Story by: Davin Patton
Origonal Source NAGTROC.ORG 2000 Miles of Discovery Thread
Most who went to the SEMA show had the single goal in mind of partying, and all seemed to accomplish their missions. Las Vegas is, without a doubt, a place where a man can get himself into a lot of trouble. Given that my main goal was to get a lot of things done for NAGTROC, I couldn’t give myself the luxury of getting too distracted. Things do have a way of happening there but, with the exception of one night that involved some Patron, I managed to stay out of trouble and was very productive.
One thing about the SEMA show that always stands out to me is the number of pure show cars. There are cars there that have clearly never seen a drop of water. More than a few were probably born just weeks prior in a warehouse somewhere. Many had likely been taken directly to the show, under full body protection, to keep them from coming in contact with potentially dirty air particles anywhere between the factory they were painted in and the show floors.
Of course, we tried to make the Alpha-9 GT-R presentable and had it detailed the morning after we’d arrived in Vegas. It’s amazing just how dirty it had gotten from the wet, snowy roads in Colorado…but it was equally amazing how big of a difference the detail made. To say the car was dirty was an understatement. Once it was returned to us, it was as if the car had been repainted.
Although the Alpha-9 GT-R looked great in my eyes, I knew it still wasn’t perfect. You can’t be when you’re competing with cars that had never seen the sun. At the Exedy booth however, there was a car that had seen the sun. That car had seen the heat of summers, the cold of winters, and everything in between. I couldn’t help but wonder: How many of the hundreds of cars at the SEMA show had a story like the Alpha-9 GT-R we drove there?
For the show we put on some Volk wheels and some ridiculously lightweight Tillet composite seats. It’s a funny thing though, after having taken us through all the conditions that they had, I was thoroughly impressed by the stock wheels and Dunlop A/S 7010 tires that wrapped them. I really didn’t want to see them go. If it were my call I would have been left them on and let the masses think whatever they wanted to. Most at SEMA are domestic fans and don’t know what a GT-R is anyway, nevermind the wheels and tires it comes with. Then of those that do know what a GT-R is, most don’t really understand it, so what difference would it have made? It wasn’t my decision though. The consolation was that the “show” wheels were actually AMSs track wheels. AMS thinks like I do. In the end the masses wouldn’t win.
After the show was done we went to the lot where the AMS rig was parked to swap everything back. Half way into this job, with the car still on the jack and seats only half way in the car, it started to rain. Then it started to hail.
Luckily the hail didn’t last long, wasn’t well formed, and the car didn’t take any damage. Unluckily, it was wet everywhere. This meant that the now clean Alpha-9 GT-R would once again get dirty. If this car was built to be a beauty queen, that would have been an issue. But what we had was something more, and the business it was built for was not clean. So I didn’t mind.
Once we were finished swapping everything out, Martin decided it was time to head over to California with the AMS rig. AMS had a 2 day event starting the next day in Button Willow. This would be the final leg of our trip. We decided to meet up with them in California, and let them know that we’d take some pictures around Vegas first and then head over later. After lunch they decided to start their trip.
We looked around the city for a bit for some interesting places to take pictures, but weren’t able to manage much. We did however, come across one nice spot where we found a Corvette ZR1 in hiding. We decided to take a few shots there.
As the sun made its motions across the sky and more bad weather threatened in the distance, we decided it was time to knock out the last leg of our trip, and head over to the golden state of California.
We were treated to another amazing show of lighting and weather effects as the sun set on us somewhere between Las Vegas and Southern California. By this point I thought I’d seen it all as we drove across the gentle mountains, heading west bound.
As we settled into the drive I used the time to collect my thoughts about the machine I’d been spending so much time in: The Alpha-9 GT-R.
It felt as if Nissan developed the platform to handle exactly the sort of performance wed seen. Whereas other machines would suffer from poor driving characteristics at this level, the Alpha-9 GT-R felt… almost ordinary. For example, while most high performance tuned cars have to deal with a nonlinear powerband, laggy throttle response, unfriendly clutches and difficult to manage low end engine performance, the Alpha-9 GT-R had no such issues. It wasnt that the Alpha-9 was much better, it was that the issues simply didnt exist with the Alpha-9. In automatic mode it responded exactly as a factory GT-R would. You can start it and drive off- in second gear if you wish- with no issue. The throttle response as you slowly drive off under 1500rpm is identical to a factory GT-R. The only apparent differences with an Alpha-9 GT-R are in the depth of power available, the characteristics of its delivery – particularly as you get deeper in its powerband, and the overall sound and experience of operation.
