Long Pond, PA--"Mario Andretti, I'm gonna be Mario Andretti!"--well, maybe not. But that's the first thought that jumped into my head when I received an invitation to drive Jaguar's 1998 sedans at the Pocono International Raceway. And reality sets in even further when my editor reminds me, "Remember, you have kids and a mortgage."
Cut to the end of September. After discouraging early showers, the sun punches through a magnificent golden autumn morning--the drops leaving the pride of "growler" sedans in the headquarters inn parking lot glistening with apropos luxury. Choosing a nifty metallic-red mount, I find myself settling in to be cradled by an opulent--not quite Superfly-like-- white leather interior. This "luxuriously appointed" Vandan Plas (to the consignetti the s is silent) version is perhaps too rich for my blood!
Over the 20 narrow country-road miles to the track, I become somewhat familiar with the car, but it is not necessarily the best way to get the feel of it--especially since half the trip is behind an 18-wheeler student-driver rig. Checking my mirror, the parade of Jaguars unwinding behind takes on the look of a Godfather funeral cortege rather than a test drive.
Once the truck finally turns off, a burst of speed for the last mile leads to Tunnel Road, cut beneath the banked raceway into the infield. This is protected by a good-ol'-boy type guard who seems to know nothing of why we are here, challenging each of us in a dialect none can place. After driving in deep woods, the sensation of passing through the tunnel onto the relatively barren infield pumps the anticipation--much akin to entering Disney World where part of the allure is going through a similar covered entry to an alien environment within.
Start your engines. A presentation in one of the infield buildings on the new XJ8 and XJR--the former powered by the V-8 engine first used in the XK8 sports car and the latter boasting a supercharged version--sets the stage. The "track marshal" next details the course we'll be following. Dale Earnhardt won't be challenged today--to best wring out the handling, we will use one of the infield circuits that takes in only the Number One turn at the south end of the raceway. And, by the way, no passing is allowed! After four to five laps, the car is pitted and another model can be driven. The only non-standard "set up" required for running the cars on the course is slightly higher tire pressure.
Jaguar sedans were test driven over the
one-mile South Road Course at Pocono, which encompasses the first banked turn of
the 2.5 mile long tri-oval speedway. Road course pavement width varied rom 30
ft. on infield stretches to 90 ft. on the main track.
Donning a mandatory helmet, I now know how Mike Dukakis might have felt. The first model available is an XJ8L with a 4.9-inch longer wheelbase than the standard model's 113 inches. This makes for a one-ft wider curb-to-curb turning circle of 40.7 ft. All sedans have a five-speed automatic transmission with normal and sport (delayed shift point) modes, as well as hill-climbing and over-heating-protection shift programming. Having never driven on a track before, I'm quickly trying to recall some basics learned by armchair racing--brake before a turn, accelerate through it, and pay insurance.
Well, there is a definite rush after release by the starter! Acceleration along the track wall, markings flashing by, is only exceeded by my now very noticeable heartbeat. Nearing the turn, I cut in toward its base--even the 14-degree bank seems to loom above on the right--ripping through at the suggested line just above the black stripe near the bottom. This marking is scribed by the right tires of the "NASCAR guys" who drive low to cut off anyone from "going below them" in the turn. Not wanting to become too uncomfortable with foreign-feeling side g forces, a glance at the speedometer shows speed to be 75 mph. (Only 75!) Note to the Jaguar folks: a black instrument face is much easier to read, especially at speed, than the gray one here. Later laps would eventually push this to a tad over 85 on a somewhat higher line.
Out of the turn and onto the brakes. Using the width of the track, well out by the wall I begin the right-angle left turn onto the infield road. Thus I can accelerate while coming off the track and going side to side on the narrow road to smooth out the chicane turns. Brakes again, round off the next sharp left, and on the gas to the hairpin. The brake pedal now vibrates as the ABS kicks in--until more throttle brings the car around the reversing turn, making use of the apron of extra pavement at the roadside.
