Jaguar Alive Driving ExperiencePosted: May 20, 2012
A few weeks ago, Dad calls me and tells me he got an e-mail from Jaguar inviting him to a driving event. He can’t go because he and Mom are going to be in Florida. He sends me the e-mail with the registration number to sign up, so I did. I’m allowed a guest, so I call my frequent GT5/iRacing buddy Smades to see if he wants to join me. He’s in. After a morning filled with tire smoke, crushed traffic cones, and racing legends, I’m sorry, but Dad, you should have come home early.
The event is held in the parking lot of the Lone Star Park horse racing facility out in Grand Prairie. Smades doesn’t live too far from there so I pick him up this morning about 9 AM. After saying hello to the dogs, Laura and Charlie, we’re off. “Does this place have coffee?” he asks. Hell, I don’t know. “Exit here and get me a Starbucks.” A slow drip with four sugars and half-and-half we’re on our way to the track.
They’ve set up large, ten-foot tall letters spelling out J A G U A R on the front lawn so we know we’re in the right spot. Following our nose, we make our way to the hospitality tent where we register and get our lanyards. After a quick dog-and-pony show, they usher us out the door where a line of XFs, XJs, and XJ-Ls await us. Climb in, buckle up, and off we go. There are walkie-talkies in all the cars so the lead driver and the tail-end charlie driver can communicate with each other and us as well. We take to the streets around Lone Star Park in our personal XJ – not sure if it was a XJL with the long wheel base – but it had a 5 litre supercharged engine that sounded and felt great. Half-way out, we all pull over to the side of the road and swap drivers.
Smades spent this time in the passenger seat messing with the touch screen sat-nav and syncing his iPhone to the car. Once we’ve swapped, he drops the windows and cranks up the Beastie Boys. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that’s the first time Paul’s Boutique was played in that car. The Bowers & Wilkins sound system was superb and to quote Ferris Bueller: If you have the means, I highly recommend picking one up. Soon enough, we’re back at the main tent where the Jaguar pitchman is trying his hardest to make us laugh, but we’re here for one thing – to drive these cars hard.
Outside, in the massive Lone Star Park parking lot, they have three tents with three different areas of focus – technology, refinement, and performance – or something like that. We pick the technology tent off to our left first. There they have an XF waiting with an instructor waiting. In we go. He directs me to a skid pad simulating a wet or icy road. He turns off the traction control and tells me to give it some gas and notice the wheel slip. Back up, turn on the traction control and feel how the car reacts. Ok, nothing to write home about – and yet here I am writing about it. I digest. He directs me towards a kidney bean-shaped, traffic-cone lined “track” for a few laps. Over the next three laps, he gradually turns off certain aspects of the car’s control and turns on other aspects of the car’s performance. On my last lap, in full performance mode, he looks at me and says: “You’ve done this before”. With a quick handshake and thank you, we’re onto the refinement tent.
Here they have several models lined up begging to be driven. This isn’t meant to be a fast test. Hop in any car and take it for a leisurely ride over various obstacles that represent real-world road conditions. Meh to very-meh. Next tent: performance. And here’s where it gets fun.
Saturday morning, while surfing the web and downing my morning coffee, I’m listening to the Ticket. One of the hosts brings up this Jaguar driving thing he went to yesterday – my ears perk up. He spoke about the cars, the driving and the instructors – one of which is a former Le Mans winner. Now my tail is wagging. Who could it be? While in the main tent with Smades before our initial presentation, we strike up a conversation with one of the Jaguar representatives. I mention I heard there is a Le Mans winner here today. Yes, yes there is, this British gentleman says. Davy Jones. No…not the Monkee singer who recently died, but the American driver who won Le Mans in 1996 with Porsche – and to a lesser degree, with Jaguar (but more on that in a moment). Now I’m really excited.
So, the performance tent is really two tents – one a 0 to 60-or so acceleration test and one a auto-cross road course. First up, the acceleration test in the XKR-S -the Jaguar super coupé. Carbon fiber front-end splitter and rear spoiler, 5 litre supercharged V-8 that churns out 540 HP – this thing is mean.
They’re running the group through three XKR-S’, and while we wait, one of the instructors is giving us the finer points of this car. Soon after we get in line, the three cars line up in front of us and the instructors grab a student and off they go. Here comes Davy and with a quick stacking of the deck, I move Smades in front of me and tell him I want that guy. Shortly thereafter, off goes Smades and here comes my car.
Davy Jones was THE next-in-line American driver in the early ’80s. He finished 3rd behind Ayrton Senna and Martin Brundle in the 1983 British Formula Three Championship. He drove for the Brabham F1 team – then owned by Bernie Ecclestone. Over the next few years, he gradually shifted from open-wheel racing to sports car racing where he landed a seat with Jaguar driving their XJR-9 and XRJ-12 Le Mans competitors. He still raced in American open wheel CART – now Indy Car – races, but he made his name on the streets of La Sarthe.
He first took the XJR-9 down the Mulsanne Straight in 1988 back when it was the Mulsanne Straight. No chicanes. They could take these 7 litre V-12 machines over 250 MPH. On a public road. 1988 they finished 16th. 1989 and 1990 in the upgraded XJR-12 they did not finish. 1991 was their year. But the rules would get in the way.
In 1991, the competitors were given a fuel consumption limit: 2550 litres for the entirety of the race. As the race went on, the TWR Jaguar team pulled back – to the tune of 10 to 12 seconds a lap to conserve fuel. In the XKR-S, Davy told me they were convinced the Mazda would have to do the same, alas they did not and last year I was able to enjoy the 1991 winning Mazda 787B scream off towards Tertre Rouge. That 1991 race featured F1 World Champion Keke Rosburg and some “kid” by the name of Michael Schumacher.
