Hot Cars, Tony Tribute MAMA Rally Highlights

John Gilbert

Mid-engine Acura NSX. Photo credit: John Gilbert
Mid-engine Acura NSX. Photo credit: John Gilbert

Driving the newest cars around Road America’s road-racing course at Elkhart Lake, Wis., is one of the highlights of every year in the auto writing business. It’s called the MAMA Spring Rally, and it lures nearly all manufacturers to bring their newest offerings and allow nearly 100 auto journalists to drive them one lap around the classic 4-mile layout.

The event lived up to all expectations on a couple midweek days in May last week, including two nights at the Ostholl Resort in Elkhart Lake and some fantastic meals. This year included couple of special highlights for me, on a course where I once took a race driving school and competed in a Showroom Stock race nearly 50 years ago. And I’ll explain them in reverse order, saving the opening highlight for last. First, the finish.

My day on the track ended with a proper climax, as two cars I had hoped to get into but hadn’t been able to find open, provided my finishing thrills. I had been told that there were 37 drivers on a waiting list for the Acura NSX, sitting there in gleaming Casino White Pearl, but that if I came back just before the end of the final track session at 4 p.m., they would get me into it for the maximum one lap.

It wasn’t quite ready, but in the adjacent parking area, the Mercedes C63 S AMG was available. The deal is, you get one lap, out of the pits on signal, and all the way around before coming back into the pits. No passing. With this car, a co-driver sat in the passenger seat, filling me in on any questions, and making sure I didn’t sail off into the next dimension.

Mercedes C63s AMG sedan. Photo credit: John Gilbert
Mercedes C63s AMG sedan. Photo credit: John Gilbert

This car, tuned and prepared by the crack AMG performance arm of Mercedes, is beyond just a slick-handling powerhouse. I has a 4.0-liter V8 and is called “Bi-Turbo” because it has twin turbochargers. These are not what you’d call mass-produced. The engine is build by hand, by one engineer, who signs the engine. It has 503 horsepower and 516 foot-pounds of torque, which is more than enough. It sent us onto the track, up and over the hills and around all the curves. I would say I drove at about 40 percent of the car’s capacity, and it was awesome. Of course, it should be, for $97,830.

If not, you could get up to a version with 630 horsepower and 554 foot-pounds of torque for another $60,000 or so. But with front engine and all-wheel drive, 503 seemed enough.
Finally, just a couple of minutes before 4, they called me back into my helmet for the NSX. Same deal with a passenger, and this was also special. Without hesitation, I will say that in all the years I’ve done these test runs around Road America, the new NSX was the best I’ve experienced. It is a jewel, a very tight two-seat coupe, with a mid-engine layout for the 3.5-liter V6, which is augmented by three electric motors to total 573 horsepower and 476 foot-pounds of torque.

It also has a 9-speed, dual clutch transmission, and because so much of it is carbon fiber — like the roof, deckled, spoiler — it is extremely light even though it feels completely planted because of the mid-engine balance. It was a genuine thrill to drive that car, too, and I thanked the guys with both the Mercedes and Acuras and said it was great to leave those two until last, because they were the two best, and I didn’t have to drive them early and then compare everything else.

 Jeep Gladiator, just introduced. Photo credit: John Gilbert
 Jeep Gladiator, just introduced. Photo credit: John Gilbert

There were dozens of new vehicles, and many were limited to driving on the roads surrounding the track without being allowed on the track. The next day we drove an assortment of trucks off-road, and got to drive numerous of these cars on a short road course laid out for go-karts.
Among the highlights: Jeep Gladiator, new thing that is like a combined Wrangler and pickup with a 3.6-liter V6. The Ram 2500 Power Wagon, and the Durango SRT 392 with a 6.4-liter Hemi. The Lincoln Nautilus is a new SUV, very slick. The Kia Telluride is also a large SUV filled with class.

Chevy brings back the Blazer, all new. Photo credit: John Gilbert
Chevy brings back the Blazer, all new. Photo credit: John Gilbert

A pleasant surprise is the new Chevy Blazer, an old name restored on a compact crossover that should be a huge success, with a 3.6 liter V6. Honda had a couple of its new Passports, another old name recirculated on an impressive crossover that falls between the Pilot and CR-V. Cadillac had a new XT4 available to drive. The Kia Soul is redone, with a 1.6-liter turbo that gives it more kick for under $30,000. 

Mazda3 with Skyactiv-G 2.0 and AWD. Photo credit: John Gilbert
Mazda3 with Skyactiv-G 2.0 and AWD. Photo credit: John Gilbert

Another very impressive drive was a stunning pair of dark red sedans. First was the new and revised Mazda3 with its Skyactiv-G 2.0-liter engine with an amazing amount of horsepower, enough to power all four wheels. It comes as a hatchback, which I prefer, or a sedan that looks like a downsized Mazda6.

The other was the Acura TLX, which is a specialty version of the sedan Acura made by combining the TSX and the TL, but this one is so special it doesn’t have a price yet assigned. It will be lots. The car is shipped from Honda’s Marysville, Ohio, plant to the PMC — Performance Manufacturing Center — plant, where the NSX is so meticulously built. The NSX can be purchased with a $6,000 optional and special deep red paint job, but there are only 360 hand-built TLX PMC sedans, and it comes only in that same special red.

Honda Passports, old name, new SUV. Photo credit: John Gilbert
Honda Passports, old name, new SUV. Photo credit: John Gilbert

At the start of the day, in a misty fog and chilly sub-50-degree gloom, we gave the track some time to dry out, then my son, and assistant, Jack Gilbert, and I hopped into a light and bright blue Hyundai Veloster N, a letter designation which sets apart specialty high-performing Hyundai models from now on. In my early days at Elkhart Lake, a great friend, Tony Swan, also reported on races and later raced on that track as a writer at Car & Driver. As I wrote about late in 2018, Tony finally gave out to a nasty battle with cancer, and I wished I could have attended services near his home near Ann Arbor, Mich.

Hyundai Veloster N for special delivery. Photo credit: John Gilbert
Hyundai Veloster N for special delivery. Photo credit: John Gilbert

But his wife, Mary, drove Tony’s GTI to Mound, Minnesota, where Tony grew up on Lake Minnetonka, and a small ceremony was held there for Tony for friends and relatives, including a couple of guys who attended the University of Minnesota with Tony and me. Mary brought a selected few envelopes with some of Tony’s ashes, because he had some selected places he hoped to have them scattered, including Lake Minnetonka, and at a race track or two.

I knew Tony loved Road America, so I took an envelope with some of Tony’s ashes with me. I had the envelope in my jacket pocket, and I asked Jack to drive while I sat in the passenger seat. We went around the track, and nearing the end of our lap we went through what’s called Thunder Valley, then made a hard right to start up out of Canada Corner. I had told Jack my plan, and as we started up the hill, into a fierce wind, I opened the window and let Tony fly.

It was, indeed, Tony’s final ride, and afterward, I notified the MAMA board. They all knew Tony, and one of them said how appropriate it was and that forevermore, driving around that corner and starting up that hill will rekindle Tony’s memory.

He’d have loved the high-potency Veloster N, too.