As I grip the red-trimmed steering wheel, I feel a trickle of sweat drop from my eyebrow to my nose. My racing heart is causing my other senses to be heightened. Inches behind me, I hear the mechanical symphony of 10 pistons rising and falling in a menacing growl. Music to my car-loving ears. Over 500 horsepower patiently purring, waiting for my command. In front of me, I see the first turn and rapid incline of the battleship grey pavement. My hands rub the leather wheel in the well-coached three and nine o’clock position. Am I nervous? No. Exhilarated. Because before me lies the two and a half miles of asphalt that make up the Sonoma Raceway in Sonoma County, CA. And enveloping me is a V10 Audi R8 that I get the pleasure of piloting around it. This is my first lap in my R8 Introduction Course at the Audi Sportscar Experience, and I cannot wait to hit the track.
Our day (see Caitlin’s take here) began as we arrived at the Sonoma Raceway around 8 am, and after a quick check-in, we joined the other members of our group in the Audi Forum. Seeing as there were two other couples taking the course, we quickly began to understand why Audi has found success here in Wine Country. The class not only is an exhilarating way to spend a day on vacation, but is also a good way to take a break from wine-tasting and do something a little less ordinary. We introduced ourselves, described the cars we owned and shared what we were hoping to get out of the class.
Jeff Sakowicz and Tim Moser, our instructors, introduced themselves and outlined our plan for the day: some classroom instruction, followed by a slalom exercise in the Audi TTS out in the paddock area. After that, we would spend some time back in the class before returning to the paddock, this time in the R8, for the “Techniques of a Curve” exercise. Then we would head to the track for our first taste of the twists and turns of Sonoma, initially in an RS5, Audi’s V8 performance coupe. After two lapping sessions in the RS5, we would finally be able to drive the awe-inspiring R8 on the track.
In the classroom that morning, we went over some of the finer points of the Sonoma Raceway and the car we would be driving: the Audi R8. Jeff highlighted the importance of tire grip as we would make our way around the racetrack. It was important to never accelerate hard or brake while attempting to make a turn, he told us. Doing so would lighten the load on the tires giving power and could potentially send the car in a direction we didn’t want it to go (off the track). If we were in a turn, our feet were to stay off the pedals. Going straight, we were free to accelerate or brake as we wished. Simple concept.
Our instructors also emphasized that this wasn’t just a thrill ride in a high-performance automobile. This was a class. They would provide classroom insight on the skills we would be practicing, and would provide real-time critiques as we were demonstrating them. The objective was to pull lessons out of the class that could be applied to everyday driving. I think this is the trait that sets the Audi course apart from other sports car experiences.
After about 20 minutes of classroom instruction, we headed out to the paddock (a wide, flat, asphalt-covered pad). It was about 9 am, and I was surprised how quickly the instructors put us in the cars and got us driving. We walked to where a beautiful Pearl Red Audi TTS waited. This small coupe packs a 2.0L four-cylinder engine cranking out nearly 300 horsepower. We found out later that these cars were the newest additions to the fleet at the Sportscar Experience. And boy were they nice to look at.
Tim took a seat in the car and proceeded to show us how to align our seat in the proper driving position. This seemed much closer to the steering wheel than where I had ever positioned my own seat. “Most people sit too far away from the wheel. Don’t be surprised if we tell you need to get a little closer to the wheel, and you feel like ‘God, this feels really cramped.’” He set his hands on the wheel at the three and nine o’clock positions. Doing so, he demonstrated the full range of motion you get with the proper hand placement, and how turning the wheel hand-over-hand was not necessary. Or desirable. Placing his left foot on the rest pedal underneath, he highlighted the importance of bracing ourselves against the seat to counteract the lateral G-forces we would soon experience. Lesson on the fundamentals complete, it was time to drive.
1. TTS: Slalom
In the paddock, we would practice the first of two driving exercises: the slalom. In this exercise, we would be required to navigate our car back and forth through five cone-marked gates at various speeds.
My partner Cody was the first to go. Earlier, he told me that he had participated in this exercise at a different driving school. And his performance proved it. He navigated the cones at speeds I perceived to be unimaginable.
