How I Won/Lost/Failed to Understand the Cadillac CTS-V Challenge
With apologies to Douglas Adams:
Stress and nervous tension are now serious social problems in all parts of the Galaxy, and it is in order that this situation should not in any way be exacerbated that the following facts will now be revealed in advance.
I took my privately-owned 2009 Audi S5 to the CTS-V Challenge, intending to compete in it. This happened because every manufacturer in the industry was afraid to face the CTS-V with their own car, no matter how much we begged and pleaded.
After five practice laps, the S5’s brake pedal was sitting on the floorboards, making it impossible for me to continue in the event. To prevent me from having to sit on the sidelines watching everybody else having fun, Cadillac let me borrow the same automatic CTS-V that Bob Lutz drove. It was not a ringer, and I explain why below.
Michael Cooper is a talented driver, and I took him too lightly. Had I known how fast he was going to run, I’d have taken a few more risks on-track and turned the necessary time.
Now for our story.
The CTS-V Challenge arrived at a most inconvenient time for me, smack dab in the middle of a week in which I would learn three new tracks, drive more than three thousand miles, and fly across the country. My itinerary for the week:
Friday, Oct 23, 10PM: Drive to New Jersey Motorsports Park from Columbus, Ohio overnight to save on hotel expenses
Saturday and Sunday: Instructing for Audi Club NA on the “Lightning” course
Monday: Drive home to Ohio and trade my Boxster for my S5. Why not drive the S5 at Lightning? Simple. I only have one set of tires for the car and they need to last the rest of the year.
Tuesday: Drive to Monticello, NY
Wednesday: Drive to Rhode Island to play pinball with our august founder, Robert Farago
Thursday: CTS-V Challenge then drive home to Ohio
Friday, Oct 30: Write story for TTAC then fly to Laguna Seca
Saturday: MX-5 Cup race at Laguna Seca
Let’s get one thing straight: Robert, Eddy, and I worked very hard to try to find a car in which I could represent TTAC. We pitched everybody from Jaguar (“Show them that your car is faster”) to Honda (“We’ll run an Accord to show who’s winning the sales race in this country”) but the universal response was a cautious refusal. Robert was of the opinion that I shouldn’t participate without a chance of winning or making a serious point, and he may have been right. But I’m a racer and I will race a moped if I can get my hands on one. There was no way I was going to miss this event, period, point blank.
I arrived Thursday morning hopeful that the torrential rains of the two previous days would continue, allowing my S5 a bit of the ol’ Quattro advantage. Unhappily, it quickly became apparent that, although the track would have some standing water all day, there would be no rain in the forecast. I took my S5 out in morning practice to learn the track, hoping for the best.
Five laps later I was in the pits watching the backing plates of my brake pads smoking against the front discs. I’d narrowly missed a 125-mph slide off the end of the curving back straight, pumping a dead middle pedal and trying to catch some ABS activation on the wet track. There was no way to continue. I was done, finished, kaput.
Consider, for a moment, the relationship between TTAC and GM. From “General Motors Must Die” to the present day, there’s been no love lost. Yet the people at Cadillac offered to help me. They offered to assist with bleeding the brakes in my S5, which would not fix the issue. Then they offered to let me borrow a car. I took one of the Monticello “fleet car” CTS-Vs out and got five more practice laps before the session concluded.
During practice, I watched the other challengers. Only one of them — a 20-year-old kid who somehow had a new M3 and a flotilla of hangers-on — was matching my pace in the S5. I knew that the CTS-V was much faster than the S5, and that therefore I could take three safe laps out there in an unfamiliar car, on an unfamiliar eighteen-turn track, and get the time I needed to beat Bob and “win” this thing.
After a ninety-minute grind of television interviews, publicity shots, and other exercises seemingly designed to make sure everybody involved was nervous enough to puke, we were sent out to drive. The “run order” was the first hint of a setup. I would be driving first, on a wet track, along with two other challengers. Lutz would drive sixty minutes later, and Heinricy would drive thirty minutes after him. They would have a much drier track with plenty of rubber laid down.
I ended up being given the same CTS-V that Maximum Bob was scheduled to drive. It was loaded with Video V-Box gear — just what you’d need to coach someone to their maximum performance potential in a short period of time. But as I pulled out onto the main straight, I couldn’t help but notice that this particular V was a bit of a pig. My practice car was 2-3mph faster at the end of the back straight than the Lutzmobile. What the hell? I was expecting a ringer and got a rude surprise.
My three laps were basically 9/10ths excursions, working to extract as much time as I could without risking the car. While I was not driving in spectacular fashion, I knew that I was running consistently fast enough to beat all the non-pros out there, and I also knew that I would be handing Bob effectively a fresh car. There would be no accusations that we’d poisoned the well. With just ten laps of the track under my belt, I knew I’d never touch Heinricy, so I didn’t bother to try. I just sat back and enjoyed myself.
The enjoyment stopped when I got out of the car and looked at the timing board. Michael Cooper, the kid in the M3, had been sandbagging. His grey sedan, hunkered down with no visible gap between tire and fender, had circled the track seven-tenths of a second ahead of my best time. Fuck. I hate to lose. Should have pushed the car. Fuck.
I channeled my frustration into coaching Lawrence Ullrich from the New York Times before his run, trying to show him on the 3-D trackmap in the lobby how I would have run a 2:49. But Lawrence had an off-track incident in his first lap and never managed to put a great run together. At the end of the day, Heinricy and Link used a manual-transmission CTS-V to run three to five seconds faster than my time, on a mostly dry track. I can live with that, I suppose.
I have some regrets. I wish we’d been able to find a car. I wish I hadn’t arrogantly dismissed the other competitors out of hand and treated it like a six-figure milk run set up for my amusement. But I am grateful to Cadillac for helping me out, in the spirit of racing, when I needed a hand. I’m grateful to Monticello for letting a poverty-stricken club racer enjoy their zillion-dollar facility. And I left the event with plenty of respect for the CTS-V. Don’t get me wrong: I’d still rather have an MKS Ecoboost as a daily driver. But if you don’t think the CTS is capable of running against the fastest sedans in the world on an equal footing, you’re crazy. Whether that means anything in this economy, in this environment, in this era… that’s up to someone else to decide. I came, I saw, I conquered nearly everybody. Good enough for me.
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