Nothing prepared me for the telephone call I got on Tuesday, February 26 from Travis Engen, an accomplished driver who owns several vintage cars which he drives with great success. I had been a longtime admirer of his 2005 Audi R8 LMP1 car and was constantly drawn to stand beside it when Travis raced it at an event I happened to attend.
I was not only fascinated by the straight line speed of the Audi and the almost silent engine but also its beautiful body shape. To me it is the most beautiful race car I have ever seen and just looking at it gives me the same pleasure as I might get admiring a beautiful painting or listening to Luciano Pavarotti singing il Canto.
The voice on the phone said, “Travis Engen here. Would you like to drive the Audi in a SVRA test session at Sebring on Thursday?”
It only took a millisecond for his words to sink in and for me to reply “Yes, yes, thank you, thank you. You are making my dream come true.” “Ok,” he said. “Be at the track sometime in the morning on Thursday so the team can fit you in the car. I’ll do the two morning sessions and you can drive one of the afternoon sessions.”
When I put the telephone down I thought about what had just happened because I knew that Travis never allowed anyone to drive his Audi. To entrust his beloved car in my hands was the biggest compliment anyone had ever paid my driving and I was excited and extremely flattered to be given this chance of a lifetime.
Wednesday dragged by and finally Thursday arrived and I drove remarkably calmly to the track where I was met by Travis and his team of mechanics at GMT Racing. JR Mitchell owns GMT Racing and Greg Martin (known as “Kiwi”) is the team leader and engineer for the Audi as he had looked after the R8 in its heyday when it won every endurance race around the world, including the Le Mans 24 Hours and Sebring 12 Hour.
Tim Albright, the lead mechanic, helped me get comfortable in the car and warned me about the heavy clutch which, fortunately, one only needs to use starting off in first gear as after that the gears are sequential. Fitting me was easier than I expected even though Travis is considerably taller, but I could barely depress the clutch pedal due to the throw being so long and heavy. Well I only had to do it twice: once to get to the pre-grid and a second time to get onto the track.
My session was at 2pm and the three hour wait felt like eternity, Nancy Becker had prepared a cooked lunch for the team but although I piled a plate full of food I decided to eat it after the session. Travis then showed me some video of himself driving the car and told me the gears he used at each corner, then Greg ran through the procedure for upshifting and downshifting and some tips on using the carbon-fibre brakes.
As he strapped me into the cockpit Tim ran through the buttons on the steering wheel — one for neutral and another for reverse. But to engage them you have to be in first gear and depress the clutch. The radio is a third button and the final button was the pit lane limiter and I hoped I wouldn’t hit it by mistake whilst out on the track. I never discovered what all the switches on the dash were for, two I did learn were for ignition “on” and another to fire the engine.
I had no problem engaging the heavy clutch getting to the pre-grid and finally after a short wait I was out on to the track. Then it was smoothly up the gears waiting each time as instructed until the shift lights glow red. There were three cars ahead of me and as we drove slowly through the Carousel on the first lap the lead car spun on to the sand and I gave it a wide berth just in case it spun back into my path but, luckily, it stayed put. Then I cautiously passed the other two.
The Audi has a 3.8 Liter Twin Turbo V8 engine but is handicapped by a restrictor so the engine only gives 500hp, still plenty to pass the slower cars on the straights. With such a mixed bag of vintage cars in the group I seemed to be catching cars in the corners all the time and having to patiently wait until the straights to zip by, which meant my lap times were not representative of the potential of the car. Needless to say, this did not diminish the thrill of the top speed of 160 mph on most of the straights.
I did not challenge the brakes but was confident that if I needed to stop in a hurry I could. The car has power-assisted steering so is relatively easy to steer and although it is flat-bottomed the cornering feels secure thanks to great suspension geometry. Gradually I got more comfortable and my lap times improved but always there was a slower car ready to unwittingly block my progress, so I never had a competitive lap time and suddenly the session was over. In total I had nine laps.
Travis and team were happy I enjoyed myself and probably thankful I brought the car back in one piece! Later Travis laid his data over mine to show me how he braked much later than me. Well maybe another time if I’m given a second chance.
Many thanks to Travis for letting me drive his superb car and thanks to the guys at GMT Racing for making me so welcome. Nowadays I only drive on the race track a couple of times a year, but thanks to all the sim-racing laps I do on iRacing with the RSR League I never feel rusty when I get in a real car . . . even one capable of 160mph.