Monday, August 18, 2008

Audi's R8 Provides Unique Experience

“What is the first thing that comes to mind when you think about the Audi brand name?” Asked the confident driving instructor. Immediately, almost as if scripted, one overly caffeinated and supremely enthusiastic student blurted out, “Oo, oo, Quattro!,” This was the first of what would be many challenges posed by the instructors at the Audi Driving Experience, which I participated in recently. I attended this event for two reasons. First, and perhaps most importantly, this half day driving school was hosted at Summit Point Motorsports Park, which along with being a challenging and beautiful race track, also is a place with truly magical childhood memories for me. Having spent several childhood summers watching and helping my father with his Club Ford racecar, Summit Point holds a particularly special place in my heart. Additionally, I was enticed by the prospect of getting behind the wheel of the Audi R8. For the unfamiliar, the R8, which is based on the Lamborghini Gallardo, but with a 4.2-liter V8, is the German automaker’s six-figure supercar. So, you can imagine how much fun driving this caliber car on a real racetrack might be.
If you think that signing a release waiver is enough to get someone to hand you the keys to 420 horsepower supercar, you are sorely mistaken. Fortunately for all involved, students work up to this privilege. So, before we got anywhere near the R8, our instructors put us through our paces in a variety of driving exercises in the Audi A4, A5, and S5 models. We began with a challenging auto cross course that featured left and right hand turns, a short slalom course, and hard braking. We were given our times after each lap. While we got feedback after each lap, instructors were not in the car during the exercise. This provided a stress free environment for us to get a baseline idea of our driving skill. We would later run the same course and be timed again for comparison against one another.
After putting down some less-than-blistering laps at the autocross, our group of four students headed to a braking exercise. This challenged each student to test Audi’s ABS system at its limits as well as our own reflexes. I’d be lying to you if I said that I aced this part. In fact, I struggled mightily to keep the brake pedal fully to the floor. I learned a valuable lesson from this exercise. Drivers generally don’t do the right thing in an emergency situation. You have to be trained to do the right thing. So, when an emergency occurs, your training becomes instinct rather than panic and overcompensation.
From the braking exercise, we headed to an evasive lane change test. This exercise is designed to simulate an evasive lane change at speed without much room for error. This time, I was poised and ready to improve upon my performance. Being an extremely competitive person, I made it my goal to be the best student I could be. This meant not only being the fastest in my group, but immediately implementing the feedback Laughlin, my instructor, gave me. This time, Laughlin gave me all positive feedback. I miraculously managed to get through the cone course a number of times without disturbing a single cone. Eureka!
Now for the good stuff! After proving that we were at least marginally safe behind the wheel of a sports car, Laughlin guided us to the holy grail of our driving school, the Audi R8. As I mentioned earlier, the R8 is designed to run with some of the crème` de la crème` of sports cars. This mid-engine rocket ship has gobs of power, race-oriented suspension and brakes, and a six-figure price tag. While it doesn’t have quite as much grunt as the Lambo Gallardo, a Ferrari F430, or an Aston Martin DB9, there is more than enough power on tap to get a novice in trouble in a hurry. Further, the Audi’s price tag is quite a bit smaller than any of those cars, so it represents a comparative value.
During our first few laps around Summit Point’s Shenandoah course, I could immediately tell that this was going to be one of the highlights of my career. Laughlin, our instructor led the group of four students around the track. Even before we got up to speed, the responsiveness, both in terms of throttle and steering, was immediately noticeable. The difference between this kind of car and the average sedan is like the difference between a Cessna and a F16. After four or five slower laps to get acclimated, we began to pick up the speed. We tried to mirror the line and braking our instructor showed us. Some had an easier time than others, which prevented us from going as fast as we could have since we were running together in a line. I’m pleased to report that neither I nor my partner was to blame. Each lap I could tell that I was able to discern more about the car’s handling than the previous one. Additionally, the more comfortable I became in the car, the smoother I became behind the wheel. As we picked up speed as a group, things began to slow down for me inside the car.
Unfortunately, like all good things, our time in the Audi R8 had to come to an end. After what seemed like a few minutes, we pulled back off track, we were told by the instructors to use the knowledge we gained that day for good, not evil. And with that, my Audi Driving Experience came to a close. Not did this course prove to be an extremely enjoyable time, the fundamental taught in this performance driving course can make anyone a safer and more confident driver. And as for the car…Well, if you happen to have about a hundred grand lying around, there far worse ways to spend it.

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