Payne: Full throttle on M1’s new track

Henry Payne
The Detroit News
Detroit News auto critic Henry Payne drives a Dodge Viper ACR, Wednesday July 6, 2016, at the newly constructed M1 Concourse track in Pontiac. (Steve Perez/ The Detroit News)

Pontiac– I explode out of Turn 7 at M1 Concourse‘s new Champion Motor Speedway and crest the blind Turn 8, feeding the hungry Dodge Viper ACR’s V-10 more gas. With 2,000 pounds of downforce from its huge rear wing and the front dive-planes pressing down on its chassis, the Viper barely notices the rise in the track as the engine howls past 6,000 rpm in second gear.

Who says racing on Woodward isn’t legal?

Welcome to a lap around Detroit’s newest racetrack, a stone’s throw from Woodward. Champion Motor Speedway is the latest addition to M1’s sprawling 87-acre car-enthusiasts’ amusement park. At 11/2 miles long with a 1/3-mile back straight and a variety of corners it’s not only a hoot but a rarity: A car track located smack in the middle of a major metropolitan area.

The Detroit News got exclusive first access to the 10-turn track to shoot video, pull Gs and flog the stuffing out of a Viper and Hellcat – two of M1’s six Dodge performance cars to be used for racing schools and as pace cars. Car clubs have blossomed around the United States in recent years, and I have raced most them from the legendary uphill esses of Virginia International Raceway to the flat sweepers of Autobahn, Illinois, to the serpentine switchbacks of Thermal Raceway in Palm Springs.

But no track is quite like Champion.

Racetracks are usually social outcasts fraught with noise issues and banished to far-flung rural areas. Even legendary Lime Rock Park in rural Connecticut is saddled with noise restrictions and a ban on Sunday racing. Yet, here is M1 beating in the heart of Pontiac. What’s next, a military firing range? But locals, says founder and CEO Brad Oleshansky, have been welcoming.

“We have neighbors come by and go: ‘Wow, it’s noisy! It’s awesome! It’s been dead for all these years!’” he says, laughing.

It’s a sign Pontiac is coming back to life. Combined with 250 car condos, retail shops and restaurants, M1’s track not only promises great racing but revitalization of a lost city. Beginning this August, M1 – along with sponsor Dodge – will define the Dream Cruise’s northern boundary like Ferndale and Mustang Alley define the south end.

Not bad for a development that originally didn’t include a racetrack.

A motorhead who grew up cruising Woodward in a ’55 Chevy and a Toyota Supra, Oleshansky envisioned the property as a man-cave haven for Woodward cruisers. San Jose has one. Minneapolis, too. But as the entrepreneur talked to Detroit car companies about corporate opportunities, they kept asking about a track: For testing, training, marketing. For convenience. No schlepping to GingerMan in South Haven or Grattan in Grand Rapids to test. And the facilities would be state-of-the-art compared to the more rustic Waterford Hills Raceway in Clarkston.

Suddenly, M1’s value multiplied beyond collectors to speed-addled track rats like me. Oleshansky hired Martyn Thake, an experienced designer of urban track venues like Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the Mexican Grand Prix. The M1 track was born.

As a good neighbor, however, Oleshansky laid down some rules. Pontiac has not put decibel restrictions on Champion, and he wants to keep it that way. Cars must be equipped with street-legal exhausts.

“We’re self-managing here. We only allow street-legal vehicles,” Oleshansky says. “And we have the benefit of a few things. We’re not doing racing here. There’s a train that goes by that’s crazy loud every hour. There was a factory here for 100 years that was way louder.”

Thirty-feet wide with 10 turns, Champion is the perfect place to exercise a fast toy like the Viper ACR. I thought testing Dodge’s track weapon at M1 would be like a hurricane in a living room – not enough space.

But Lime Rock and Waterford also are 11/2-mile tracks. Sure, Champion’s tight Turn 1-2 complex and Turn 6 hairpin are slower than anything you’ll find at those courses, but the asphalt in between really let me stretch the snake’s legs (an oxymoron, I know). I stomped the throttle out of Turn 6 and I hit 110 mph before the end of the back straight (track test director and ex-Indy Lights racer Aaron Bambach has seen 125 mph). Then it really gets fun with the roller-coaster 7-8 complex followed by a 90-degree left-hander.

The Viper’s huge 15.4-inch brake rotors hauled the beast back to earth, pulling my eyeballs from their sockets. Long radius, neck-straining Turns 10a and 10b follow, where I explored the Dodge’s 1.5-plus lateral g-capabilities.

Detroit News auto critic Henry Payne drives a Dodge Viper ACR, Wednesday July 6, 2016, as he follows M1 Concourse's Aaron Bambach in a red Dodge Viper at the newly constructed M1 Concourse track in Pontiac. (Steve Perez/ The Detroit News)

For more technical car testing, M1 offers a full skid pad – a huge patch of asphalt also suitable for events (like Ribfest last weekend), autocrossing or doing tire-smoking donuts (lookin’ at you, Hellcat).

The M1 track has only been open a couple weeks. It still needs proper corner apex and exit curbing, and grass to grow up to its edge. With the dry conditions this summer, Champion was dirty with dust, limiting grip. I still laid down a track lap record of 1.19 seconds in the ACR – the standard only because Bambach, who finished third in this year’s Belle Isle Super Truck race, hasn’t bothered to record his times. Your move, Aaron.

M1’s modern track facilities are a local jewel. M1 will offer its condo members six to seven hours of track time a week. The public will be welcome, too. Bambach says Open Track Sundays – twice a month – already are planned.

Ask for a ride in the snake.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne.