2017 So Far-A Lot of Experimentation by Andrew Fails

In January of 2017, I accepted a position as the Video and Photo Content Specialist for the Soave Automotive Group. Basically, I make stuff for a network of luxury car dealerships. So I'm out shooting photos of fairly high end metal on a pretty much daily basis. Which is neat in and of itself. But more importantly, that means I need to keep things constantly changing. Nobody wants to see the same types of photos every day. So this is pushing me to constantly hunt new locations, and play with different compositions and techniques.

Here are my favorites of the last three months. Now, because I'm me, and I am fueled by equal parts caffeine and self-loathing, picking these was not easy. There were photos that I was unbelievably proud of, and then hated with a passion twelve hours later. But these are the ones I like today. 

Until I get frustrated and want to change it all again.

A Year in Review: 2016 by Andrew Fails

2016 has been, without doubt, the most surreal of my professional career.

Here's the highlights:

-A photoshoot for Weld Wheels in Kansas City

-A race team flying me to cover their escapades at the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb in Colorado

-A race team flying me to cover their escapades at the World Racing League 24@5280 in Colorado

-A race team flying me to cover their escapades at Global Time Attack in Louisiana, and hang out at their shop in Texas

-Interviewed the man who holds the motorcycle Cannonball record

-Drove the supply car for one pit-stop of the team setting an EV/autonomous Cannonball record

-Became a contributing writer to Lanesplitter, Jalopnik's motorcycle sub-site

-Drove my first Aston Martin

-Rode across town in a racecar with no doors, roof, windshield, or exhaust

-Competed in an autocross in someone else's Porsche

-Helped a production company cover a professional darts tournament

-Slept in a rental car while covering a race

-Rode on a Honda Grom with another adult male

-Been laid off

-And more

Somehow I've managed to fall into opportunities that I could have never foreseen. I have made friends with some of the most insanely passionate people all across the nation. I've taken some real hard knocks, and learned some tough lessons.  I have no idea what 2017 will hold, or even how I am going to make ends meet, but I'm sure it won't be boring.

My First Autocross Was In A Borrowed Porsche by Andrew Fails

(Originally featured on www.rightfootdown.com)

About a week ago, I got an unexpected early morning message from a man I'd spoken to, but never met in person.

Hey man, still interested in some early 944 fun/shooting?”

Now I don't know about you, but when someone offers me a chance to spend some time with a vintage Porsche, I agree first, and ask questions later. The owner in this instance had read some of my other reviews, and even knew the owners of some of those cars, so an unspoken understanding was already there. I figured it would proceed in the usual fashion: we'd meet in some forlorn parking lot at a depressing hour, I'd tear around on the street for an hour or so, snap some photos, and send him on his way. If that sounds like an odd way to spend a morning, it is.

The usual hashing out of scheduling began, which is always the complicated part. At any given point, I'm working on at least side project, in addition to a full time job, all while trying to ensure that my girlfriend doesn't leave me for my cat. That’s not a joke. It’s a serious concern. I intended to get something on the books for the Porsche, but there was no rush. I’m behind on work, and spring is just beginning, so we have many months of good driving weather left. But as we were discussing his SCCA schedule, the bomb dropped.

If you'd like to co-drive my car on Sunday you're welcome to do so.”

Flogging sports cars on the street is certainly fun, but there are severe concessions made in the name of safety and staying out of jail. But on the track, I'd be allowed to drive as fast as I was physically capable of, without regard for other motorists, pedestrians, or police. Previously, I was intrigued. Now, I was enthralled. A Porsche, on a closed track, in a sanctioned SCCA event. How could I say no?

But then I remembered that I've never even spectated an autocross event. And I'd never seen the car in person. So, race an unknown car, in a type of event I know nothing about, on a track I've never seen, while the owner sits next to me? Also, the only rear wheel drive auto I’ve ever owned were some Ford Rangers back in high school and college. Both of which I totalled. Oh. This might actually be a bit more interesting than I originally planned on.
 

I know most autocross events just take place in parking lots, but this might be the one area in which Kansas City’s motorsports scene is better than some of our rival cities. Here, we have a web of paved lanes, that are then adjusted with a few cones to finalize the layout. This means there are actually grass runoff, different pavement materials, and even some very minor elevation changes. Picture it as a series of four way intersections, that you close certain arms of, to create a route.

So I headed down there, at the crack of dawn on a Sunday, with the sole goal of not breaking the car, and hopefully not embarrassing myself too badly. Luckily, we were scheduled to run in the third and final heat of the day. The downside of that was I would be spending a full eight hours at the track, and I hate spending that much time anywhere I’m not getting paid. But the upside was I would get many hours to watch and learn. The first heat I would just be learning, and trying to talk my way into any and all available passenger seats. The second heat, I would be a corner worker out on the track (complete with my own super stylish orange safety vest). Finally, in the third heat, I’d be taking the wheel.

I’ve thought about getting involved in autocross for a while, as it’s something I can get into without driving four hours, and also is (theoretically) a bit safer. Plus, my Cooper S is an incredibly popular autocross car. The man working the gate even attempted to talk me into it when I checked in to get my wristband. So obviously, the first car I talked my way into was a lightly modified Cooper S. Sure, this wouldn’t really be applicable to racing a rear wheel drive Porsche, but it would at least show me the track, and let me know what running my own Mini would be like.

Like every enthusiast, I like to think I’m a quick driver. I’ve been driving my Mini for a couple years, and like to believe that I’ve gotten pretty good at hustling it around. I’ve waxed poetically about the agile chassis on multiple occasions, and how it can play right on the grip threshold with ease. That was before I buckled myself into a car driven by an SCCA champion. His Mini only had a few bolt-ons, with some minor suspension work, so it was still very close to stock.

After the first corner, I no longer thought I was a quick driver. I was entirely unprepared for how fast you had to drive the car. Every single corner we entered, I was convinced we could not possibly stay on the pavement and out of the weeds. It didn’t have much in the way of straight line acceleration, but it just never slowed down. This was the definition of a “momentum” car. I now understood what drivers meant when they mentioned driving at 10/10ths. If that was 10/10ths, I’ve never driven above 5 or 6. Full aggression, at or beyond the limits of the tires, the entire time. My mind was blown. I couldn’t even pay attention to the course, because the physical sensations were so overwhelming.

After that, I bummed rides in a few other cars, just to get a feel for the course, and for the speed. Then was working the course. Which sounds much more complicated than it is. Basically, I stood next to the hairpin, and replaced cones that people knocked over. Pick up cone, gesture to official that a cone went down, replace cone. Oh, also try to not get killed by the Mustang on Hoosiers when it locks up its brakes and overshoots the corner.

To make things more complicated, I managed to lose my eyeglasses while working the course. So I wound up being out in the grass way longer than expected, before needing to run to the Johnny on the Spot for the important pre-race piss. I was going to be terrified anyways, the last thing I needed to do was soil myself in the driver’s seat. By the time I got done hunting for my glasses (which I did not find), and using the facilities (which were fairly unpleasant), the parade lap was beginning. So I ran the width of the parking lot, grabbed my helmet from my co-driver, and jumped in the 944. This was my first time sitting in the driver’s seat.

It was also my first time driving the circuit, in any configuration, in any vehicle. I had walked around it twice, and been a passenger three times, but that’s hardly preparation for doing it myself. I even managed to miss a cone on the parade lap. This didn’t exactly bode well for running it at speed.

After that inauspicious start, it was back to the staging lanes. For those of you, like me, who are new to autocross, how it works is you do a lap, then pull in and park, wait five to ten minutes, and then go out again. For me, I was sharing the 944 with the owner, so we had to alternate laps. The affect that these random pauses have on your mind is fairly bizarre. I would stand around and make small talk for roughly ten minutes, then sit in the passenger for a hot lap, then stand around for another ten minutes. After roughly twenty minutes of doing nothing, I suddenly had to switch my brain into full attack mode, flog the Porsche as hard as I could, then go back to killing time. The wild swings of adrenaline were difficult to process, and lead to a lot of the afternoon being a blur.

So here’s what I do remember. My first lap at speed involved an instructor riding shotgun with me to give me a bit of guidance. He seemed slightly nervous about the fact that my first time driving the car had been the parade lap and that I’d never competed in autocross. Some people have no sense of adventure.

