The Ludicrously Fast Riley MkXXII

My outfit is fire retardant: suit, gloves, lace-up shoes and full-face helmet. I’m ready to charge into a burning building — or take a few laps in a $275,000 racecar.

Standing in front of a 650-horsepower rocket on wheels from Riley Technologies LLC, I haven’t even crammed myself into the tiny cockpit. Already my heart is yammering.

For good reason. The MkXXII Track Day Car, as it’s officially called, is not legal on streets. With a hood that angles to a sharp lip and a rear wing that rises into the air like a cell-phone tower, it is designed for the race track.

I’m at the Monticello Motor Club. A team of Riley technicians has removed the back panel off the car to make some mechanical adjustments to the engine, under the watch of the company’s president Bill Riley.

"We have an 80 percent winning record at Daytona," Riley tells me. The Mooresville, North Carolina-based company builds race cars, including the Daytona Prototypes that compete in the 24 Hours of Daytona endurance race. Several teams in the Rolex Sports Car Series prefer Rileys, with each choosing their own engine.

The MkXXII Track Day Car is a slightly less potent version — an expensive training tool for the wealthy amateur who hopes to go to the next level. These "gentlemen racers" often create their own racing teams, hiring pro drivers with whom they share driving duties during endurance races.

Le Mans Next

That concept is rare in the world of sport. Imagine playing doubles with Roger Federer at Wimbledon. Riley taps the wing of the MkXXII. "This is the car when you really want to get serious and prepare for racing at Le Mans or Sebring."

"Low maintenance, too," he says. I squint at his team. Well, how much does it cost to run? Riley calculates, mentioning the cost of racing tires, brakes and rebuilding the engine after 50 hours of driving. "Maybe $4,000 an hour."

Monticello is a private club which caters to the kind of high-powered guys the company is after. Next summer, its planning on using Rileys for a customer event, branding it the world’s fastest racing school.

At a starting price of $225,000, Riley has delivered only a few Track Day cars to customers, with a build period of four to six weeks. Riley says one was involved in a "significant" accident, but the driver was unscathed.

Sobering. I’ll be driving with Monticello’s chief instructor, Jason Holehouse, in the right seat. He’s there to give advice or rein me in if necessary. The engine is so loud I’ll rely on Jason’s hand signals.

Extra Horses

That motor is a 6.2-liter V-8 made by General Motors Co. (GM) Using electronic engine mapping — a way of digitally controlling the maximum power output of the engine — horsepower can be switched inside the cockpit from an ample 500 to an insane 650.

The tiny F1-style steering wheel must be removed before squeezing inside. Strapping myself into the five-point safety harness, I look over the dashboard, a tableau of arcane switches which includes a big red pull handle labeled "FIRE." More sobering still.

This is a racecar, not a car. At least the transmission is a six-speed sequential with paddle shifters; simple to operate. The engine bursts to explosive life and I pull out of the pits, the car bucking. I’ve got the four-mile track at my disposal, which includes one of the longest straightaways in the U.S.

Shredding through the first few corners, the Riley manages turns at a velocity that a road car simply can’t manage. I’ve driven a Ferrari 430 Scuderia here before and it floats through these curves, but the grip on the Riley’s racing slicks is just unreal. (If it starts to rain, though, which the sky is threatening to do, it will be a terrifying game of asphalt Slip ‘N Slide.)

Steady Hand

Even a gentle swaying of my hands, the kind of thing you would never notice on a road car, has a profound effect. At 140 mph, the car is veritably weaving. Holehouse will later admonish me to keep my hands perfectly straight.

The 14-inch-front rotor iron brakes are something to behold. Coming off a long straight to a tight right turn, I get on the brakes too early and the car slows so quickly that I have to speed up again. They could halt a locomotive.

Then Holehouse flips a switch upping the engine’s horsepower to 650. The change is instantaneous — a dose of Red Bull and ephedrine. Fast goes to ludicrous. Now we’re slicing down the course in a roar of blurry speed. On the straightaway I easily hit 161.

Discretion is the better part of valor with a borrowed $275,000 racecar, and I find the brakes early again. (Later Holehouse tells me I used about 50 percent of the available braking power.)

Ten laps later, we pull in. My racing suit is drenched inside and I’ll feel euphoric and jittery for hours. Holehouse grins at me knowingly. "Better than a double espresso, right?"

The Riley MkXXII Track Day Car at a Glance
Engine: 6.2-liter V-8 with 650 horsepower.
Transmission: Six-speed sequential.
Price as tested: $275,000.
Best feature: It’s a real racecar.
Worst feature: It’s a real racecar.
Target buyer: The dedicated amateur racecar driver who dreams of winning Le Mans.