It occurred to me that if anything, the AMS Alpha-9 GT-R is to a factory GT-R, what a factory GT-R is to any typical fast sports car. It offers a much higher level of performance while retaining excellent drivability. But whereas a normal GT-R feels a touch muted in the way it performs, an Alpha-9 GT-R adds character in addition to a giant leap in performance.
I started to think of the Alpha-9 as a sort of Special Operator. Theres no fuss, no drama in asking it to complete a mission. The machine simply delivers. It doesnt matter where the mission is, what time of day it is, what the temperature is like there, what the altitude is, or even how long the mission is for. Despite the fact that the car is built and modified in the way that it is, none of that matters. In the end its a GT-R. An impersonal killing machine. It will simply do whatever its asked.
Spend enough time with it though, and you become aware of the faint traits in its character. Together they comprise the subtle hints that youre in command of something special: The engines strong transient response to slight throttle requests… the way the transmission can catch clutchpack B under hundreds of pound-feet of load while it’s simultaneously doing the inverse with clutchpack A…. the way its automatic mode can deliver partial load shifts identical to an ordinary GT-R…the feeling of the chassis one tenth of a second into a wide open throttle shift…. Blink though, and you might not catch any of this. Or you might write it off as something else as you explore the massive power the car invites you to deploy…
I knew better. There was no question in my mind that there was very something special within. Like any consummate professional, AMS made it look easy. They all do. But it wasnt that long ago that the community wondered if a GT-R could reliably make a 10 second quarter mile pass. It wasnt that long ago that very smart experts- not tuners but engineers- wondered what it would take to get a GT-R to deliver the power needed to get to a 9 second quarter mile pass… something our Alpha-9 had since accomplished on regular 93 octane fuel.
Most of the disdain the GT-R communitys had has centered around the transmission. So when setting off on the trip, that was something I paid careful attention to. At the beginning, as with my first ever experience in an R35, I wondered if it would let me down. I worried about when it might not deliver a shift I requested. But that never happened. In the end, this transmission- which had seen work from Shepherd and upgrades from Exedy and Dodson- was without flaw. It got every shift right, every single time, and never delivered anything less than perfect performance. Ill go further than that and say that not only did the transmission handle every shift flawlessly, but it played a key role in making the car as usable as it was.
Skeptics and traditionalists will say that the GR6 is a weak point in the GT-R and that the GT-R would somehow be a superior car with a manual transmission. I’ve long believed both claims to be false. Fundamentally, if you want a manual transmission car you’re likely not looking for the GT-R experience. The GT-R is about efficient, accessible performance. The GR6 is integral to that equation. The transmission of this Alpha-9 exemplified that, and is the counterpoint to the skeptics. Over thousands of miles it managed massive levels of torque and power over many conditions without ever once doing anything unexpected. Runs to 170mph, flat shifting all the way up? No problem. Snow mode for miles on a hill in Colorado? Not an issue. Automatic mode for trips through a park in a random part of Utah? Easy. Rapid down-shifting under 1G braking in a mountain pass? That was its forte.
Somewhere along the trip I had to stop viewing the transmission as anything other than a weapon. The fact that it shifted with a real haste was impressive, but the impunity with which it executed its mission of either lazy, automatic shifting or transmitting a full 800hp was nothing short of amazing. On the battlefields that are streets and racetracks worldwide, the GR6 is not a weakness at all. It is quite possibly the GT-R’s greatest asset.
One of the lead designers at Sony in the 90s said that if you are to lead people to a bright future, you can’t design products that people want. People don’t know what they want. That’s the GR6. Future enthusiasts will look back on this transmission very differently than the enthusiasts of today. The GR6 will be recognized not as the R35’s Achilles heel, but instead as its ultimate weapon, Thor’s hammer.