But that went very smoothly, if a bit slow. He did question me after the fact, saying “I thought you’d never done this before?” To which I had to reply, “it’s my first time doing autocross, it’s not my first time driving fast.” Now, there’s a reasonable chance he was just trying to build up the confidence of a helpless rookie. But obviously, he was just dazzled by my sheer raw talent. Disregard the fact that my codriver was nearly ten seconds faster than me.

As for the 944 itself, it was amazing. Not a fast car, or even particularly quick, but like all great cars, it talks to you. Even on my first hot lap, I felt entirely comfortable letting the car slide out wide in the sweeper, and then lifting off the gas to get the nose to tuck back in for the slalom. Sure, I didn’t have enough experience to really test the limits of the car, but at no point did it surprise or frighten me.

I was too distracted by trying to keep the speed up to really delve into the nuances, but the fact that I was turning quasi-respectable laps with less than two minutes of seat time under my belt says the whole story. Similar to the legendary Miata (which consisted of basically our entire class), the 944 teaches you to refine your craft. You’re never going to get ahead by sheer power or grip, but instead, you need to conserve momentum and carry speed wherever you can. Push your limits, trust the car, and you will be surprised at how far beyond your expectations you can go.

As for the dramatic, dirt throwing photo here… Well, let’s just say I never quite got the hang of the hairpin at the end of the high speed section. I was always trying to eke out a bit more oomph before getting on the brakes, and always overcooked it. As with all of this, it comes down to needing to fully trust the machine. I never was able to really stamp the brake down as hard and fast as needed. There’s a degree of trust that your build with a vehicle as you slowly tease out each other’s limits. Just like with your college girlfriend, you need to try a finger before you cram it in there.

At the end of a very long day, how did I feel about my first autocross? Well, first of all, I’m slow. Like, really slow. I mean, you can watch the video for yourself. That was the final lap. The driving was an unbelievable rush, and it taught me to get more comfortable driving beyond the traction limit. I started to learn how hard a car can be pushed, and how to try and reign it back in. That being said, the amount of seat time you get compared to the length of the day is laughably poor. If I didn’t share a car, I would have had eight minutes of race time, out of an eight hour day.

I understand that this may be region specific. Our event had 150 cars enter, which as I understand it, is way higher than other regions. But because (as I often lament) we don’t have any easily accessible race tracks, anyone who is remotely interested in racing comes out. So everyone needs to get their runs in, plus has to do their time working the course. But still, a full day, and fifty dollars, for less than ten minutes of racing is a tough pill to swallow.

I say all this now, and bemoan how unfair it is, and what a poor deal it is, but then I look at my Mini in the garage.

You know, it might look real nice with a number placard on the doors.

And I’ve already got a Snell rated helmet.

And the track is only twenty minutes from my house.


Fuck.

Cannonballing on Two Wheels: Everyone Else is a Sissy by Andrew Fails

When I last wrote about the evolution of the Cannonball, I talked about how the overall spirit of attempt was more important than the ultimate timecard stamp. The point was to have your own adventures, plant your own flag in the sand, and to do those things that nobody else is dedicated enough, or mad enough, to pull off. Little did I know, there was one man out there wholeheartedly carrying on this tradition.

In 2015, Carl Reese set multiple cross country records. So why haven’t you heard his name? Well, partially it is because none of them are the overall transcontinental record, and partially it is because Reese is a fairly understated man, at least compared to Alex Roy. No, Reese is not trying to break Ed Bolian‘s coast to coast record. Instead, he’s gone back to the beginning. Not back to the muttonchopped era of Yates and Gurney, but even farther, back to the man who would unknowingly lend his name to countless quasi-legal automotive events: Cannonball Baker himself. Baker set all manner of records, in all manner of vehicles over the course of his illustrious career. Consider it the shotgun approach. Why earn just one record, when you can win multiple? Hammer your way into the history books over, and over, and over. Each escapade was one more nail in the edifice of endurance driving.

Roy sums up some of Reese’s runs over at Jalopnik better than I could, so go read up on what the digital frontier of transcontinental driving consists of. But as impressive as all of the Tesla records are, Reese claimed another record that makes me weak in the knees, and sweaty in the groin.

Motorcycle.

Solo.

LA to New York City.

38 hours, 49 minutes.

Now, I’m no stranger to two wheeled shenanigans, which is explicitly why Reese’s escapades boggled my mind. A few years back, in a whirlwind of terrible decisions, I rode a Suzuki SV650 with no windscreen for 11 hours across the Midwestern United States. Then three days later, I rode 12 hours back home. Someday I’ll gather the scraps of that trip and try to turn it into a semi-coherent article. To sum up, it involved severe exhaustion, muscle cramps, nausea, self loathing, immense boredom, and random moments of sheer terror. So obviously I had to get Reese on the phone, to figure out how he did it.

I’ve now interviewed multiple transcontinental record holders. As different as they all are in outward appearances, they have a similar core. At the end of the day, once all the bravado and trash talk has fallen away, they are problem solvers. The cowboys and daredevils get arrested. The men and women who go coast to coast in less than two days with no police encounters are not reckless people. They are very focused, intelligent, people who love to deconstruct problems, and devise unique solutions to them. Reese is the same. His day job involves troubleshooting and resolving construction dilemmas. Crossing the nation on a motorcycle as fast as possible was just one more equation to solve.

The electronic countermeasures used for these types of events have been well documented, so everyone knows that that entails. Reese’s run used a similar arsenal, but he whittled it down to the absolute bare essentials. Needless to say, the dash of a motorcycle is slightly less spacious than that of a German luxury sedan. Of course there is the ubiquitous Valentine 1 and Unidan police scanner, along with laser jammers.

The BMW K1600GT remained relatively stock for this attempt. When you’re starting with a 160 horsepower motorcycle, adding more power isn’t exactly necessary. Think of it as the two wheeled equivalent of an M5. The German sport touring bikes have always been designed for exactly this type of use. So instead of adding power, Reese added usability. He had a custom, oversized gas tank that greatly increased his range. A larger windscreen was purchased to reduce the abuse his neck and shoulders would take from the wind. Because a large portion of the run would take place at night, a pair of 15,000 lumen driving lights were added. Reese bragged during out call that you could probably land a plane by these, and they could light over three quarters of a mile of desert highway. Lastly, but possibly most importantly, an aftermarket seat was swapped in, to protect his tender bits.

Reese agreed with me that mental focus was the largest hurdle to overcome. A day and a half of solo travel, with no co-driver, is a daunting prospect. I know that eight hours into my own trip, the mental and emotional strain became almost insurmountable. I may or may not have had a minor mental breakdown somewhere in western Kansas. With no company other than your own thoughts, be prepared to come to terms with who you are as a person. You will revisit every bad breakup, or argument with your family, or job loss you’ve ever experienced. So there’s something to look forward to. This is all without trying to make good time and stay aware and focused.

The correct mental outlook was the main subject of our conversation. Reese told me that he was in almost constant communication with his support teams the entire run via bluetooth in his helmet. They served as his eyes, his ears, his problem solvers, and his cheerleaders. Constant talk. Constant feedback. Constant updates. They would update him with weather reports on the fly, allowing him to adjust his strategy in real time. Think of it as outsourcing your co-driver.

Exhaustion is always a factor on endurance events, but that factor is increased exponentially on a motorcycle. The sensory overload that makes bikes so entertaining on back roads will wear you down on the open road. Even with a fantastic touring bike like Reese’s BMW, exhaustion the biggest enemy. As a precaution about this, Reese told me that his team utilized a scale of one to ten to measure wakefulness. Similar to how hospitals develop a scale for pain, this system allowed them to quantify an inherently subjective metric. Utilizing this, whenever he edged into the dangerous half of the scale, his team could instruct him to pull off the road for rest or caffeination. For six weeks prior to the run, he abstained from stimulants, which ensured both that any caffeine taken on the trip would be that much more effective, and also that he would not experience any drowsiness due to withdrawal. If this seems like overkill, you’ve never nodded off while piloting a motorcycle. I’ve had it happen once. Never again.

Speed is the aspect that everyone wants to know. How fast did he go? Where were the stretches of triple digit cruising? Honestly, I have no idea. I never asked. For me, the overall time is almost irrelevant. More important is the fact that he did it at all, time be damned. Sure, his time is what got him into the books, but I’d still be interested if it took him 48 hours. Maybe I’m jaded after having a bit of experience in this world, but I think the adventure itself is still more important. Yes, beating another record is what gets you the attention (it’s how I got involved, so I’m a hypocrite, I know, let’s keep going), but beating your own record, or your own expectations is far more valuable.

