How to outrun a dust storm in a Lexus LFA...
One final celebrity-fueled hurrah for Lexus's mind-bending Supercar.
By: Blake Z. Rong on 4/15/2013
There are many elements to the following narrative, most of which we're still trying to piece together with our dust-clogged, overfed, undercaffeinated minds. But what we can ascertain is the following: we just drove a $375,000 Lexus LFA, a car that's worth more than most homes, largely unsupervised around one of California's fastest racetracks. Nobody was hurt. A celebrity showed up, someone whom you may have heard of. And then, in an unbridled demonstration of Old Testament wrath, we were swept away in the sort of howling, torrential dust storm that drove the Joads out of Oklahoma -- to just north of here, come to think of it.
Here, then, is what ensued.
Ken Gushi will be driving this up Pikes Peak in a month. He seems pretty happy about that.
The trailer arrived sometime past noon. On the back was perched Ken Gushi's Lexus IS-F CCS-R Pikes Peak race car, a be-winged, bright orange number that immediately drew everyone's attention. CCS-R stands for "Circuit Club Sport Racer," and other than bigger brakes, a full cage, and 700 pounds of weight reduction, it's remarkably similar to an IS-F. In fact, Lexus claims that the next IS-F will emulate this race car instead of any BMW or Mercedes product. And lucky Ken: he will drive it up Pikes Peak in June, in the Exhibition class.
Gushi will be 27 this year. He's quiet, soft-spoken when he does talk; his hair stands upright without the benefit of gel, seemingly defying gravity. He isn't just a Formula Drift prodigy who started in the series at 16, before he got his driver's license -- he's also Toyota's resident hot shoe, participating in projects as diverse as driving Scion's 600-horsepower turbocharged GReddy FR-S drift car, to driving Pikes Peak, to winning the Pro/Celebrity Race Series in 2011 -- in the Pro class -- to running lead-follow exercises today for us in the LFA. "If you haven't heard one in person, you should," he later tweeted about the LFA. "Music to my ears."
This year will be Gushi's third entry in Pikes Peak. "I drove as a privateer in 2007." How'd you do then? we ask him. And before we can finish the question, he answers without hesitation or emphasis, "I flew off."
The Subaru he was driving went off on Engineer's Corner, a tough left-hand hairpin about 2miles up from the starting line. Gushi misjudged the corner, flew down an embankment, cleared a ditch, and hit a tree. Fortunately, the car was rebuilt; and fortunately for him, he walked away with nothing broken.
Last year, the first year of the Great Repaving of Pikes Peak, he fared better -- rocketing to the top in 11:45. This year, he thinks he'll be in the 10s. And with a full asphalt course, he'll be facing some interesting people. "Last year they brought real road race cars," he said; Porsche had brought an RSR, which had impressed him. "I'm hoping to see some open wheel cars. It'll be a real interesting mix."
The Movie Star
Paul Walker is taller in real life.
"Hey man, he was in my face!"
It's practically a trope of cinema and celebrity that action heroes are smaller in person than you'd imagine -- think Tom Cruise here -- but then again it's easy to look short next to Vin Diesel. And after five increasingly outlandish "Fast and Furious" movies it's kosher to consider Walker an all-out action star. If you asked a sheltered Scandinavian to describe what a Californian boy looks like, he'd be hard-pressed to come up with someone other than blond, easygoing Walker. He grew up in the San Fernando Valley. He wore flip-flops to the desert. And he's realistic about his celebrity.
"You guys want to see the craziest thing?" he said, thumbing through some photos on his phone. We huddled around him. "So I'm getting breakfast this morning, and this girl there is way more excited than usual. It's like whatever, it happens sometimes. So she goes up to me and -- if this was my daughter I'd kill her -- she has FAST tattooed on one wrist, and FIVE on the other. I'm like, 'in five years, you're gonna laser it off.'"
