by Pierre Martins
Time to get serious.
You get thinking drivers and you get zombies. The latter being those brain-dead fellas who’d circulate a track and learn nothing. You know, the ones who would do a hundred laps nonstop and still come in none the wiser.
I can tell you upfront, if you have any thoughts of ever getting behind the wheel of a sports prototype such as a Shelby Can-Am car, you’d better not be a zombie ‘cause this thing will bite your head off if you’re not paying attention. You’d have to be wide awake and sharp, a thinking driver with a fair amount of skill to be consistently quick in one of these things.
I’ve witnessed the top runners of the Shelby Can-Am series in action from trackside and from behind the wheel of my comparatively slow-poke Porsche 928 when they let these low-slung noisy-assed things run in the feature races of Porsche Challenge Unlimited, and I can vouch that there are quite a few Shelby Can-Am drivers with a good understanding of slip-angles and drift-style driving fractionally beyond the limits of traction.
Now, to get into that zone where car control becomes second nature at a pace that is slightly over the limit of traction, a few key elements must be in place. - You need experience to be able to dance with the car. That comes with track time. You also need a good understanding of the car you’re in, the tyres you’re on and the track you’re driving, so when I was asked to test a Shelby Can-Am for this article, I was naturally excited by the prospect of driving one of the fastest race cars in the country, but I was also a tad apprehensive knowing that I was short of some attributes needed to drive one of these things properly.
I take these track tests very seriously. They’re not joy rides, no sir. Every test is an opportunity to learn something new and gain experience, but every car also comes with a fair amount of responsibility. First and foremost, the car belongs to someone else, so I obviously don’t want to risk breaking or binning it. The objective is not to try and set impressive lap times, but at the same time I need get the thing up to a reasonable pace to get a feel for it so I can put the experience into words for the benefit of you, the reader…
Right, time to do a bit of homework! The Shelby Can-Am website provided technical specs and I got some valuable pointers from Stuart Mack, spanner guy for Revolution Racing and a pretty quick driver in his own right too. Basically what you have here is an 850kg space-frame car with 330hp and 410nm torque on tap, coupled to a 4-speed crash-box and a locked diff, double wishbones with adjustable anti-roll bars front and rear with locally made SAX shocks, coilovers and four-pod Willwood clamps on double vented discs, running on 13-inch-wide rear and 10-inch-wide front Good-Year full slicks. Pretty nifty package eh? Put two and two together, the thing should perform like an oversized kart…
Armed with that bit of wisdom I made my way to Zwartkops for the Wednesday afternoon test and got there an hour early to find the car already there, prepped and waiting. This particular car belongs to Craig Shorter from Execuline Underwriters, who are also the main sponsors of Shelby can-Am Racing in South Africa. It’s the same car that won the September Phakisa round in the capable hands of A1GP driver Wesleigh Orr and the weekend prior to our test it was raced at the October round at Zwartkops with Donavan Roscoe driving. One thing is certain – this is a very well-prepared and beautifully turned-out car, thanks to Peter Jacquet of DAW Racing. A neat and clean race car is something right up my alley. I was delighted.
Time to see if i fit into the thing…
The seating position is typical single seater-ish with the driver strapped down low in the car with eye-level about the same height as the top of the front fenders. Pedals are close together. A stubby short gear stick on the right, small clip-off steering and a AIM onboard system complete the cockpit which is fractionally wider than other single seaters I’ve driven.
Right, so there I was, strapped in and ready for action. With a quick prayer skywards - ‘Oh Lord, please don’t let me screw this up’ - I fired the thing up and rolled out of pit-lane and onto the track…
First impression – The exhaust note from the slightly tweaked Nissan 350Z V6 motor is irritatingly loud, I should have worn earplugs. And don’t get me wrong, I like a loud engine note, but this is not a nice sound. It’s more like a high-pitch scream that hurts the inside of your ears. Other than that the car felt good and I spent the first two laps getting used to the controls. Gearshifts are clutch-less, up and down through the 4-speed whining crash-box, but you have to be firm with the stick. Man, I love straight-cut gears! Brakes felt good and didn’t take long to warm up at all. I opted to left-foot brake. Just instinct, I guess. There is no need to heel and toe, even though the brake pedal is easily reachable with your right foot. All you do is forget about the clutch, brake with your left foot and blip the throttle on the down-change.
Time to step up the pace a notch or two and short-shift to 3rd for Turn one. The top runners really hoof it flat out through there, but I wasn’t gonna let the size of my cohunes get the better of my ability in a strange car, so I feathered the throttle a tad and got back on the power at the apex. In Turn two you need to drive it like a kart. Jump on the brakes, but get back on the throttle the instant you come off the brakes to break traction on the inside rear wheel, or the thing will under-steer on turn-in due to the solid rear axle dynamics. Exiting the hairpin, the car pulled hard and sweet, easy to drift to the outside curb.
For Zwartkops they run these cars with a longer pinion gear, so 1st gear is good for over 100km/h. The engine pulls nicely, but there is no point in revving it over 6500rpm in 1st and 2nd, and 6200rpm in 3rd. Be that as it may, the ratios felt too tall for Zwartkops. You can hook 4th down the back straight and use the torque to push you along, or you can just keep it in 3rd and let it rev through. I stayed on the gas in 3rd, till just after the 50m mark, dabbed the brakes and pitched it in, but it took me a few laps to build up enough confidence to get on the gas earlier and get the rear end loose through Turn 4. The car labours a bit during the climb up to the Table Top. I didn’t like that. Turn 5 and 6 is where you need to drive it with kart mentality again – Off the brakes early and hard back on the throttle to bring the ass around. The tall 1st gear works nicely here. You keep it in 1st all the way from Turn 5 to the exit of Turn 6, where you snatch 2nd as you change direction for the run down to the final corner. For Turn 8 it’s back to 1st on entry, hook 2nd as you come onto the pit straight and a short shift to 3rd as you start a new lap. I must say I enjoyed driving this car even though it’s not a piece of cake, and you have to be fit if you wanna last race distance in one of these things.
Donavan Roscoe did 1’04”s in the second heat at Zwartkops the weekend before. I managed low 1’07”s and dipped into the 1’06”s first time out, but that is not just of my own doing. The car is a good package and Peter Jacquet did a sterling job with the setup. It’s very neutral, predictable and easy to steer on the throttle. On the downside there are only two things I can fault – The unpleasant loud noise and the ratios for Zwartkops, but the rules control the gearing to keep costs in check and there’s nothing that can be done about that. I’m sure it’s much better at longer tracks. I’ve only done a few laps in the Execuline car, so I’m obviously no expert on Shelby Can-Am racing, but if I had to give advice to anyone thinking about getting into this series, I’d say this – I’ve raced 250 Superkarts, so it wasn’t a mountain to climb when it came to figuring the car’s handling out. A karting background will help you as a driver, but these cars are a challenge to drive properly and will take some getting used to, but the rewards will be humongous once you’ve cracked it.
Special thanks to Craig Shorter and Alan Eustice from Execuline for making your Shelby Can-Am available for this test and to Peter Jacquet for bringing the car to the track and answering all my dumb questions.