Around the Benz

NoVA’s speed demons are powered by the need for earth-bound flight

NoVA’s speed demons are powered by the need for earth-bound flight

By Buzz McClain

Photograph by Seth Freeman
Photograph by Seth Freeman

The force of the sudden acceleration causes my head to press into the headrest.

Beneath the black hood in front of me purrs a 3.5-liter, seven-speed, 300 horsepower V6 engine. A slight push on the accelerator causes a rush of atomized fuel to spray into the engine’s 24 valves, compressing it and mixing it with air. Six spark plugs fire off, clouds of gas exploding thousands of times per minute. The explosions make six pistons turn the crankshaft connected to an electronically controlled transmission, which turns the axle, which turns the two wheels behind me. Really fast.

Zero to 60 in 5.4 seconds, the literature says, but that was 10 seconds ago. My heart is racing at nearly the pace of the pistons; I back off on the pedal and let road friction gradually slow us.

The 2009 Mercedes-Benz SLK 350 seems disappointed. It definitely felt happier going fast; it seemed to beg to be pushed harder. I’d love to comply, but I’m wracked with paranoia about the proximity of these big trees on this empty Great Falls back road, and the possibility of police.

Photographs by Seth Freeman
Photographs by Seth Freeman

The car’s purr turns into a begrudging growl, and I have to ask: Why does Mercedes-Benz build these beautifully engineered speed machines knowing that the American market is duty-bound to stay under 55?

I want to crush the accelerator and take off on another earth-bound flight. I want to test that vaunted rack and pinion steering on a ridiculous hairpin turn and challenge the four-wheel power-assisted brakes by slamming hard on the pedal.

But I can’t, can I? Everywhere I look there are signs, lines and lights forbidding me to do what this car was made to do. How can I get maximum enjoyment out of this jet-black adrenaline factory without putting double-digit points on my license or, worse, injuring someone?

I’m not alone in this desire to test myself and the Benz. In fact, I can join the club.

Barrie Gochman is 4-foot-10, 90 pounds, 40 years old and a psychotherapist with a private practice in Rockville, Md. She realizes what she’s doing on this pleasant Sunday afternoon in a Winchester school parking lot is officially “risk-taking behavior.” “I can’t say I wish she didn’t knit instead,” says her mom, Sandy Krellen. “But I’ve sort of gotten used to the concept.”

I ask Gochman what she tells people when they ask what she does for fun.

“I say I race cars,” she says in a tone between demure and proud. “They’re usually shocked.”

In the background is a prolonged screech of tires that anywhere else would have compelled bystanders to dial 911. But today the constant squeal of tires and the roar of athletic engines are part of the landscape. The Greater Washington Section of the Mercedes-Benz Club of America is hosting its monthly autocross. The parking lot of Millbrook High has been turned into a network of orange traffic cones describing a layout of “offset gates,” slaloms and a circular “skid pad,” eventually terminating in a “stop garage,” which is basically a rectangle of cones about 10 feet wide and 10 yards long.

Gochman, a section member for six years, is celebrating her birthday a few days early with her parents, who came up from North Carolina, co-workers and the other drivers, including her husband Pete. “It’s a perfect way to celebrate my birthday,” she says. “My friends and family can see how I spend my weekends.”

On other weekends she and the other drivers might be racing at a regional track closed to everyone but them; they might be polishing their cars and exhibiting them in a “concours” event; they may be taking—or giving—defensive driving lessons; or they might tour a car museum and have a catered dinner. Whatever is the draw, of the 84 MBCA sections in the country, Washington’s is the largest, with 1,500 members, followed by San Francisco. It doesn’t hurt that dues are only $45 a year.

William West Hopper, the avuncular section president, looks only slightly anomalous amid the sleek sports cars as he cruises the staging area on a Segway, surveying the 63 registered drivers and 50-plus cars that have been checked in for today’s competition. “That’s a lot for us,” Hopper says from his motorized perch. “I think people must be here for Barrie’s cake.”

Hopper is a self-employed art installer and an independent Segway consultant (a-ha) in Washington who competes in a 1997 Mercedes-Benz C280. It’s a nice enough four-door sedan, but a race car? And that’s the point: The daylong races against the clock are more about camaraderie and developing driving skills than showing off expensive, midlife crisis toys.

In fact, the cars don’t have to be Mercedes-Benz, as all “marques” are welcome. Mike Kallam, a Winchester truck driver, and his son Mike share a 1998 Dodge Neon they bought for $400; working on the car and racing it “is a great thing to bring us together,” the dad says. Brett Hack, a ponytailed photographer and one of the section’s instructors, drives a 1990 Mazda Miata that saw its better days in the last century.

“Am I at a disadvantage? Not necessarily,” says Paul Rochelle, a 25-year-old section member and student at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. His car is a woefully indistinctive 2003 Honda Civic. “We used to have a kid come out with a front-wheel drive Civic and get the fastest times of the day. I’ve seen station wagons outrun Corvettes. It’s not about speed. It’s about skill.”

Rochelle’s ride may not be much to crow about, but he painstakingly hand-built the engine and transmission. Most of the drivers at the autocross say they prefer to work on their own cars “because you don’t know what’s going to happen to it when you take it to a shop,” Rochelle says. “I don’t want anyone messing it up.”

Some like working on Mercedes so much that, at least in once case, “we’re considering some serious intervention,” says Hopper, joking, maybe. “Single, no girlfriend, no social life. Goes home and works on his cars.”