With this advanced platform making such high performance so accessible, you ultimately get the feeling that, with only a few tweaks to make the average banker’s wife approve, the Alpha-9 GT-R is a car that Nissan could have easily made themselves. It’s astonishing when you think about that in the context of the price to performance ratio. There’s nothing like it on the planet.
Still on our way westward to California, that was the bottom line I’d come to realize.
What else could this machine be compared to? What else could have done the trip we did? Taking two people with three weeks of luggage each- as well as multiple bags and other supplies- over so many different conditions? Nissan said their original benchmark was the 911 Turbo. As a whole, 911s lack the capacity to do what weve done, but even if you disregard that, the Turbo Dual Clutches aren’t to par with where the GT-R industry has gone. That’s mainly thanks to Porsche giving their drivers the option of going stick. Their enthusiasts will stick with manual transmissions and their tuners and builders will follow customer demands. What they miss is that enthusiasts arent engineers. They dont know whats best. If left to traditional enthusiasts, we wouldn’t have liquid cooling, never mind fuel injection. Whether for better or worse, 911s are a fundamentally different car for different tastes. GT-R competitors they are not.
Its much the same elsewhere. Corvettes and Vipers both lack the drivability and usability for the performance and conditions we saw. Lamborghini Gallardos are massively more expensive but they too lack the capacity. Toyota Supras, while very comfortable, lack the drivability, handling, and all weather ability. The story is the same with higher end cars as well- Ferrari 458s lack the capacity and all weather abilities. Same for the Carrera GT. The Mercedes McLaren SLR might come a little closer in capacity and platform development but would still miss the mark in overall capability. Then there’s the Bugatti Veyron which, although it has a higher top speed, has yet to be quoted in the 9 second range through a quarter mile. But even if you put that aside, it too lacks the capacity.
And none of those cars have the kinds of tires made for them that the GT-R has. Most can only be competitive under very specific conditions with certified competition tires. None have all season tire performance thats anywhere near as capable- in terms of performance, wear, and safety- as what our Alpha-9 GT-R had.
When we first set off, I intended on solely doing a review of the Alpha-9 GT-R. But what I ended up with instead was evidence that Nissan had done something truly extraordinary in developing the R35… what I got was a vision for the future. This Alpha-9 GT-R is it. That which the industry has been silently afraid of and what no one’s wanted to admit to can no longer be ignored. It’s not a matter of being a fan of the brand or not. Its not a matter of what the neighbors think. Its not even a matter of what the track side self-proclaimed experts think. Whether or not Nissan themselves ever build this car is immaterial. Nissan’s answer to the industry is real. Credit must be given where it’s due.
The GT-R has always represented a vehicle that appeals to the future of true performance: a machine that you can take anywhere, anytime, without compromise to compete with anything you’re likely or unlikely to ever come across. This is the same mantra that all car enthusiasts seek. This is what Nissan has built, and this AMS Alpha-9 GT-R takes that concept and turns the knob to 9.
The tragedy of this story is that believers are few and far between. The GT-R in general, and this Alpha-9 GT-R in particular, have set a new yard stick against which the real world capabilities of all other sports cars in the world can be measured. Yet few recognize what has happened. The creators of the GT-R still haven’t gotten the credit due. GT-R sales remain weak from rumors based much closer to fiction than fact. The father of AMS, Martin Musial, will have long since gone back to Illinois to continue working on new things which may be more -or less -epic, but no one, including Nissan North America itself, seems to have truly understood what this car is about.
I can now understand what Mizuno-san meant when he said to me that GT-Rs were to be driven.
GT-Rs worldwide are tucked away safely in garages, soundly sleeping days and nights away. Some owners will not let their cars out of sight when they take them out. Some are afraid to let their wives or husbands drive. Others are afraid to drive in the rain. Still others are afraid to experience their cars on any sort of track and are afraid to drive them too hard.
That is not what the GT-R was built for.
Some accuse the GT-R of being too mundane, that a GT-R makes any road too easy. That’s because the GT-R wasn’t designed to spend its days under a car cover before a single sunlit afternoon trip to the store. A 911 can do that, a Corvette can do that… a 458 Italia can do that. All of those cars would provide a thrilling experience in that regard. The GT-R was designed for something else entirely. The GT-R was designed for something epic. And this Alpha-9 GT-R, on this trip, showcased that.