I know people dislike men like this getting press. I understand that. But I feel that these events are such an intrinsic part of our collective culture, that to ignore them is to whitewash our own history. The Cannonball is an undeniable aspect of the automotive Zeitgeist. My role in all of this is just to serve as a historian. Short of Yates and Roy’s books, and a handful of blog posts, there is little hard data on this phenomenon. Reese is seeking to change that. He is using his own record run to draw attention to a documentary being produced on the history of transcontinental motorcycle runs. For as little Cannonball information as there is, almost nothing is known about those few motorcycle madmen who set out to break records

George Egloff got a handful of minutes in the infamous 32 Hours 7 Minutes documentary, but little else is known aside from a throwaway sentence or two about Cannonball Baker. Reese was passionate about wanting to share these stories of triumph and adversity with the public. These days, every motorcycle manufacturer has private racetracks and computer simulations to test durability of new machines, but that wasn’t always the case. For many years, the only hard data manufacturers had was when someone rode one of their machines some incalculable distance. Little was known about road conditions, or tire durability, until someone finally put them both to the test. Even today, manufacturers look to extreme real world tests to understand their products. Reese told me that Tesla made some software updates to the autopilot systems of the Model S after his record setting run. Nobody had ever used it for that long, at those speeds, so new data was brought to light.

So please, help out their project if you can. For all of us. These stories deserve to be told, and their accomplishments shared. To a large percentage of the populace, their knowledge of the Cannonball begins with Burt Reynolds, and ends with Raul Julia. This is one of those rare instances where the truth is less believable than the fiction.

Those stories have been lost in the fog of rumor and speculation. Until now.

The Track Car (BMW E30) by Andrew Fails

My first reaction upon experiencing a full throttle pull from the passenger seat was to mutter, “fucking hell…”, and then burst out laughing.

I recently waxed poetically, or neurotically, about the purity of sensation. I spoke about sensation being a more prized trait than outright speed. That school of thought is what lead me to motorcycles and Mini Coopers. I used to tell everyone that the Cooper S drove like a go kart. I no longer think that. After crawling out of the BMW E30 track car built by Kingston Zellich, my little Mini feels as floaty as a Cadillac Deville. And I do mean crawling. Roll cages, plus six point harnesses, plus fixed bucket seats call for some contorting to extricate yourself.

This car represented a lot of “first times” for me:

  • First time driving anything with a roll cage.
  • First time wearing six point harnesses.
  • First time driving on r-compound tires.
  • First time driving a gutted car.
  • First time driving a track car.

There were a lot of preconceived notions before I went for my first ride. I knew exactly what I was getting into. A track prepped E30, on city streets, in late summer, in Kansas City? This was going to be rough. I anticipated a raspy, crackling, backfiring exhaust, like on the rally cars I’d cheered on at the Rally in the 100 Acres Wood. I expected steering that would be exhausting to maneuver at lower speeds, like some of the karts I had raced. I foresaw an interior so loud and full of rattles that sitting inside a cement mixer might be a more pleasant evening. Lastly, I KNEW that the suspension would be positively spine crushing. The type of ride where every little pebble or grate was in danger of knocking a filling loose, or a kidney. The kind of experience where all you want to do afterwards is lay in the shower and cry, like the little nancy that you are.

But as the blacked out Bavarian rolled up, it sounded no louder than anything else on the street. Hell, my old pickup truck had probably made more noise. Was this the infamous Siobhan? I thought we were driving a track car: a caged up, battle hardened weapon of wheel to wheel aggression. This certainly did not seem like that. But then again, he did exit that traffic circle fairly quickly. Perhaps this might be more than meets the eye.

For a little background, this E30 started out as a humble 1988 BMW 325. Things have changed a bit since those early days of fuel efficiency commuting. Since then, it has commandeered the engine and transmission from an E36 M3. In addition to the sizeable power increase, there are also the usual suspects of Eibach, Sparco, AKG, Koni, Recaro, and Momo. I won’t go into too many specifics, because this car is so much more than the sum of its parts. When heavily modifying a car, especially the suspension, it is incredibly easy to make things worse. The original engineers spent years, and millions of dollars designing the initial setup. You can ruin it with a few hundred dollars and an eBay account. Luckily, Kingston did not. Every detail of this car has been achingly fine-tuned, from the degree of camber, to the springs on the shifter linkage.

In the age of ADHD, everything has to have an infinite number of purposes. Your phone can’t be just a phone, it needs to send email, and direct traffic, and play games, and transfer money, and control your alarm, and start your car, and find you anonymous strangers to have filthy, filthy encounters with. All of that, and it tends to not be the best at making calls. It tries to do too much. It’s the same way that Applebee’s food is fair to middling, because they try to cater to every possible genre. Whereas Gates BBQ (local reference!) does one thing: barbecue. If you don’t like it, get out. Because of that narrow focus, the quality will always supersede that of a mass market appeal family restaurant. This particular E30 is the same way. It has one purpose: be as hilariously, irresponsibly as fun as possible. Not the fastest. Not the best cornering. Not even the loudest. Just the most fun. It succeeds admirably.

The experience inside the vehicle is so incongruous with that outside that it is downright jarring. The unusual decision to keep the stock exhaust keeps everything on the outside fairly tame. But inside is a different tale. All you hear is engine. Not exhaust, but combustion. This takes a bit of getting used to. There are plenty of cars that deafen by way of loud pipes. Look at anything from AMG. But this E30, with its gutted interior, pummels you with induction. The noise is all encompassing. Sit inside a Marshall half-stack, have someone hit a power chord, and you have an idea what it’s like. Everything resonates.

That powerplant is mated to the tightest shifter this side of a GSX-R. Every possible impediment to shifter feel has been removed. You hear that utterly satisfying metal-on-metal clack as you grab the next gear. But this isn’t your standard B&M short shifter. The shift lever sits up high, like the sequential lever in a WRC car. The throws are so short and tight, that it actually is worse the more you think about it. Stop fussing around. Grab that polyurethane knob, stomp the clutch to the bare floor, and bang it into another gear. Don’t ease into it. Don’t feather it. If you want a gear, reach into the whirring guts and grab it, you sissy. This is not a car of half measures.

This car rewards decisiveness. Insecurity with the throttle causes the engine to stutter. If you want to speed up, keep that tach needle above four grand. If you want to slow down, square up the wheel and bury the brake pedal. You’re not going to lock up the Toyo RA1s. Trust me, I tried. But it is possible to spin them all the way through first gear. Ask me how I know.

The ride quality is honestly better than I expected. I’ve driven $90,000 cars that were worse on the broken pavement of the Midwest. That isn’t to say that the suspension is soft. Far from it. But unlike the vast majority of cars I drive, the E30 actually has a reasonable sidewall on the tire. This introduces just enough compliancy to make things tolerable. You still feel everything, and an errant speedbump or pothole might liberate you of your oil pan, but it is possible to drive it on public streets without internal hemorrhaging.

So, is the E30 fast? Well, there’s not much top end. At the far reaches of 5th gear, you might kiss 140. But the flip side of that short gearing is that it will reach 80 or 90 much quicker than you expect it to. But remember, while this is a track focused car, it is not developed for any specific racing series. So that means you’re not chasing every fraction of a horsepower, it just needs to make you smile. Which it does every single time you turn the wheel. The combination of low weight, high revs, and short gearing makes it feel fast. And isn’t that what we want at the end of the day?

I routinely drive some fairly ridiculous cars. Less than 24 hours before climbing into the BMW, I was driving a 545 horsepower Nissan GT-R. Of course the GT-R is faster. It is a feat of engineering, and I didn’t want to give up the keys. But the GT-R is entertaining sheerly because of the technical prowess it brings to the table. Kingston’s E30 is a wonder because of what it forces me to bring to bear.

There are no traction control systems.
No torque vectoring.
No anti lock brakes.

It will do exactly what you tell it. No more. No less. Because of that, I love it. Each minute in wrapped in the deep bucket seats, surrounded by the half cage, brings that much more comfort, and confidence in the chassis. You start to get on the throttle a bit earlier, or carry a bit more speed through the chicane, or run the revs just a bit higher. That car is a blank canvas upon which you can create moving art. If you’ve got the nerves.

