Saleen 1 Cup Car Track Drive: Experiencing the Newest One-Make Racing Series

“Let’s go to K1 Speed!” somebody says. I wince. A 40-year career of road testing doesn’t leave you many excuses for second place. But there I am, an hour later in a wheel-to-wheel dogfight with a random 15-year-old kid, trading fastest lap punches.

A single K1 race like that costs $22.95. And like munching a single Lay’s potato chip, it triggers a chain-reaction race-repeat-race reflex that’ll only end with a call from the bank asking what’s going on.

Now, scale up this very same addictive K1 Speed recipe—identically race-prepped cars you can amble up to, climb in, drive like crazy, then stroll away from without doing any of the dirty work—and you have the Saleen Cup Racing Series. The season is 14 races over even weekends at iconic tracks like Watkins Glen, COTA, and Road America. You’ll need to comb $300,000 from the sofa cushions, but you’re not racing 15-year-olds. Minimum age is 18.

Recently, the Saleen team invited a few of us out to Thermal Club near the Coachella Valley concert moonscape to sample the car, the Saleen 1.

Sure, I said, but I had two reservations. One: All I know about that track is once seeing a blueprint of it. And two: We’ll get to that.

Right now I’m trying to wriggle into the Saleen 1 Cup Car through its monkey-bar safety cage. I pop through, plop down, and look around; it certainly looks its racing car part. Disembodied hands are reaching in, cinching my belts tight. I huff an unintentional exhale from the final yanks, as I’m virtually painted into the racing seat.

The Saleen’s stark, sheet aluminum interior looks like the Lunar Excursion Module. Steve Saleen—of Mustang-modification fame—is standing outside, watching. We’re looking at each other, both probably thinking the same thing: Well, he’s older; salt-and-pepper and wrinkles now. We haven’t seen each other since the late 1980s, back when we sometimes bickered. He grins a boyish smile as I flip a switch and push the starter. Time beaches bruised egos. I’m actually happy to see him.

Driving the Saleen 1 Cup Car on Track

There’s a sudden, loud thrumming behind me from the car’s mid-engine, 450-hp, 2.2-liter, turbocharged inline-four. What’s this engine’s origin? Saleen is a bit opaque, but I’m told its DNA traces back to Ford, though it’s now an in-house thing. The rest of the car descends from a defunct, Lotus Evora—like sports car called the Artega GT; its carbon-fiber body shape was originally drawn by none other than Henrik Fisker.

The engine is small on displacement and big on turbo, meaning it needs a lot of revs and clutch-slipping to get out of the pits. I undershoot both, and—poof—stall it before I can get the wheels turning. Restarting with a couple of whaa-whaa-whaas, I get away with way too many of both, but I get away. The clutch isn’t needed after that. You just paddle shift.

Through the first couple of left corners, I’m nervously glancing toward the side mirror. It’s partially blocked by the roll cage, making the turn-in into left corners total guesswork (once misjudging and locking up), but I still touch 1.4 g’s at 73 mph in one of the faster ones. My rear view is via a video stream displayed on a central screen—critical, because this is an open track day with no passing in the corners and holding your line if somebody’s approaching. On the pit straight, the screen is washed out by the sun. But when my trajectory changes a few degrees—just enough to de-sheen the screen—suddenly there’s the nose of a Porsche 911 GT3. It goes by on my right.































Finger tugging the left-side aluminum shift paddle behind the steering wheel rim detonates another sharp jolt against my racing seat. That’s top gear—sixth. But my right foot mutinies on the next throttle stamp.

Far down the track ahead—looking very tiny—are the sequence of brake markers. On the asphalt next to them are black spaghetti streaks where other cars have locked up and lost control. This car has no ABS. And my eyes are straining. Here’s that second reservation I mentioned earlier.

Nearly two years ago, my right eye’s retina suddenly detached, and the operations to repair it included burning the back of my eye so scarring would reattach it, while replacing the gel in my eye (yes, I just said that), inserting a plastic lens due to a cataract, and later laser-punching a hole behind it. Looking though my new bionic contraption, I can read those approaching brake countdown numbers. But the trust isn’t there for judging how fast they’re approaching. The foot goes down again for another laggy whoosh forward, but at 120 mph, I start braking sooner than I could have.

Often, before a young editor sets off on their first big press trip, I offer three pieces of elder statesman advise: I repeat “Don’t crash” three times—slowly and deliberately. Nobody cares about your lap time. I pull in to pit lane and shut off the engine. Steve encourages me to go out for a third session. But I’m fine, thanks. I take a sip of Coke and look around.

This is a helluva place. Thermal is a Riviera Country Club for road racing, where your driver isn’t a Big Bertha but a Bugatti or a Pagani. The neatly uniformed car caddies are professional and polite, and the restaurant’s menu looks delightful. The world of $300,000, Gulfstream-in racing series in Steve’s cars (at $45K per race, if you choose) is a 1-percenter dream. Of course, everybody is really nice. If your life’s in the miraculous sweet spot of young wealth before things like your eyesight falter, heck, go for it.

But I felt like a fraud—a member of the Parasite underclass Kim family masquerading in the elite Park family’s trophy home. What I’ve learned here is that my someday-racing would be in hot-dog-eating, T-shirt-wearing karting instead. In the meantime, I wouldn’t mind finding that irritating 15-year-old for a K1 rematch.

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