This is the first post by PopSci's new Contributing Editor and automotive blogger, Mike Spinelli. An automotive-focused writer, blogger, and Sirius radio host, Mike left a career in technology market research to become founding editor of New York-based automotive website Jalopnik.com in 2004. Check back each day for his blog posts on PopSci.com, and watch for his byline in the magazine as well. —Eds.
“Get on the brakes right here,” says the voice in my head. “Move to the inside and let the car drift outward to the right. Then cut in hard and it’ll set you up for this next tight bit. Now get right on the speed again.” The voice was that of New Zealander Steve Millen, veteran race driver and instructor of journalists gathered to sample the 2009 Nissan GT-R. Earlier, with Millen at the wheel, we’d shot through the same section of Nevada’s Reno-Fernley raceway -- a 200-degree banked left called the Horse Shoe followed by a quick right that opens into a nearly straight run -- while he narrated the action as casually as if over a pot of Earl Grey. Now I was doing it solo and, I might add, astonishingly well.
Truth is, I was outperforming my talent by a considerable margin. Notwithstanding Millen’s supernatural ability to instruct at full speed, I owed a thank you to an unsung cadre of Nissan engineers. Had I been pushing as hard in one of the GT-R’s competitors, say the Chevrolet Corvette Z06 or Porsche 911 Turbo, chances are I’d have finished the day picking sand and scrub grass from between my teeth.
That’s not to say the Chevy and Porsche are lesser cars. It’s that the level of skill required for an inexperienced racer to unlock their respective brilliance on the track is undoubtedly greater than the GT-R’s. The GT-R is Nissan’s idea of an everyday supercar, friendly enough to flog safely right off the shelf, and if our experience is an indication, a viable training tool. Not since the Mitsubishi Lancer Evo have we tested a car whose electronic control systems were so biased toward shortening lap times instead of merely assuring safety during a downpour. In that regard, the GT-R may be the ultimate expression of the Evo’s philosophy of better racing through technology. The more time I spent trying to get at the GT-R’s limits, the more it pushed me to continue searching. That’s the kind of confidence it inspires.
Ding! The GT-R’s traction control and automatic all-wheel-drive systems kick in as the rear wheels start to skid outward. With skill, I could have used such oversteer to rotate the car into position through the tight right-hander that followed. But even with the angel controls switched to “race” mode, the computer takes no chances with my abilities. “Maybe next time, champ,” it seems to say as it buttons up my power slide with a seamless torque shift to the front wheels. After a few practice laps, I’ve been able to enter those turns faster than I’d normally dare, and get on the gas quicker to exit with speed. I found myself pushing harder, braking later, going into turns hotter and making it through without spinning out. It’s a good start – like learning the trapeze over a net the size of Connecticut.
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.