As winter descends, racing has gone into hibernation in the northern hemisphere, so I was pretty much prepared to go into virtual stasis until the new year. Then the call came through that I could attend the Lotus Cup USA finale at Spring Mountain racetrack in Nevada. Desert winter sun and a whole howling pack of Lotus? (Or should that be Lotii? I’m never sure.)
Anyway, following races around the best of the Californian tracks (Button Willow, Laguna Seca, Sonoma, Thunderhill and Chuckwalla) it was time to head out west for the final outing of the season, something I was more than happy to be a part of. A late opportunity to get my final racing fix for 2013 – and a bit of track time to boot.
It’s all for the love of a lightweight Lotus. Never ones for fashion, you buy a Lotus for one thing: pure driving pleasure. Even more so than a Caterham (which is an even more visceral thing), my most memorable moments have all happened in worthy descendants of Colin Chapman’s fine creations.
There aren’t many other chassis that can live with the nimble Elise and its sisters, so one thing you’re guaranteed when you sign up for the Lotus Cup is a whole load of driving fun.
The enduring passion for Lotus is proved by the strong grids in regional series all round the globe, and it’s no different over on the West Coast of the USA.
I have to admit that I was a little surprised to find the enthusiasm for Lotus burning so brightly on this far side of the Pond, but the Lotus name still obviously has enough cachet to retain an ardent following. The company might have its ups and downs, but the product is never in question.
Having had the pleasure of an Evora S to enjoy over the weekend and previously driven race-prepped Elises, I can well understand why having the iconic ACBC badge on the wheel boss in front of you is such a desirable thing.
It’s all about performance; it always has been with Lotus. Not face-shredding, nerved-jangling guts and glory, but staggering handling that makes cars twice their price feel a little silly.
This past cold winter weekend saw the last round of the 2013 season of the Lotus Cup USA, now in its third year. The beautiful, snow-capped Spring Mountain range provided for a suitably epic backdrop to proceedings.
The Spring Mountain Motorsports Ranch is located about 50 miles west of Las Vegas, in the plains the other side of the mountain chains. It’s a particularly impressive facility, with condos, garages and clubhouses backing up the multiple configurations of the circuit itself.
Looking at the track map can be deceptive: a bit like the Slovakia Ring, it can appear like a bit of a compact karting layout, but when you arrive and see the scale of the place it’s a different thing entirely.
The track is four miles long in its most elongated configuration, which is what the Lotus Cup drivers would be tackling for their pair of half-hour races, preceded by practice and qualifying to get their eyes in. Threading your way in between the rock-strewn desert, if you went off track it looked likely you’d end up in a neighbouring state…
Spring Mountain is also home to the Ron Fellows Performance Driving School, which explained the C7s dotted around the parking areas.
Did I say dotted around? I mean virtually *infesting* Spring Mountain. The place was awash with new C7 Stingrays, parked up in phalanxes all over the facility. A fair number were from the racing school, but it looked like a whole load were also being shaken down for the factory. Or at least, that’s the only explanation I have for the sheer quantity of them!
Spring Mountain also hosts the largest Radical dealer outside the UK home base, and a squadron of these impressive mini prototypes was buzzing round over the weekend – they are fearsomely quick, with proper downforce on hand for drivers who want to sample adrenaline over and above even the quickest road car on hand.Getting our just deserts
The weekend was also open to invited guests of Cars & Coffee to take to the track in between the Lotus Cup sessions. My introduction to the layout being used was courtesy of a series of hot laps by local expert Patrick Vogel in his stripped out E30, and mostly spent trying to remember where the track didn’t go. I didn’t fancy crossing ‘my’ Evora with the desert.
The hot laps were the perfect prelude to me ragging the Evora S around the track, and also gave me an idea of some of the other heavy machinery that would be out on the circuit – the ones to check the mirrors for. There was some impressive stuff.
The pops and whistles of the Evo were contrasted by the sledgehammer howl of this prowling race-spec Camaro, which looked absolutely vicious out on track.
Back in the open paddock, the Lotus Cup teams and drivers were always busy at work on their charges in between sessions.
All the cars use Yokohama Tire Advan A005 slicks, with two compounds available; they’re one of a number of high profile sponsors of the Lotus Cup worldwide.
Some individual drivers seem to have opted for renting garages, but there are a couple of race teams involved who prep a number of cars for the series, both for regular competitors and arrive-and-drive rentals.
