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SPECIAL EVENT (VIDEO) - 2008 Cadillac CTS On The Road And On The Track

PHOTO (select to view enlarged photo)

PHOTO (select to view enlarged photo)

by Carey Russ

The plan was simple enough - a new 2008 Cadillac CTS would be delivered to my house, near San Francisco, CA, and I would drive it to Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca to watch the last race of Cadillac's current career in the SCCA SPEED World Challenge GT Championship. Then I'd drive home. Seat time in the second-generation CTS and a chance to watch some good racing? Sign me up!

For anyone wondering about the juxtaposition of "Cadillac" and "racing" in one sentence, Cadillac actually has more of a motorsports history than most people realize. The SPEED Challenge GT class is merely the most recent. And the most successful. Before that was a brave if ultimately unsuccessful shot at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in the prototype class. And that was brought on in homage to privateer efforts at Le Mans with Cadillac-powered sports cars and even almost-standard (and later highly-modified) Cadillac sedans in the early 1950s.

Since beginning SPEED Challenge competition with specially-prepared CTS-Vs in 2004, Cadillac has had an enviable record. Three wins and second place in the manufacturer's championship in 2004 was followed by both the manufacturer's championship and driver's title for road racing veteran Andy Pilgrim in 2005. 2006 was less successful, with third place in both the manufacturer's and driver's title races. Laguna Seca was the last race of the 2007 season, and while Cadillac led the race for the manufacturer's title, the driver's championship was still very much undecided. Team drivers Lawson Aschenbach - last year's champion driving for another team - and Andy Pilgrim were in second and third place in the standings, both with good prospects for the title. It promised to be a very good race.

The drive down was a good showcase for the new CTS's highway cruising ability. Saturday AM, little traffic, clear, perfect weather, a perfect fall day. As expected, the CTS was smooth and quiet - and its 304-horsepower direct fuel injection 3.6-liter V6 not only provided the expected quick acceleration, it had little thirst for gasoline, with mid-twenties even at realistic 70+ mph speeds.

Despite light traffic, there were a couple of notable opportunities to test the CTS's fine four-wheel vented antilock disc brakes. At one merge spot, the driver in front of me suddenly slowed to a near-stop to let a truck merge in. The truck driver, correctly remembering California right-of-way laws, slowed to let the car driver ahead. Result - non-motion. After a short wait for traffic, I was able to squirt into the next lane over and leave them to their standoff - but being in "D", I discovered the CTS transmission's bias toward staying in higher gears for maximum fuel economy as it took a moment to shift down several gears before allowing maximum acceleration. Note to self: next time, move the shift lever over to manual mode for this situation.

And it didn't take long for a near-repeat. Driving down Highway One north of Marina, I move to the center lane as there is a piece of agricultural equipment slowly lumbering along in the right lane. Someone yapping on her cell phone passes me on the right, and *then* sees the farmer, just as I'm about to pass. She then proceeds to pull in front of me and, for some unfathomable reason, nearly stop. Of course, at that very moment someone else is passing me in the left lane, so hit brakes, then jink left when safe, and leave her behind.

Exit the freeway for registration in Seaside. Get that taken care of, then once I'm back on the road traffic is being held up so the Ferrari Club can drive en masse to the track. I'm stuck behind, of all things, the Batmobile. No, really - it's the one from the latest movie, the one that looks like the mutant offspring of Art Arfons' Green Monster land speed record car. As soon as traffic resumes, it turns off. And I work my way up through the Ferraris at the various traffic lights on the way to the track. All right! Team Cadillac passes the Ferraris!

I get to the track, meet the team in the hospitality area, then wander around and spend the rest of the day watching the American Le Mans Series four-hour endurance race. It's less an endurance race, where strategy is paramount, than a four-hour sprint, with a continuous battle for the lead between the factory Audi R10 diesels and the Penske Porsches. Laguna is a tight track, with slow and medium-speed corners and elevation changes galore and no real straightaway. The closest part to "straight" is up the hill to the Corkscrew, and that's up a steep hill with a blind kink in the middle. The larger, heavier, less-maneuverable Audis are at a disadvantage, but driver Alan McNish in particular uses the diesel's torque to advantage, especially on the many restarts, and finishes at the front. ***

Restarts and full-course yellows on a road course? It's been a while since I've been a regular at the track.... Now that the track is lined completely with gravel traps for the MotoGP race, yes. Any time anyone as much as goes off, there's all sorts of kitty litter to clean up. Maybe only a local yellow for that, but if someone gets stuck and needs a tow out, out comes the tow truck. And the pace car. If several cars are involved, with lots of sharp carbon fiber bits strewn around, cleanup can take a while.

