John Heinricy is Director of High Performance Vehicle Operations for the GM Performance Division. He also happens to be a championship-winning Corvette driver. I met John at Morrison Motorsports in the early '90s, and we have remained friends ever since. Another racing friend, Ernst Woehr, is Director of Callaway Competition in Leingarten, Germany. Last year, Ernst invited John to drive two FIA GT3 races in one of his Z06-R Corvette race cars. The two asked me to tag along as well, and I gladly accepted.
On the first trip, John and I were provided with an '06 automatic coupe to use as daily transportation. Our second trip required a little more coordination, as John was arriving in Amsterdam, while my son Tyler and I were coming in to Frankfurt. John used the same C6 automatic as before, but I was handed the keys to a Machine Silver Z06. The car was equipped with the factory navigation system, which would prove to be a lifesaver during our sojourn in unfamiliar territory.
Germany's Autobahn is legendary for its high-speed access routes. But contrary to popular belief, many sections of the road are speed-controlled, especially in congested areas. As a result, you quickly learn to make the transition from driving at the 130 kph (just under 81 mph) limit to having no speed restrictions at all.
Driving a standard Corvette on the Autobahn is an exhilarating experience, but piloting a Z06 there is indescribable. You learn to live in the fast lane, where the Z has no trouble keeping up with traffic. The car is very comfortable cruising at 200 kph (around 124 mph), and it is always ready for bursts well above that, if needed. I left the Z06 in Fifth gear during most of my drive; the torquey LS7 rarely requiring a downshift.
Even aside from its reputation as a high-speed playground, the Autobahn has much to recommend to the motoring enthusiast. The road boasts frequent rest stops that include convenience stores offering gas, food, and clean (yes, clean!) restrooms. And in spite of the heady velocities that predominate, we saw no accidents during our two trips. Unlike in America, where left-lane laggards are a constant problem, Autobahn drivers immediately pull to the right when approached by faster traffic. Passing motorists always use their left blinker, which helps warn you of their intentions. In short, Autobahners are, for the most part, very competent and courteous.
Our driving habits changed when we reached the Belgian border. Belgium has very strict speed limits (130 kph), which are enforced with radar-operated photo guns. We learned to slow down whenever we saw brake lights ahead. Another clue is the photo units' bright flashing strobe lights, which can be seen far down the road in front of you. The flash helps capture the front license number, the driver's face, the date of the infraction, and the recorded speed. The ticket is then mailed to you. Fortunately, I did not receive any of these unwelcome souvenirs.
Our first destination was Antwerp, a busy seaport city with wonderful restaurants and impressive architecture. We met John and caravanned to the Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps, located in the heart of Belgium. The nearly 7-kilometer track is one of the most beautiful and challenging in the world, with legendary corners such as Eau Rouge. Circuit de Spa is also one of the oldest sports-car tracks in Europe. Races have been held here regularly since 1924, except during World War II.
The 24 Hours of Spa is one of the highlights of the FIA GT Championship. The Royal Automobile Club of Belgium (RAC) sponsors a 50-kilometer pre-race road rally from a nearby castle to the track. We were invited to attend an RAC breakfast prior to the start of the rally. A dazzling lineup of high-end exotic cars was on display, and our Z06 fit right in. Later, back at the track, Heinricy and Jurgen von Gartzen finished Third overall in the first of two one-hour GT3 races. After the race, we traveled to the nearby city of Bastogne, site of the Battle of the Bulge and home to a museum honoring the American soldiers who fought there.
We then headed back to Frankfurt, still amazed at the cost to fill up the Z06's fuel tank. With prices at 1.58 Euros ($2.02 US) per liter, we were paying around $7.07 per gallon of gasoline. Fortunately for us, the Z returned excellent fuel-mileage numbers throughout our trip.
On our flight home, we had time to reflect on our two-week visit with the silver Z. It is a thrilling Vette under any conditions, and driving it without speed restrictions made me appreciate its engineering excellence even more. If you ever have the chance to experience Europe in a new Z06, take it. It's something you'll never forget.