Tim Suddard Publisher
Aug. 6, 2015 3:07 p.m.

Sliding behind the wheel of this low-slung, wide-open roadster is like stepping into an episode of “Speed Racer.” This thing seems more like a space ship than a sports car. Given a chance to go all out on the long course at legendary Sebring Raceway, I instantly realize that today is going to be different.

I can hop over the low doors. Rules most likely required them, since they’re as superfluous as teats on a bull.

Inside, the car is low, wide and easy for even a big guy to fit in. That said, even after removing the owner’s customized seat and sitting on the floor, my head is above the windshield. Presumably with a real seat fitted to my 6-foot, 250-pound frame, I’d be in a more laid-back driving position.

The tiny steering wheel can’t be more than 12 inches in diameter and looks like it’s from a gokart, not one of the most famous race cars ever built.

Oddly enough, despite all the differences from an average production car, the Smiths gauges look like they could be out of an MG or Triumph. Only the Stack tachometer looks out of place on the kit-car-looking fiberglass dashboard.

In fact, the whole effect of the interior is more kit car than production car. The fit, finish and design of most of the components quickly confirms the car’s hand-built origins.

The controls fall readily to hand–and foot. With racing shoes, at least, I have no issues with pedal size or placement.

The Lola is right-hand drive, but the shifter–a spindly steel-andaluminum affair–is positioned up and to my right. It seems almost too delicate to force this monster around a race track.

I flick the fuel pump and ignition to their “on” positions and hit the rubber-covered starter button. The kit-car looks of the Lola T70 vaporize, only to be replaced by the ear-shattering sound of an unmuffled, highly modified Cobra V8 engine.

“Do you have earplugs?” I hear someone yell. One blip of the throttle, and I quickly realize they’re a necessity if I want to spend any amount of time with this kind of power and noise directly behind my head.

With earplugs in place, I test the brakes and clutch. They’re extremely stiff. This car is not going to drive like a minivan.

I warm the engine and the Webers suck like eight shop vacs over my shoulder. The steering is also stiff. Wasn’t power steering invented in 1965? Sure, the wheel is small, but I’d expect a midengined car that weighs less than 2000 pounds to have very light steering. That’s not the case here.

I pull out of the pits, and despite the open cockpit, my HANS Device makes it tough to look left and right. I now learn that the steering, in addition to being dump-truck heavy, will only turn the car a small amount.

The gearing is so high that even in first gear I can’t do less than 20 to 25 mph and keep it running. This car is designed for only one thing, and it isn’t being comfortable or tooling around the paddock. Owner Brian Johnson had warned me that this thing was an evil son of a bitch to drive. He was right.

I had been warned about the shifting, too. Can-Am car driver Preston Ferrell told me I had two choices: Either shift it like I stole it, or double-clutch it and hope for the best.

Out on track I realize what he was talking about. I miss my first shift and have trouble getting any gear. I try double-clutching and that works better. As the four-speed transaxle warms up and I get used to it, shifting starts to feel easier.

So what kind of power does this thing have?

I start to run it up to about 5000 rpm in second. First the Webers clear, and then–holy E36 M3–all hell breaks loose. This thing pulls like a freight train. I’ve driven some quick cars in my day, and despite the big-track gearing, this thing rushes to redline so fast it nearly makes my head implode.

I test the brakes coming into Turn 1 and they are good. Despite the hard pedal effort, the cold brakes are rather confidence-inspiring. This thing may be old, but it’s apparent that it’s a real race car and not a mere converted street car.

I’ve been warned that bad, bad things can happen very, very quickly when this car is on cold tires. Guess what? That message comes through loud and clear right about now.

As the big Avon slicks warm up, I begin to explore the handling limits. Are there any limits? The chassis doesn’t seem to care how fast I pitch it through the esses or out of the hairpin. Not wanting to be the guy who crashes Brian Johnson’s half-million-dollar race car keeps me in check.

Still, I get more comfortable with every lap. By lap three, I really hammer down on Sebring’s legendary back straight. In a Miata or my TR3, I could do this while filing my nails, waving to the spectators, and contemplating where I’m going for dinner.

In a Lola T70 at well north of 160 mph, I barely have time to check the gauges. My helmet vibrates in the airflow and all I can hear is the sweet, sweet howl of that Cobra V8. Life is good. I drink it in. This could go on forever.