Godzilla (Nissan GTR R35) by Andrew Fails

Godzilla.

The Porsche killer.

Few cars in recent memory have come out with such a legend already around them. The reputation of all GT-Rs has been monumental, but the the latest version, the R35, has finally carried the weight of that name all the way to our fair shores. To most Americans, the GT-R is something in Gran Turismo you used to cheat at every race. We’ve never gotten the earlier iterations, so this new one bears the burden of its own grandiose claims, as well as the mystique of the infamous R34.

(Full disclosure, Pure Pursuit Automotive in Kansas City was kind enough to let me spend some time in their 2013 Nissan GT-R, so go check them out at www.purepursuitauto.com)

So, first things first, does it live up to the hype? In a word: yes.

Last month, I drove a car with a twin-­turbocharged V12 engine (more on that coming soon). Well in excess of 600 horsepower. I was unimpressed by the acceleration of it. Sure, it made fantastic jet engine noises, but it wasn’t what I expected in terms of off-the-line torque. My point is, my brain is broken. I am jaded, and desensitized. The GT-R still astounded me. Even from the back seat, the acceleration was relentlessly violent. Once you’re in the driver’s seat however…wow. It’s not a particularly luxurious car, or even all that comfortable, but good lord is it quick.

I’ll be honest, I had some apprehension about taking it for a spin. While I love outright speed as much as the next guy, I’m more about the physical sensations that come with driving. I love hearing the mechanical systems engage with each other. I love the little steering adjustments you have to make as bumps try to unsettle the car. I love trying to time the perfect heel­-to-toe downshift . So I was concerned that the GT-R might be too advanced . I was worried that it would feel numb or artificial. Really, I was afraid it wouldn’t just be…a car.

I shouldn’t have worried so much. You hear everything in this car. Firing it up sounds like starting a race car. You hear the fuel pump whine, and then the V6 barks itself awake, before settling into a grumbling idle. I’ll be honest, it’s not the most pleasant of exhaust notes, but it is full of purpose. There is no artificial sound generation here. It does not dump unburned fuel to create the exact degree of crackles and bangs that a committee had decreed the enthusiast likes (cough*AMG*­cough) . It sounds exactly like what it is: a relatively small engine with a whopping set of turbos on it.

The GT-R is an amazing collection of noises. You can hear stones rattle against the wheel wells and undercarriage as the sticky tires snatch them off the road. You can hear the rush of induction as the V6 winds itself up. Unlike any other dual clutch transmission I’ve ever driven, you even hear the gear changes. I don’t mean you hear the revs change, you hear a physical, metal-to-metal thunk as each gear is selected or deselected. Upon rolling to a stop, it is distinctly noticeable. Ease to a stop, pause, thenka­chunk.

The dual clutch transmission is a bit frustrating at times in manual mode. Oh sure, it has blisteringly quick shifts, as all of them do, but there is almost no point to putting it in manual. At redline, the car will automatically shift, even if you never touch a paddle. Then on deceleration, the transmission will drop gears, all the way back into first, if need be. With all this, why even bother with it? You can leave it in full manual mode, and run through the gears from first through sixth, and back to first, without ever touching a shift paddle. If it shifts up and down on it’s own, that’s not much of a manual mode. The only real reason I used manual was to pick what gear I started an acceleration run in, to ensure I was in the meat of the powerband and didn’t need to downshift.

It is actually a bit difficult to accurately give an un­biased review, because that powertrain makes everything else insignificant.

Is it comfortable? Who cares? It’s pretty fast.
Is it quiet? Who cares? It’s fast.
Is it fully loaded with options? Who cares? It’s shockingly fast.
Is it stunning to listen to? Who cares? It’s fast, honest.
Is it fuel efficient? Seriously, who cares? It’s really goddamn fast.

Everything else ceases to be a concern, and everything else is excusable. You do not buy a GT-R for the comfort. It is a $95,000 drivetrain with a Playstation screen and some seats. The Playstation screen is amusing by the way, but the majority of the modes are fairly pointless for the driver. If you’re trying to pull maximum Gs in a corner, or under braking, you probably shouldn’t be looking over at a screen to check your score. The temperature gauges are useful though.

The GT-R behaves like a turbo car from the old school. Nowadays, the objective is to have the turbos spool up seamlessly. You never want to notice the turbos, you want it to just feel like a large displacement naturally aspirated engine. That is not how the big Nissan behaves. Off boost, the power is usable, but nothing to take note of. But once you clear 4,000rpm, the power spikes dramatically. On more than one occasion, all four tires broke loose at the top of second gear when the power came on. This was with every electronic safety net still in place. Wheel spin at sixty miles an hour. It’s mind boggling for a stock, street car. It’s difficult to tell how much the various systems help in catching this. But either way, you feel like a hero when the car twitches sideways at highway speeds, and you catch it and power through. I honestly don’t even care if the computers are helping make that happen. It feels so seamless.

The computers are part of the car. There is no denying that. They are the key to the otherworldly performance of the GT-R. But in spite of that, the big Nissan still feels like a feat of mechanical ingenuity. I was worried that things would be artificial and polished. But that is not the case. The digital interference hides underneath a layer of sheer technical prowess. The performance feats that this car can pull off are just mind bending. Every single full throttle pull resulted in hysterical laughter. My skepticism was well and truly stomped, and left on the curb, choking on the GT-R’s dust.

Well done Nissan.

The Black Sheep (Porsche 911-996) by Andrew Fails

A lot of vehicles get much more hate than they deserve. I’m not talking about the PT Cruisers and Corvairs of the world, although I have opinions regarding them as well. No, today I’m talking about the 996 generation of the Porsche 911. Porsche, as a company, tends to not change its ways without dutiful consideration. That’s why the ignition is still on the left of the steering wheel in all vehicles, as it has been since their LeMans racecars of yesteryear pioneered the change and why the 911 has resolutely placed the engine in the wrong place since 1963. Their fan base reflects this adherence to tradition, and does not adjust to change well.

The 996 was a drastic re-imagining of the 911. It was the first non air cooled engine. It was an all new chassis. It was an all new body, without the iconic round headlamps. The new headlamps were even described by many detractors as resembling fried eggs. Ouch. Unsurprisingly, the faithful were displeased. But time marches on, whether we like it or not. The 911 was forced to adapt to meet the challenges of the new world, or get left behind. Thankfully, it rose to the challenge.

This is Ethan Wyatt, and his mother Ann’s, 996. It is a lightly modified 1999 Porsche Carrera. It was bought by Ethan’s father, Mike, as a red 911 had always been his dream car. Now that his father has passed, Ethan and his mom took over caring for the prized Porsche. Fret not, this is no trailer queen that has never seen a wheel turned in anger. Porsches are, above all else, built to be driven. the Wyatts’ 996 is no exception. It has nearly 90,000 hard miles under its belt, and has shouldered each one without complaint. Sure, the front lip has some pitting from the occasional track day, and sure, the BBS wheels have a bit of ingrained brake dust, but that is as it should be. It is a car designed to take every ounce of punishment you can dish out, and never break a sweat.

Many of the cars I’ve been driving as of late require a bit of manhandling to extract the best from. Kingston’s E30, for example, took a firm hand to tame. Stomp it, throw it, kick it, slam it, and be rewarded with magic. The Porsche, on the other hand, is a precision instrument. More of a scalpel, and less of a hatchet. The steering and shifter are both shockingly light. I guess having no engine over the front axle has quite an effect. The steering is not loose or vague, like in some luxury cars, it is just…delicate.

This requires a steady hand to drive quickly. You need to plan every move in advance. That pendulum weight is always hanging out over the rear axle, ready to sling you straight into a tree. That is not to say that the 911 is unstable. It pulls out of a corner like nothing else. Get the move right, and that extra weight just presses the rear tires into the pavement, and flings you out the other side. Once you’ve picked your line and your speed, you are committed. Don’t second guess the chassis. Use your head, trust the machine, and you’ll be fine. Do just like Ron Popeil says, “set it, and forget it.” Do all your finessing before corner entry, and then once you clear the apex, let the rear end settle, pin the throttle to the floor, and listen to that flat six scream as you charge forwards.

