Daytona International Speedway does not look like a man-made structure. Some 450 acres of flat Florida land are surrounded on all sides by a gargantuan oval racetrack. Each rounded corner is steeply banked, so that those canted stretches of asphalt are thrust high into the air like the walls of a canyon. Stand in the bottom of the bowl and those walls — and the monolithic spectator stands — encircle you like a natural fortress. Daytona reminds me of a rock-rimmed amphitheater in Utah’s Zion National Park. The scope is bewildering.
Months ago, I found myself here when the track was empty; the Florida sun beating down, and I drove a van out to the steeply banked section between turns one and two. (The shape of the exterior track is called a “tri-oval,” a geometric oddity that lends six graduated turns.) I wanted to see what a ludicrous 31-degree bank felt like to climb on foot, so I got out of the van and took a running start, and then went to all fours. I finally clambered to the tippy-top and grabbed hold of the wall to keep from sliding down.
Madmen envisioned this place in the middle of the last century as a proving ground for extreme machines. Its extremeness seems no less real today. Who thought this was a good idea?
Now, imagine blasting around here at 180-plus miles per hour.
I can, actually, because in early April I returned to Daytona in an extreme machine to do exactly that. Audi shipped out a half dozen brand-new-generation R8 supercars with 610 horsepower and left them idling on pit row. The cars and the track were mine (and a few other select journalists) for the day. No rules, except we were to use both the oval and the infield, and keep them shiny-side up.
Audi is a German company, but they’ve got a stake at Daytona. The track is famous for NASCAR, but fans of sports-car racing are far more interested in one annual contest here: the 24 Hours of Daytona. The event is a day-long endurance punish fest that utilizes both the exterior oval and an interior road course. Audi is a prominent participant. In fact, most of the cars are recognizable from those you see on real streets. The IMSA WeatherTech series features Ferraris, Corvettes, BMWs, Aston Martins, Lamborghinis, and Audis. Each of those cars has to be based on the production car that you can buy out of the sales lot.
This year, the Audi R8 LMS racecar was all-new, so the company had something to prove. Even more so because the racecar shares a full 50 percent of the parts with the road car. The engine is exactly the same.
In January of this year, the R8 LMS won the Daytona 24, and the folks in Audi HQ were understandably jubilant. But it’s one thing to watch cars pound around the banks on TV, and another to actually drive them. So Audi put the production car in our hands to prove just how extreme the new car can be; street tires, no special safety equipment. Just the $190,000-plus, mid-engine monster you can buy at an Audi dealership today. (The first shipments are just coming onto our shores now, actually.)
Wunderbar. As long as we don’t completely F it up.
First shown a decade ago, the R8 proved to be the ultimate expression of a re-energized, newly attitudinal Audi. Mercedes had its SLR McLaren, Porsche its Carrera GT, and Lamborghini its Gallardo. Audi could play the supercar game, too.
The one dig against it was, oddly, that it wasn’t over-the-top enough. The R8 started off as a V-8 and then got a more powerful V-10; it saw convertible Spyder models and souped-up GT models. All of them were fast, all of them came with Audi’s superlative all-wheel drive, and all of them were comfortable enough to drive to work every day. You could see out of the back, the stereos sounded great, and the space in the front hood allowed you to transport luggage or groceries. Some argued that the R8 was almost too convenient.
Having one supercar to rule them all isn’t a bad thing
Unless you’re the nephew of the Sultan of Brunei with a legion of exotics, having one supercar to rule them all isn’t a bad thing. The formula for the all-new, second generation car hasn’t changed much. The 2017 model is easy to drive around town, and yet it’s got a top speed of 205 mph.
It comes in two V-10 flavors: the 5.2-liter with 540 hp and the "Plus" model, tuned to 610. The R8 and its sibling, the Lamborghini Huracan, are the few new-model exotics that still come with naturally breathing, non-turbocharged engines. This is a great thing and it makes them special.
The regular R8 starts at $163,000 and the Plus at $190,000. Destination charges, special paint, pretty contrast stitching, and items like USB cables will all cost you more. I’ve driven the new car in city and mountain roads in both Portugal and the US, and I prefer the less powerful model for its smoothness. It’s still seriously fast, reaching 60 mph in 3.5 seconds or less.