The next day is Cadillac's race, for the SPEED GT class. It's the last of the day, so there are a few opening acts. The most exciting race is the immediate predecessor, the SPEED Touring Car series. It's for sports sedans like the Mazda6, Acura TSX, Audi A4, and BMW 325i, and it's door-bangingly competitive. Randy Pobst - remember that name - in a Mazda, was the favorite, the potential series champ, and looked to have the win - until he was punted into the kitty litter in Turn 2 during a questionable pass by Pierre Kleinubing, in one of the Acuras. Pobst got back under his own power, but was not a factor afterward. Kleinubing was black-flagged and given a 30-second penalty. Say good-bye to the "win"...

PHOTO (select to view enlarged photo)

Unlike some "stock car" series, the cars for both the SPEED World Challenge Touring Car and GT series are based on real production cars. For example, the Team Cadillac CTS-Vs started life on the production line. They - and all GT class competitors - are modified for racing, with tuned engines, substantial driveline, suspension and brake upgrades, interior removal, with full roll cages and a single racing seat instead, and attached passive aerodynamic devices. Could a SPEED GT car be returned to the street? Doubtful, very doubtful, at least anywhere in the developed world....

GT competitors include the Cadillacs, Porsche 911 GT3s galore, Chevy Corvettes, Pontiac GTOs, Dodge Vipers. During the season, to equalize competition, weight penalties are assessed. Win? Carry a couple hundred extra pounds... If it sounds unfair, it isn't. Competition is close; nobody runs away. The Cadillac team is the only direct factory effort, but although it's had its share of wins, it is hardly pulverizing the competition.

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Pobst had the pole, in a Porsche 911 GT3, for the GT race, with Andy Pilgrim, in one of the Cadillacs, second. Pobst gets the hole shot at the start, but partway around the first lap several cars tangle in a cloud of dirt and debris. Cleanup time. It's lap seven before racing starts, and Pobst seems to walk away from Pilgrim. Only for a while. They get closer, and eventually Pilgrim gets by. Unlike in the previous race, it's a clean pass, and Pobst knows that by finishing second he'll win the driver's championship. The race for first may be over, but every other place is still up for grabs. There are plenty of other dices to watch.

PHOTO (select to view enlarged photo)

At the end, Andy Pilgrim wins, Randy Pobst gets the GT driver's championship, and the Team Cadillac effort wraps with the manufacturer's championship. There is no "next year", as the CTS-V upon which the cars is based is on hiatus until model year 2009 because of the debut of the second-generation CTS. Still, it's been a successful program, with two manufacturer's championships, and a second and a third place in four years. The drivers and other team members will go on to other projects, in GM or not. The CTS-V has proven to be a winner on the track, and in street trim it can hold its own against equally-stiff competition, this time from the likes of the BMW M3, AMG Mercedes-Benzes, and S-series Audis.

It's time to drive home. The race crowd is not what it was for the glory days of IMSA in the 80s, and Laguna is now a county park, not an enclave in a military base, so exiting the track is a relatively quick and painless procedure. I plan to go home the way I came, the quick way, up 1 to 156 and from there over to 101. All is well until about a mile down 156. It's the popular route from the north side of Monterey over to 101, and with cross traffic and left turns on a two-lane road it's usually slow. I'm not surprised by the stop-and-go traffic, but when two California Highway Patrol cruisers come screaming up between the lanes, lights and sirens blazing, I make the first available u-turn. Hey, when traffic's stopped and the CHP is in a hurry to get somewhere in your direction, the other direction looks real good!

It's the long way home, but much more interesting. We'll just hope nobody's done something stupid going over the hill between Santa Cruz and San Jose. That's a road best described as "challenging". Steep grades, blind curves, blind entrances and exits... if people knew how to drive, it could be wonderful fun. Since they generally don't, it can be hazardous. About once a week it seems that someone wants to recreate the crash scene in the Steve McQueen movie "Le Mans" - the one where the car slams between the barriers at speed. Truck traffic adds to the fun - semis are not really meant for steep grades and sharp curves, and go slow - thereby turning the road into one lane each way, further slowing traffic.

But Sunday evening should be okay. It's not beach season, so traffic between Santa Cruz and San Jose should be light. Should...

It is. And the CTS is quite at home on the curves of Highway 17. I'm keeping it in manual-shift mode, as it likes to rev more than the normal transmission control will let it, and the drive is thoroughly enjoyable. And thankfully uneventful. Once out of the hills, it's back to regular freeway cruising in "D" and a cruise home.