Walker has a collection of 25 to 30 cars, many of which are kept and serviced at Always Evolving on Constellation Road in Valencia, a shop owned by childhood friend Rich. There's some BMW E36 M3 lightweight specials, really rare stuff, he says. An E30 M3, of course. His favorite car, a Nissan S15 Silvia, almost unseen in America. An R34 Skyline GTR comes as no surprise, yet it's not thatone. A Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution that was shipped from Europe. Not, in fact, overnighted from Japan.
"Does Paul get annoyed when people quote lines from the movie at him?" we asked Rich.
"Yeah," he said, "if you go up and say hey, what's up, that's fine. If you just shout lines at him, then it gets annoying."
Walker raced in the Redline Time Attack Series in a BMW M3, until the series folded in 2011. Three years ago, he championed a Mazda Miata with Motorsports Enterprises Racing at the brutal 25 Hours of Thunderhill, his first wheel-to-wheel race. "It was pissing rain all weekend," he said. "Couldn't see anything. You had to use The Force." He mimicked driving with his eyes closed, sticking a right foot out. Team MER overcame a differential and two transmission swaps to take a victory in the E1 class. Walker "displayed the quick and consistent speed of a veteran racer," said an MER press release.
For a rare moment the dust subsided, and then, those magic words: "You guys want to drive?" He hopped in the yellow LFA with Rich, Gushi leading in the CCS-R. We rode shotgun with Matt D'Andria, co-host of "CarCast with Adam Carolla" and the only other journalist here. They started half a lap ahead of us around the Streets of Willow, and with every new lap the yellow LFA inched closer and closer to Gushi, barreling up the straightaway into turn one at 120 mph.
"Hey, he passed Ken!"
"Did he really?" Matt glanced out the side window.
"Oh, you know he's not gonna shut up about that."
No surprise there -- the CCS-R has a stock ISF engine, at 416 horsepower, while the LFA packs both 136 more horsepower and the adrenaline-fueled misgivings of Brian O'Conner. He's a good driver, said Gushi, and he definitely had fun out there. After his session Lexus wired him up with a microphone to ask him a very simple question: what did you think of the car?
"We featured one in 'Fast Four,' or 'Fast Five,' " said Walker. "Loved it. Now I'm just trying to figure out how to manipulate Lexus into lending me one for, like, two years."
"Sure thing, Paul," we imagine a Lexus rep musing quietly to himself. "We'll lend you the black one. But if you wreck it, you owe us a 10-second car."
Yellow is a pre-production; black is #32. Both have minor driving differences.
Horse Thief Mile, one of Willow Springs' many tracks, is a mile-long course literally carved into the side of a mountain: a route that consists seemingly of nothing but hairpins, like driving on Kokopelli's head. If viewed from space, it might pass for an unambitious form of the Nazca Lines. Drifters love it. Pros love it too, as it's just curvy and unsettling enough to test handling and braking -- and yes, you can still go fast.
The LFA is a car that needs little introduction: handbuilt V10 engine by Yamaha, 9,000 rpm redline, carbon-fiber everything, Toyota's collective sports car id manifesting itself after 10 years of cabalistic development. Mandated as a shot across the automotive bow by Akio Toyoda himself, no less as powerful and passionate a figure a Ferdinand Piëch. All 500 LFAs have been accounted for, rendering this opportunity to drive an LFA at Willow Springs an opportunity that one later tells his grandkids. Want to drive one yourself? You may wish to convince the man who owns two, but he's a tough character himself.
The yellow car is a preproduction model, used by Lexus for testing, and rough around the edges. It has 30,774 miles on it. The black model is number 32 of 500, which Lexus bought directly from Japan. It has around 30,000 miles as well. Both cars are tired, having been used and abused by Lexus and media alike: Gushi and the engineers gleefully drove them up from Los Angeles this morning. Both cars' interiors smell like the cockpits of World War II fighters: that heady combination of dirty leather, raw metal, sweat and fear.
