October 24, 2011

In December during the PRI show, Elana Scherr, who handles PR for Spectre, asked if I'd be interested in running the Speed By Spectre 341 Challenge-a hill climb near Reno, Nevada. I shrugged off her offer with my typical, "Umm, we'll see."

To be honest, I didn't know much-nor did I care-about running a hill climb. After some persistent hounding, she urged me to watch a video on the spectre341challenge.com site, and I realized that calling this event a simple "hill climb" was a gross understatement.

The 341 Challenge is a balls-to-the-wall, 5.2-mile time trial up the side of a (closed) public mountain road (Nevada, Highway 341), similar to Pike's Peak. It's a serious challenge of man and machine.

The information packet reads-RISK: This competition is not on a racetrack. There are no prissy runoff areas, gravel traps, or tire walls; no sissy hay bales or an ambulance that's seconds away. There are no berms, catch fences, or smooth concrete barriers. And you don't get practice laps either.

"The 'track' is a real two-lane mountain road that is crowned in some places, sloped in others, with yellow stripes down the middle," said Amir Rosenbaum, owner of Spectre, which produces cold-air kits for muscle cars, as well as other cool automotive components. Rosenbaum is a certified speed junkie, who has set land-speed records, and has been over 400 mph in his streamliner. He also holds the record up the Nevada 341 highway at 3:10.53 in a Ferrari F40.

Okay, Elana, you have my interest. Over the years, I've done quite a bit of drag racing and road racing, some karting, and I even turned laps in a NASCAR Stock car. But I've never run a hill climb. For advice, I turned to my friend Adam Sampson, a seasoned climber. He told me to be very careful, as there is generally no room for error. "If you brake a little late, turn in late, and get crossed up, the results can be catastrophic," he warned.

Now fully intrigued, I called Elana, and when she said I could just show up and drive Spectre's mildly prepped '07 Shelby GT500, I was all in!

After watching more videos, I realized this could be the most dangerous situation I'd ever purposely put myself into. I had knots in my stomach during the days leading up. Though I seemed calm at home and at work, my stomach was churning like a raging sea, my mind racing with a multitude of scenarios.

I spoke to Editorial Director Jim Campisano. "Is this a good idea? Rumor has it a guy went off last year in a Porsche-the result was not good," I told him. After watching a few videos with me, Campy took a step back, grimaced, and said "It's not for me, but sack up and go for it-you'll do fine." I didn't fear the mountain-it was my ultra-competitive nature that had me spooked. Could I maintain my composure, or would I push too hard?

Bound for Reno

Weeks later, I boarded a plane to Reno with my helmet and a few cameras in hand. Upon arrival, I went through the obligatory registration, tech inspection, drivers meeting, and then Rosenbaum and event promoter Jimi Day provided a detailed course orientation. We did recon on every inch of the course, closely inspecting the profile of the pavement and the interesting corners. We were encouraged to lay on the ground to get a better view of the crowned road surface and take a close look at the snow-marker poles and loose gravel near the edge.

Did I mention the feeling one gets standing at the edge of a roadside cliff with no guardrail?

Rosenbaum told us we'd have cold brakes and tires during the start (since there are no warm-up laps), and because the course is uphill, the weight of the car will be on the back and that can alter your vehicle's handling. Not surprisingly, I didn't sleep much that night.

Early the next day, I examined my black '07 GT500, which was prepped with Eibach lowering springs, a Spectre cold-air kit, and some very cool spoilers. It wore Continental Extreme tires with a tread-wear rating of 280, which were okay for some performance driving but not comparable to R-compound tires. I shoveled down a quick breakfast and remembered the advice from Sampson, whose words were, "Late apex everything!"

Finally, the moment had come. I rolled the Shelby to the starting line and collected myself. Jimi Day placed a wheel chock behind the rear tire (as the car is already on the hill), and greeted me, as he did every driver. Day gave me a quick briefing and pep talk, and after hearing his words, the green flag dropped.

