Tuesday, February 28, 2012

It’s a Vette of another vintage …

What constitutes a sports car? What do we really mean when we say we like to drive sports cars? And does the definition evolve as we move from one country to another? As a small child I would watch a Jaguar roadster drive by and immediately recognize it as a sports car, just as I would attach a similar label to a variety of Triumphs and MGs that appeared on our Australian roads. But as I look at the cars around me I see the word “sports” appended to just about anything – from sports sedans to sports utilities.

This week our 2003 C5 Z06, “Fiftieth Anniversary” Torch Red Corvette, heads back to the shop for the first time this year. After a prolonged hiatus, there are just enough breaks in the weather to take the car out of the garage and cover the four or five miles to Curt’s Corvette Spa in Longmont, Colorado. The first phase in the preparation of the C5 Z06 will be all safety oriented – tow hooks added front and back, and a fire extinguisher mounted on the floor, just ahead of the passenger seat. And the picture above is of the C5 Z06 outside our home and just ahead of our Viper roadster as we prepare to head to the spa. 

New tires went on the car late last year – Bridgestone Potenza RE760 Sports, with a treadware rating of 240, a far cry from the much softer and stickier Toyo R888s we used in 2010 on the C6 Corvette. But pretty close to the Michelin Pilot Sports rubber we relied upon for all of 2011. However, it was again the reference to Sports on the Bridgestone tires that had me scratching my head. What is it with the need to throw the Sports reference onto a tire?

A quick check of Wikipedia about sports cars came up with the following explanation, which I think is a good starting point for two reasons: the emphasis on good handling and performance, as well as the inclusion of the Corvette. “A sports car (or sportscar or sport car) is a small, usually two seat, two door automobile designed for high speed driving and maneuverability. Sports cars have been either spartan or luxurious, but good handling, minimum weight, and high performance are requisite,” Wikipedia began before qualifying this with “the
front-engine, rear-wheel drive layout (FR) is common to sports cars of any era and has survived longer in sports cars than in mainstream automobiles. Examples include the Caterham 7, Mazda MX-5 (Miata), and the Chevrolet Corvette.”

For regular participants of High Performance Driver Education (HPDE) conducted by the National Auto Sports Association (NASA) the above description rings true. Indeed, on some days, the paddock seems to be populated by nothing other than Mazda’s and Corvette’s with just a sprinkling of Caterham 7’s thrown in for good measure. And this takes me back to the two reasons why I liked the language used by Wikipedia – a sports car is a small, usually two seats, two door automobile designed for high speed driving and maneuverability and yes, examples include the Corvette.

Reading more about sports cars on Wikipedia led me to this clarification - a car may be a sporting automobile without being a sports car. Performance modifications of regular, production cars, such as
sport compacts, sports sedans, muscle cars, hot hatches and the like, generally are not considered sports cars, yet share traits common to sports cars. They are sometimes called ‘sports cars’ for marketing purposes for increased advertising and promotional purposes.” Surely manufacturers wouldn’t stoop that low but then again, perhaps this is where some of the possible confusion over definitions originated. Even when it is tire manufacturers like Bridgestone.

For many years I have been engaged in numerous discussions about the Corvette being a sports car, but yes, it truly is America’s sports car. For some car enthusiasts, however, the Corvette isn’t for them – it is an oversized, somewhat exaggerated, perhaps even overly-stylized, representation of all that represents America. Yet, these same antagonists have lost sight of the fact that today even the mighty Porsche 911 is a much larger and heavier car than the Corvette, and while Corvette fans are anxiously awaiting the arrival of the C7 Corvette, so as to be back on level footing with the latest arrival from Porsche, the fact that in the American Le Mans Series (ALMS) Corvettes are still subject to running with restrictor plates and banned from using their 7 liter engines, it speaks volumes about just how competitive a sports car the Corvette has truly become. The picture above is of the C6 Corvette in my inexperienced hands holding off a Porsche GT3 RS – unfortunately for me, and the storyline, a situation that didn’t last long.

But what about Mustangs? Camaros? And Dodge Challengers? And, isn’t this where the Porsche 911 belongs (notice, Wikipedia didn’t call it out as a sports car after all)?  All of these cars have a back seat and it matters little if you call them 2 + 2. True sports cars don’t have back seats and while Porsche remove them (or, make them optional) in some markets, no one knows how to label a Porsche. Then again, the current iteration of the BMW M3 coupe – with a back seat and a V8 up front – really has me in a quandary. Sports car? Muscle car? Something else?

It certainly would have Porsche fans a bit hot under the collar should we attempt to label them muscle cars simply because they have back seats, but then again, they don’t have a V8 up front and very few fans of traditional muscle cars would ever consider Porsches a part of their community. After all, muscle cars aren’t built for much else other than travelling in straight lines so that rules out Corvettes as well. Once circulating the track, the playing field levels somewhat as the picture below portrays – yes, that’s a front-engine V8-powered Corvette sports car, in the highly capable hands of good friend Brian, receiving a point by from that same Porsche GT3 RS that had passed me a few laps earlier. Check the hand out the window just left of the light pole!

