Pulling into Lime Rock Park for the AMG Driving Experience, the first two things that catch the eye are a sea of AMG fire breathers, and the row of "student parking" vehicles that includes Audi R8, McLaren, Ferrari, Jaguar, and various Mercedes-Benz hot rods. Nervous excitement smells a little like dread as I compile a mental organizational chart of driving skills in this group of well-heeled car enthusiasts, while I’m feeling very much like a novice.
Letting you into my headspace as I embarked on this day, I am 22 years old and The AMG Driving Experience was my first time on a real race track. A fresh college graduate, I was hired full-time by Rolls Royce Motorcars North America in December of 2021, after interning there for a full year. Though I'm new to race helmets, I am not new to automobiles. My father – who attended the day with me – has been a financial analyst covering the auto industry since before I was born. I have tagged along with him to auto industry events since before I could get around a show field without needing a diaper change.
Meet the team
Shortly after getting fitted for a helmet, we found a seat in the chalet – an impressive portable structure that serves as the dining hall, classroom, and main stage of this automotive amusement park. AMG Driving Experience director and chief firecracker Paul Gerrard took the stage and began his welcome speech by asking us, "Are you all familiar with the show Top Gear USA? Well, from 2008 until 2016, I was The Stig."
Paul also mentioned an impending date to run up Pike’s Peak, but until then he went ahead and introduced the instructors and dropped the green flag on the day, as four teams of approximately eight drivers each split the day into two sets of activities: driving modules and track time. Skills training is divided into bite-size exercises that focus on specific driving situations and techniques.
Start with the basics
Our red team was led by Pirelli World Challenge Series alumni Kevin Krauss. We started the day on the skid pad in the C63S, a 3,900 pound sedan just itching to get squirrelly. For our group, "spin out pad" would be a more appropriate name, as we muddied up our cars with aplomb while learning how to drive out to – and back from – the edge. We all improved and left the section with more understanding of why a car does what it does and how to try and correct it. However, I’d say that our team still needed most of the 10,000 hours of practice specified by Malcom Gladwell in his bestseller “Outliers: The Story of Success” before becoming drift kings.
Next, we spent more time with the C63S as we convoyed down to the drag race and panic braking field. With 503 horsepower and 516 lb-ft of torque, this five-passenger chariot launches to 60 mph in 3.1 seconds. Incidentally, that's faster than the AMG GT. The C63S also stops rapidly enough to make your internal organs feel like they are becoming external. We lined up side by side like an old school Woodward Avenue throwdown. Then you stomp the pedal and hang on, St. Christopher! The challenge was a best of three with the first one to halt completely in the stop box deemed the winner. The prize was bragging rights and the honor of leading the group back to the start line to do it all again.
After the "stomp and hold on" portion of the program was finished, Kevin added the emergency braking aspect, requiring the driver to stay on the throttle until the blue cones (braking cones were always blue) and then, on a scale of 1 to 10 in terms of braking pressure, Captain Kevin wanted a 12. We had to brake while steering around a set of cones. The little orange things appeared to be so close to the stop line that the physics couldn’t possibly add up. Cones will get crushed, or so I thought. However, my clear underestimation of how hard a Brembo caliper can squeeze a C63S into compliance meant that amazingly none of the red team plowed through the unsuspecting pylons. The whole thing felt like an optical illusion.
With the cones spared from insult, Kevin threw another devious little wrinkle at us. This time a signal device flashed an arrow at the last possible moment, indicating which direction to steer while the car’s ABS was engaged. This represents a situation where a hazard is suddenly in your lane. While I was momentarily consumed by the thought that the cost of brake pads and rotors must be eye watering, delivering all that pressure on the brake pedal of an AMG sedan snapped my attention back into line.
Add a little competition
The final morning assignment was to run the timed slalom in the CLA45 four-door coupe. This was the best tool in AMG’s shed for carving up the short, twisty cone course at Lime Rock. The 2.0 liter in-line 4-cylinder turbo engine boasted a muscular 382 horsepower and 354 lb-ft of torque, and the AMG suspension had the coupe diving in and out of twists like a go-kart.
Each driver in the group got four practice runs to formulate a strategy before three timed passes were counted towards individual and team competition rankings. We quickly figured out – with Kevin’s guidance – that the best times would come by adding smoothness. If you go too hot into a turn, you have to jab the brakes too deep and you lose the turbo. Waiting for it to spool up again felt like sitting through an entire showing of Titanic, including snack and bathroom breaks, while the racing reality was only a few critical tenths of a second.
Prizes, mostly in the form of bragging rights, were at stake. Chief Kevin stressed the importance of putting a clean lap in the bank. Don’t knock over any cones (a two second penalty) or stop outside the box (a five second penalty), he instructed. Making the first lap clean eased the pressure and enabled each driver in the group to push harder on the next two attempts. The strategy worked; our red team was the model of consistency, taking home the first place team trophy even though we did not have anyone finish in the top three as an individual time.
