1956 Chevrolet Corvette - Driving Echidna

The All-American Solution

Paul Wilson May 1, 2004 0 Comment(s)

The straights, though, are what the Echidna was made for, and there I understood the magic of the Big Hammer approach to race-car design. "It's a very athletic car, powerful and quick," says Steve. "With instant throttle response and that gigantic sound blasting from the side pipes, it pulls hard, just leaps ahead, tearing away at the track in front, throwing track behind it. The higher it winds, the harder it pulls." It's addictive, no question. All but the longest straights are summarily dealt with. One quick BWAH! and you jump to the next corner. It doesn't matter what gear you're in; the engine gives all the power you can use, anywhere, anytime.

The limitation is you can't use it all, because the Echidna can get wheelspin at almost any speed in any gear. Driving most cars down the straight is simply a matter of holding the accelerator to the floor, shifting up when the tach says so, checking the gauges, and catching your breath. Not so in the Echidna. It's as if the engine speed is tied directly to the accelerator position; you want 5,000 rpm? Here's 5,000 rpm. If that's more than the tires can put on the road, you get a sudden big twitch that tells you those smoking rear tires aren't doing any more to hold the car straight than a pair of shopping-cart casters. Running up to redline is therefore counterproductive, because short-shifting at least gives you a better feel. And the engine is wonderfully flexible, pulling smoothly even at low revs.

It's not as if the wheelspin problem goes away at high speeds. I got one of those scary twitches in Fourth in the middle of VIR's back straight, when I pushed a little harder than I should have with my right foot. With this problem and the aerodynamic lift, I wondered, Could there exist a car that, when going perfectly straight at high speed, would simply lose touch with the road and spin before reaching its theoretical top speed? Could the Echidna, perhaps, be that car?

Luckily, the VIR back straight is truly straight, and has an uphill slope at the end to help the Echidna's weak drum brakes. There's no such comfort on the front straight. A kink at the start-finish line, which I'd never noticed before in other cars, became a heart-stopping bend that caused me to use all of the road. So much for my notion that the Echidna could humble the opposition without causing the driver stress or effort. I could feel my remaining hair turning white.

After a few laps, the Echidna didn't seem quite as dangerous as it had at first, though I'm sure it was. I gave up trying to place the car precisely at high speed, merely suggesting a general direction it might follow, which worked fine when the track ahead was empty. In traffic, I found myself hunching my shoulders, trying to become narrower. The F1 car passed me and braked at the No. 2 marker. Did I dare go deeper, from the 6 to the 5? A strong smell came from the overworked drums; they still slowed me in time, but only barely. At least I got better with my heel-and-toe downshifts, a big challenge because the brake pedal goes down an inch or more per session due to lining wear, so every lap the footwork had to be different. Eventually, my exhilaration overcame more sensible emotions, and I began burying that right pedal, exulting in that giant sound and huge thrust. On the cool-down lap I did burnouts, which got me laughing. I didn't want it to end.

All that high drama produced absurdly slow lap times, of course. But when I talked with Steve, I learned he'd already assessed the situation, both technically and philosophically. "To do better lap times," he explained, "the cars need to sit lower, with fairings and spoilers front and rear, vented engine compartments, wider wheels, fatter tires, and disc brakes. But then they wouldn't be Echidnas."

Brute horsepower, the gigantic blast from those huge side pipes, the sense of exuberant excess-these are some of the ingredients of the Echidna's appeal. "What else?" I asked Steve. "What do you love most about this car?"

"I'll attempt a response," he said, "but it may lack coherence as I feel a lot, all at once. Kinda like how the car handles.

"One hears in Europe generalizations that Americans are brash, rude, pushy, lacking in manners and grace. Well, for me, specials like the Echidna are a very American notion. Always the same theme: 'Let's find a monster motor, put a light body on it, and haul ass.' Mickey Thompson, Art Arfons, Ak Miller, Jim Hall, the Bocar, Scarab and Echidna, not to mention all the Old Yellers. Aren't they all distinctly American, all different, yet all the same? It's such an American notion that the little guy with no money has the same right to excel and win as the big guy. The specials are such equalizers. Old Yeller's whitewalls are so outrageous, so cheap, so American, so in your face ... you have to love them."


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