The Pirelli World Challenge Is a Racing Series that Sticks to You
For most of my life, the thrill of racing has eluded me. While cars of all kinds, from econoboxes to race cars for the street, have a heavy narcotic effect on me, sanctioned racing has only left me mildly interested at best. I’ve been of the mind that if I’m not competing on the track myself, why watch a bunch of other guys have all the fun? But over the past couple of years I’ve become more enthusiastic about racing by getting closer access to series like Formula DRIFT, Red Bull Global Rallycross and now Pirelli World Challenge.
The more I cover racing, the more I discover my appreciation for the art form that it is. Getting to experience the Pirelli World Challenge season opener at the Nissan Grand Prix of Texas presented by VP Racing Fuels at the Circuit of the Americas (COTA) was another step in my path toward officially becoming a racing fan.
I am living proof that Pirelli World Challenge is a worthy shot in the arm to get the racing blood pumping. This is a series that uses some of my all-time favorite cars: Audi R8; Nissan GT-R; Bentley Continental GT; Porsche 911 GT3; McLaren 650S; Ferrari 458 Italia; Cadillac ATS-V … and that’s just a pizza slice of the delicious shouting match you’ll witness at every Pirelli World Challenge race. For the race I attended, all these cars had COTA’s 3.4 miles and 20 turns as a world-class backdrop for their howling tailpipe terror.
But the entertainment begins even before the waving of the green flag. Take a look at the way the Cadillac ATS-V pace car leads the GT, GTA and GT Cup classes onto the track, and you’ll realize the tone of the Pirelli World Challenge is rooted in fun.
It’s also rooted in the understanding that without the fans, these cars may as well be trees falling in a forest with no one around to hear them. Before every race, there’s a fan march to the grid where about 1,000 racing fans flood pit lane to take pictures and interact with the cars and drivers. With the Pirelli World Challenge, a day at the races is more like a day in the trenches of horsepower.
But because the races are only 50 minutes long, you don’t feel trapped in the trenches. I don’t know who decided Pirelli World Challenge cars would race against a 50-minute countdown timer, but I’d like to hug the person who made that decision. There should only be two types of racing: endurance races, and non-endurance racing. Anything between those two points is irritating. The purgatory of watching cars go around an oval for three hours is like living inside a Pong screensaver.
The Pirelli World Challenge is more like living inside a live Top Gear event. Again, it’s not about watching the races; it’s about being a part of them. Here’s a simplified rundown of a Sunday with the Pirelli World Challenge: At 9 a.m. the drivers start warming up on the track. By 10:30 a.m. the fans begin marching to pit lane. The first race (for the GTS class) goes from 11 to 12. Between then and the next race’s march to the grid, it’s lunchtime. Because we were in Austin, Texas, a barbecue-lover’s paradise, every meal I had during my three days there was a borderline religious experience. I will say; however, that dessert was more exciting than lunch.
On Sunday, our dessert was served in the form of a hot lap of the Circuit of the Americas. Three manufacturers, Audi, Cadillac and Nissan, brought out RS 5s, ATS-Vs and one GT-R to strain 50 necks around the Circuit of the Americas. I was lucky enough to get a ride in the highest-horsepower hot-lap car: the 545-horsepower 2016 Nissan GT-R.
The Nissan GT-R is a fast car, and COTA is a fast track, so 3.4 miles with a racing driver at Godzilla’s helm goes by faster than a 10-minute back massage performed by a supermodel masseuse. On COTA’s longest straight between turns 11 and 12, we were able to crack 133 mph. The GT-R didn’t build as much speed after 130 as I would expect of a 545-horsepower supercar, but its Brembo brakes flicked about 80 mph off the speedo as though the GT-R had driven into the side of Paul Bunyan’s ox.
Most of the time we’re impressed by the force needed to get vehicles up to speed quickly, but we think less about how much force it takes to stop them. It takes the Nissan GT-R around 8.5 seconds to get from naught to 100 mph, but only around 4.5 seconds to get back from 100 to naught. That’s a smile-inducing amount of force considering it takes about half the time to halt a GT-R from 100 mph than to propel it to 100 mph.
At COTA, turns one, 11, 12, and 20 require heavy braking before entry, so 16 other pleasurable g-force-inducing turns notwithstanding, you’ve got four opportunities per lap to feel a lot of smile-inducing braking force.
But the power of brakes is nothing without tires, and our hosts for a weekend at the races were the fine folks at Pirelli Tire North America, the title sponsor of the Pirelli World Challenge. I’m comforted by the fact a tire manufacturer is the title sponsor for an auto racing series. Other racing series have telecom companies as title sponsors. That’s fine for generating awareness for those companies, but it doesn’t really give back to the racing itself.
Pirelli, on the other hand, is writing checks to make a kick-ass racing series possible. The Pirelli World Challenge also serves as a type of research and development in which we all can participate as spectators. In addition, much of what Pirelli learns on the track gets channeled into Pirelli’s road car tires so that enthusiasts can reap the benefits well after they exit the racing stands.
I’ll give you an example of that infinite loop of improvement. The Pirelli World Challenge has allowed Pirelli to deepen its relationship with automakers like Porsche, so when it came time for Porsche to look at a new tire supplier for the 911 Carrera, and address an uneven-wearing rear tire issue with a previous supplier, Pirelli was able to come in, crunch data gathered from Porsches racing in the Pirelli World Challenge, and engineer a tire that would wear evenly so that Porsche 991 enthusiasts everywhere could live happily ever after.
Now, I can appreciate how my mobile phone company’s NASCAR sponsorship has made a few extra cell towers possible for me to enjoy better reception and 4G this and LTE that, but as someone who dreams of owning 991 and later-gen 911s, I get a tender heart in knowing Pirelli is using the Pirelli World Challenge to make Porsches better for us car fanatics.
On top of that, all the manufacturers racing in the series are using their time spent at the track to improve their racing vehicles’ production vehicle counterparts, especially Cadillac. Cadillac has invested a ton of money into its sports car racing program, and it’s seeing results. Johnny O’Connell has earned a Pirelli World Challenge GT Championship for Cadillac every year since 2012.
Last year, I drove 21 cars at Willow Springs International Raceway during the Motor Press Guild track days. Among the 21 cars I tested on the track — cars like the Mercedes-AMG GT, Jaguar F-TYPE R, Chevrolet Corvette — the Cadillac ATS-V felt like it had the most racing-bred platform among them all. Yes, the Benz and the ‘Vette with their better weight-to-power ratios were better to drive around Big Willow, but the Cadillac felt like it had the most racing DNA.
You can blame some of Cadillac’s current road car brilliance on what it’s doing in the Pirelli World Challenge. The same goes for other participating automakers.
The Pirelli World Challenge is a shimmering example of a racing series that makes the cars we love exhibit qualities that make us love them more, thus enriching our lives long after the Sun sets on race day. Because of this, the Pirelli World Challenge is a racing series that sticks to you.