Monday, September 1, 2008

My Drive With Ralph

Today I held the fate of Chrysler LLC in my hands, and I chose to allow it to continue its existence. This is actually only partly hyperbole and grandiose delusion. It's also partly true. I drove Grattan Raceway, instructed by none other than Ralph Gilles, on the very day on which he assumed responsibility as head of design at Chrysler. As I rounded corner 4 with him strapped into my passenger seat, the awful thought ran through my head of the ramifications at Detroit's number 3 carmaker if anything were to happen to Mr. Gilles on my account. Yeah, a little pressure. 

Of course, nothing went wrong, and a lot of things went right, and I was the gleeful beneficiary of some great coaching from one hell of a driver. (Special shout out to my buddy Jon for hookin' me up.) The highlight of the day, however, came not in my humble R32, but in Ralph's outrageous Viper ACR (humility need not apply). 

The Viper ACR (American Club Racing, for the uninitiated), is essentially a street-legal race car. I actually had a chance to drive one a few months ago at Chrysler's annual "What's New" event at the Chelsea Proving Grounds, right after a regular Viper, in fact. The "base" Viper is itself quite a track star, with the sort of telepathic handling you hear spoken of in the most connected and pure cars (as I mentioned of the Loti). The ACR version, on the other hand, reminds me more of the idea of "precognition" from Minority Report. In my run through the first set of slalom cones with this car, I hit almost every one, since the car had responded even before I realized I wanted to turn. Suffice to say it's a handful when you're first getting acquainted. 

When I first approached Ralph's ACR, I noticed that it was a lot more handsome than some of the others I've seen, especially the red and black version. As a car designer, I suppose he's allowed to customize his with a nice dose a actual taste, the car being all black, with a single dark gray driver-side stripe. In fact, when I entered the car, a plate in the middle of the dash proclaimed that it had been "Handcrafted for Ralph V. Gilles", a fact which instantly nullified the previous thrill I'd enjoyed when he'd noticed my steering wheel's "1236 / 5000" declaration of my car's limited edition nature. This is also probably the reason why I couldn't find a picture of this particular color combo to include in this post. 

We entered the track on the front straight, and the acceleration practically melted my face off. So this is what unrestrained power feels like, eh? On the autocross course I'd probably hit around 50 mph. On that front straight Ralph danced with 150. (In the same stretch my R32 can reach around 110.) With the end of the front straight looming, Gilles stabbed the brakes and I hit the seatbelt. I'm quite glad it happens to be a high-quality seatbelt, since it was the only thing standing between me and an express flight through the windshield. Literally. 

We happened to be running Grattan backwards today (it's usually run clockwise), so there was a hill after this straight. The ACR made such short work of the slope that my ears actually popped. Every time. The g-forces were so extreme that my stomach felt like it was rattling around freely in my torso...but in a good way. I believe Ralph when he says it took hours to clean to the puke of a previous passenger from inside the car. 

While the car was certainly extreme in its abilities, so was the driver. Having helped to calibrate it, Gilles is clearly familiar with the the ACR's limits, allowing him the confidence to wring the maximum from it. With our 20-minute lapping sessions, the car's slicks were getting slightly greasy towards the end, giving the rear some interesting character. This failed to phase Gilles even the least bit, as he kept his go foot firmly planted long after a driver with less faith would've backed off, easily using steering corrections to get the tail back in line. 

Ralph devoured the track with the ACR, and I had a front-row seat. It was also amusing to watch a Porsche 911 wag its tail all over the track in an effort to get the hell out of his way. I can truly say I bore witness to a master craftsman at work. Thanks, Ralph. 

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