Now it was my turn. I could feel my heart thumping inside my chest, and I knew the reason. I had always considered myself to be a good driver, and now was the time to prove it. Moreover, I was terrified of embarrassing myself! My first run was at a blistering 25 mph. I plowed over two cones. Tim, who had been courageously standing nearby as I swerved on the edge of control, provided expert advice to clean up my next run. The next run was cleaner at 30 mph. The next even better at 35. Finally, at the ludicrous speed of 40 mph, I threw the chili-red TTS through the five gates, clipping the third one but overall satisfied that I had not embarrassed myself too much. “I can do this,” I thought. Nerves calmed, on to the next challenge.
2. R8: Techniques of a Curve
After our time throwing the TTS through the gates of the slalom, we moved on to the next exercise called “Techniques of a Curve.” Simply put, it was a 180-degree turn. This was our first exposure to the power and posture of the mighty R8, albeit on the flat paddock and just through one simple curve. Back in the classroom, Jeff diagramed how, when taking the correct path through a curve, we could maximize the car’s energy all the way through. This meant we could hold more speed through the curve, which is what we were here for anyway, right? Hitting the apex (the point on the inside of a curve where the car should approach closest) and regressive braking (hard initial brake application followed by gradual easing of pressure) were points he hit. Points that would be driven home on the track itself.
Making our way from the classroom back to the paddock, we caught our first glimpse of two stately R8s that would be our playthings for the rest of the afternoon. A bright orange V8 model appeared, packing a 4.2-liter engine cranking out nearly 420 horsepower. Her stable mate was a brilliant red V10 R8 that packed north of 500 horsepower. Glimmering brilliantly in the early morning sun, both cars sat imposingly, waiting to teach us a lesson or two.
For this exercise, Tim would be leading us around the course in a gunmetal grey TTS. Jeff would be standing in the center of the turn, coaching us through each pass through the walkie-talkies placed in each one of our cars. The goal was to drive as fast as possible until we passed three cones denoting when to brake, then steer the car on the correct line past the apex of the turn (also marked by a cone) and out of the curve under full-throttle acceleration.
As with the slalom course, we started slowly at first. Then we gradually increased the speed each time. And each time we would become more and more comfortable with the driving dynamics of the car. Each time we would push a little further, brake a little later, turn more aggressively, and accelerate more rapidly. Towards the end, I was coming out of the apex with the throttle wide open, letting the R8 scream with all its V10 might away from the curve. It was these skills we acquired in the paddock that would directly relate to what we would see on the track. Each time, I heard Jeff encouraging me to go just a little faster.
This exercise really helped helped develop my understanding of all the power and grip the R8 had to give, and I took pleasure in pushing her harder and harder. What was more striking, however, was that each time I’d go around, I began to place my faith more and more in Tim’s and Jeff’s expertise as instructors. They pushed me to go further, but I began to understand they would never take me further than they thought my skills in the car would allow. But they would guide me further that I thought I was capable of. That’s when I began to appreciate how great these instructors really were.
We returned from our last trip to the paddock excited to take on the winding curves of Sonoma Raceway. Jeff sat us down again in the classroom and began to go over the course and the details of its many curves, straights and elevation changes. He emphasized where the rotational energy of the car was changed during braking and acceleration, and how that affected the car in a turn. He sketched on the whiteboard how to make the most efficient turns, using the skills we learned about vehicle dynamics in the paddock. Brake straight ahead. Hit the apex. Accelerate aggressively.
Make no mistake: This is what the whole morning had been leading up to. Once we were fitted with proper racing helmets, it sunk in: We were taking genuine high-performance vehicles on a bona fide racetrack. This was the real deal.
1. In an RS5
For our first two lapping sessions, we would employ an Audi RS5. This machine possesses a 4.2-liter V8 churning out 450 horsepower. Upon settling in, a simple push of the pedestal-mounted start button awoke the car from its slumber. Leading the group around the track was Jeff in a red TTS. Hidden in our car was the same walkie-talkie from the paddock. Initially, Jeff would lead us around the track and act as a tour guide of sorts, pointing out features along the track for us to become familiar with. In this way, he was training us as novice drivers to always look ahead and position the car in a way to take the most advantage of the course.
