Somewhere between exhilaration and alliteration lies the truth about my feelings on driving the car I’d always wanted to drive – the Ariel Atom, which I drove courtesy of Lone Star Exotics, a dip into my savings and the nice people at Harris Hill Road.
If you’re not familiar with the Ariel Atom, it’s like the Desert Eagle of cars – a fast way to get to supercharged hell in an exoskeletal hand-basket. It’s like an $80,000 go kart built with one aim in mind – to help collect 100mph June Bugs as you roar in and out of corners. To say the car has a wind shield is a bit of an exaggeration – I’m around six feet tall and my helmeted head was being dragged all over by the wind, while the spectacle-lens-sized “wind shields” collected maybe 50% of the bugs.
And don’t think I use go kart in a derogatory way – I just mean it’s not got cruise control, body work or any of that nonsense that slows you down and gets in your way. I say this, as I was fortunate enough to drive a Z06 on the same track – more on that later.
I arrived at the track, averaging over 41mpg in my Prius to meet the Atom at the gate. The track manager duly arrived in his RX8 and let us in, and asked what I normally drove. I pointed to the Prius. No-one else probably brought a hybrid to a race track I figured from his look of bemusement.
There were a few waivers to be signed and a bit of insurance to purchase, and then it was onto class room instruction. I had no idea about corners and braking and such, and Justin patiently explained some basics, before letting me take a marker out for a spin on the white board track. Keeping that sucker in large radius turns smoothly wasn’t easy, but I eventually got a racing line drawn.
Then it was off to the track, and with Justin as my pilot (I still don’t feel that you drive the Atom, more that you pilot it), we took in a few laps of the course. Could I remember it. Not really, I was just surprised at exactly how much grip the thing had as we went around bends. And that there were no “oh sh!t” handles to hang onto. I’m a nervous passenger at best.
The track was a little bumpy in places, and the suspension set up unforgiving, which made for some hairy moments, and ultimately, in part of the suspension snapping. Yes, snapping.
Justin noticed immediately, and as we pulled to a stop, I noticed the front right wheel was in the air. We returned to the pit lane on three wheels, and Justin said, “Welcome to the world of race cars.” as he went off to get it fixed.
During the process, and to give me some track time, I was put in a Z06 – some sort of Corvette for which I had little respect or desire. I think of Corvette’s as firmly American cars, and thus imagine that they go in straight lines between Gulp ‘n’ Guzzles on the Interstate at 75 mph as if that’s fast. Oh, and Smokey’s bandit drove one once.
The z06 was for me everything that the Atom wasn’t. Comfortable, having a seat belt rather than a harness, and a roof rather than a deluge of June Bugs. It also had a little heads up display thingy projected on the inside of the windshield, where the Atom had no speedo connected. It was also shockingly easy to drive, and was more fun than I thought. I realize now that it has a 7.0l 505HP V8, which probably explains why it was quite nippy.
Remember, I can’t drive fast cars, and this car was undoubtedly much faster than I could drive, but also rather civilized. All in all, a great car to learn the track on, and something I’m really glad that I got to drive.
A little later, the Atom was back with all four wheels touching the ground (pilot permitting), and Justin got into the passenger seat and let me do a lap. He pointed me where I should go – there were orange plastic cones at the salient turn-in points – and waved his arms to indicate “faster”, though rarely slower.
He spotted a plume of dust emerging from the fast bend at the end of the pit lane and urged me to slow down as it meant another driver had spun off. I didn’t really think about it and slowed down, and I guess there could have been a car in the middle of the track around the corner from one of my fastest parts of the course. No-one was hurt. We carried on.
I think he may have planned more practice laps, but pretty soon after the 4th turn on third lap as my confidence was growing, I span off the track and into the grass. I had simply hit the throttle too hard after an apex, something that’s never really a problem in an underpowered hybrid, but causes a bit of a stink in a 300 horsepower rocket sled. Of course I forgot to push on the brake and push in the clutch, which led to more spinning than was absolutely necessary, but the car survived, and Justin seemed fine. Remarkably relaxed about it and didn’t take me out, ground me, or give me a sound thrashing. What a nice chap.
We went back to the pit lane to have the car checked over, and then it was my turn to go out alone. With my shaken confidence, I trundled around the track at a leisurely pace, forgetting where to turn, and to use all of the width of the track. Over five laps I decreased my lap time by 19 seconds as I go the hang of it, but it was really quite terrifying.
Terrifying as there’s no power steering, no power brakes, and I was always trying to figure out if my foot was actually on the brake pedal or not as I hoped to lose enough speed to make the hairpin. Terrifying as you can feel every bump and I was gripping the steering wheel to stop it from shimmying too much, and trying not to let my head get too buffeted about to see as I pulled away on the straights.
Terrifying as there were other cars on the track, some driven by professional race drivers. Now in truth, these were all perfect gentlemen, so they didn’t seem to mind waiting in line behind me until I noticed them in the egg sized mirrors and pulled over and waved to let them pass. I guess they felt safer that way too.
I pulled in for my recap from Justin, who told me I could pick up a time in the bends by trusting the car more. I was tense and alert and on edge – exciting and I would later realize exhausting, and Justin asked me about my favorite parts.
“I like accelerating in straight lines,” I said, “and the really fast bend at the end of the pit lane.”
Out I went again, getting a little faster each time, singing to myself to ease my way through the fear, looking forward to my favorite fast bend.
Predictably enough, my GoPro Hero2 flew off my helmet and onto the track. As one driver later described it, it landed “close to the racing line.” Annoying at the time, but quite a compliment I suppose. Which meant I didn’t get any footage of my fastest laps. In fact, most of the footage I got was barely usable, as my helmet was being pushed up and down by the accelerating stillness of the unwitting air through which it sliced.
I got back out on the track and picked up the camera and got back to piloting. I got my lap time down to 1:41 before I hit turn one faster still. Later in the club room, a Porsche driving instructor explained that the camber was odd at the bend, and that you had to get the nose of your car to dive if you were going to make it round. Not knowing this at the time, I hit it with my nose presumably in the air. I don’t remember too much for a short instant, but this time I did jam on the brakes as I span off the track.
Again, Justin was calm after he walked over to inspect the damage to the $80k car. There was nothing too wrong with the car, but that was my last lap for the day, and told me to come in on the next lap.
It wasn’t until then that I realized that I’d been doing the whole track in 4th gear. There was plenty of power in 4th gear to pull away from any turn. And I really wasn’t ready to learn gear changing (at which I am generally proficient in a road car) while also learning about racing lines and piloting brutal race machines.
My time was decidedly slow, but I’m okay with that. I think some people get around in the 1:25 range, and quite possibly with slower cars. I doubt I got up to 100mph at any point – maybe not even above 70mph. But when I was accelerating in straight lines, I was golden.
I walked away having learned a great deal, and I met my objective of having a lot of fun. In the club house, I spoke to other drivers who encouraged me to get a Mazda MX5 (Miata) to practice in. I saw a dazzling bevvy of cars described by three letters – GTR, NSX and so on. I met Justin who has a love of fast cars and sharing that with the world. And I realized that I quite enjoy driving cars around tracks.
In retrospect, I may have chosen to learn more about driving before I got in the Atom. Unlike the Desert Eagle, it requires a bit of skill to shoot around a track. But you can still have fun in an Atom. Even if you don’t even remember that you’re not changing gears.
If you want to get your own footage as a souvenir – I’d recommend you go for the suction cup mounted GoPro Hero2, not the helmet mount that I used.