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Lime Rock: annual four-wheel smorgasbord for auto writers. A vast menu of new models are here at this race track for test driving

To an automotive writer, it's more fun than a circus. Who wouldn't like to sample a four-wheel menu of more than 100 cars, a huge array of makes and models, all labeled for 1988, and all waiting for you to slip behind the wheel - and GO! It's the annual IMPA Test Day at Lime Rock, an event of some importance for members of the International Motor Press Association, a collage of several hundred auto writers, editors, photographers, engineers, and designers.

Now, every auto writer worth his byline gets to drive a bunch of cars every model year, generally on the roadways and byways where everyone else drives his car. But how about on a race track - not for racing, mind you, but for judging one car against another at close range? And all on the same turf, so to speak.

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Thus, once a year, beyond the daily diet of new cars onto and off the driveway of one's home, comes the IMPA Test Day, once called Flaunt Your Incompetency Day, but you can see the problems which that moniker could bring up. Members decided that the title was much too flip and it was changed.

IMPA rents the track for the day, the manufacturers provide the cars, and the auto writers offer their time. Everyone wins. And everyone hopes the weather will be just fine - and this October it was.

Now, since we're professional writers, IMPA expects its members to be responsible drivers as well. Thus, everyone is required to conform to a strict set of rules that are rigidly enforced. There is nothing flip about Test Day. It is not a race-thy-neighbor kind of event. The warning: ``Racing, excessive speeding, or just plain imprudent driving will result in suspension of your driving credentials.'' And the organization means it. After all, there is insurance involved as well as other issues, I am sure. Spotters, placed at crucial locations on the curves, are expected to report errant drivers.

Indeed, drivers who exhibit ``wheel-to-wheel racing or other flaky actions will be asked to leave,'' the rules assert. ``So will anyone who damages a vehicle.'' And that's not to mention the embarrassment. A few years ago someone backed into a sitting Rolls-Royce. The British carmaker has never been back.

This year the cars, all 120 of them, ran the gamut from Audi to Yugo, and some 240 IMPA members were on the track. So with identity badge in view, my left hand stamped to show I was really who I said I was, belts attached, and helmet atop my head, I headed through the checkpoint and onto the blacktop.

I had never been behind the wheel of a British-built Stirling, sister of the Honda-built Acura Legend. I have now. A Mitsubishi-built Galant Sigma? Nice, very nice. A BMW M-6? Super car. An Alfa Romeo Milano V-6? Different. A Shelby Dodge Daytona Z? Fast. A VW Fox? Value. And so it went. I drove 13 out of the 120. It would take a week to drive them all.

Why a week? Because of the traffic jam! The annual IMPA event has become so popular that even getting onto the track can be likened to the end-of-day traffic on a popular route out of town. Something may have to be done about it. But what?

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A two-day event? Wade Hoyt, automotive editor of Motor magazine and president of IMPA, shudders at the idea. Too complicated, he moans. ``We'd have to have hotel space, and....'' Obviously befuddled at the very thought of it, he offers: ``We'll just have to play it by ear.''

Maybe another track, perhaps in the Poconos of Pennsylvania? IMPA has been there before and it's about the same distance from Manhattan, where the bulk of the IMPA members work, as Lime Rock.

We all have special memories of IMPA Test Days of the past, and my best memory goes back to the Flaunt Your Incompetency era of the mid-1970s. I recall watching a lumbering, cross-country 18-wheeler roll down the straightaway, past the grandstand, and out of sight. Behind the wheel was the incomparable Mark Donohue, a favorite-son auto racer of the time, who was soon thereafter lost in a tragic mishap overseas.

It was the sort of thing Mark would do and it drew an admiring chuckle from the IMPA members on hand at the time. Mark had earlier driven me around the track, showing me ``how it should be done'' when sitting behind the wheel of a car, on the race track or on the Interstate. In those days there was no traffic problem at Lime Rock.

This year the straightaway was used for comparing the performance of four-wheel steering in a Mazda 626, one with the new system and one without it. I found I was more than a second faster around the cones with 4-WS. I also drove the new Honda Prelude with all-wheel steering. It's the coming thing, I'm told by the engineers.

Well, the '87 version of IMPA Test Day is over. I can hardly wait for next year's event - wherever it's held.

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