His envy washes over me like winner's circle Champagne.
The clients — seven men, including me — sit in plastic lawn chairs while Moroni and driving instructor Byron Payne go over the details of the track and F1 cars. It becomes clear pretty early on that Moroni does not, in fact, let complete novices rip around in the world's most demanding driving machines. Inevitably, and perhaps mercifully, there have been compromises.
First, the car: The two F1 cars on hand — a stunning 2001 ex-Prost team car and a 1996 ex-Arrows car — have been retrofitted with 3.5-liter Cosworth V8 engines. Less fragile and less stressed than the V10s these cars raced with, the Cosworths are still piston-driven volcanoes. Net horsepower is about 680 — ludicrous but substantially less than the 900-plus horsepower these cars had in race trim.
Also, the cars have been fitted with traction control, an electronic driving aid that helps prevent impetuous drivers from accelerating too quickly. Perhaps the single most difficult aspect of driving an F1 car is throttle management. It's like trying to pour a glass of water from the Hoover Dam.
Also, the car's first gear has been disconnected. "You'd never be able to get it out of the pits," Moroni says.
The track: The south road course at the speedway is short (1.5 miles) and tight, with hairpins, switchbacks and other features that keep cars from building up a head of steam. After last season, Moroni blocked a long sweeping right-hander, where a slight miscalculation — or panic attack — could have carbon-splintering consequences. "We had some incidents," Moroni says.
The final modification is to the drivers: It's important, says Moroni, to put the fear of God into them. "The F1 cars involve a lot of psychology," he says. "You're not going to be an F1 driver. This is just for the experience. So I tell them watch out, it's a lot of car, be careful. Otherwise people will be all over the track."
One of my fellow clients is Ryan Ritchie, 32, a physical therapist from Lake Tahoe. Ritchie's daily ride is an Audi RS4, one of the fastest, best-handling sedans in the world. Once the group gets strapped into the F2000 cars and begins buzzing around the track, it becomes evident to me that I am not quite as quick as Ritchie. The F2000 cars are old, tube-frame cars with four-speed gearboxes. It's precisely because they are so raw that they are such effective gauges of driving skill. As I watch Ritchie pull away from me, I calculate he's about a half-second quicker per lap, and that means — on the scales of manly worthiness — he's half a second better than me.
Later, when he spins out the F1 car in a plume of inglorious desert dust, it will be the highlight of my day.
In the driver's seat
After a lunch at the Memphis Championship Barbecue restaurant — home of the biggest iced teas in the biggest Mason jars I've ever seen — we return to the track to find the F1 cars warmed up and waiting. First to drive the blue ex-Prost car is Dennis Higgs. The 50-year-old has never been in any kind of race car. As the mechanics strap him into the car, he jokes nervously to his friends: "Oh God, what have you guys got me into now?" His eyes are dilated.
Moroni coaches him to go easy. "Don't worry, I'm going to go slow," Higgs promises, and boy, he means it. Once he gets the car onto the track, he putters around, as if he were driving a carbon-fiber float in the Rose Bowl parade. Moroni rolls his eyes, climbs onto the pit wall and waves at him to go faster. Because the gear selector operates by hydraulic pressure, "he won't be able to change gears if he doesn't go faster," Moroni says.
Higgs pulls into the pits after four of the most leisurely laps imaginable. He pulls off his helmet. He's laughing and relieved. What was his mental state getting into the car? "I was scared," he says. "I was too cautious."
One by one the men climb out of the cars, shaking their heads and smiling unsteadily, seeking reassurance. Moroni congratulates them all with a "Good job!," a handshake and a pat on the back. Some of them have not done a good job.
Richie, my unbeknownst-to-him rival, spins the car on his first lap and then he spins again a couple of laps later. As the dust flies, I am secretly ecstatic. No matter what else happens today, I won't be the only driver to "go agricultural."
Even with his miscues, Richie laps the course with good pace. When he wiggles out of the car, he's smiling and in a philosophical mood. "I actually thought the Formula [F2000] cars were more fun," he says, "because you could push them to their limit and make the cars work. With the F1 car, you can't get anywhere near its limit.
"It's still a kick in the pants," Richie says.
Finally, my turn comes in the blue ex-Prost car. With a sucked-in breath, I drop into the recumbent space built for a driver two-thirds my size. Please, Lord, don't let me, well, you know....