A genius named Vinnie Cilurzo in Santa Rosa, California makes a beer called “Pliny the Elder.” I will never forget the first time it passed through my lips; it was as if the Victoria’s Secret angels were lap-dancing on my tongue. Even after thirteen years of home brewing, even after qualifying as a Certified beer judge, nothing had prepared me for my first taste of Vinnie’s magnificent brew. And no beer I would drink after that would ever taste the same. I’d had a beer epiphany. As a pistonhead, my first automotive epiphany occurred, oddly enough, in a Jeep Cherokee.
I was in the market for a new car. I needed an inexpensive vehicle capable of hauling a recently purchased upright bass. Out went my safe, reliable, comfortable and endlessly dull Nissan Sentra. In came one of the most remarkable vehicles ever produced. Now you might think my moment of revelation occurred on a broken trail or eighteen-inches of mud. And I’m proud to report that this particular Cherokee– and the one I purchased afterwards– saw plenty of off-road action. But the big moment arrived on plain old asphalt.
I was heading back from my parent’s home in Los Angeles (where my bass had been stored) to my home in San Francisco. I was driving the Cherokee down California’s numbingly straight main vehicular artery, Interstate 5. It was a weekday morning; there were neither cars nor constables visible in any direction. The Jeep was humming along happily at 85mph. And then, for reasons lost in the mists of time, I buried the throttle. The Cherokee’s 4.0-liter straight-six came alive and the needle climbed higher and then higher still.
Now I’ve passengered at more than 200 miles an hour in a NASCAR race car. I can say with some authority that the Jeep’s 120mph terminal velocity was not an objectively impressive feat. But it was the first time in my life I’d ever driven fast. To say I was hooked is a monumental understatement, and I have the insurance premiums to prove it. Of course, going fast in a single line may be the be-all end-all for muscle car or drag racing aficionados, left / right action is where it’s at. As I discovered during my second epiphany, on a test drive of an Audi A4 1.8 Turbo.
After the dotcom bubble burst, I returned to my native Los Angeles. After two car-free years in Manhattan I wanted a set of wheels so bad I could almost pay for them. The cheapest Audi’s AWD turboness appealed to me– though I really had no notion why. With the dealer in situ, I gave it a go. I will never forget taking the vehicle’s speed into and through a corner. The g-force joy unleashed by Ingolstadt’s engineers was indescribably delicious, like joining the mile high club, only down to earth. I was hooked X 2.
About a year later, I dated an exotically beautiful woman (it is hard to argue against Scottish/Vietnamese hybrids) who owned a BMW 540i. On our very first date, I asked if I could drive the mid-sized, V8-powered German luxury car. Let it never be said that I have my priorities straight; the Bimmer’s throttle response, seamless gearbox, faultless chassis control and sublime ride quality suddenly became much more appealing to me than the stunning sexpot seated to my right. Cars like this existed? I believe my political affiliation changed from Nadar-socialist to confirmed-capitalist in 1320 feet.
One of the things I love most about my job is my job. Case in point: on a junket to Skip Barber’s High Performance Driving School I managed to overheat a BMW M3 and shred the tire off a Porsche 911. My third automotive epiphany arrived on the second day of the class in the form of a red Dodge Viper. That’s 8.3 liters, 505hp and 550lbs. feet of torque and a cabin temperature north 150 degrees. It was terrifying. Everything I did was wrong, wrong, stupid, dangerous and wrong. Cones ran for their lives, wheels smoked and more often than not, the big bad Dodge found itself going backwards. I was hopeless.
But then, suddenly, for about one-quarter of one of my twelve laps, I did everything right. Hard on the throttle. Pick the perfect line. Light braking to redistribute the weight. Late steering input to the apex. Nail the gas and blast out of the turn. Sadly, I performed a scary, pupil-dilating 720 afterwards to, uh, celebrate. And yet, for the most fleeting of moments, I was Fangio: calm, deliberate and in control.
Now, whenever I test a car, no matter how humble or exotic, I wonder if a paradigm shift awaits. Mind you, I don’t need another epiphany. I just want one.