What then of Europe’s finest? Porsche aficionados may simply like them to be referred to as grand tourers. And for select models, perhaps even supercars! After all, Wikipedia refers to grand tourers as differing “from standard two-seat sports cars in typically being engineered as larger and heavier, emphasizing comfort over straight-out performance or spartan accommodations.”
What then of the Dodge Viper – current lap-time “record holders” on circuits as far afield as the North Loop of the Nurburgring and Laguna Seca. It has two seats and two doors with the engine, albeit a naturally-aspirated V10, up font - yes, the Viper passes this test easily. The Viper is truly a sports car. And if you think that perhaps the Viper is too big, then I can assure you that I have run the tape over both the Viper and the C6 Corvette and the Viper is just a tad shorter than the Corvette.

Oh yes, the Viper is indeed a small, two seat, two door automobile designed for high speed driving and maneuverability. ’Vettes and Vipers remain America’s only true sports cars and for the record, Vipers are hand assembled, not mass-produced, even more so than the top-of-the-line Corvettes. The thing about a Viper, though, is that after having taken it to the track and engaged in an unintended agricultural excursion - I realized that the probability of ever being able to afford another Viper is not that high. And it’s just too nice, as is, so it is off-limits when it comes to tracks. Ouch!

If you are going to participate in driver education programs such as those conducted by NASA, then surely it is only logical that you drive a sports car? True, Corvettes can be a handful to drive well, can be induced into massive over-steer when given too much gas (particularly in second gear) and positioning correctly for turns takes considerable skill (and often a lot of guess work) as you stare down a hood that seems to go on forever!

But get it all working correctly and there’s not another vehicle around that will stay with you – at our last outing at Laguna Seca one of the Subaru STi drivers chastised the Corvette Challenge participates for having the attitude of “owning the track” and I couldn’t have summed it up any better! Yes, that’s Brian behind the wheel of his Corvette “coupe” completing the pass of the GT3 RS in the photo below.

The anomaly in all of this, and something I have come to recognize, is that modern sports cars are engineered way beyond the demands any daily-drive would encounter.  Perhaps adding the Sports motif to cars, and indeed the example of tires being called Sports, is just a way to highlight that the product has capabilities the average driver will never require. Should the daily driver simply steer clear of anything with the word Sport associated with it – should these drivers simply walk on by and look at something else whenever they see the Sport branding?

One of the first admonitions from instructors when any car is taken onto the track is to remember to trust the car as it will be a while before you encounter any of its limits. And I have to admit, the first time I really pressed down hard on the gas as I came into the right hand sweeper that is turn 2 at Willow Springs, despite the apparent feel that I was going fast, the Corvette just seemed to track around as if it were on rails. No fuss; no screeching tires. The limits were definitely well beyond my ability at that time to test them – but then again, that’s what I mean when I say I like to drive sports cars.

We have served our apprenticeship in the big supercharged automatic C6 Corvette coupe. And it’s time to revisit tracks we are familiar with in a car where we have more control – not as powerful (well, at least on paper) but with a manual transmission replacing the automatic. From the time of our first outing Margo and I were cautioned that it would take us longer to learn the tracks in driving a Corvette and possibly, this has proved to be true. However, where driving an automatic sports car did help cut down on the distractions as we went about learning the circuits. But then again, every weekend, there’s that series of laps, or indeed a complete session, where we have been consistent and tracked smoothly around the circuit that has provided us with an experience unequalled from any other activity.

The C5 Z06 will be in the shop for a few days. Curt will take his time to ensure that it will be ready for our first outing, possible early April or maybe even late March, depending upon the weather here in Colorado. The picture below is of the Corvette, as I left it today – only moments before the snow returned. High Plains Raceway outside Byers, Colorado, has become our home track and for me, there’s so much more I would like to achieve in terms of accuracy and consistency. As yet, it’s not home for Margo who has only had the opportunity to circulate a couple of times – mostly because of business or family commitments. But this year, it will be different, and this year, the focus on fun returns as a priority. And this year, the comforts of home will be brought with us – no more windy days or energy-sapping heat-waves to distract us!

Very early in the postings to this blog I referred to the C6 supercharged Corvette as Frankenstein and wrote of its ability to go berserk without any warning. And perhaps, on reflection, that is just one more attribute of a sports car. Two seats, two doors, front engine-rear wheel configuration and the capacity to scare the life out of you on a moment’s notice! Perhaps not. On the other hand, a true sports car should be capable of being managed to where its limits become recognizable and where approaching them can be done in the knowledge that the transition at the limit can still be influenced by further driver input without any fear of Frankenstein making an unexpected appearance.

The C5 Z06 Corvette may be all we will ever need as we continue to pursue track sessions, far removed from the experiences we are likely to encounter with our daily drives. Muscle cars, supercars, even sports sedans all have their place and their supporters argue strongly about their merits– but as we descend on a new circuit, throw on a helmet, and head for pre-grid, it’s just so much more fun to be in a sports car. And America’s sports car at that!