From the February/March 2021 issue of Car and Driver.
Like me, you probably read the annual Lightning Lap stories and think, “Wow, life can’t get much more fun than that, can it? Just a bunch of fast cars and a track all to yourself.” And indeed, that’s the essential premise. There’s a McLaren 765LT in that garage bay over there, a Ford Mustang Shelby GT500 in the next one, and Virginia International Raceway‘s 4.1-mile Grand Course beckoning right outside. But it turns out there’s a little more to it than that. And I can testify, now that I’ve driven at Lightning Lap. Sort of.
Since I live only two hours south of VIR, I usually drive up to Lightning Lap then lurk around trying not to be too annoying to the actual drivers. But this year, thanks to a scheduling mix-up, we had an extra Hyundai Veloster N on hand, so print director Eric Tingwall gave me the keys and told me to see what I could do with it. “You’ll want to turn on rev matching and put it in N mode,” he said. As an attentive and detail-oriented road-course savant, I processed and retained every bit of that advice except the second part. Never did I run a lap in N mode, which means the Veloster’s adaptive dampers were in the flabby street setting the whole time. For those of you keeping track, that is excuse number one.
As I started recording times, I realized that Lightning Lap presents a twofold challenge: You’ve got to master a car within a few days on a track that you probably only visit once a year. The track is its own ever changing creature, and even the most consistent car is different from lap to lap. The Veloster was benign in corners, but I never fully trusted the brakes. Sometimes they’d grab ferociously; other times the pedal would go halfway to the firewall before initiating any notable deceleration.
I had other problems to worry about, too, like the VBox. The lap timer displays your pace in red (bad, you’re falling behind) or green (even worse, because now the pressure is on). The VBox is like an internet troll riding shotgun: “Wow, I thought you knew what you were doing but you’re already 0.5 second off the pace. Probably because you glanced in the rearview mirror and got distracted by how ugly you are.” Shut up, VBox! I hate you.
The unblinking eye of the VBox is but one layer of your Lightning Lap stress onion. For instance, you might get only a few fast laps from an expensive set of sticky tires. Or there could be a brief window of ideal weather—this year, morning fog quickly gave way to afternoon heat. There will likely be a posse of manufacturer employees watching in judgment. Of course, your laps are being recorded on video and periodically dissected, corner by corner, in the pits. And the cars that are fastest and leave the slimmest margin for error are also the most expensive, and VIR is an old track with lots of tire walls. Are we having fun yet?
My times eventually improved until I was a couple of seconds off the car’s record, but by that point, the tires were missing chunks of tread, and I felt like it was a bad idea to go into the Climbing Esses on tires that looked like they’d been gnawed by capybaras. So I called it a week and ran laps in my 1993 Bronco.
A month later, I was at Carolina Motorsports Park, goofing around with Hellcat Durangos and Chargers. I told one of the instructors how the Veloster sometimes had a spooky brake pedal—but other times didn’t. “That’s pad knock-back,” he said. “When you’re cornering or running up on gator strips, on some cars, the pads will move around relative to the rotors and you get a squishy pedal.” Aha—so there was a second shooter on the grassy knoll! Why did I ever doubt myself? The problem was that I was driving too fast, knocking those pads all willy-nilly with my extreme g-forces. I should’ve pitted, walked up to the Hyundai race trailer (There was no Hyundai race trailer—Ed.), and mumbled “pads ‘r’ knockin’ ” while a panicked team of technicians raced outside to fix the problem.
Anyway, I didn’t set a new best time for the Veloster N. But I did for 1993 Ford Broncos. And good luck beating that one.
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