The idea for GM's Milford Road Course, located just outside of Detroit, was born shortly after engineer/testdriver Jim Mero returned from testing a Corvette at the Nürburgring in Germany. Mero informed John Heinricy, Corvette's assistant chief engineer at the time, that conquering the 'Ring required driving skills that many of his fellow product testers did not possess. Heinricy listened, then flew to Germany to see for himself. He agreed with Mero's assessment, and decided to enter a special school at the 'Ring that trained industry testdrivers like himself.
Heinricy completed the course in a factory Opel, then spent a few extra days learning the track in an '02 Z06. After returning from Germany, he assigned Vehicle Dynamics Technical Expert Wally Hall to create a similar driver-training program for GM. Meanwhile, a team of engineers, including Mero, was formed to design a test track on the company's vast Milford Proving Grounds complex. Team members studied a variety of motorsports circuits from around the world and incorporated some of their signature features into the new track's design.
After careful consideration, the team decided to build the course on the site of Milford's existing 1.9-mile oval test track. The 200-acre area included elevation changes, which would be beneficial for testing driver and vehicle limits.
The 2.9-mile, 18-turn Milford Road Course (MRC) opened in 2003. Once Heinricy and Mero approved Hall's program, a small fleet of rollcage-equipped C5 Z06s was assembled for use in driver training and evaluation. The program issues three levels of certification, and a driver must pass each one must before attempting the next level. Retesting is an ongoing process, to keep drivers' skills at their peak. Only 25 GM employees are certified at Level 3, which clears them to test at the Nürburgring.
The MRC is also used to evaluate competitors' products during the development of new GM models. The company purchases cars from Audi, Ferrari, Dodge, Porsche, BMW, and other brands to benchmark their performance and use that data when formulating new designs. It's a laborious process, but it's paid big dividends for Corvette owners: Today's C6 is a docile ride that can shuttle you to the store or hurtle you down the Autobahn at 190-plus mph. It is truly a world beater.
Team VETTE was recently invited to take a few hot laps around the MRC with Mero at the wheel. In addition to his role as a GM tester, Mero has piloted a '12 ZR1 around the 12.9- Nürburgring Nordschleife ("North Course") in 7:19.6 seconds, driven stock cars in competition, and even piloted a Doug Rippie--modified ZR-1 in the 1995 24 Hours of Le Mans.
After arriving at the Milford facility's main gate, we boarded a bus that ferried us to the MRC paddock. There we found Mero, leaning against the carbon fender of a Cyber Gray '12 ZR1. The car was fitted with two Sparco racing seats with six-point harnesses; a steel harness bar mounted behind the seats held the belts in place. This otherwise-stock Corvette recently set a production-car lap record at Virginia International Raceway with Mero behind the wheel.
As we headed out onto the main straightaway, Mero warmed up the Michelin Pilot Sport Cup tires by weaving back and forth to put some heat in the rubber. We did one lap at a moderate pace while he explained the track layout. Once satisfied that the tires were heated, he turned up the wick.
Turn 1 is a decreasing-radius right-hand corner that requires hard braking to bleed off the 160-plus-mph approach speeds seen in a ZR1. Next, we fired uphill through the low-speed esses that start at Turn 2 and end at Turn 5. Turn 6 mimics the famous banked Karussell at the Nürburgring, right down to the washboard track surface. Known informally as "The Toilet Bowl," this corner is very jarring for both the passengers and the car.
After exiting Turn 6, we swept quickly through the high-speed left- and righthand corners that lead to Turn 11. This corner feeds onto MRC's outer loop for a quick squirt up to 140 mph. Mero then braked hard to sweep through the high-speed esses that make up Turns 12 through 15. Turns 16 and 17 are slow sweepers that exit onto Turn 18, which climbs just before the apex and ends on the pit straight. It was here that we saw 165 mph on the ZR1's speedo.
Before we had time to catch our breath, Mero was once again diving into Turn 1, hard on the brakes. Corvette development is a never-ending process, after all, and there's always another lap to run.
To see a video of our ZR1 ride at MRC, visit www.vetteweb.com.