In some cars, especially naturally aspirated ones, there is the sensation that you are going to break something the higher you rev it. A niggling concern at the base of your spine that something is going to fail catastrophically if you continue as you are. There is a physical limit to how fast you can spin red hot pieces of metal before they shatter. In the 996, that is a foreign concept. Do whatever you want. It’s fine. The motor will take it. 7,000 rpm with that boxer engine bellowing behind your head is like nothing else in the world. It feels like the car is egging you on. “Come on, you’re not even trying,” it seems to berate you. Heel-toe the downshift and kick those revs skyward, it doesn’t mind. If you neglect one single millimeter of that tachometer, you’re missing out.

I’ve long been a Porsche fan, even though I’m a bit rusty on the nomenclature. This makes me a bit of a heathen, I know. But I’ve never been bogged down too much in regards to the details of chassis codes, or engine displacements. I’m much more concerned with the intangibles of a car. How does it feel? More importantly, how does it make ME feel? Is it light and playful like a Miata? Is it rowdy and aggressive like Kingston’s E30? Every Porsche I’ve ever driven, from Caymans, to Cayennes, to 911s, just seem to…work. Not just in the sense that they don’t break, although the Wyatt’s 996 has fewer squeaks and rattles than my own car, even though it is a decade older. I mean that everything has the feel that it was designed by an engineer first, and a stylist second. Even when they are not the fastest vehicle in their class, they seem to just offer the most driver engagement.

The Wyatts’ 996, like all great Porsches, is more than its numbers. In an hour of hard driving, I only checked the speedometer twice. The overall speed is irrelevant. That’s not to call it slow, but top speed alone misses the point. It is a car of sensation and precision. How fast it feels like you are going is so much more important than that easily ignorable readout. It is like riding a motorcycle. You glue your eyes to that redline, and every other gauge is irrelevant. Just wind it out higher and higher, and work on getting your lines smoother and faster. It is a car that rewards delicacy, and punishes hamfistedness.

So is the 996 the beginning of the end for Porsche? No. I think it is the end of the beginning.

The Nobleman (S63 AMG) by Andrew Fails

There are luxury cars, then there are German luxury cars, then there is the Mercedes Benz S-Class. It is a monolithic brick of teutonic engineering. The S-Class is a car designed to place your comfort above all else. These days it seems that everyone’s interpretation of a luxury car is to try and beat the BMW M5 at its own game. An admirable goal as the M5 is a staggering feat of engineering, but the answer to every question does not have to be rock hard suspension and Nurburgring lap records. The S63 is luxury in the classic definition. Soft leather, wood inlays, and an effortless drive.

Cars these days are heavier than they’ve ever been. It is not unheard of for a sedan to weigh over two tons. A decade or two ago, that was the weight of a Suburban, but now an Audi S8 weighs nearly the same. Most manufacturers use heavily assisted electronic steering racks to mask this bulk. You can lightly spin the wheel with one finger, completely forgetting the thousands of pounds of steel wrapped around you. That is not the case in the S63. It is heavy. Unabashedly, unashamedly so. Within the first dozen feet you are very aware of the mass at your control. But mass does not mean unwieldy. It feels solid. Stable. Monolithic.

What happens, then, when you give this paragon of old-world luxury over to the frothing lunatics at AMG? It would be easy for them to ruin the formula, but they actually keep it reined in. Well, reined in for AMG. The ride is still compliant, and the stereotypical raucous exhaust has been dialed down. Until you really put your foot in it, the performance capabilities are fairly innocuous.

Oh, sure, you can dial the Active Body Control over to Sport, and shift using the paddles behind the wheel, but that just misses the point. Manual shifting takes an eon to relay your request, and the big girl never feels light on her feet. This is not some lithe and agile track weapon, it is a bruiser of a grand tourer. The sole purpose of all that power to allow you to leave the peasants behind, choking on your aristocratic dust. For remember, you are better than them, because you have an S63 and they don’t.

The S63 was well over $100,000 when new. It may not be the most expensive car I’ve ever driven, but it certainly feels like it. But, more importantly, it looks like it. People have a primeval response to a blacked out S-Class rolling up on the curb. You instantaneously become a person of distinction. Not necessarily one of class, but one of note. Being human, occasionally you have to play up the role.

While the S63 does not encourage quite the flagrant disregard of all restrictions in the manner of a sportbike, there is the subtle suggestion that certain things are beneath you. Not because the rules are flawed, it’s just that you are important, and everyone should cater to your whims.

Surely that speed limit doesn’t apply to you.

You own an S63.

Of course you can park there.

You own an S63.

The front passenger should move out of your way when you’re in the back.

Because fuck them, you own an S63.

That’s right, the rear passenger can move the front passenger’s seat. Because the person being driven is the one with the power. With one little button press, you commandeer their seat controls. If they could have legally allowed the rear passenger to control the driver seat as well, I’m sure they would have. From the luxurious back, you also can control the shade on the rear sunroof (because of course it has two) as well as the shades on both rear side windows and rear windshield.

With some cars, it is difficult to tell where all the money has gone. Within the first hundred yards in this, it is blatantly obvious what you are paying for. The S63 just feels expensive, in the most glorious way. There is something to be said for a car that is worth more than your house, that can easily cruise at double or triple any speed limit in the nation. Whether in the front seat or the back, you feel just that little bit more important than the other plebeians on the road. Because you are. After all, they’re not in an S-Class.


The Heavyweight (Audi S6) by Andrew Fails

               In my line of work, it's easy to become jaded. The mind will eventually get used to anything, given enough exposure. This applies to everything from noise, to speed, to narcotics. Even the irreverent Dr. Hunter S Thompson got used to his own warped reality, in which the violence and substance abuse eventually became uneventful. I always enjoy my work, but at some point, the novelty wears off, and a job is a job is a job. "Oh, another 500 horsepower sedan? I suppose that will do."

               But every once in a while, something cuts through the fog, and leaves you staggered. A wild haymaker of a punch that swings past your defenses, and sends you reeling. The last car that did this was the Porsche Cayenne, which I've written about in a few different places. Recently, I encountered another one: a 2014 Audi S6. Whereas the Cayenne surprised me by being better than I expected for an SUV, the S6 surprised me by just being an astounding car in general.

               It's not the most visceral car I've ever driven. Or the most powerful. Or the fastest. Or even the most expensive. In almost every quantifiable metric, it is not the best. Certainly a podium finisher, but never taking the gold. But every time I pulled back in from doing a lap of our urban test circuit, I wanted to go out for another run. That in and of itself speaks volumes. There are certain cars where everything just seems right. The S6 is one of these.

               Of course, the one I was in was fully loaded with the Prestige package, and all the bells and whistles. I tend to not spend much time fiddling with all the gadgets and gizmos. How is the seat heater? It heats your seat. How are the massaging seats? Massagey. While these things are fantastic to have, no sane human being is going to have an opinion on one heated seat versus another. But if you do, then you're a robot, and you make me uncomfortable.

               Going off of the cars I tend to enjoy, I really shouldn't enjoy the S6 this much. I like my cars small, nimble, and nervous. The Audi is large, heavy, and reserved. It weighs over two tons, and doesn't have a manual transmission. These two facts alone should steer me away. But the car belies its size. In motion it feels much more poised than it should. Unless you look behind you, you could easily forget how large the car is. The steering is nice and direct, but not twitchy or darty. Compared to the CLS 63 AMG I drove after, the Audi felt much more direct. On center, the steering is a bit soft, but it turns in with confidence. The wheels feel actually connected to the steering wheel, as opposed to the vagueness of the CLS.

               Once you are in motion, the S6 feels much smaller than it is. It's a heavyweight boxer. A mass of muscle and force, but light on its feet. Everything feels solid, and well connected, even in comfort mode. There is no learning curve, or adjustment period with this car. It is gentle, and easy going, with no intimidation at all. You could easily forget about the 4.0 liter twin turbocharged V8 up front. It is effortless to just putter around town in.

               Left in comfort mode, it is the retirement years of that boxer. Still large, still frighteningly powerful, but a bit slow to react, and a bit squishy in the middle. The aggression is still there, but tempered by time and bulk. Stomp the gas pedal to the floor, and the S6 takes a deep breath, squats back on its haunches, and then lets that uppercut fly.