Suddenly comes the realization that Turn 17 is upon me and I have to figure out how to slow a car that’s traveling nearly 180 mph– some 50 mph hour more than most any small-bore production car can muster–to safely navigate this famous, relatively slow corner.

Surprisingly the brakes are up to the task. I shift smoothly into third, brace my neck muscles, and make the turn onto the front straight with remarkably little drama.

I get a few more laps to dial in this car. And then the most exciting drive of my life is over. As a lifelong small-block-Ford guy, I’m filled with euphoria.

I’m also filled with relief. This is the fastest I have ever gone in a race car. I lived, I loved, and I didn’t hurt myself or this amazing piece of racing history.

So this is the life of a rock star. Sign me up.

Read the rest of the story

nderwater PowerDork
Aug. 6, 2015 3:49 p.m.

Everything about this is fantastic. A+

Spitsix HalfDork
Aug. 6, 2015 8:08 p.m.

I know of a guy that builds them new.

gjz30075 Reader
Aug. 7, 2015 6:16 a.m.

Thanks for that, Tim. Written for the 'everyman' who will most likely never experience this type of car.

Tim Suddard Publisher
Aug. 7, 2015 7:27 a.m.

I try real hard to put you guys behind the wheel. Driving for my enjoyment does you no good, but hopefully my stories like the Lola one do.

Man the sacrifice I make for you guys. I will most likely be sainted after my death.

I am looking for more drives like this in street or race cars for 2016

racerdave600 SuperDork
Aug. 7, 2015 10:54 a.m.

T70's are also one of the best looking race cars ever built too, in my opinion. Good to know the drive lives up to its looks!

tuna55 MegaDork
Aug. 7, 2015 11:27 a.m.

Wow, nice writing. I want to try that now. The writing style reminds me of a story about driving a nitro altered (that I can't find now). Wish I could do it (either one).

Tom1200
Tom1200 Reader
Aug. 7, 2015 9:33 p.m.

Tim I read that article with great interest as it conveyed what I try to tell people; once you get past a certain level, and the Lola is well past that level, these cars are not "fun". What they are is biggest adrenaline rush on wheels you could ever experience and something you better treat very serious. You also did a great job conveying the closing speeds / how quickly scenery arrived.

Tom

Tim Suddard Publisher
Aug. 8, 2015 12:15 a.m.

Tom, thanks. It is nice to get feedback, as we try so hard to figure out what readers want.

erohslc Dork
Aug. 9, 2015 3:35 p.m.

Way back in the day (1971?), a T70 was campaigned at Miami-Hollywood Speedway, a tight little 1.5 mile track consisting of a dragstrip, return road with a couple of esses, and two connecting turns. The T70 was obsolete even then, but it was still heady and exciting to be in the same pit and on the same track during events.

Tim Suddard Publisher
Aug. 12, 2015 12:34 a.m.

erohslc

Cool story. It is funny how many cars were run long after they were competitive.

t25torx HalfDork
Aug. 12, 2015 9:29 a.m.

I need moar pics! Excellent writing.

shadetree30 Reader
Sept. 6, 2015 9:10 a.m.

You drive in the tire tracks of John Surtees.

'Nuff said...

Sept. 6, 2015 9:44 a.m.

I really enjoyed this article. Now if Brian Johnson could write an essay about what it's like watching some guy drive his half-million-dollar racecar around Sebring at 180 mph.

Tim Suddard Publisher
Sept. 6, 2015 3:39 p.m.

Brian didn't write that essay, but he has written a very funny car book that I am currently reading. And thanks guys for the complements on my writing. We have more of these types of stories planned including one on a Lister Tiger and a very fast Boss 302 Mustang.

Sept. 8, 2015 12:08 a.m.

Would that be "Rockers & Rollers?"

Tim Suddard Publisher
Sept. 8, 2015 1:19 a.m.

Yes, I believe that is the title

beaglevt
beaglevt New Reader
Oct. 1, 2015 7:36 p.m.

I have an acquaintance in St. Augustine who drives a coupe (street legal), and takes it to track days occasionally. It helps to have no inspection for a Florida registration. He tells me the turning radius is such that he has to floor it and do a donut to turn around in his restaurant parking lot (O(outa) C(control) White's)! What a car these are! :

PaulW
PaulW New Reader
Nov. 5, 2016 7:47 a.m.

