Taking the wheel of a custom-built race car for the first time can be like wrestling with a nightmare
As a child, a “beast” denotes some sort of unholy demon, a savage monster with fangs dripping in blood and horns so sharp it makes the rough scales on its back feel like worn sandpaper. It routinely bursts out from the closet, setting fire to the bed before its gaping mouth, pungent like a field of decaying wildebeest, gnaws upon your flesh.
Then you wake up, drenched not in blood but in sweat. The bed isn’t on fire. The closet door is closed. The smell that filled the air is nothing more than Rocky the dog’s natural odor, nuzzled peacefully between your shaking feet.
Ah yes, the recurring nightmare that plagues ankle-biters everywhere. It’s terrifying—much like the reality of growing up, facing bills, feeding your own ankle-biters and combatting a world filled with hatred and guns.
Tough job, living.
But this remains nothing compared to driving the car I just raced at the 25 Hours of Thunderhill, America’s longest, toughest endurance race. It too is called the “Beast,” and like the mythical creature that terrorized our dreams, no one truly knows where it derives.
It began life as a Superlite SLC—a car known by precisely nobody. Except Davidson Racing, that is, who bought one and proceeded to morph it into something entirely different. That meant turning the left-hand-drive two-seater into a single-seat car, with the driver nestled in the middle like a McLaren F1. Then the suspension and pickup points were reworked, the frame and roll bar redone, and the revamped body required entirely new molds.
The only piece that remains unchanged? The windshield.
Next, a custom 44-gallon fuel tank was added, wrapping itself around the driver like the arms of Sauron. The engine used to power the Beast is a single cam 5.0-liter small block from Ford, with a Motec M130 ECU running it as a 305, pushing somewhere between 600 and 700 horsepower. Torque? Who knows. My butt tells me it’s a lot. Transmission? A 6-speed sequential with steering wheel mounted paddle shifts.
The real name for this car is the Davidson Racing “Eagle,” a machine as custom-made as Jocelyn Wildenstein’s face. As my teammates told me prior to my stint in this year’s 25-hour enduro—a race we won in 2014 aboard the team’s lightweight, nimble Norma—never think of this machine as a graceful bird of prey: “It will chew you up and spit you out,” they said.
It is, therefore, better known as the “Beast.” And below is my first lap riding it:
The gearbox was toast, the dog rings appearing as if they’d been bludgeoned by an army of Orcs. At the same point, fitting with its character, fuel was pouring onto the right rear tire, daring me to lose control and burst into flames, barbecuing my bones to a crisp. I didn’t catch fire, and I didn’t burn alive. But the Beast’s feelings towards its newest occupant were made evidently clear.
It took four hours for the team to rectify the issues, requiring, among other things, an entire gearbox swap. My teammate Brandon Kraus jumped in once she was right, ran for 2 hours 30 minutes without issue, and then handed her over to me, exuding a level of excitement seldom seen from a driver as he clambered out, proving that once you conquer the Beast—or at least prevent it from killing you—the feeling is that of relief mixed with fear mixed with “LET’S DO THAT $#!* AGAIN!!”
I climb in, ready for my stint. It’s dark, cold. My breath smokes like the remnants of a war scene; my heart pumping as if it knows its time may be limited. The 6-point harness snaps into place, the engine roars to life with the deafening growl of King Kong. I engage first and head out, the throttle sticking initially prior to unleashing an onslaught of intense revs. The noise deafens. Without earplugs my ears would surely bleed, but with them, I hear the calm tones on the radio, my crew chief warning me to take my time. Then everything goes black.
Below are my first few laps, prior to the helmet-mounted GoPro crapping out. While these aren’t quick laps, that darkness is evident:
Typically, when racing at night, the inside of the car’s cockpit features tiny LED lights that illuminate your surroundings. Not in the Beast—it’s as black as the bowels of Mordor. The steering boasts electric assist, but it’s still heavy and I can’t quite reach the wheel. My shoulder soon aches, as does my left knee, which conversely is far too close to the brake pedal.
Talking of braking, in the Beast, it’s more of a suggestion, as if you’re whispering softly in its ear: “Ahem, errrr, please, Mr. Beast, may you kindly consider slowing down—just a tad—if it’s not too much trouble?”
It doesn’t comply.
With the sticky throttle, on power down, no such suggestion is needed—it’s either on or off. When engaged, the Beast rockets like its on steroids, passing BMWs as if they’re powered only by the thighs of Fred Flintstone. My head lodges back against the rear headpad, my neck muscles straining and my eyes peering down, desperate to see the next braking point and begin the process once again.
In the turns, the 2,700 lb. Beast can be relaxed, calm even. She gives you a false sense of security, and as your lap times quicken—1 minute 45.5 seconds, a rapid 1 minute 44.4 seconds—confidence builds and you start to push hard. It’s here the Beast snaps, whipping her tail with the ferocity of a Komodo dragon. It feels like getting thumped in the head: your ears ringing, your eyes watering. I remove my hand from the wheel, gently lay my palm on the dashboard, and softly stutter something to the effect of being sorry, and how dare I anger my master.
This is what my teammates had warned me about. I learn my lesson, back it down, and continue circulating at speeds of up to 160 mph for a further hour, producing g-forces that literally shatter the screen on my cellphone (idiot me, for driving with it!). As the two-hour mark crests, having firmly established ourselves as one of the fastest machines on track, a fuel pump warning flashes on my dash. Power dies, and the engine cuts out. I grind to a halt, the Beast is done—citing a faulty fuel injector as the cause of death, but rather I think she was simply bored.
We couldn’t have won. Not this year, we were too far behind after our gearbox issue. While human spirit suggests we must soldier—finish what we started—in the mind of the Beast, there’s only so many times she can un-lap herself from the eventual winning Audi R8 GT3 before German flesh tastes mundane. I climb out, filled with adrenaline, relieved that, at least for my part, I’d made it through the treacherous night unscathed.
As we age, the savage creatures that once filled our dreams fade. New threats emerge, ones of terrorism and violence. Facing these horrors, in the darkest depths of the night, remains every human’s vision of hell. But this Beast, on this night, well, that’s a nightmare I want to relive.