               Once the S6 gets its dander up, it keeps at it without a break. The big beast keeps pulling, and pulling. You sail forwards on a buttery smooth wave of torque. Mmm…torque butter. The V8 up front never seems strained, or stressed. There is just a seamless surge of power. In most cars, there is a point at which you start to lose momentum, as the force of the air pushes you back. This never happens in the Audi heavyweights. As long as you are at quasi-legal speeds, you will never run out of power. There is an utter lack of drama as well. No screaming exhaust or shrieking tires. The Quattro system ensures that the S6 just grips and goes.

               There is a downside to the immense capabilities of this car. Because the S6 performs such feats without distress, it is easy to forget that you are pushing the limits of the laws of nature. There is in fact a limit to how fast a two ton brick can negotiate a bend, and woe be to you when you find what that limit is. This isn't to say that the Audi is dangerous. Far from it, in fact. Just keep in mind that the car weighs more than you think it does, and that you are going much faster than you realize.

               So, is the S6 perfect? Well, not quite. It is difficult to discuss what I dislike, as some of it is just inherent to the purpose of the vehicle. Sure, I generally prefer a bit more induction/exhaust noise, and a manual transmission would be great, but neither of those fit with the design of the car. It’s not designed to be a nimble, visceral sports car. It is built to be a subtle, comfortable touring car. It is designed to cover vast swaths of highway at exceptional speeds, while still remaining comfortable and discreet.

               My one serious complaint is the transmission. Not the lack of a manual, I can live with that for what the car is. Not even the speed of it, as the shifts seem to be much quicker than some of the AMG transmissions I've used. That's the difference between a true dual clutch, and a more traditional automatic. My issue is that even in manual mode, the Audi will shift at redline. I know this is a safety feature, to prevent damage. I know that, and I accept it, but it still frustrates me. If the computers can decide when I shift, it almost makes the whole manual selection pointless. Silly quibble, but there it is.

               My only other critique is the selection knob for the Audi MMI system. The control knob seems to always go the reverse of the direction I feel it should. You scroll the knob counter-clockwise, which feels unnatural every time. I’m sure this is just a quirk that you get used to quickly, just like how everyone hated the BMW i-Drive, but now it is just accepted. Again if these are the complaints I have, I’m certainly scraping the bottom of the barrel for issues to find. “Oh, sure, it will do 0-60 in under four seconds, but I just really don’t like the infotainment selector knob.” How pedantic is that?

               These quibbles are meaningless. For what it is, the S6 is astonishing. It is a car that urges you to carry positively obscene speeds at all times, all the while staying under the literal and figurative radar. If the U.S. Express or Cannonball were to ever rise up again in some fashion, I think the big Audi might be a perfect candidate for high speed trans-continental racing. Monstrous power, discreet styling, immense comfort, and plenty of room for electronic countermeasures.

Save me a spot at the Portafino Inn, wir kommen.

The Brute (Subaru WRX) by Andrew Fails

Some cars are precision instruments, and require a delicate touch to elicit every iota of performance. The Subaru WRX is not one of these. In a world of scalpels, it is a hatchet. Some cars have you pick a laser precise racing line, delicately feathering the throttle as you tweak your steering angle. Not the WRX. Turn the traction control all the way off, drop a gear, stomp the pedal to the floor, and point it in generally the right direction you'd like to go. Less a sniper rifle, more of a shotgun. It will bounce, and crash, and slide, and hop, but it will never stop. Keep your foot in it, keep your nerves up, and trust the machine.

The sheer unflappability of it causes a distinct change in your driving patterns. You become much less concerned with things like potholes, or snow, or pavement, or traffic laws. "It will be fine," becomes your mantra. You're on an unpaved construction road tight enough that the only thing louder the gravel rattling off the undercarriage is the weeds slapping against your side-view mirrors? Just let the car settle a bit after any major hit, and keep a light touch on the wheel. It's going to squirm on you. Driving a WRX fast in the wild is surprisingly similar to driving a snowmobile: it's never going entirely in a straight line.

Along that line, you will develop a unhealthy appreciation for poor driving conditions. A WRX gets better and better the worse everything else gets. You will pray for everything sports cars hate. You'll crave rain, and snow, and mud, and gravel. When the rest of the city is asleep during a blizzard, you'll be out in a parking lot, practicing your Scandinavian Flick. When everyone is creeping along in the sleet, you're the asshole trying to see if you can keep the car sideways all the way through the intersection. You'll drive down beaten paths in construction yards, just to see where they go.

The trade-off to this is that in perfect driving conditions, you can start to notice some of the shortcomings of the car. Think of it as an AK-47. Its success is directly tied to the sheer abuse it is willing to absorb. The side effect of that is a certain ham-fistedness. The steering is a bit vague on-center, the clutch is a bit heavy, the shifter is a bit rough, and the car bounces a bit. While in a second gear slide through a foot of snow, as you steer by looking out the side windows, none of that matters, and in all reality, is probably helping. But when you're commuting to work, that slop raises its head.

But at the end of the day, none of that matters.  To put it in real world terms, I drove OVER a dead deer at 70 miles per hour, and all that happened was a crack in the front lip of the bumper. Zero mechanical issues. Zero damage to the skid plate. It felt like a hit a small speedbump. It did that, drove across the city in a foot of standing snow, slaloming stranded cars on the interstate, carried a shocking level of speed down unpaved country roads, and much more. All with never missing a beat, while still being able to run with a 5.0 liter Mustang, or haul hundreds of pounds of equipment from the hardware store. You want delicacy? Go buy a Miata. You want speed, utility, durability, and a Nirvana level of "not caring"? Buy the WRX.

A Slow Jam (Mini Cooper S) by Andrew Fails

Is it better for a car to be fast, or be fun?  

My last car, a Subaru Impreza WRX was unbelievably capable.  The rate at which it could devour broken back roads was simply mind-boggling.  But with the immense abilities of the car came an unexpected downside: boredom.  The car required you to push it SO HARD to get any excitement out of it. On dry pavement, I simply was not going to exceed the limits of the car without doing something fairly stupid.

That seems like a good thing, right?  Capable, predictable, and quick?  What more could you want? Easy. Amusement. What is the most exciting part of a drive? When you're right on that limit of control.  That's why everyone likes burnouts and drifting: that feeling that if it works, it's because YOU made it happen.  That heart-in-the-throat sensation of hoping you pull it off.

The Mini Cooper S has that in spades. Yes, the car is still very capable, but it requires a bit more work. The combination of a short wheelbase, stiff suspension, and narrow tires mean that the car is incredibly nimble. Not to be a cliche, but it really does feel like a go kart. It has a directness to the steering that makes any shortcomings just meaningless. If you catch a bump mid-corner, the Mini will try to hop to the side. So if you're going to drive quickly, you had better have your head on straight.

For a little bit of comparison, a Prius on 17" wheels has wider tires than the Cooper S.  A Prius is packing wider rubber under it, just process that.  My Mini is on 205 section tires, whereas a Toyota Prius of the same year is on 215s. Why not go wider? Simple choice, right? Wider tire equals more lateral grip, which means higher cornering speeds, better traction for acceleration, and better traction for braking.  But it would also make it less "darty".  It is incredibly easy to drive the Mini right on the limit of it's abilities, without having to resort to resort to triple digit speeds. Just a slight modulation of the throttle will drastically alter your line in a corner. As my father once passed down to me, "Think about lifting your right toe." That fraction of a difference in pressure will cause the Cooper S's nose to tuck in, and will pull you smooth through the bend, taming the understeer.  Of course, you can sharply lift your foot off the gas to provoke big slides.  Which is hilarious, but not necessarily fast.  But that just proves my point.  The difference between sliding wide, keeping a tidy line, or hanging the tail out in a raucous skid is just a matter of throttle pressure.

Speaking of throttle, we do have to discuss the pachyderm in the hallway: power. The Cooper S has a 1.6L engine.  That's 1600 cubic centimeters. I've ridden motorcycles with larger engines.  Granted, there is a small turbo to help it along. But still, the question: is it fast? Well...it's peppy. Or zippy. Or energetic. Or eager. Or any other euphemism that means quick, but not particularly fast. But that's not necessarily a bad thing. That just means that on a back road, you can go full-throttle almost the entire time. The Mini is a "momentum" car. It doesn't have a ton of torque, so it forces you to drive harder. Can you take a tighter line through that chicane to save en extra few miles per hour? Can you perfect your heel-toe downshifts to make sure you're high enough in the powerband to pull out of the hairpin?