Accelerating through another set of smooth curves brings a short braking stint before a tight-but-widening left turn. Accelerating here while cutting the apex close finds the Jaguar going smoothly to the right of the roadway, easing the turn, and back to the left as the curve straightens further before it joins the track. The lap concludes as my turn widens out on the speedway, snuggling up to the wall at high speed for the next go round.
Confidence builds with each lap, but I'm careful to remain alert (and not forget the family and mortgage). Not a normal commute, although the absence of Massachusetts drivers makes it more enjoyable! One XJ-sedan feature that stands out is the variable-ratio speed-proportioned rack-and-pinion steering, also derived from the XK8. While not the greatest racing technique, I am able to negotiate all turns without removing my hands from the straight-ahead 10-and 2-o'clock position on the wheel. Also obvious are the low wind noise and lack of buffeting in the 30-mph gusts that populate Pocono, one of the windiest tracks in the country.
On the road again. Next up is the shorter wheelbase version. This seems to handle better, but a redrive of the longer model leaves the impression that any different feel is due more to my gaining experience on the track. Finally, the supercharged XJR is available for a spin. With close to the same feel as the other short-wheelbase versions, this model certainly gets you there a lot quicker--zero to 60 mph in 5.4 sec.
After lunch, Jaguar's race drivers are available for "hot laps." Each erstwhile journalist rides as a passenger to see, and feel, what an XJR can do in professional hands. My pilot tells me he's disengaging the traction control to show what the car can do when "pushed." He also slides the transmission selector over to the left slot in its U-shape opening--allowing him to work up and down this row of "manual-shift" points, a Jaguar automatic-transmission feature.
Blasting out the straight and power diving into the banked turn, I'm pressed against the side of my seat and door as we Bat-turn below the NASCAR stripe! Inquiring as to our speed, it's about 110 mph in the turn and 115 mph coming out. Respectable, to say the least, considering the track NASCAR race-lap record is 144 mph, which includes 200-mph straight runs. Although the side force is uncomfortably unfamiliar, the car holds the curve and is controllable. After several circuits, we pit--brakes smoking--dictating a cool down lap before the next flight.
Finally, with race drivers as passengers, we go out for instructional laps to improve our road-course techniques. While my lines through the turns are fairly good, I'm not making use of the visual cues on the track to better control the car and maximize performance. My instructor notes the apex cone at the center of the hairpin, "Sight on that and make the turn." Now, by starting the turn abreast of the cone, rather than past it, I'm off the brakes quicker, with no ABS, and the turn is smoother but faster.
While a day at the track is no walk in the park, driving the XJ sedans shows the safety designed into modern automobiles. With the quality improvements Jaguar has realized from the process technology infused by its Ford parent, along with a wider supplier base--the cat seems back for a good long time.
A cat's bag of facts
30% of the XJ sedan body structure is newly designed.
Front seats have side impact airbags in the seat-back bolsters. Sensors deploy only those airbags needed, depending on the impact direction.
Automatic Stability Control adjusts the electronic throttle, ignition timing, and fuel injection to minimize wheel spin during acceleration. This is combined with a Traction Control System input that adds independent braking of the rear wheels.c† Multiplexed electronics system modules have a "sleep" mode to reduce battery drain.
Typified by a sealed transmission, platinum tipped spark plugs, and durable belt materials, the 100,000 mile major service interval reduces servicing by one third.
An electrochromic rear view mirror dims bright light reflections automatically using LCD action.
Steering-wheel-mounted switches control a cellular phone, the audio system, and cruise control. The dash message center can accommodate 11 languages.
| Jag stats:
||290 @ 6,100 rpm
||370 @ 6,150 rpm
|Max torque, ft-lb
||290 @ 4,250 rpm
||387 @ 3,600 rpm
|Turns lock to lock
|Max curb weight, lb
|Track width front/rear, in