Never had I gone through the carousel at Willow Springs faster. I have driven a number of racing cars and road-going cars (including a Lola Can-Am car) through the long right-hander that makes up Turn 2 of the fabled track — but no car had given me that much confidence. The typical Third gear trip now in Fourth gear! Yes. Fourth gear. The car tracked like it was on rails…
My friends at Marco Polo Motorsports passed a kind invitation to me: “Come and drive the KTM X-Bow GT4 at Willow Springs International Raceway during a testing day for the upcoming Pirelli World Challenge race at Lime Rock, Connecticut.” What made it even better was having the Reiter Engineering crew — who have developed the X-Bow for a myriad of sports car racing disciplines.
In from Munich,Germany, to oversee the test for Reiter were former Prost F1 driver and LeMans 24 winner, Tomas Enge as part of the lineup, to dial in the cars, along with one of Reiter’s lead engineers. Best yet, the invitation was on a Monday. This actually provided me a nice mental health day away from the intense automotive-restoration project work that has consumed me lately at Beach Cities Garage.
Beyond their impressive resumes, my driving companions were showing a great deal of speed and skill in the KTM X-Bow Pirelli World Challenge cars as I carefully observed early runs. Both running in the low 1:20s — a fast trip around the 2.5-mile, high-desert road course. The KTM X-Bow has proven to be quite competitive in the GT4 class, making a solid 350 horsepower from a turbocharged Audi 2.0-liter motor — in a car weighing 2770 pounds, driver included — with well-engineered aero.
Beyond Enge, was full-time Marco Polo team driver Nicolai Elghanayan, a serious up and coming racer, and 2017 Lotus Cup Champion. Nicolai is clearly ready for the rest of the season, having just completed his architectural studies at USC and ready to focus on the challenges ahead.
All the angry driving today will be under the watchful eye of John Mueller of Muellerized, based in Santa Ana, who plays the role of crew chief. His sage instructions for me were pretty straight forward, “Your job today is to bring the car back to me in one piece.” The very amicable Mueller, himself, has lifelong road racing experience.
John’s dad, Lee, was a sports car racer with numerous wins, podiums, and amazing team pedigree including Huffaker and Kas Kastner’s teams. The elder Mueller ran the original Mazda RX-7s in the IMSA series. John successfully raced early on in his career until turning to the premium set-up business — making others faster. Much faster! He still runs several SCCA events each year — regularly winning in his own prepped Mazda RX-7.
Tomas Enge has had a very colorful past in racing. The Czech was the first of his countrymen to drive in the top-flight Formula One World Championship in 2001. In the Prost-Acer, Enge drove the final three races of the season, substituting for Luciano Burti, who was injured in a hard crash at Spa. Sadly, despite great potential — posting a 12th, 14th, and DNF at Monza, Indianapolis, and Suzuka — Prost Grand Prix disbanded due to bankruptcy, right before the 2002 Formula One season. Without a ride in the big show, Enge switched to sports cars and went to win his class at the LeMans 24 in 2003, in a Prodrive Ferrari 550-Maranello, then got the podium in the top class twice, with the factory Aston Martin team. He also ran IndyCar in 2005.
Enge really liked Willow Springs. He cited some of his other favorite North American circuits including Road Atlanta, Watkins Glen and Road America. I explained to him that Willow was the oldest permanent road circuit in North America, built in 1953. He appreciated that, as he too was a bit of a statistician and historian.
We had fun discussing Formula One and IndyCar history. Enge drove the 2005 Indianapolis 500, starting on the inside of row four. Sadly his race came to an end when Danica Patrick spun, tagging him and his teammate, Tomas Scheckter, on lap 155. Patrick would race on, but for the two Formula One veterans, their race would be done.
“She spun and took me and my teammate Tomas Scheckter out, but only damaged her front wing. She pitted off sequence and became the hero — first woman to lead the Indy 500. Her wing was stuck in my car and at the following race, we had her autograph it and auctioned it off for charity,” Enge explained.
After standing along the pit wall and carefully watching the lines and braking points — which frankly intimidated me — it was my turn to strap in and take in some laps in the KTM X-Bow. What amazed me the most was watching Elghanayan and Enge enter Turn 1 from the long straight. Braking was super late — past the “1” marker on entry to the nearly 90-degree left-hander and the downshifts banging down from Sixth to Fourth at the apex, then accelerating hard through the exit.
The cockpit, at first glance, was everything you would expect in a 21st Century racing car. It was a combination of the Batmobile and Speed Racer’s Mach V. During my 10-lap run in the car, where I shaved nearly 5 seconds per tour — as the car became more comfortable — I did not get to try all the buttons. There was brake balance, turbo boost, ABS, stability controls, radio transmission — heck, even drink delivery!
I wasn’t pressing buttons besides the fuel pump and starter, yet I got to feel a modern GT racing car on a familiar circuit. Two nearly center-mounted digital devices showed all the readings and settings, including gear position, along with all the typical car systems readings such as oil, water pressure, and temperatures. I quietly wondered if there were machine gun triggers and smokescreen too???