We set off from pit lane, as so many professional racecar drivers had done here, and were met immediately by turn one. Driving at what seemed like blistering speed (40 mph; it wasn’t blistering speed at all!) I focused on hitting the apex of each curve and taking note of the visual references Jeff was calling out as we passed by. I attempted to keep my red RS5 along the same path he was charting, all the while noticing the sensation on my body as we would go around curves and accelerate on the straights. For me, it was quite literally a childhood dream come true.
After a slow lap or two, and with a barked order of “OK, let’s go” on the radio, Jeff accelerated. I complied and put the pedal to the floor. Acceleration pushed back into my seat. The turns came more quickly, lateral G-forces were more intense, and the braking more aggressive. As he had done during our “Techniques of a Curve” exercise in the paddock, Jeff continued to push me to drive the car harder, and go a little faster. Incrementally adding speed each time we circled the track. As in the morning, my trust was laid fully in the hands of my car and my instructor. The car remained glued to the pavement long after I thought it would let go, and my nerve hardened a little with every lap that passed. Jeff pushed me exactly how far he knew I could go, which was much, much further than I thought I was capable of. The hallmark of a great instructor.
A short break followed the first session and we retired back to the classroom for Jeff to direct critiques of our driving lines (and how turn six seemed to confuse me). We broke for a quick lunch at local Park 121 in a fleet of Audi performance sedans before returning for the afternoon sessions and track date with the R8.
2. In an R8
The highlight of the afternoon arrived and I gleefully strapped into my crimson R8. A simple flick of the key and all 10 cylinders behind me thundered to life in a musical cacophony. Looking outside, I saw the red brake lights of Jeff’s TTS illuminate, then fade. We were ready to roll.
Coasting out of the pits and into turn one, I was immediately met by turn one and its left-turn elevation change. Easing the compliant R8 past each apex, I would make a mental note of all the landmarks Jeff pointed out in the earlier lapping sessions in the RS5. I understood that the next few times around the track I wouldn’t have time to think about them. As he had done before, Jeff was in my ear on the walkie-talkie coaching me around the track and tricky turn six (which I never quite figured out). After slowing down to make our way around the hairpin turn 11, we picked up speed heading toward the starting line. As he had done before earlier in the day, Jeff accelerated. Again I complied, and all 525 horsepower in the 10 cylinders helped me give chase. This wasn’t a practice lap anymore.
Subsequent laps around the track seemed to pass faster and faster. Each time around the track I found myself accelerating more aggressively. The sound of the R8 under such demanding acceleration is simply menacing, growling throatily as she propelled me down the straightaways. Nearing the corners, aggressive braking pushed me into my seatbelt forcefully. And navigating a corner would drive my body toward the outside of the turn a forces of nearly 1G.
I pushed myself and the car harder, always trying to keep two or three car-lengths behind the TTS. My heart was racing, but listening to Jeff’s encouragement, I pressed on around the track. Time seemed to fly by. We did lap after lap at what seemed like ever-increasing speed until finally coming out of turn 10, Jeff led me off the track, into the pits and to a stop.
Following the second session, I stepped out of the R8 for the last time. Exhausted and exhilarated, I asked Jeff how fast I had gone. He simply said “104.” I was thrilled. And while the top speed of the might R8 comes out closer to 200mph, the technical twists and turns of Sonoma reign it in. Still, I was happy.
I left the track at the end of the day feeling awestruck. And not just by the car. The whole experience left an impression. Sure, the car is amazing in every way a gearhead like myself would expect: It had tons of power and the acceleration was staggering. The way it cornered made it feel glued to the road and the handling was nothing short of perfection. But I think overall what left the biggest impression on me was the way our instructors guided us through the whole experience. They were always keen to show us a good time. However, they always emphasized education. They wanted us to learn something. “We want you to use your powers for good,” Tim explained. The course was never about driving down LA’s 405 freeway at breakneck speed; it was designed to get drivers to think ahead. Because “if you’re reacting to something, it’s too late.” And students also take home more confidence behind the wheel. Because throwing a supercar around one of the most challenging racetracks in the country does nothing BUT build confidence.
As I came home later that week and settled into my ancient Acura, I found myself sliding my seat further forward and upright, the correct driving position. My hands slid their way around the wheel to the three and nine o’clock position. Jeff and Tim would be proud.
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