John Heflin
Photograph by Eli Meir Kaplan/Wonderful Machine

That would be John Heflin, a well-spoken 27-year-old from Frederick, Md., with the biggest pile of tools and parts in the parking lot. He happily changes all four tires—he’s got a portable compressor to make it easy—from street tires to R-compound competition tires and back again. What does he do for a living? “I’m a Mercedes technician,” he says with a grin. “It’s good to have a job you don’t dread going to.”

But you don’t have to be a Mercedes technician to get into a garage, or to get discounts on parts. Both are privileges of membership.

“They’ll open the garage for you at dealerships,” says Ben Weber, 40, publisher of the Purcellville Gazette, who joined the section six years ago. His is a 1988 Mercedes-Benz 300E bought off Craigslist. “The nice thing is, you’re doing the work yourself, you’re learning about your car, but if you screw up there’s a technician right next to you to get you out of trouble.”

Not long ago Mercedes asked Weber to test a SLR-class coupe—“a half-million-dollar car.” The company covered insurance and fuel. “That car was tremendous,” Weber says wistfully.

By comparison, my 2009 SLK 350, a loaner for the weekend, is one of the newer and sportier vehicles competing today. A palm-sweating case of second thoughts runs through my head as I walk with the other drivers on a morning tour of the course. Pete Gochman leads the way, pointing out the transitions from gate to gate, but all I can see is the concrete base of the light pole in the center of Millwood’s parking lot. I can imagine Mercedes-Benz’s reaction when I return the car with deployed airbags, at a minimum.

But Hopper has my back. After fitting me with a “Speed Racer”-type helmet—all the drivers wear helmets—and having my car checked by two inspectors, Hopper puts me in the passenger seat of an unassuming 1986 190E 2.3-16 Mercedes driven by a 20-year club member and retiree from Charlottesville named Bill. “Let’s not use my last name,” he says. “I don’t know how insurance companies view this.”

So I’m thinking, as we wait for Bill’s turn for his first heat around the course, what’s the big deal? I’m buckled into a 23-year-old sedan with a pensioner I likely passed on the way getting here. Then the announcer says, “Send the car.”

Bill floors it. The braking and accelerating as we negotiate turns cause me to hit the “invisible brake” my brain thinks I have at my feet. The nearly 360-degree “skid pad” has a visceral effect on my stomach. By the time we come to an oddly silent, abrupt halt in the stop garage 41 seconds later, I’m thinking: Dramamine.

Photograph by Eli Meir Kaplan/Wonderful Machine
Photograph by Eli Meir Kaplan/Wonderful Machine

“I was nervous the first time. I’m still nervous,” says Denise Dersin, the soft-spoken editor-in-chief of Builder Magazine in the district. She’s been driving autocross for seven years and has a whispered reputation as a speed demon in her 1986 190E 2.3-16 Benz. “I’m a bundle of nerves, but that helps me; the more anxious I am, the better I do.” (She does great today: Her 41.421 lap wins the women’s division.)

“I’m a little bit nervous, but the kind of nervous like when you’re teeing up to play golf,” says Raymond Lombardo, a securities attorney from the district. “You don’t want to hit the shrubs and make a fool of yourself.”

We’re idling in his 1985 BMW 535i, waiting for his heat to start. “I have friends—lawyers—who say, ‘I got pulled over doing 95 in Virginia.’ I’m like, ‘Do a track date for $300, and you can do 120 without the police chasing you.’ And it’s safer the way we do it—your cars are checked, you have the helmet on. The rules are strictly enforced at the track; if you screw up, they’ll throw you out. There’s no fooling around. These are 3,000-pound machines that could hurt someone.

“It’s enjoyable to drive these cars in a free-spirited way without worrying about the police,” he adds before finishing his heat in 48.941 seconds. “I’m actually a very poky driver on the highway.”

Then Lombardo tells me something that others will echo throughout the day: “The skills you learn here in how to handle your car are really valuable. More than one time the stuff I’ve learned at these events has helped me avoid accidents.”

“We brought our 18-year-old daughter out for defensive driving lessons,” says Silver Spring, Md.’s, Laurie Harrell, whose husband has been taking mechanics classes at a Fairfax adult education center, the better to work on their three Mercedes. We’re about to take a 49.283-second spin in her canary yellow 2010 Chevrolet Camero. “The kids love it out here. They get the driving lesson, then they do the autocross in their own cars. It makes you more aware in your street driving because you have more confidence in your car.”

So far, after a half dozen ride-alongs with different veteran drivers, we haven’t so much as knocked over a cone. Now it’s my turn for my first heat, and despite Hack riding along as my instructor, it dawns on me: What’s an instructor going to do if I go into a skid and flip the car?

Plus, the top is down. This could get ugly.

“Send the driver.”

The SLK 350 lets out an animal howl. My fingers are tight on the wheel as we accelerate with alarming haste down the straightaway; the thrill of the velocity inspires me to miss an early gate but we press on into the first curve with a quick brake and then an immediate acceleration through the turn; more braking, more accelerating and then a stomp on the brake that brings us to an immediate halt in the stop garage.

My lap took 54 seconds. And I’m thinking: When’s my next heat?

By the end of the day I’ve driven seven heats, taking out only three cones on one hairpin turn (hey, cones happen). My best time comes late in the afternoon, when I clock a 47.007.

On the ride home I keep thinking that in two weeks the club has hired out the New Jersey Motorsports Park for “real” racing on a professional track, where you drive for 30 minutes at a time, not 47 seconds. That sounds like excitement, but then, I wonder how insurance companies view this?

(July 2010)