The AMS rig was near. After creeping on every rig we came across we finally found them, and decided to hold back in the lane next to them to let traffic clear. Once all the traffic was out of the way, we made our move. From wide open throttle a few car lengths behind the rig, I made a single high speed pass. A car like the Alpha-9 GT-R builds a lot of speed very quickly and, despite starting so close, we were past 100mph before even reaching them. Not knowing we were ever there, they were treated to an at-speed flyby of their own Alpha-9 GT-R…
Night fell as we departed the highway and continued on a seemingly random state road to an equally random town not far from the track. This is the bad thing about tracks- they’re usually in the middle of nowhere. Once again I turned down the brightness of all the GT-R’s instruments as we headed off into the neverlands in search of this town. The navigation system still had us a couple hours out.
Meanwhile Chuck had been texting with the guys on the rig. Apparently Martin was wondering who had been driving and where we were. After a short exchange, we were asked to pull over and follow them in.
Martin had earlier asked if we really took the Alpha-9 car to 170mph. The truth was, we went past that. I was too busy holding on in the passenger seat to look at just how fast we went. Martin laughed a bit nervously when I said that. In retrospect, he was probably more than a little nervous. But that said, if AMS’s claim was that the Alpha-9 GT-R could be truly driven, and if they wanted us to really drive it and report on what we’d found, we couldn’t do that by any ordinary means. And more importantly, it was the only way we could present a full and honest assessment. I started looking for a place to pull over.
I couldn’t find anywhere to stop. There was nothing where we were, so I ended up just pulling over on the side of the road. I wasn’t even really sure where we were. The rig was a ways behind us. I figured it would take several minutes- at the earliest- for them to get close to us. So I opened the door to step outside.
Only to be met with pure, raw, cold. Again I forgot that I couldn’t just step out of the GT-R like that without checking the conditions outside first.
I distanced myself from the GT-R which I thought was funny, there were no other cars out there. Where we were there were no street or house lights of any kind. There was only empty terrain, a road, and an Alpha-9 GT-R. Because of the darkness, cars in the distance were visible for miles but, at the time, there were none.
I started to make my way back to the car. Then, I’m not sure why I did it… but I looked up. And my heart sank.
Above me I could see the entire Milky Way galaxy. A seemingly infinite number of stars cluttered the sky from horizon to horizon. In the center I saw a scene of unimaginable beauty: the Milky Way’s galactic center, brightly lit from active star clusters, stellar nurseries, and nebulae thousands of light years away.
I couldn’t speak. I couldn’t move. Instinctively I stared at it wondering how it could be that bright, how it could be that colorful, that beautiful… it was as if I’d seen home for the first time… it was so vivid, so clear… deep royal purples mixed with light red bands…Every hair on my body stood, I tried to move but I couldn’t. I froze, captured in amazement.
A noise broke the silence of the moment. A light in the distance. A truck. I made my way back to the GT-R. I tried to tell Chuck what I’d seen.
The AMS rig drove by at speed.
I got in the car and paused.
On this trip I’d seen the beautiful Iowa and Nebraska plains. I journeyed into the pristine snow capped mountains in Colorado. I saw the rock formations of the western states. I attacked one of the most epic roads of my life with death itself just twenty feet by my side. I whispered in a silent desert. I submerged myself in the sheer beauty of the rocky mountain passes. I saw day rise and night fall. I ran from the hail and was lucky, got chased by the rain and wasnt. I gazed on beautiful plains that went on endlessly to mountains in the distance. I saw warm weather and cold. I saw the moon light rivers and the sun bake rock faces. I saw 2,000 year old trees. I saw the brightest city on earth turn a massive mountain into a silhouette before me. And for the first time, I saw the entire Milky Way galaxy before my own eyes, complete with every star in it.
The AMS rig barreled down the road ahead of us.
This was why painters paint, why musicians play, why singers sing, why dancers dance…
…and why the GT-R was made.
I looked at the rig moving off into the distance. I moved the transmission gear selector. And for one last time, with the car in full manual mode, I floored the gas pedal.
The AMS Alpha-9 GT-R responded.