Sonoma County has much for the wine lover, the foodie, the craft beer aficionado, and the adventurer to enjoy (check out my posts here for some recommendations). Most recently, my boyfriend and I discovered the ultimate thrill in Sonoma County: the Audi Sportscar Experience at Sonoma Raceway.
The Audi Sportscar Experience is a partnership between Audi and Simraceway (a local racing school) that provides consumers and motoring enthusiasts the opportunity to sample some of Audi’s finest models on an amazing road: the Sonoma Raceway. Carved into the rolling hills of Sonoma County, it’s 2.5 miles of pristine asphalt and 12 twisty turns woven over the beautiful hills of Sonoma. It’s the same track they use for NASCAR races.
Classroom time is interspersed throughout the day between paddock and track sessions. And while the instructors are focused on providing an enjoyable time for participants, they are also there to make sure you take home a lesson. Whether it be by instilling more confidence behind the wheel or a focus on planning ahead on the road, the team at the Audi Experience is out to make safer drivers. But who says you can’t have fun while learning?
For anyone escorting their significant other to wine-tastings all day and looking for more, there’s something for you in Sonoma, too. Plan a day of racing to experience and learn about fast, nice-looking cars!
Here’s the experience in full:
Our day in the Audi classroom—and on the track
We met in the classroom for a brief discussion before each of our four “challenges.” Our instructor, Jeff Sakowicz, was so fantastic. (No wonder he had a successful Formula Car racing career!) First, he went over some basic car control theories. Within an hour, we were out on the paddock and ready to apply our knowledge behind the wheels of some amazing Audi machines. I was impressed by how quickly Jeff took us from the classroom to the driver’s seat.
The whole experience—in four parts—couldn’t be captured in only photos. So, please check out our awesome instructor, Jeff Sakowicz, discussing the four parts of the day with action from our drivers in each of the four videos below!
Challenge #1: Slalom Course
Before we could get to the actual racetrack, the slalom course was the first challenge to conquer. The students took the TTS weaving through a series of cone-marked gates behind the track on the autocross course. Each student took his/her turn, flying through the course at faster and faster speeds (granted, these speeds ranged from 25-40 mph). We also met Tim Moser, another outstanding instructor who stayed with us the entire day (yep, he had a racing career too).
I got to shadow our fabulous instructor in the passenger seat as my boyfriend drove a separate car. It was thrilling for both of us since we both love different aspects of cars. I was amazed at how both instructors could use the walkie-talkie to communicate, quickly and effectively, what they needed to know before each turn. It was unreal. These guys are truly skilled instructors and it was easy to see that they used to have driving careers.
Challenge #2: Techniques of a Curve
Next, we took on the Techniques of a Curve exercise. We learned the fundamentals back in the classroom, including the importance of the proper driving line (path), brake application and steering through a 180-degree turn.
Then, it was back out to the autocross course. This was the first opportunity to pilot the gorgeous R8, though not yet on the racetrack. If anything, it made my boyfriend even more eager to take it out on the track.
Challenge #3: RS5 Laps
Back in the classroom, the instructors taught us the 12 turns of the track, which includes four blind corners. Our second instructor for the day, Tim, describes the course in one word: organic.
“Other tracks were engineered on flat land. Sonoma was built in the 60s and the terrain dictated the course,” he said.
After thoroughly practicing these skills in the first challenges and learning more about the car and track, we made our way to the track, where a V8-powered RS5 awaited.
The first lap was slow as Jeff coached the crew skillfully by walkie-talkie, leading them around the winding curves of Sonoma Raceway. In subsequent laps we increased the speed, always under the watchful eye of our expert instructors. While riding shotgun with Jeff, I observed the skill he had driving again while giving detailed instructions to the students in the cars behind us. I may have gotten in a few words over the walkie-talkie to guide the group as we were whipping through the turns. After two of these RS5 lapping sessions, my boyfriend was ready for the big time: the Audi R8.
Challenge #4: R8 Laps
The R8 laps started in the same way the earlier sessions had in the RS5…slowly. The low-riding suspension, powerful engine and road gripping all-wheel-drive system aided my boyfriend as he navigated the car around the track. Gradually increasing speed each time, he was coaxed on by Jeff in his ear over the walkie-talkie.
Finally, he reached his top speed of the day, a blistering 104 mph (keep in mind this is not a straight open road; it’s a twisty, curvy course). My boyfriend finished with sweat on his brow and a big smile. He even got some kind words from the instructors for a job well done (as you’ll see in the picture below!).
We were impressed by how the instructors and the Audi Sportscar Experience put together a class that not only delights, but also gave us practical knowledge useful beyond the track.
Unlike other sportscar experiences, the class in Sonoma sets itself apart because it is just that; a class.
“There are lots of places that will sell you four laps on a track and let you go home,” said staff instructor Tim Moser.
This isn’t one of those places.
More on the Audi Sportscar Experience—and how to do it
Audi’s crew at the track employs a fleet of Audi’s high-performance models including the TTS, S4, S5, RS4, RS5 and the R8. Visitors can choose from a list of options from a half-day experience all the way to full lapping sessions in the Audi R8 Introduction course ($1,995; the option we did).
There’s also a half-day Autocross Challenge, which is more affordable and allows you to drive the Audi TTS around a cone-marked flat course before setting out in an S5 to take on the track. Laps in the flagship R8 are included with the instructor at the helm.
For a more involved experience, the Audi R8 Introduction Course is a step up from the Autocross Challenge. This full-day course takes drivers through driving exercises in the flat paddock area before setting out for four 30-minute lap sessions on the track, including several sessions in Audi RS5 and R8. There’s also a break built in for a nice lunch (included with the cost of the program).
Students choosing this option drive laps in the pinnacle Audi performance model. The R8 is also featured in the subsequent R8 Intermediate and R8 Advanced courses. Each of these courses push the R8 and its students closer to the limits of the cars’ capabilities. In the process, this breeds more competent R8 pilots.
Tim informed us that many R8 owners will take all three courses to understand the limits of this beautiful automobile. And with its V10 engine and racing bred pedigree, that’s a good thing. With great power comes great responsibility. The other half of the people coming to the course are motoring enthusiasts who don’t own an Audi and also probably want to drive a fast, beautiful car around a famous NASCAR racetrack for a day.
Tip: The Audi Sportscar Experience runs classes on the Sonoma Raceway up to 130 days a year sprinkled across the full calendar, so you’re likely to catch the instructors during the time you plan to be in Sonoma. I do suggest booking as far in advance as possible to make sure you get in if you plan on going on a weekend or during October (grape harvest). If your schedule allows, the weekday lessons will probably have fewer people (which equals more one-on-one coaching with the instructor!).
This experience is great for anyone, including couples, singles, families, and even bachelor/bachelorette parties seeking a thrilling activity to detox from wine and beer or just wanting to mix up a trip with some adventure. In fact, we’ve been telling many of our California friends about our experience. One of our friends is already planning a short weekend to Sonoma just for the Audi Sportscar Experience to surprise her husband for his birthday. If you’re local, it does make for a great long weekend. I was just happy my boyfriend and I could both be there together to share our (different) love of cars.
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