Real track time
After lunch, which included an intense rainstorm that was courteous enough to limit itself to one hour on the dot, it was out to the road course. The track experience is a lead-follow in CLA45, C63S, and the stars of the show, the AMG GT and GT R sports cars. Lime Rock is a 1.5-mile road course with seven turns, one of which is a left hander known as the Esses. In addition to Lime Rock, The AMG Driving Experience takes its show on the road to two spots in California (Laguna Seca and Sonoma), Circuit of Americas in Austin, Texas, Road Atlanta, and The Concours Club in Miami, Florida. Set up your trip now if you want to get in during 2023. As you can imagine, spaces go quickly.
Instructor Ashley Freiberg led our two vehicles, while talking us through the braking scale: "Four here, now three, two…and back on the throttle." We covered entering turns, hitting the apex, coaxing our eyes up, and when to accelerate out –all while catching our missteps through the eyes in the back of her head. At the start of the back straight, I got a little wiggly because my hands weren’t straight quickly enough after exiting the uphill turn. Ashley skillfully multi-tasked, accelerating into the West Bend while noting my error before I exhaled.
We repeated the process in the 523 horsepower GT and then the GT R, feeling more confident and savoring the majesty of a finely crafted machine. With 577 horsepower in the GT R, it felt like we were tearing up the track, yet the cars weren’t even breathing heavily. It wasn't until our instructor-driven taxi rides that we learned what the car was really capable of and that a student’s "fast" isn’t the same as an instructor’s standard. In the interim, we cycled back through the CLA45 and C63S in three or four lap bunches to wrap up our track laps. By the end, we were hitting our marks and running respectably clean passes around the course.
All the students had the opportunity to do a hot lap in the passenger seat of a GT while an AMG Driving Experience instructor – obviously amused by watching people do it wrong all day – took on the role of taxi driver and gave the AMG the unbridled flogging that it was built for. If this was driving, it was immediately apparent that whatever we students had been doing was merely a valiant attempt. I made the mistake of looking down at the speedometer on the start/finish straight – where we hit a shocking 140 mph. When the instructor braked for the first turn, the brakes came on so hard and suddenly that I thought the car had hooked the arresting gear of an aircraft carrier. After it was over, my driver Matthew Johnson asked, "What did you think of that?" to which I answered, "I’m not sure who we were racing, but I feel like we won."
Living the dream
The cars were fantastic and the instruction was invaluable for people who really want to learn what they and their AMG are capable of, but it was the instructors who made the day so very special.
Paul gave the "line talk" at the track and his enthusiasm was obvious, making it clear why he has accomplished what he has. He also hung around the pit wall, where we talked about the state of the auto industry, electric and autonomous vehicles, and auto shows. These are clearly topics that he thinks and talks about every day, with people from all walks of life. That is a guy who is exactly where he needs to be, living the dream.
The same was true for my instructor and I’m sure for the rest of the AMG team. The Friday session at Lime Rock was the third of four consecutive days. It was all new to us students, but the instructors deal with a similar group every day. The same mistakes, same excuses, same questions. They’ve been a million places, driven all the cars and met countless people, yet Paul, Kevin, Ashley and the rest of the team drove and taught with joy, and made easy connections with the students.
Making sense of the day
The AMG Driving Experience was many different things. Yes, the cars were incredible. Even thinking of the day as an expensive test drive, students were allowed to do things with these powerful automobiles that would land the average tire kicker in the back of a police car before the brake dust cleared.
There were 88 Mercedes-AMG vehicles on the Lime Rock Campus that day, and the total can go as high as 110 depending on the ebb and flow of deliveries. My freshly minted finance degree estimates the total value somewhere around a cool $10 million. The new SL was there, along with a G63 and more newly assembled eye candy sprinkled around the site, including the cool personal vehicles my fellow students drove up in. The day would stand up as a fantastic car show even if we hadn’t driven anything.
As a day of driving instruction, it would be nearly impossible to get through those eight hours without learning anything. Not only did I learn to keep my eyes up and look at where I wanted the car to go, but I was taught why that works. For the record, when you take your eyes off the spot you want to get to, your hands pause too. By the time you look back, it's too late and you are already in a mess.
One rarely gets a chance to really stand on the brakes and get any car to stop in 100 feet instead of 120 feet, but the difference could mean thousands of dollars in damage or even injury or death. A case in point: as we were leaving the track, a local resident pulled out of a sideroad with nowhere near an appropriate distance between her and my father’s 2001 SL600. He got a quick payoff on the day by applying the panic braking lesson we had learned just a few hours before.
You do not need to own any specific type or brand of vehicle to take part in the AMG Driving Experience. Even if you own an uninspiring econobox, improving car control and confidence are enviable virtues for anyone who drives. If you are fortunate enough to own a performance vehicle and want to hone your driving skills, the program is a great place to start. The vehicle wants you to hear its engine sing, and feel the suspension dance. The AMG Driving Experience allows you to become the driver your Mercedes-Benz wants you to be.
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