"So, if you want to, get in," said a Lexus manager, "and we'll just do some laps, it'll be pretty informal..."
Climb in. Sit in the thinly padded carbon-fiber bucket. Watch those bolsters! Press the starter button; it's mounted on the steering wheel, like a Formula One car. WhirnernernernernerBRAAPBAPBAPBAP. Like every audial exhalation the LFA produces, it sounds less like it came from a car and more from a spaceship piloted by a Cyberdyne Systems product. Pull back both paddles for Neutral; push the right paddle to automatically select Drive. Despite what Lexus says, this is not an easy car to shove around a parking lot: one so much as glides over the throttle and the engine shoots up 3,000 rpm at a volume loud enough to spook coyotes from California City to Lancaster.
We followed in line behind Gushi and we drove past the chain-link entrance to Horse Thief Mile, where the stop signs are red and octagonal but say "WHOA" instead. He took off with a whoosh. We followed behind. And while it is nearly impossible to describe the evanescent joy of manhandling 550 horsepower through the esses and uphill on the way to 90 mph, neurons firing across synapses straight into the prefrontal cortex, we will say this: at 5,000 rpm the V10 engine shrieks like any normal engine that's approaching redline, but then you look down and realize that there's still half a rev range to go.
So, you go faster. And you don't shift. And the engine approaches seven, eight, almost nine now, screaming like the fury of Christendom, and the lights inside the tach change colors to yell at you to finally upshift, and you do and the car lurches with a PONG and you're at 5,000 rpm again, and there's four more ticks to go and you just want to run through them faster than the rate your brain can process everything, and the car just gives and gives and gives until you find yourself going faster and faster and faster, taking out any worry of self-doubt, any fear, the mind killer...
The Dust Storm
And that's when we escaped the dust cloud. Brendan Fraser was nowhere to be seen.
Sometime after lunch the wind started to pick up. It was around this time that Lexus's PR man, the perpetually happy Bill Kwong, informed us that the Streets of Willow were open to us and the LFA. Manna from heaven. The wind howled through the cracks in our doors as we drove to the paddock, shaking our cars on their suspensions. "I bet you've got a story now, huh?" asks Kwong.
By the time we had parked, the wind reached a fever pitch. We couldn't drive. We couldn't even make it to the cars, lest we be pelted with mouthfuls of sand and grit. Behind the sturdy cinderblock Streets of Willow garage we sat huddled in our cars, trying to gain some shelter as we heard the ping-ding-biddle of rocks pelting the doors. The video crews mistakenly left their cars and found themselves huddled behind the yellow LFA, a pitiful attempt to seek any rudimentary shelter. Paul waited inside his lifted Toyota Tacoma, sunglasses resolvedly on his face. The mountains disappear behind an ashen curtain of tan.
"They've opened the doors for us," one of the video people mouthed from outside the car before he dashed inside, clumsily. Paul and Rich were huddled behind the building like soldiers dodging a sniper ambush. They pulled their hoodies tight and ran wildly around the corner, whooping wildly, just as the wind sweeps a cloud of dust and sand and rocks around the corner and into our faces. My sunglasses blew off my face and scatter across the gravel for a good 10 or 15 feet.
Ever see a supercar blanketed in dust? The black LFA in particular garnered Rorschach-like streaks and splotches, its aerodynamics shaped exactly where the fine grit of dust goes, and -- more importantly -- where it's blown off. In a world where supercars are bought not for their drivability but to chase a phantom of collectable status (none more exemplified by the 500 LFAs in the world) it's refreshing to catch a glimpse of such a car with an air of insouciance, abused as it was by some Biblical trial by dust. All exotics deserve to be run this hard.
We were inside now; we were safe from the storm, though we could see the porta-potties listing dangerously. Cardboard trash cans blew past us. The windows shook, the wind howled, and the doors banged on their hinges, as evidence that nature transcends supercars and celebrities alike.
"It's fast and furious," quipped Kwong, "no pun intended."
~ Joe Z