How do you master dangerous endeavors except by actually attempting them? Mountaineers have to get on cliffs; racecar drivers have to learn to push the boundaries of speed and traction.
So here I am piloting a racecar at 140 miles per hour.
It’s a Radical SR3, an open-cockpit, closed-fender missile and as I head down a long, sloping straightaway all of my senses are distilled, my attention so taut as to be brittle.
Even with ear plugs, the engine scream is cacophonous. Still, I’m breathing normally and my pulse is steady. This is not the time to lose your head or you really could lose your head, seeing as it’s sticking out of a car which lacks a roof or windshield.
Rare is the opportunity to drive a purpose-built racecar, a vehicle crafted with aerodynamics that make it handle better at 150 miles per hour than at 50, and which has no need for airbags, radio or even doors.
Radical Sports Cars, a brand based in Peterborough, U.K., is devoted to exactly this type of vehicles. Starting around $100,000 for a base model, they are built with fiberglass and tube chassis and powered by small, high-revving engines.
Big rear wings and special bodywork add aerodynamic downforce, so the air itself keeps the car glued to the asphalt — provided you’re going fast enough to make the physics work.
I’ve seen various Radical models idling on tracks from Spain to Nevada, and I finally get a chance to try one at a local New York venue, Monticello Motor Club, which is offering a two-day Radical driving school for $4,900. While MMC is a private club, the school is open to the public, with dates available into the fall.
While the price isn’t cheap, neither is the cost of running racecars. These high-strung thoroughbreds require on-hand mechanics, high-octane gas and motors that frequently need rebuilding.
The payoff is an experience that a regular sports car, even a Porsche 911 GT3 or Ferrari 458, can’t provide. A racecar is to a production sports car as Bill Gates’s accounting team is to TurboTax. Same basic concept, totally heightened execution.
“This is easily the cheapest and easiest way to try your hand with a genuine racecar,” says Monticello operations manager Ashley Novack. “Compared to most, the Radical is fairly easy to drive.” Novack is one of three instructors for three students, a stellar ratio.
I’ve got an edge since I often test cars here and know the track well. Still, the car is foreign. I slip into my Alpine Stars fireproof suit, driving shoes and gloves, and put on my full-face helmet. This year has brought a number of high-profile deaths in racing, including one at the most recent Le Mans, a sobering reminder that safety equipment is essential.
The Radical is surprisingly straight forward. You sit in the left-hand side rather than in the center like most claustrophobic open-cockpit cars. There’s even room for a passenger seat.
Drivers shift through gears effortlessly using behind-the- wheel paddles, manipulating a high-revving 1,340 cubic- centimeter Suzuki Hayabusa engine with some 200 horsepower. Since the vehicle weighs less than 1,200 pounds, that’s plenty of oomph to hustle it along.
Radical also has more potent models, like the SR8, which has more than twice the power and set an astounding lap record at Germany’s Nurburgring.
Instruction by MMC staff is crisp and efficient. While a novice could take the class, it’s clearly most beneficial for experienced drivers. Most important from my perspective is the actual number of laps I get on the 4.1-mile course. (More than I can count. By the end of the day, I am exhausted.)
And so, at the end of the very long back straightaway I jam on the brakes — there is no ABS or any type of traction control — and my torso snaps against the safety harness. The next turn is sharp and up a hill. On most cars you carry the brakes up the incline.
The Radical’s lightness and downforce changes the equation. I’m off the brakes very early, still going really fast, bound up the hill and snap through an extremely tight S turn — holy cow! — and then I’m gassing it.
I can do that faster. I’m not racing the car as hard as it’s designed to go. And so on my favorite part of the track, a long sweeping uphill that demands a mix of patience and gumption, I push the car to its limit.
Actually I push the tires past their limits, and suddenly the car is sliding, seemingly out of control. My instinct is to slow, but I do the opposite, gunning the gas and increasing speed so that the aerodynamic downforce comes into play. The car sticks hard to the track.
The only way to learn is by doing, even when it is a little terrifying.
Radical Driving Experience, $4,900 for two days. Monticello Motor Club, 888-927-0597; monticellomotorclub.com/programs/radical-experience.