Some days, living in South Florida can be very trying. Those who live in this unexpectedly hostile environment are nodding right now while others think I’m spoiled and/or ridiculous. For the latter half, a few examples. Our drivers are notoriously some of the worst in the world, people who believe that turning on their cars simultaneously requires turning off their brains. For half the year, homeowners watch the Atlantic, either anxiously dreading the next big storm that could demolish their home or, more commonly, listening to the news anchors talk for days about a storm that will definitely hit…somewhere else.
Yet other days, South Florida is anything but trying. The paradise known as the Sunshine State never deserves this title more than when the clouds leave the cerulean sky. On days like this, the convertibles play. Las Olas Boulevard becomes populated with Continental GTs, Murciellagos, and, as was the case yesterday, a very special Nissan. Not a GT-R, Nismo, or even the Juke-R, but a stunning gray 370z.
Before you lose all respect for my knowledge of cars, just think about it for a second. The 2012 Nissan 370z is powered by a 3.7L V6 that puts out a whopping 332 horsepower! That’s 17 hp more than the Porsche Boxter S! The Z has a 53-47 front to rear weight ratio which makes it a fabulous natural track car. What’s most impressive about this little monster is how well it shifts. While I’m a purist, preferring manual to automatic, the 7-speed automatic gearbox inside the Z shifts faster and smoother than even Sir Stirling Moss could dream. The car never lurches; it merely sings a melody that only Zs can make. With four piston opposed aluminum front calipers as the front brakes, the car stops on a dime. The mileage averages about 25 mpg on for the highway if maintaining around 75 mph, not a dreadful number for a car claiming the category of “sports car.” In fact, the highway noise from the convertible top is hardly noticeable. While it isn’t silent, (the wheels can get a bit loud), the radio does not be turned too far above normal.
But what I like best about this car is that it doesn’t pretend. This is a sports car. It doesn’t have the faux back seats in which only a dwarf could fit. It doesn’t have a design that makes it look fast but an engine that can’t keep up. What it has to offer would get even Oscar the Grouch to put his trashcan up for sale because, in this car, he would find happiness. The 370z says its fast and, last November, proved it.
Once a year, magic happens. The embargo set up by my mother (if I race, she’ll leave my dad) lifts. But this token of kindness is not a track day extravaganza, where freedom and racing ring. Rather, it’s for an event known as Rides ‘N Smiles. Started back in 2008, this now annual adventure delivers exactly what the name promises: rides in spectacular cars which tend to make people smile. Except these are people, kids more specifically, who don’t have much to smile about. Very ill children, some terminal, from Baptist and Miami Children’s Hospitals come down to the Homestead Miami Speedway for a chance to forget they’re sick. Their families, doctors, nurses, and friends come with them to get to see something rare. When someone gets strapped into a Ferrari 458 Italia for the first time, they can’t help but to grin. Several parents have told me that this day was the first in a long time that their child has acted like a normal child.
This past November, quite the turn out of cars came to take the willing for rides. Companies such as Chevrolet (Camaro and ZR1), Mercedes Benz (SLK 350), Dodge (Challenger), Ford (Boss 302 Laguna Seca Edition), Porsche (Carrera GTS), Subaru (WRX), Lexus (ISF), and of course Nissan generously donate the use of their cars for the day for the benefit of these kids. Present also were the pace car Ford Mustang from the Speedway, and a Porsche Panamera from Champion Porsche. But those weren’t the only cars at the track. Private volunteers such as Bill Scherer, Tom Gonzales, and Doug Von Allman give up their rare day off to come down in a Ford GT, Corvette ZR1 and the aforementioned 458 Italia, and Audi R8 to burn out tires (and in one case a clutch) to make Rides ‘N Smiles a day the patients can never forget. On top of the cars that fly around the track, display cars with which the kids can take pictures were also present. This year, there was an Infiniti G35 (courtesy of the company), a Ferrari racecar brought down by Ferrari of Fort Lauderdale, an Aston Martin, and Ferrari California, owned by the man who choreographs the party in the pits, Chris Kavanaugh. But the car that stood out the most was the little innocuous Nissan 370z because it was the only car driven by a girl!
Every child who gets into a car will, later in the day, get a certificate saying they are in the 100 mph club, so as drivers, we have to get them there. A task easily accomplished behind the wheel of the Z. My first couple of rides, we took it easy. The kids adjusted to the g forces, the feeling of speed like they’d never before felt, and the music of the track while I got to know the car. The brakes on the Nissan were far more powerful than I’d expected. I found myself going much deeper into the corners than I had the year before in a Miata. The smooth steering did not fight me out of the corners either. The car obeyed without rebelling, and stuck to the lines I told it to. And the acceleration! Mind, it was nothing compared to the GT or ZR1 when getting out of the pits, but on the infield straights, the car shone. There were a couple of times I managed to get a better run off a corner and actually catch cars whose annual gas bills cost more than the Z! For a car that had absolutely nothing, zip, nada changed from the hour previously when it had been driving on the Turnpike, the 370z must have known it was at a race track because it’s attitude came to light! I could almost hear the little car purring; clearly it felt at home on track. Nissans and Infinitis typically have clutches that overheat when pushed. While the Z didn’t have this problem, a couple of times it started to smell hot so I brought it in. But again, this is a street car on a race track, so these types of instances are to be expected. After five minutes, though, the Nissan was begging to go back on track. And of course, I obliged.
By the end of the day, most of the patients and doctors have gone home. Everyone starts feeling tired after lunch and only the daring stick around. The afternoon session always turns into a track session. My car, despite being popular for the young girls, started to attract less and less of the brave boys and so I began taking some volunteers from the Homestead Air Force Base for rides. When it was about time to call an end to the day, I received a very shocking passenger: my mother. Now, my mom has had a back seat ride in an F-16, gone skydiving with the Army Golden Knights, been driven around more racetracks than she can remember. But nothing seems to terrify her quite as much as riding in a car (fast or slow) with me driving. No sooner had we pulled out of the pits than she yelled, “Slow down!” I laughed at her and replied, “Mom, this is a racetrack! This is where you go fast!” And proceeded to do so. Our lap had her laughing and screaming, while nervously clutching the door for her life. On the banking, I would have sworn she started to turn purple with anger. When the ride came to an end, I asked how she liked it. “Very nice,” she replied blandly. “But don’t get any ideas. One day is enough.”
To anyone else, this 2012 370z is ordinary. But to me, this car represents the happiest day of my year. The Nissan is the best street car I’ve ever driven on a race track. But it’s also one of the best street cars I’ve ever driven on the street! The week I had it to drive, I put down the top and took the long road to the grocery store every time. It’s a car that begs you to drive it, a car that penetrates even the most restful of dreams and turns them into fantasies about curvy roads. But unlike most cars that can’t live up to the performance in your imagination, the 370z exceeds all expectations.
Fun: Kitten with a ball of yarn
Cost: One Kidney
Seats: Good for quick trips, painful for long jaunts
Worth it: Hell yes!