If that T70 has nasty handling, there's something seriously out of whack. It's always been known as the sweetest-handling of all the classic Can-Am cars. Surtees developed it for "customers," by which he meant less-than-genius race drivers who could win by just having a lot of power and not making any mistakes. It's got a stiff chassis, good aerodynamics, ideal weight distribution and suspension geometry. Set up right, it should handle like mine: mild understeer, with the rear moving out if you lift. Adding power tends to plant the rear and add to the understeer. It's all predictable and progressive, assuming you don’t do anything stupid.

It sounds as if Johnson’s T70 needs some chassis tuning. Get out your Carroll Smith books to see what this is all about. It’s complicated. When I got mine on the track after restoring it, it understeered like an old Buick. It took me two years of development to get it right. I optimized the tire pressures by measuring inside and outside temperatures.  I added some rear toe-in for stability, stiffened the rear bar, modified the caster, raised the rear ride height, finally hugely increased the rear spring rate to increase the rear roll stiffness. Finally it got to the point where I could fine-tune it with the bars.

A T70 should feel stable and reassuring, and that power is great fun. On most tracks, though, I could do a better lap time in a Sports 2000 than in mine. The T70, in correct original spec, is a heavy, half-century-old race car, with long braking distances and limited grip. Nearly all you see now (but not Johnson’s) are replicas made in Florida, that have 2-300 hp more than they had when new, and stickier tires. They go much faster, but they’re not the real thing.
Tim Suddard Publisher
Nov. 5, 2016 8:09 a.m.

PaulW, Interesting point. As I haven't driven more than one of these amazing cars, I am not sure what others are like. I know that Sebring is a particularly tough and bumpy track and that Heritage Motorsports, one of the best race shops in the country preps the car. These guys also run the Rolex 24 at Daytona in Prototypes, so I assume they know Carroll Smith's excellent book by heart.

fasted58 UltimaDork
Nov. 5, 2016 8:26 a.m.

Needs hotlink pic for better effect.

6pak72 New Reader
Nov. 5, 2016 9:20 a.m.

This summer I had a similar experience. I'm a DE instructor and our club, COMSCC, headed to Mosport for a Time Trial weekend.

I'd never driven CTMSP, and finished second place .5 behind the class winner- not bad for under 4 hours on track. But...I drive a Miata. I too, read "War and Peace" on the straights.

My student's 911 GT3RS Twin Turbo was a bit different...I wish I had the presence of mind to have video'd the day, but I was too busy prayng to anything I could think of.

There's something primal about leaving the bottom of the hill at 45mph, and entering the braking zone at the top of the Sam Posey straight at 167mph...yes, that's off his AIM data. And he was complaining that the day before he had done 171 and wondered if his tires were going off...

It was impressive as hell. Thank God he was a great driver - I solo'd him after the first few runs and he proceeded to eat up everything else on the track.

Too much fun.

kman91
kman91 None
Jan. 8, 2018 8:21 a.m.

When I was a teen (back in 1988) I built and drove a '68 Mustang (and still have it).  My father hadn't been into cars since his youth and didn't really understand my obsession with them, but he knew I liked them and told me his neighbor had a "race car".  I responded with a muted eyebrow raise.  "It's probably some junky Nova drag racing car." I thought.

The next time I drove past his neighbor, I looked into the lit garage.  Sitting there under flourescent lights was a swoopy fiberglass dream, not yet finished, but obviously beautiful.  I had never seen a car like that up close.  I nearly drove into the ditch on the turn up ahead because I was still looking at that car.

Next time I had a chance, I walked over to the neighbor.  I had never met him before, and thought about how weird it might be to someone (with a big yard) to walk near his garage (his personal space) unannounced, but he welcomed me and showed me his T70 Lola!  He said it had raced in several famous races, once with Dan Hill (IIRC).

Over the next few years I got to know him and his beautiful car, and even a little of his remarkable original Cooper Mini that was roughly the size of my lawn mower.  He said it had been an open cockpit racer and he had converted it to a closed cockpit.  It looked so much cooler (IMHO) as a closed cockpit, so much like the Can Am Porsches of the day (from my slot car set!).  It was so beautiful, even in primer grey.  Those magnesium wheels were cool as well.

He said he was building it for his retirement.  I couldn't believe he wasn't going to drive it, just once (?!).  He moved away long ago, and I bet he got his retirement!

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