Ryan Pilla’s Car Doctor World garage is on Scuttlehole Road, not far from the late lamented Bridgehampton Race Circuit (now a golf course) where in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s, the top sports car drivers in the world used to gather.
The energetic auto restorer’s neat-as-a-pin garage where he tunes up and repairs the racy cars of a high-end clientele, and where drivers trade fast-lane stories at a shiny bar on Thursday evenings and Saturday afternoons, has on its walls black-and-white pictorial murals of “the Bridge” back in the day when Walt Hansgen, Briggs Cunningham, Phil Hill, Jim Hall, Stirling Moss, Mario Andretti, Scott McClaren, Dan Gurney, Mark Donohue, Roger Penske, Sam Posey, and Paul Newman used to race there.
And when Pilla, himself, set a four-door sedan speed record in an M3 BMW, zipping around the challenging eight-turn, 2.85-mile course in 1 minute and 43 seconds.
“So what did you do on the straight?” his visitor asked him the other day.
“On the straight, I’d say I got it up to . . . about 165 miles per hour,” said Pilla, who had the week before torn over the Bonneville salt flats in Utah at just that speed in a four-cylinder Mazda MX5 Spec Miata that he’d set up for a client, Harvey Siegel, a 78-year-old racetrack owner and Bridgehampton veteran who can now scratch “set world speed record” off his bucket list.
Siegel did it first and then Pilla, both of them erasing the former record of 157.9 miles per hour held by a factory Honda.
“It was the first time in history that this street car, which can only get up to 105 miles per hour ordinarily, went at such speeds,” said Pilla, whose father, Carlo, once was Jaguar’s top test-driver. “And amazingly we did it without having tested it. The closest track is Lime Rock, and that’s about five hours away. On paper it looked good. That we were able to set the record was a testament to our engineering, but there’s no substitute for seat time.”
Pilla said he had “a great team of seven” headed by his crew chief, Rod Davidson. “We had the car transported out in that van, and we all flew into Salt Lake and rented a car and put our foot to the floor. The speed limit out there is 75. Normally, it’s a two-hour drive, but we did it in an hour and a half. It’s a drive-in, drive-out town, like East Hampton. They have these speed weeks once a year. There were lots of different classes. Some world records were broken, some weren’t.”
“It was definitely like being on the moon,” Pilla said, when asked what the salt flats were like. “They’re 7,000 feet up — the sun doesn’t go that high. You can almost can see the curvature of the earth. You’ve got to have sunglasses it’s so bright.”
“There’s a three-mile track. You’ve got one mile to get up to speed. From one to two miles they take your speed. And from mile two to three you slow down. I’d liken it to a religious experience. It was as if you’d been taken back in time and there was nothing around you. Like being in an old western movie set, but with no buildings.”
“Our motto here is ‘If you can dream it, we can build it,’ and we proved that the other day. We went out there and realized Harvey’s dream, we conquered. He wants to go back next year, but this time in a turbo-charged Miata capable of doing 212. And this time, without fail, we’ll have Mazda’s support.”
The sleek red-and-yellow record-breaking car, Pilla explained, looking down at its two-liter engine, was “normally aspirated — there was no forced induction of air, no super charger or turbo charger. For next year, we’ll put a big turbo here, which will take the exhaust air and force it back down the engine’s throat, as it were, for more power. The car will be ‘blown.’ That’s what they call it.”
“We wanted to go 160,” he said. “See, it says 2 160 on the side. But we made certain adjustments that enabled us to top that goal by another five miles per hour. We changed the suspension to make it more aerodynamic. We changed all the engine parameters — the air/fuel mixture, the timing. . . . We changed the transmission gear ratios and the differential gear ratios so we could get that perfect combination, so we could get as close as we could to terminal velocity.”
“A boat has a hull speed,” he explained. “It can only go so fast. It’s the same with a plane’s fuselage — I’m a pilot too, you know — or a car. In the end, aerodynamics wins out over power. So, yes, I’d be shocked if somebody tops our record.”
The recent success, he added, had revived his interest in racing. “I haven’t done anything since Daytona, in 2006. I want to see if I’m a has-been or not. This was a stepping stone for us back into road racing. I’ll be in an S.C.C.A. eight-race series from Canada to California from now until the first of the year.”
Two other MX5s — one for Pilla and one that’s being rented by Paul Weismann — are being set up for the S.C.C.A. series in whose races Pilla expects to top out at 130 in the draft. “We’re making them as aerodynamic as they can be so they’ll punch a big hole through the air,” he said. “Also, these are being set up for lefts and rights. Those cars and the one we set the record with look the same, but everything is different. It’s like comparing a sailboat to a high-horsepower motorboat.”
The Bonneville experience had also “jump-started” an idea that he’d been kicking around for a while, Pilla said, and, consequently, beginning in 2012, he will offer clients over the course of a year, in cars he’s prepared, “the three most amazing motor sports experiences you can have in the world — driving off-road in the Baja peninsula, driving in a road racing car on the biggest track in the world, the Nurburgring in Nurburg, Germany [a track that was nicknamed ‘The Green Hell’ by Jackie Stewart], and the experience of traveling at high speed on the salt flats at Bonneville.”
“Those three adventures,” he continued, “would be the Nirvana of racing and motor sports entertainment. After that you’d say that when it comes to speed you’ve done everything!”