I blazed from the line but was going cautiously fast. There are about 22 turns on the course, and by turn Three, I was feeling uncomfortable and thinking this was a bad idea. The jagged, immovable rock formations lining the inside of the road reached out as if to say, "Go ahead and hit me, pal." I tried to forge a line, but I found it hard to concentrate as I was unsure which direction the road would turn next. I even peeked over the side of the cliffs once or twice (not a good idea). My ears popped during the ascent from 5,000 to 6,200 feet (yet another distraction), and my hands got sweaty. I soldiered on and finished the run in 4:17.37 with an average speed of 72.73 mph.

Rosenbaum mentioned it would take a few runs to feel comfortable, and man, was he right. I was thrilled just to have finished the course, and I had a myriad of thoughts during the 5-plus-mile drive to the bottom.

With the fire to go fast, I headed back to the starting line to attack. I got in the zone, put everything I had into the effort, and improved by 10 full seconds. Now I had a clue where the road went and a better feel for the Shelby.

Clearly, the hardest part was learning the course, and after just two runs, I barely noticed the rocks, cliffs, or poles that whipped right past my window. With each run, I gained confidence and the seconds dropped from my time.

According to Rosenbaum, fully prepped racecars could barely break the four-minute mark just a few short years ago, and by the end of the day, I had recorded a 3:52.96. I was comfortable with the steed under me, as it provided a nice balance of power and handling.

Aside from simply surviving, the challenge is to crack the 3:41 mark. The significance being this is Highway 341. But dropping 10 more seconds would be a gargantuan task, one I didn't feel was possible on this weekend. Still, I had to try.

Day two came with cooler temperatures-and we know what that does for horsepower. Drivers were cautioned, however, that the 20-degree drop in temp could also mean less traction. Armed with that advice, I was ready to let the Shelby eat.

I hit the track and the car felt great. I knocked the tire pressure down a notch (from 34 to 31). Despite the rear tires breaking loose and even smoking on occasion, I planted the throttle earlier on corner exit and my speeds in the straights showed it. I was even more confident with my braking, applying them later as I guided the black Shelby on a tight track. My first run of the morning felt quicker than anything from the day prior, but you don't get to see your times, so I had to rely on instinct.

Fully charged, I returned for another try, and this time I was very aggressive. I had the tail wagging, which the photographers later told me was pretty fun to watch, but being loose near the edge of the road was anything but a peachy experience. I pushed the street radials to the limit of adhesion until they squealed, and the Eaton was howling at full song. I maintained my focus throughout the run, and the black Shelby drifted across the crowned highway to the finish, coming oh-so-close to the rocks. I finished the course at full throttle with the left-side mirror nearly clipping the rocks and a snow pole.

Mentally drained, I breathed a huge sigh of relief and sweat rained from my brow. More importantly, my speed on the course was much higher than on any run before. The grip was there, my line was right, and I finished in 3:45:21 seconds with an average of 83.2 mph-my quickest yet.

With an air of confidence, I went back for more, but this pass could only be described as ugly. I over-drove Turns 4 and 5, and I had to fight feverishly to maintain my concentration as the car drifted towards a cliff. Ultimately, I reeled it back in and finished the run, but it wasn't my quickest. In fact, I scared myself in one turn, getting off line and almost dipping a wheel.

It would have been easy to quit at that point, but it's not in my nature. Instead, I took a short break, gathered myself, and went back for one final shot. I had nothing to prove, but I wanted to finish with a clean pass. This time out I nailed the line early on, and I ripped up the hill like I'd been driving there all my life. Power on, I charged braking late(r), turning in with the Mustang at limit of adhesion, and exiting corners while cresting the crowned road with the throttle blade rolled horizontal. Smooth equals fast, and this run ended in 3:46.40 seconds.

After two days on the mountain, I was whipped, both mentally and physically. A tsunami of emotion had overcome me, from the buildup, to seeing the rocks and cliffs, to ultimately being thrust into the moment at full speed. You might say I cheated death because, in a sense, I did. But I felt more alive than ever before.

Ultimately, I didn't crack into the 3:41 club, but that's okay. The way I see it, I was a few pounds of boost and R-compound tires away from running in the 3:30s or low 3:40s, but on this weekend, survival was my main goal.

As for those cameras I mentioned, they were rolling full time. You can experience a taste of my adventure by clicking on www.musclemustangfastfords.com to watch videos from the Spectre 341 Challenge.

My mom recently watched them and has forbid me from doing it again. Sorry, Mom, but I can't wait to go back.

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