Jay Leno and Hot Cars

By Leah – October 3, 2013

When I was nine months pregnant with our third child, my husband won a sales contest. The reward was the use of a 1992 Torch Red T-top Corvette (six speed, manual) for a month, and our son got to the hospital in style. Earlier in our marriage, my husband “rescued” a 1967 Austin Healey Mark III (with solenoid overdrive in third and fourth gear) and had it refurbished; the speedometer never really quite worked right, so we tested it once on the highway with some friends to see how “off” it was. What felt like highway speed was really 110 mph (shhh…don’t tell my kids).

A thing of beauty: the McLaren 12C in Volcano Orange

A thing of beauty: the McLaren 12C in Volcano Orange

What’s the point here? Well, while I treat my everyday car much like an everyday tool, I like hot cars. I like cars that can go fast (and I believe that they should be driven that way). I appreciate a beautiful performance car. So, as much as I was really, really keen to see Jay Leno yesterday at Circuit of The Americas, it was the McLaren 12C that got my motor running.

If you haven’t caught it the Web series yet, Leno—who is an impressive automotive aficionado with 125 cars and some 90 motorcycles—has a show called Jay Leno’s Garage.  The segment I watched recently was an interview with Carroll Shelby (he’d signed Leno’s 1965 Shelby Mustang 350 GT, my ultimate dream car). Leno was out at COTA to drive some laps in the McLaren 12C; the experience was organized by the Vodafone McLaren Mercedes Formula One team and Mobil 1 (the team’s technology partner). In addition, Oliver Turvey, who’s the Vodafone McLaren Mercedes F1 team test driver, gave Leno a tutorial on the MP4-26, which is the model used by the McLaren team during the 2011 FIA F1 championships. They compared and contrasted the two types of McLarens (it’s a rough life, but, hey, somebody’s gotta do it).

The 12C is gorgeous and sexy and even comes in Volcano Orange (that would be Longhorn orange for those of us in Texas). I got as close as I could, which meant I spent a fair amount of time talking to Seth Thomas, a race car driver and one of the McLaren driving experience team members who was also guarding the car to keep people like me from hopping in the $260K hardtop convertible. Leno had said that the 12C was “a fantastic car in terms of suspension. Most high performance cars run a little rough,” he went on to explain, “but this is one of the few that could be used on the street comfortably.” Thomas backed Leno up; he and his wife have taken it out as a “date night” car (now THAT’S a date; I still remember riding to my high school prom in my date’s brown 1976 Corvette Stingray).

We chatted about driving—Thomas, in addition to racing, takes media folks on track tours where he drives first to point out things (such as where to brake) and then switches seats. He said the McLaren 12C could easily reach 120-plus mph on Turn 1 at COTA. I asked him where he’d like to sit to watch the upcoming F1 races, and he said that the outside exit of Turn 1 and “somewhere in the S-es—you’d really be able to see how fast they go” would be his choice. He talked a bit about NASCAR versus F1 speed, vertigo in aging racecar drivers, and the trickle-down effect of motorsport technology from the science behind F1. It’s always a pleasure to talk to someone who is a true fan of any sport, and Thomas clearly loves his job.

A look inside one of the COTA garages

A look inside one of the COTA garages

Leno’s a big fan of the technology behind motorsport and discussed how much fun he found in the history and restoration of vehicles. “Sometimes I buy the story as much as the car,” he said, sharing that he hasn’t sold a car since 1972. He’s excited to talk about the new electric motorcycle that Mission is introducing (“it’s blindingly fast, and the new technology is impressive”). Leno is also a huge proponent of American motorsport technology and production; he finds it “fun to see that U.S. engineering and manufacturing are coming back,” and he offers free space on Leno’s Garage for American-made products to support those tool inventors and so on, who couldn’t otherwise afford that national exposure.

When asked what would get Americans excited about F1, Leno recommended seeing the Ron Howard film, Rush. He likened embracing F1 in the United States to discovering soccer, pointing out that a younger American demographic has claimed European football and its accompanying international vibe. “The closer I get [to F1], the more fascinating I find it,” he said. When asked about COTA in particular, Leno said that Austin was his “favorite city in Texas” and he’d try to come back in November for the American Grand Prix. I would offer that, after driving the track a few times in that gorgeous McLaren, it might be kind of a letdown to just come and watch.


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