Getting in the car was an adventure as well. When I first arrived at Willow, I sat in Elghanayan’s car. It was comfortable as Nicolai is taller, like me. However when it came time to drive, I was assigned to Enge’s car. Enge, like many top-tier drivers, is shorter — and with age, the Bohemian has become a bit stout.
The pedals were set further up, which made my driving position a bit cramped, but the wheel was in a good place, allowing bent arms for strength. Once past the web of rollcage bars, the tight seat was okay, but the seatbelts were in need of adjustment. As one of the crew reached in for my crotch-belt to pull it up, I declared, “Hey! Take me to dinner first!,” to much chuckling of the rest of the crew.
Once settled in the tight quarters of the X-Bow, we fired the turbocharged Audi 2-liter, and the crew lowered the spring-loaded, one-piece top, locking it into place. Isolation . . . that was the first sensation I got. I was literally shut off from the world, like David Bowie’s Major Tom, floating in his tin can through space.
The engine was relatively quiet — a catalytic converter and muffler (mandated by World Challenge rules) gave the otherwise pure race car a very tame sound. Pushing down and disengaging the clutch with my left foot, I pulled back the right paddle on the wheel. The display showed the car now in First gear.
Gently squeezing the throttle with my right foot and letting up on the clutch pedal, the KTM obediently moved forward, as I pulled away from the garage and swung the car onto pit lane. That would be the last time I would touch the clutch pedal until I came back in, as the sequential transmission banged up and down with the flexing grasp of my fingers on the paddles.
The car gently moved forward as I pulled the paddle again to engage Second gear making my way off pit lane and onto the track and into Turn 1. “Here we go,” came the quasi-confident voice in my head. I regularly wonder how I get myself into these situations as I pull from the pit exit. Confident, but a mindful of scenarios regularly go through a driver’s head.
Two slower laps to start, revealed the raciness of the car. I spent this time finding my lines, understanding the geometry of the car in my hands, as the adrenaline began pumping through my system like bottles of NOS. “Red Mist,” when it fills your visor, is both an advantage and detriment. It pushes focus into the mind and gets the driver “in the zone,” but at the same time, can push a driver to take unnecessary risks. If controlled, the mist is what separates the men from the boys.
As with all cars belonging to others, I try to run them respectfully. No one wants to be “that guy.” You know, the hot shot who shows up and drives the car 11/10ths and ends up crashing or hurting the car in a myriad of ways, then walking away unrepentant, leaving the carnage behind. Nope. I run them at maybe 7/10ths. It gives me a feel without taking too many unnecessary risks.
The KTM X-Bow Pirelli World challenge race car, in my hands, was a great feeling — and has proven very competitive in the crowded GT4 class of the tremendous North American sports car series. Consider, the Marco Polo team ran the Lime Rock weekend, Nicolai stuck the car on pole amongst the GT4s. He won the first race, but then had a mechanical towards the end of the second. Road America proved a bit more difficult for the team, despite the speed and handling that was so apparent.
As the laps ticked off, I seemed to find my pace — albeit 15-seconds slower than my teammates, it was clear to me this was a very racy piece of equipment. From many other experiences on Big Willow, I generally knew my shifting, braking, entries and exits. With this particular ride, I was able to brake later and accelerate earlier before the apex. It truly felt like the car was on rails. Needless to say, between Mueller’s expert adjustments and my teammate’s feedback, I had a car that was clearly “dialed.”
Like many modern race cars — which I find in my hands less frequently than the vintage race cars where I more regularly test and race — the sequential transmission was by far the most fascinating feature to me. As you accelerate, if you leave the shifter alone, it will automatically upshift at the precise point near the redline. Downshifts are manual with the left hand, and can be dialed to the exact gear with mathematical pulls. For most of my run, I was not hitting the redline so “short-shift” upshifts with my right hand and dialing up downshifts were in the lower power band — remember: Mueller told me to bring it back in one piece…
As I pushed out of the long right-hander, upshifted to Fifth and exploded towards the tight, slightly off-camber, uphill Turn 3, I straight-line braked, banged the sequential down three gears — immediately the car settled, blipped to the Second gear, and turned in easy as I aimed the car for the “B” of the Budweiser banner painted on the front of the building at the crest of Turn 4.
If you follow this line, the car will naturally corner into the tip-top of the circuit, a slower right hander. Exiting 4 on the outside, provides a nice line and set up for Turn 5, a medium left after upshifting to Third. This gives way to another upshift as I head into the slight right-hander at the crest of the next hill and rocket back up the gears, down the back straight, and the bend known as Turn 7 . . . Woot!
While I probably could have carried more speed into the slightly banked Turn 8, I trail-braked slightly, and headed towards the double-apex Turn 9. I took it in third, as I have seen (and experienced) off-track excursions here. Hitting the inside line nicely and accelerating up the straight, the car upshifted itself swiftly, before a tap of the brakes and dialing up Fourth for the left-hander at Turn 1 …
Driving this car was a treat. Truly a view into the technology and thrill of modern-day sportscar racing. Keep an eye on Marco Polo Motorsports and Nicolai Elghanayan. They will undoubtedly be running up front in GT4.