In either, the seven-speed automated manual transmission shifts smartly in city traffic and at top speed, the nose isn’t as likely to scrape against low driveways as a Ferrari, and the seats are comfortable. The only convenience complaint is the revamped MMI user interface system. What was once the best in the business has become a headache with a single digital screen placed directly in front of the driver. There’s simply too much information in a modern car to be handled by a single screen, forcing you to toggle through various screens to access information. It is distracting and non-intuitive. Otherwise, the car is a dream on normal, legal roads.
There is nothing normal about Daytona. On a place this big, with a front straight that is 3,800 feet long and a full course of 3.5 miles, the Plus model’s extra 70 horsepower is welcome. (The R8 LMS racecar’s power was limited to 500 hp due to racing rules, so it is less powerful than either legal R8.)
On the NASCAR circuit, only Talladega Superspeedway has a greater degree of banking than Daytona. The greater the banking, the higher the speed you can carry into the corner. Theoretically, a car with light enough mass carrying enough speed could race on a completely vertical surface. (I’d love to see it; wouldn’t care to drive it.)
There is a trick to driving a banked turn. You look for the lowest line around the turn with the highest degree of banking — and you want to stay away from the dangerous top wall. Conversely, you find yourself adding in some right-hand steering to keep the car on course, while you actually look at the top-left portion of your windshield to see ahead. Basically, all of your inner-ear / equilibrium sensors start sending warning signals because everything seems askew. Which it is, because you are tilted at a really weird position.
Using the Rolex 24 road course configuration, the oval is interrupted with a slow-speed obstacle on the rear straight and the entry to the interior portion of the track on the front straight. In these cases you have to carefully coordinate braking and entry points, because you’re coming off of the banked turns at high speed.
But actually blitzing through the banked corners is a breeze. It simply takes flat-out commitment to the gas pedal, and a certain obliviousness to good sense. Physics and a highly capable car like the R8 dictate that you’ll be fine — unless, say, a tire blows. So go ahead and mash that pedal.
And so I did. Because life is short and so was was my time in the car (relatively speaking) on a track this unique. There’s a reason that we never see media car launches at Daytona: it’s madness. Few manufactures have that much faith in their car — or the journalists.
Into the back straight, speeds of 170 miles per hour-plus, the car was miraculously stable. Reaching the so-called bus stop, a kink which requires you to slow down to around 60 mph, the carbon ceramic brakes bit crisply and I whipped it through the turns. I can only imagine it on racing slicks.
After the bus stop, you connect several banked turns into the long, non-banked front straightaway. Just past the finish line, at terminal speed, you’ve got to throw on the stoppers, direct the hurtling car off of the oval and into the infield. It is… tricky.
Using race telemetry software, we were able to keep track of our speeds and overall lap times. And since they were up on a board for everyone to see, we got competitive.
On perhaps my 14th lap of the day (and my final), I got my best lap time. Two minutes, two seconds and change. I also hit my top speed: 183.7 miles per hour. On that lap, I waited to brake until the last moment, the car’s rear wiggled hard, and my afterburn into the infield was hairy.
Two colleagues beat me on overall lap time, besting me on the technical slow turns on the infield. (Damnit.) But I got the top speed of the day: 183.7 miles per hour, according to the telemetry data.
I got the top speed of the day
Later, as I ate a celebratory ice cream and mulled over an incredible day, I realized that attaining the highest speed is equivalent to a Darwin Award. I just don’t have enough sense to slow down. I’ll simply attribute it to my faith in the R8.
All and good, but a prospective R8 owner might ask, what do I care for Daytona, or Daytona wins, in my very own car? The answer is this: supercars have always been fragile things, too often needing the ministrations of overpriced mechanics. A typical race engine in a car that competes in Daytona would need to be completely rebuilt after the race, which can cost $40,000. The R8 LMS’s engine doesn’t need a rebuild until the end of the season, which is pretty much unheard of. And that’s the same engine in your car, which means you can run it and run it, harshly and at speed, as often as you like and not worry about that mechanic.
Plus, say you do find yourself at Daytona. Wouldn’t you want to hit 183.7 mph, too?
Photography by Jim Fets