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28 July 2011

Last October when we tested a Jaguar XKR175, we saw it as an opportunity to retrace the tire tracks of early racing Jags on the historic Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin road race course. It was a great adventure into motorsports history, so when we took delivery of a 2011 Jaguar XKR convertible recently, we were magnetically drawn to another road course. Jaguars and old race tracks, it turns out, are a divine pairing.



Though we must admit, this expedition isn’t as steeped in Jaguar history as that last time around. The last time ALMS ran the Detroit Belle Isle Grand Prix, in 2008, no cats pounced from the starting line. But if organizers stop pushing the race’s return back a year (and then another year, and another year,) rest assured the RSR Jaguar team would be part of the pack. Really, Belle Isle might bring a home field advantage for the cars, which team owner Paul Gentilozzi builds right up the road in East Lansing.



Because of one-way street layouts on non-race days, we’re forced to run the 2008 course in reverse, but it’s easy to follow because amazingly, everything is intact — the corner curbing looks like it was painted yesterday, a start line still runs across a wide stretch of road, and the pit lane is even still littered with the scorched remains of fresh racing tires undergoing their first few rotations. Knowing the last race was three years ago, it feels like we’re standing on a race track for invisible ghost cars.



Our XKR cuts the silence with a raspy supercharged V8 growl we imagine can be heard in Canada off to the east and Detroit back in the west. Though New York Central Park designer Frederick Law Olmsted created a feature-heavy park throughout the entire 2.5-mile-long island in the Detroit River, race track designers a century later made use of only a small chunk of the south end. It’s an excellent and scenic course with a fair combination of long, flowing sections and quick switchbacks like the turn 4-5-6 combo and the 8-9 and 11-12 tight sections tied together by a sweeper past the glorious James Scott fountain.



We pull of the course for a closer look at the fountain, which a renowned gambler funded posthumously with a $500,000 donation. Its elaborate structure has 109 water spouts in the shapes of fish and turtles and lions, all carved from elegant white marble. Like it, the XKR has a timeless beauty passed down from the E-Type; other sports cars have been launched and grown old since the new XK showed up in 2006. After walking a lap of the fountain, we hop back in and turn the car’s rotor-dial shifter to drive. We still don’t understand why so many pundits hate this feature, because to us, it’s quite useful for quick jumps between gears with little more than a wrist-flick.



Our lap of the circuit ends as we cross the finish line with hands raised in the air. The XKR is perfect for this in convertible form, and we’re really longing for a checkered flag to wave around, confusing the random joggers and vagrants we pass. The convertible isn’t ideal for live race tracks — it’s just a little too soft and ponderous for that. But on an 80-degree summer day, there’s no better way to run an uncontested race around an empty circuit, pretending to be Stirling Moss in slow motion. It’s an emotional machine that’s just bursting with character, if not world-beating performance. But next time we visit a track with a Jaguar, we’re hoping the former will be active and the latter will be the new XKR-S coupe, which does seem ready to compete.


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