At the end of the day, there is no "perfect" car. The best one is the one that meets your needs, and keeps a smile on your face.  The Mini Cooper S makes me laugh on a regular basis, whether it be from carving up rural highways, or pulling three gear long rolling burnouts in the rain. It's a car that allows you to drive like a total loon, without making your neighbors hate you. That, plus it hauls my camera gear, and will take me and the family to the amusement park. Can't beat that.


The Ugly Duckling by Andrew Fails

I'll just be honest.  When the Porsche Cayenne first debuted in 2002, it hurt my soul, just a little bit.  Now, I'm not a total purist who demands that Porsche builds only air-cooled 911s, but still...Porsche, building an SUV?  It seemed sacrilegious to me, an angry teenager in the suburbs. And trust me, nobody does angsty entitlement like a spoiled kid from an middle class family. 

I didn't want it, and goddamnit, me and my $6.00 an hour would just go somewhere else, thank you very much.  For better or worse, Porsche is ran by some folks with a bit more foresight than me.  Those kooky Germans, always planning in advance. So after some strategizing and planning that would have made Schlieffen proud, they dropped their new behemoth into the open market.  It did well. Shockingly well.

Times have changed, as they tend to. I'm still not the biggest fan of the Cayenne, but that's more because I tend to dislike SUVs in general, not because there is anything inherently wrong with the platform.  If you just HAVE to buy an SUV, you could certainly do a lot worse than the Cayenne.  Sure, it may not be the most traditionally attractive car, but Porsche has never made it's money on styling.  The entire focus has been about the driving experience.  And the Cayenne does drive well.  Far better than something that tall has any right to.  It's either brilliant German engineering, or dangerous Teutonic spellcasting.  I think we know which.

Porsche had always put driver involvement first, and the Cayenne carries on this tradition.  It is my (heavily biased) opinion that nothing drives quite like a Porsche.  Other manufacturers may build faster cars, or more comfortable ones, or more flashy ones, but the Porsche will always just...work. Due to my job, I get a bit of seat time in all manner of luxury SUVs, from Escalades, to Range Rovers.  The Porsche is the one I would take home at the end of the day, every time.  The directness and immediacy of every input is just mind-boggling.  

Throughout the cabin are subtle nods to the Cayenne's pedigree.  The tachometer sits dead ahead, bracketed in by the speedometer and a multi-function display. Because more important than your speed, or your location, are your RPMs.  This is how both my car and motorcycle both are.  Engine speed first and foremost, and everything else is incidental.  They've even carried over the tradition of the ignition key being places on the left of the steering column.

For those of you who don't know, every Porsche vehicle manufactured today has the key on the left of the steering wheel.  Yes, before you ask, it feels very odd the first few times.  There's an obscene joke there somewhere.  But this isn't done just to be eccentric.  That's more of a Citroen thing.  All Porsches have a key on the left due to the company's history with a little racetrack in France known as Circuit de la Sarthe.  Now if that doesn't ring a bell, don't worry.  The race is more commonly known by the name of the town: Le Mans.  Now, historically, drivers at Le Mans had to run to their racecar, jump in, start it, and then go.  No rolling starts here.  Now, Porsche, in that interesting German way, had decided that if the ignition was on the left, a driver could turn the key with one hand, as they shifted into gear with the other.  This would theoretically save fractions of a second on the start.  Now, did those fractions of a second matter much in a race that lasted for 24 hours?  I'm not sure, but I love to pretend I'm a racing driver, so I'll take it.

There is more to this story than simply saying that the Cayenne is "not bad for an SUV." Simply put, Porsche would most likely not exist in the capacity it does without the hefty girl. In 2013, nearly 48% of all Porsches sold in North America were Cayennes of some trim level or another. You love the Cayman, the GT3, and the 918?  Of course you do, they are some of the finest examples of driving machines in the world.  But without the profit margins that come from selling SUVs, there would not be the money to finance those halo projects.

Should a company cut out half of its sales figures, just because it goes against the perceived corporate ethos?  That's a rough question.  I'd love to live in a world where Porsche could make only purebred sports cars, while staying profitable.  But to do that, the price point would have to be elevated to Koenigsegg and Pagani levels.  So what would you prefer: a world where the Cayman costs half a million dollars, or the one where you have to walk around the Cayenne to get to the GT2 RS in the back?

It's not a perfect system, but any system that allows something like the 918 Spyder to exist can't be all bad.

Cheap and Dirty (Suzuki SV650) by Andrew Fails

Cheap and dirty. Like that girl from college you don't talk about.

"I've known crackheads who were less twitchy than that thing."

That's how my brother described my 2006 Suzuki SV650 after doing a lap of a parking lot.  It's far from the fastest thing in the world, but it's torquey, and weighs just a bit over 400 lbs with fluids. The combination of low weight, v-twin torque, and an upright riding position makes for a snappy little machine. It has nowhere near the top end power of a GSX-R, or even an R6, but I maintain that off of the highway, it's faster.

 

The SV in its natural habitat.

The SV is the epitome of "jack of all trades". It's never going to outrun the other sportbikes, but it can certainly hang with them on backroads.  Well, as long as the speed stays out of the triple digits.  There is speed there if you want, but you had better work for it.  While on a GSX-R you can just leave it in one gear and wind it all the way out, the SV requires a bit more effort.  You're constantly banging up and down through the gears, and using the tall bars to snap it side to side.  It gets better and better the harder you work it.

Peek a boo...

It is not a precision instrument, it's a blunt tool. Stomp that gearshift down. Crank the throttle, and feel the suspension compress. Get hard on the brakes and feel the back end try to squirm past you. It is loud, bright, and unforgiving. While it's never going to outrun the liter bikes on the freeway, I maintain there is not much that is faster on the street when things get tight.

Boom.

Make no mistake, a rowdy hooligan is not the only role that it can play.  If you're willing to fight it out with the wind, you can use it as a touring bike as well.  I've done a couple days of over 600 miles.  You have to sit at over 6,000 RPM for highway running, at least on stock gearing, but it will do that all day, every day, no problem.  Anyone can ride a Goldwing across the country.  That's the easy move. If you want it easy, drive a fucking car. Plus, when you roll to the top of the mountain, who do you want to be: the guy on the Goldwing with his latte in the cupholder or the lunatic who rode a bright orange sportbike with no fairings across two states in the middle of the night? To quote The Bloodhound Gang, "Life's short and hard, like a body-building elf." You'll die soon enough, earn some stories while you can.
 

I've ridden a handful of other bikes, from fully faired I4 sportbikes, to comfortable metric cruisers, to big thumping, "I'll beat yer ass" Harleys. They all have their purpose, but I always keep coming back to the cheap little SV. It's got scars. It's been dropped. The tail is chewed up and filthy from the rear wheel and chain chucking oil and gravel at it. The header is dented from going down over a curb. It's not the fastest, or the most fuel efficient, or the most comfortable, but it's mine. 

 

If you're interested in having me review your car or bike, hit me up at andrew@failsphotography.com

 

Rocking the Roxy by Andrew Fails

This weekend I got invited out to a concert by local Kansas City band Adam Evolving at The Roxy in Overland Park.  Local unsigned bands tend to have a (somewhat justifiable) bad reputation, but these boys buck that trend violently.  The sheer level of technical skill, combined with strict professionalism, is a wonderful surprise in this scene.  The band consists of Darrick Deterding on vocals, Josh Seichepine on bass, Casey Miller on drums, and Jimi Rowan on guitar.

They have low-key persona, but are slowly building an extremely devoted fan base.  Everyone who witnesses one of their performances becomes an avid supporter.  The Roxy is a small venue in a strip mall, but Adam Evolving still packed the floor.  Getting people out of their seats at these small shows is a feat in and of itself, but the audience was more densely packed at during this late set than at any other point during the evening.

Watching this band perform is always an interesting juxtaposition of visuals. Deterding on vocals is always this roiling mess of anguished fervor, flanked on either side by the solid pillars of Rowan and Seichepine.  The more that he bounces, wails, pleads, and proselytizes, the more solid Rowan and Seichepine seem to become, just standing as these pillars of intense focus and precision.  Rolling beneath and through all of this is Miller, who serves as an amazing combination of aggression tempered with precision.  His sharp cadences structure and drive the whole performance.