The US cars run in five classes – as do all the global Lotus Cup series – starting off with Production for normally aspirated Elises and Exiges.
Horsepower and weight is controlled, providing a sensible entry point for potential drivers: you can buy an Elise, add in a cage and fire suppression and some basic prep and have a phenomenal quality, bulletproof race car for around $40,000.
The next step up is the Cup class, which comprises the forced induction cars: 255 and 260 Cups, or Elises with aftermarket superchargers.
Evoras and V6 Exiges are grouped together – the latter are expected to arrive in greater numbers next year, with the Evora platform also growing. I hadn’t known that the Exige and Elise can’t now be sold in the US due to DoT regulations, so the Evora is the marque’s street car in the short term.
The factory-spec 2-Elevens have their own class. These barely-contained thoroughbreds are quite something: no-nonsense in approach, and massively quick. Like they’re not good enough already, most are then further upgraded and moved into the Open class.Open warfare
Take a Lotus, apply crazy. There are some tantalising machines in this top-of-the-pile class, where you can really go to town with suspension upgrades and as much power as you can sensibly squeeze into the engine bay.
It’s where the local tuning shops can really shine, showcasing their talents in this professional environment. I was really taken with this hardcore Exige, fully stripped and with its gouged-out headlights, it looked like it meant business.
The engine is due for some major tweaking over the winter in the search for more horsepower. The supercharger positioning and belts positioning will be tweaked, and the expectation is for well over 500hp. In an Exige! That’s almost the definition of #MaximumAttack.
A couple of cars were also sporting low-drag bodywork, with the headlights sculpted out and ducts taped out: Spring Mountain is a horsepower track, with three big power straights and the tighter hairpins putting a premium on putting the power down.
As with any one-make series, it might be fun and friendliness in the paddock, but everyone is serious once they hit the track.
Well, relatively so. Most of the cars are festooned with cameras, which means the drivers are always under scrutiny and every word or little in-car dance is recorded.
One of the big draws for the Lotus Cup USA series is that they provide a full complement of driver coaches every weekend: they watch over the racers the entire time, providing instant feedback and data analysis. On a slightly lighter note, I was massively entertained by listening in to the instructors’ walkie-talkie traffic, as they provided their own impromptu live coverage of each session!
Despite the sun, it really was quite bitter – the drivers might have been wondering about tyre temperature, but the supporters around the track were more thinking about wind chill!
Ah, rolling starts. You can’t beat them. 20-odd cars were out for the final race of the weekend. There’s a lot of hauling trailers involved during the year, so the numbers were slightly down on quantity, if not quality for this out-of-state race.
Somehow everyone got through the first corner, despite heading through the long horseshoe two and three abreast.
The racing was close all through the field as the different classes circulated in packs. It’s a big track for the small cars, though that just meant more space to play.
I hugely enjoyed the battle out front between the leading GT4-spec Evora, resplendent in classic Lotus Racing livery, and one of the hardcore 2-Elevens. They were basically glued together during both the Lotus Cup races.
Aside from the Lotus Cup action, the track was constantly alive over the whole weekend; Patrick continued to hammer round in his M3, introducing a whole bunch of people to the delights of Spring Mountain.
During my occasional stints at the wheel of the Evora S, my personal nemesis was this Corvette Z06, always visible out of the corner of my eye as I accelerated out of hairpins… Here’s to you, Nick!
Corvettes were out in force in various guises, with C4s to C6s all circulating – but there was the odd snake in the grass as well.
Miatas are ever popular as track cars, and quite relevant to see at a Lotus track day, seeing as how much influence the Elan had on the original Mazda lightweight.
The ZN6 platform has been a smash hit as well: this metallic blue FR-S looked gorgeous in the setting sun.
Sadly, I had to sit out the final sessions and instead watch the guys getting ready to go out. With a plane to catch, I had to hang up my helmet early and get my final shots in.
The sound of the Camaro was still echoing around the track as the sun set on the day, its instantly recognisable rumble hanging in the crisp air.
The weekend was already over for the Lotus Cup USA drivers as well, and the paddock was well on the way to being packed up – for this year at least. 2014 looks like being even more of a success, with an East Coast series being launched along with a joint national championship event being mooted for the end of season, bringing together both series for an all-star bash. Time to start scouting for a Lotus…