially the watching crew, that I have some manhood left. I have to trust that the faster I go, the car will hang on.
This is unknown territory, just like when I was 16 and standing 75 feet above a reservoir near my New Jersey home. Rumor held that there was a flooded town beneath the water, ready to snag jumpers. The girl I was with said she had done it before. I leaped first.
Buzzing down the main straight, the feeling is exactly the same. I have a wife and three kids now and probably wouldn't jump today, but the hell if I'm not going to climb out of the car without pulling at least 2.0 g's.
Whoop! There goes the first braking marker. I use a trick pro driver Paul Gerrard taught me: "When you feel like you have to brake, just count to three, and then brake." Okay. One, two ... Jesus ... 160 mph ... I can't wait any more. I dab the brakes and immediately flick the wheel left. My body plasters to the right side of the cockpit. My neck muscles aren't strong enough to keep my helmet from resting on the bodywork.
Amazingly, things change. The steering is magically a tad heavier, and for the first time I feel like I'm working the car, if only a little. I think, That must have been every bit as quick as Luhr does it. But when I return to the pits and ask the engineer how I did the last time through, he says, "You're still a ways off: 1.89 g's."
I'll take it.
There are two more chances to see LMP1 cars like this at full tilt: October 4–6 at Virginia International Raceway, and October 16–19 at Road Atlanta. Most races are broadcast; check .
· Fastest closed-wheel road racing in the world—within a few seconds of an F1 car at most tracks. The class, which will continue in Europe, has run in America since 1999.
· Rules encourage innovation. Diesels? Turbo- or superchargers? All-wheel drive? Hybrids? Open or closed cockpit? All legal.
· Big race is the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Don't miss 2014, when Porsche returns to the top class.
· Next year in the U.S., the P1 will be replaced by two types of car—the ALMS's current LMP2 prototype and Grand-Am's closed-roof Daytona Prototype (DP).
· DP and P2 cars, which have production-based engines and are cost-capped at around $450,000, are far simpler and governed by more restrictive rules.
· If you run a closed cockpit, air-conditioning is mandatory.
· Pricing starts at $1.2 million. Consequently, just 10 P1 cars currently compete worldwide.
HPD ARX-03a: Mayhem
- Cost:: $1.2 Million
- Crew Members Required for Operation: 5
- Corners three times harder than a 911:
- Has the outward visibility of a submarine :
- 0-60 MPH: 3.6 (seconds)
- Engine: 535-hp V8