Her Name Is Lola: An Amateur Racecar for One-Percenters

Lola racecar
Photo by Steve Hall for CNBC.com
Lola racecar

It doesn’t look like a weekend hacker’s ride — or drive like one. The super-charged, 300 horsepower, open-cockpit Caterham Lola SP/300R sprints from zero to 60 in a head-snapping 2.6 seconds and is capable of a top speed of 180 miles per hour.

Yet the Lola, a new “track day” car built by the British company Caterham, is specifically designed for the nonprofessional road racer — one who has $125,000 to spend on weekend fun.

The Lola, which will be introduced to the U.S. this week by Dyson Racing of Poughkeepsie, N.Y., represents a leap forward for amateur racing. The sport began in earnest on these shores after World War II, when returning GIs competed on local tracks and empty airfields in inexpensive sports cars like MGs, Alpines, and Austin-Healeys. Since then, lap times have gotten faster, and the price tag for a car has grown steeper.

In the early days, the simple rule was, “show and go,” or “run what ya brung”: competitors drove their street cars to the track, raced, and then drove home in the same car. Those primitive competitions are rarer now, as sportsmen have increasingly poured more time, and bigger bucks, into home-grown, race-specific cars that they trailer to events.

"It may look and feel intimidating ... but the Lola offers more margin for error and is more forgiving than the big GTs." -professional driver, Dyson Racing, Guy Smith

The Sports Car Club of America’s popular GT (for Grand Touring) division is a competition among upscale street cars — Ferraris, BMWs, and Porsches, tricked out with modified engines, suspensions, wheels, and fierce, go-faster paint jobs.

Two years ago, Chris Dyson began to see a potential market for the GT competitor looking to upgrade his thrill quotient. Dyson also wanted to lure the well-heeled wannabe competitor. Most of all, he aimed to produce a turn-key product that would be easy to maintain — “show and go” for the 21st century.

What he came up with is a scaled-down version of the cars professionals drive in the American Le Mans Series, the endurance racing circuit founded in 1999 that mirrors Europe’s vaunted 24 Hours of Le Mans.

Hand-built from the wheels up explicitly for the track, Dyson's car employs the most up-to-date aerodynamics and an on-board computer that gathers data to measure the car’s performance. It also incorporates modern safety features, including a strong, lightweight chassis and a five-point driver’s harness.

“This car, more than any other out there, is a true race car,” says Chris Dyson, the company’s vice president and sporting director and a veteran endurance champion. “It has an ease of operation you won’t find elsewhere, for either the experienced racer or the person just starting out.”

The car’s builders say that, like any race car, the Caterham Lola takes a little time to master. Dyson suggests that inexperienced drivers put in some hours at a performance-driving school to learn such basic skills as cornering, braking, and road handling.

“The aerodynamics make the Caterham Lola very grippy,” says Guy Smith, a past winner of the Le Mans 24 hour race and the Dyson driver who helped develop the new racer. “The faster you go, the harder it sticks to the road surface because the down force is so great. It takes some getting used to.”

Smith insists, however, that drivers used to competing in GT cars will actually find the Lola easier to drive. “It may look and feel intimidating — the driving position, the way you’re strapped in — but the Lola offers more margin for error and is more forgiving than the big GTs,” he says. “It’s steady at both low and high speeds.”

Dyson racing will begin introducing the Caterham Lola to small groups of potential customers at the Monticello Motor Club in upstate New York, a private auto racetrack, when the first cars arrive April 24. Buyers can choose from a menu of options including regular maintenance, vehicle transport, trackside support and driver coaching.

So far, the company made one pre-production sale, but they declined to let us interview him for this article. Maybe his wife doesn't know.