There’s a funny, almost universal truth about riding right-seat on a hot lap with a professional race driver in a world-beating sports car: they don’t get nearly as excited as you do.
I’m not talking about the drive itself, of course — these people are professionals who are paid to ride the knife-edge of physics lap after lap in some of the most highly-tuned racing machines on the planet. I don’t expect them to even crack a sweat ferrying journalists and other assorted human freight from apex-to-apex as they fractionally dip into their immensely deep pools of talent.
More specifically, I’m referring to their utter disinterest in whatever hot metal they’ve been assigned to pilot that particular day. No matter how exotic the car, how incredibly powerful its engine, or how radical its performance numbers, most race drivers are able to cough up only the most cursory of comments about the vehicle itself.
“It’s fine,” they might say at the end of a session that left your adrenaline pulsing at a rate so rapid you’re afraid you might need to cry into an Epipen — you get a lot of “fine” — or maybe, “I think they did it well this time,” if you run into a particularly loquacious hot shoe.
All of this to say underscore how astonished I was to hear pros as accomplished as Tony Kanaan (IndyCar champion and Indianapolis 500 winner) and Tommy Milner (class winner at both Le Mans and Sebring, and factory driver for Chevrolet) positively gush about the 755-horsepower 2019 Chevrolet Corvette ZR1 after a pair of sessions spent re-adjusting my internal gyroscope at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
“It’s impressive, isn’t it?” Kanaan asks me after I express my astonishment at the trio of laps he had just turned in. “Do you see how quick the car is through the esses? On a normal street car it would be terrible!” he exclaims, sawing the wheel and making the sound of screeching tires with his mouth. It was an accurate simulation of the understeer that had been completely absent during his expert parsing of that particular section of asphalt.
“It hits the curbing and recovers pretty quick,” he continues as we putter around the out-lap, cooling the immense supercharged 6.2-liter V8 that hid underneath the ZR1’s hulking hood apparatus. “Even on this one, under braking and kind of sideways, the car just takes it.” He steers the nose of the car into the raised chevrons of a tight left-hander we had indeed just bounced off of at an acute angle moments before, illustrating his point.
For a pro driver, this is the verbal equivalent of a flash flood, an unprovoked outpouring of affection for a street car that leaves me almost as stunned as the ride itself. A professional who repeatedly distinguished himself in open-wheel racers eager to dish on his excitement about a Corvette is so incongruous, based on past experience, that I couldn’t tell whether I was blacking out due to shock or delayed g-load.
There’s no question that for Kanaan, the enthusiasm is fresh — and genuine, judging by the fact that this time, the dollar signs are flowing in the opposite direction than they would in the typical hired gun experience. “I test drove one two months ago, for one of GM’s internal publications, and then, uh, I bought one,” he chuckles. “But today is really the first day that we got to abuse the car on the race track.”
My session with Tommy Milner was equally revealing. Perhaps it’s not much of a stretch for Chevy’s top Corvette pilot to have a soft spot for the civilian version of his endurance commuter, but I wasn’t prepared for his breakdown of why, exactly, the newest Vette — which sports a blower pushing 52 percent more oxygen into the LT5 V8’s greedy intake as compared to the Z06’s LT4 — is such a sweetheart.
“I don’t have to drive it any more gingerly than a Grand Sport,” he tells me in response to my question about whether the Corvette chassis is more squirrelly now with the ZR1’s massive power bump. “It puts the power down remarkably smoothly. Despite the ZR1’s numbers, looks, and sounds, each of these Corvettes — the GS, the Z06, the ZR1 — they all drive very similarly. This one just happens to be faster.”
“It almost doesn’t feel real for how fast it can go,” he explains, discussing how evolved the Corvette platform has become. “Most street cars I get into, if I go to a race track that I know, the line is different. In each of the three track-ready Corvette models now — GS, Z06, and ZR1 — I actually drive similar to what I would in the race car, because of that combination of downforce and grip.”
Indeed, with a full 950 lbs of downforce available at speed, the ZR1 is exceptionally well-planted with the pedal floored. The term “race car for the street” is thrown around often enough that the bruises barely have time to heal, but for Milner, the line between the ZR1 and the C7.R is blurry, at best.
“In most street cars, I can get in and find the limit really quickly, first lap,” Milner says. “In the Z06, it took me five, six, seven laps before I felt like I was getting close to what the car was truly capable of. I can only imagine what this one will feel like when I get it out there on Road Atlanta.”
Strong praise for a car more apt to reveal the boundaries of my own talent well before I had even tasted the ragged edge of what it was capable of. Then again, this is exactly what Corvette chief engineer Tadge Juechter wanted, a range-topper that prioritized accessible performance over the white-knuckle attitude of the previous-generation ZR1. Thanks to the immense amounts of both horsepower and grip — mechanical and aero — on tap, the fiercest member of the Corvette family on paper turns out to the most playful in person. I may not have touched the ZR1’s 210-mph-plus top speed here at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, but I can only imagine the sound Tony’s going to make when he does, shortly after taking delivery.
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