Because this was such a small venue, I switched up my normal method.  I tried to focus much more on the details of each performer, and get in close.  There is so much distraction with these types of events, from TVs playing sports, to angry drunks, to side conversations, that it's easy to lose sight of the performance.  So I tried to utilize framing and lighting to key in on these intense little moments on stage.

If you remove all of the other meaningless visual noise and colors, all you are left with at the end are the emotions that drive the music.  And that is what music is all about: making you feel something.  That is one of my favorite things about this group.  There is no pretense, or gimmick.  Just the attempt to convey ideas and feelings through words and music.

Shooting in tiny venues is always tricky, but it also forces you to be more creative.  No, you don't have the best sight angles. No, they never put the drum kit on a riser, so it's almost impossible to get clean shots of drummer over the rest of the band (sorry Casey).  Yes, you have to work around the crowd.  No, you will NEVER have good light.  Yes, the subjects are always moving.  But at the same time, I love it, as you get these unexpected little moments of emotion that you will never see in a more organized setting.

What do we have here? by Andrew Fails

I don't often go out to car shows, as I'd much rather drive cars, than look at them in a parking lot.  My major exception is Kansas City Cars and Coffee out at the Kansas City Automotive Museum.  There is always such an eclectic gathering, you never quite know what you're going to see.  The first event had a healthy showing by the local BMW group, but this month had a much more diverse mixture.

The car of the day seemed to be the Ford ST cousins.  I must have seen eight of the little hot hatches, both Fiestas and Focuses.  I've still never driven one, but every single person that I have ever heard mention them has just RAVED about how fun it is.  I am all about small cars that are just...fun.  A car can be an absolute riot to drive, even if it's not the most powerful thing in the world.  I mean, nobody drives a Miata because it's fast.

There was also a fantastic group of old British cars that morning.  I am a sucker for anything old and British, from Austin-Healeys, to Nortons, to Michael Caine.  For me, these cars also fall into the category of "slow, but fun".  Who cares if it isn't the fastest thing in the world? Who cares if sometimes the magic smoke leaks out, and it doesn't want to start?  It has a sense of occasion.  Every event becomes it's own little British adventure.  Except hopefully with less imperialism based racism.

In addition to those two packs, there was everything from the requisite M3s and Corvettes, to a pair of Lotuses, to a Cayman.

The rockstar of the day, however, was the Mosler MT900S.  I'm ashamed to admit that I honestly did not know what it was when I pulled up.  My first guess was some variety of Noble , or maybe a Saleen.  But this monster was even more rare than that.  Not the prettiest car in the world, but it certainly commands your attention.  Far and away the most raw car there.

Then the prancing ponies showed up.  Now, I'm not the biggest supporter of Ferrari's business practices as pointed out by Chris Harris a few years ago for Jalopnik. (Check out the article here.) But regardless of any questionable tactics, or personal biases, their machines are jaw-droppingly, pants-wettingly stunning.  Just rolling works of art and design.  I'd like to be the jaded pro photog' who has seen it all, and doesn't care, but they are all just staggering in their own way.  

 

And hats off to that little Beetle.  You stand your ground, little buddy.

Paying the Bills by Andrew Fails

Shooting dramatic and picturesque photos is the reason most of us get into this bizarre hobby, and why a few of us try to make a living at it.  However, unless you're at the absolute peak of your field, the art alone doesn't make ends meet.  Sometimes you just have to pay the bills.  This is not necessarily a bad thing though.  Commercial shoots focus you to refine your technique, and increase your speed.  The faster you can churn through a shoot, the faster you get paid.

For most photographers, the hustle and grind of daily work is made of senior photos, engagements, babies, and the like.  However, since I can (for the moment) afford to be picky on what jobs I take, I don't do any of that.  Most of my business comes from shooting product photography.  Specifically, high end automobiles.  So here's a look at my last shoot, of a Mercedes Benz ML350.

My setup for this type of work is surprisingly basic.  I'd love to shoot with a Chimera Lightbank, but they are staggeringly expensive.  So with a little digital trickery, and a couple hundred dollars, I've got a serviceable setup for exterior shots.  I mount a radio transceiver on the hotshoe of my camera, and then another on each of my speedlights that are mounted off the the sides on stands with umbrellas.  You can either leave the lights static for the shot, or lock the camera down on a tripod, and shoot multiple exposures with differently placed lights.  Once you combine them digitally, you get something like the above image.  Granted, this process takes a bit longer, so it's up to you if it's worth it for every shot.  I tend to use it for my lead image, but not the secondary ones.

My setup for interiors is even more basic.  I leave the ceiling lights on in the studio, and mount a speedlight directly to the camera.  Angle the light away from your surface (especially if it's a piano black surface, like Jaguar likes to use), diffuse it, and you're golden.  Soft light is your friend.  If you really want to be fancy, you can throw a little shallow depth of field in there. But remember at the end of the day, this work is meant to be informative, not evocative.

Even if this isn't the most glamorous work in the world, it's a sure sight better than filling out TPS reports.  Ask any professional artist, and the majority of their work is mundane, but they do it because every so often you get to really cut loose and express yourself.  For every twenty tribal armbands that a tattoo artist has to do, they get one zombie cat.  Or something like that.

The trade off for doing this inventory work is that once I've completed my shot list, I get to play.  So then the 50mm comes out with the polarizing filter, and I get experimental.  Because of the unique arrangement I have with my client, there is no time-frame on completing my shoots.  So if I spend an hour experimenting with lighting angles, so be it.  Granted, that's time I'm effectively not being paid, but I'm learning.  Some people pay for lessons, I lock myself in a room with an M5 and some strobes.  Who has the better plan?


Descending like the Mongol horde. by Andrew Fails

 

Sunrise. Two photographers. Three videographers. Six cars worth a total of $360,000. 2,854 horsepower….Magic.

My biggest client, Pure Pursuit Automotive, is a nationwide dealer and broker for “sport luxury” cars. Basically, if it costs over $40,000 or has more than 300hp, they deal in it. A while ago, I got pulled in for a fast, run-and-gun shoot at the crack of dawn. We needed to churn out as much content as possible before the light changed and spoiled the setting.

The West Bottoms is basically a cliche now for photographers in Kansas City.  For those non-locals, it's a section of the city that used to be thriving with slaughterhouses and warehouses, but has since fallen into disrepair.  It is on it's way back up, but is still rather gritty.  The rusted girders and scarred bricks lend a shocking contrast to the gleaming luxury rides.

2013 BMW M5

I had to work quickly, as I still have a full-time day job in addition to my contract work.  So when the rest of the team rolled in a bit before seven o'clock in the morning, we rallied the troops and started divvying up the work.  By the way, if you've never seen a pack of M5s, Stingrays, 911s, etc roll down the street at sunrise, it will bring a tear to your eye.  So the game plan was to split the photo work in half, and have me tackle two cars in an hour before I hit the road.

First up was that Bavarian brute, the M5.  I am a sucker for BMW, and always have been.  This might be a result of my father owning a 2002 when I was growing up.  I directed the driver to a favorite little courtyard of mine, and I got to work.  Seeing how we were on a time-crunch, I just went hand-held with no lights the whole time, which was tricky. Seven in the morning, in an alley, with a polarizing filter on the lens really cuts down on the available light.

Now that's a set of brakes.

After we finished the BMW, we swung back by our bivouc to swap vehicles.  From there I hopped into a 2014 Stingray with another driver.  Now, I was never the biggest Corvette fan back in the day.  The C6 was a substantial improvement over earlier generations, but the interior just felt so cheap.  A car of that potential should not feel like a rental Cobalt inside.  But the C7 Stingray is just stunning in person.  It photographs well, don't get me wrong, but in person, those just have PRESENCE.  It may not be pretty in the traditional sense, but goddamn is it striking.

Now that's an entrance.

Shooting on this little bridge reminded me of why I love Kansas City.  We parked in the dead center of the road (granted, it's mostly a utility road, not a main thoroughfare), and whenever work trucks came by, they waited patiently for us to move, and weren't upset at all.  I love cities in which weird art projects are considered mundane.

By this time the sun was up higher, but still not throwing much light down underneath where we sat.  This was very much run-and-gun, as the clock was running out, and we kept having to move for traffic to pass.  Once I wrapped up, we headed back to the rest of the team, and I hurried off to my other job.

All in all, a successful, and educational, morning.