Davy returned to Le Mans in 1996 in a Porsche powered car originally built as a Jaguar that was designed by Ross Brawn and had the roof chopped off. I’ll explain.
Tom Walkinshaw Racing was a racing team and engineering firm. They designed and built the Jaguar XJR-9, the XJR-12 and it’s successor the XJR-14. In 1995, Tom Walkinshaw Racing were commissioned by Porsche to produce a car to compete in the 1996 Daytona 24 hour race. The Porsche WSC-95 was based on the TWR’s 1991 Jaguar XJR-14 chassis, with the roof removed and a flat-six Porsche engine fitted. In 1996, the car was acquired by Joest Racing and were chosen by Porsche to run at Le Mans as backup for Porsche’s own team of works 911 GT1s. With Davy Jones, Manuel Reuter, and Alexander Wurz behind the wheel, they took the checkered flag Le Mans.
Davy would not get a chance to defend his Le Mans victory. Davy was seriously injured in January 1997 while testing an IRL car in Florida. Joest Racing replaced Davy with a young driver with a promising future: Tom Kristensen. That car went onto win, giving TK the first of his eight Le Mans victories.
So, I get in the XKR-S with Davy and tell him I went to Le Mans last year and I’m going back in three weeks. “Oh yea?” he replys, “Le Mans is a magical place”. We’re doing the XKR-S acceleration test and we have to go to the end of the parking lot where the J A G U A R letters are. I’m moving particularly slow and we’re talking Le Mans the whole way. His experiences, my experiences, what it was like racing there with and without the chicanes. He tells me that once they put in the chicanes on the Mulsanne Straight, that changed the aerodynamic set ups on the car. Because they could no longer blast off towards Mulsanne at 240 MPH, they could add a little more downforce. That minor change at the front of the track, affected the back of the track. The Porsche Curves were no longer a challenge. Davy said with the old minimal wings, the Porsche Curves were a challenge to go fast – you were right on the edge. Now with the added downforce, you could take the Curves without blinking.
Now we’re at the start of the straight away. I’m sure Davy was to spend that time going over all the bells and whistles and engineering black magic of the XKR-S and what makes it fast, but we were talking Le Mans. He points down towards a pair of cones and says “punch it.” 580 HP come alive and before I know it we’re at the cones, slowing down and heading back. All the while, we’re talking Le Mans. We get back to the tent and I tell him what a pleasure it was meeting him. He shakes my hand and tells me to enjoy myself.
I walk off a little star stuck and the instructor we were talking to earlier asks if I wanted my picture taken with him. D’OH – that’s a great idea. But he’s already grabbed another gentleman and it off for another drag race. I’ll get him later.
Smades and I make our way to the final performance tent where our instructor, Roberto, is giving some finer points about corner entry, exit, acceleration and braking. I probably should have paid more attention to the braking part a little more, but I’ll get to that in a minute. We get three laps, the first two are practice, the third is timed. The fast lap for my group is a 30.3.
They have two XF-R’s and two XK-R’s for us to choose. Dave hops in a XK-R and I’m up next. Here comes a grey XK-R and the instructor introduces himself – James Gue. He’s a former ALMS and GRANDAM competitor who’s currently partnered with McDreamy himself, Patrick Dempsey and his racing team. He asks me my driving/racing experience and says we’re good to go. Pull up to the starting cone and he’s going to bark out corners like a rally co-driver.
First corner a fast, sweeping left-hander, lift off the throttle followed by a left-hander hard on the brakes. A quick right-left-right chicane and then hard on the brakes for a left-hand hairpin. The final two corners are a double right-hand corner across the finish. First lap, not too bad. Harder here, softer here, and I’m good to go. Next lap. Even better, James tells me to be smoother on the throttle and earlier on the brakes. Gotcha. Final lap – it’s go time. He says he did ran a 29.5 this morning and tells me I’ve got the 30.3 in my sights. Go. And like that it’s done. He says he thinks I got it. Nope. The instructor in the timing tent says there’s a problem with the electronic/laser stop watch. Go again. Ok. Another good lap. Nope, the timing still isn’t working. James gives me a few more tips. Ok, we’re all set. GO! First corner, nailed it. Second corner, nailed it. Through the chicane and into the hard left hand hairpin…I was five feet late on the brakes and I took out a few cones. Crap.
We pull in and Smades holds up his iPhone. “42 seconds?!? What went wrong?” as he chuckles. James pats me on the shoulder and tells me he thinks I would have beat the 30.3. That’s not much of a consolation prize and Smades’ chuckling isn’t helping much. We walk off and back towards the first performance tent to look for Davy. A quick scan and here he comes walking over. I ask for a quick photo and he graciously obliges.
We head back into the main tent where we check out another XKR-S – in French Racing Blue of all colors – and an old E-type 2+2 coupé. We complete a quick Jaguar survey on an iPad, receive our gift bag with all sorts of Jag swag and we’re back on 30 heading back to Smades’ place.
All in all, it was a great day. Jaguar really makes some fantastic vehicles. I’ve had plenty of time in German and Japanese cars, but this is my first real experience in British built machinery that Jeremy Clarkson is always rambling on about. It was a great time with a good friend and meeting a Le Mans winner made it that much sweeter.
Three weeks from today I’ll be in a plane to France and back to La Sarthe. I’m just counting down the days.
UPDATE: I just got this from Jaguar. Click here for my video with Davy Jones