Open Road

An amateur behind the wheel at AMG Driving Academy

Driving is like sex (and how I spent my day at the orgy).

There are people who would know exactly what to do when given the opportunity to strap on a race helmet, jump in a fast car, and mash the pedals around a racetrack.

I am not one of those people.

I am one of those people who has always wondered what it'd be like to strap on a race helmet, jump in a fast car, and mash the pedals around a racetrack. I never expected to actually do those things. My life experience has prepared me not one iota for those things. Yet on August 20 th I did precisely those things. I participated in a full day of race training at Lime Rock Park in Connecticut.

Now that I'm back, I am asked: Was it amazing? Did you learn a lot? Did you embarrass yourself? These questions are easy. Yes. Yes. Oh yes.

The hard part is explaining the experience overall. Months of anticipation. Ten hours at the track being retaught an activity that I first learned 25+ years ago.

A metaphor comes to mind.

* * *

It's what we talked about in high school. We joked about who would do it first. We bragged about how far we'd gone. We were told to do it safely and check fluids. There was no instruction manual. Well, ok, there was. But no one took it seriously. That's not how you learned to do it. You learned from movies. You more-or-less pretended you knew what you were doing... until you more-or-less knew what you were doing. Then somewhere along the line, after a lot of repetition, you stopped thinking about it the same way you did when you were younger. It became routine. Just another activity during which your mind might drift to overdue library books.

You get the metaphor. But please allow me to extend it closer to its breaking point...

* * *

I arrive at the racetrack at about 7:30am. There are many dozens of world-class models awaiting me. Ogling is allowed. Touching is encouraged. Over the course of this day, I will be inside perhaps ten of these models. They will do things for me that I have never experienced before. They have moves that are hard to describe. Their sounds alone will keep me grinning for months.

At 7:35am, my wife says: "Ok, I'll meet you back here at 5:30?"

This is where I set aside the metaphor.

* * *

I am attending AMG Driving Academy. The omnipresent vehicles – GT's, SL's, E's, C's, CLS's, CLA's, SLS's – are the fleetest of the Mercedes-Benz fleet. They can all accelerate 0-60 in (give or take) four seconds. I stare at them in the parking lot.

When I'm finished staring, I sign in. I'm directed to the helmet station, where I am told my head appears to be Medium. This is the least embarrassing head size I can imagine having. I take it as a positive sign.

I enter the main room and sit at my assigned table. I am approximately the third trainee to arrive. I'm early. There will soon be about 90 of us.

I am offered a sumptuous breakfast spread. I shuffle down the buffet line even though I'm not even slightly hungry. Apart from the food, there is a nice variety of over-the-counter medications for motion sickness. I gulp one of each. I am the sort of person who gets sick at amusement parks.

I chit-chat with a few people as they arrive. They seem way cooler than me. They have visited tracks before. They tune their own engines (or at least know what that entails). They eat hearty breakfasts. They do not take motion sickness meds.

* * *

After breakfast we are shown a badass video of cars racing, swerving, skidding, and other neat stuff. That's followed by a few welcome remarks and PowerPoint slides. By 8:45 it's off to the races...

I'm on Team Yellow. We head to the "skid pad" first. This is essentially a circle of pavement with an overhead water sprayer to keep half of the loop slick. I am taught how to lose control of my steering... then regain it.

These are the instructions: "Throttle up to 20 MPH. Keep your visual focus well out in front. Punch the accelerator at the orange cone. As you feel the back tires start to swing out, throw the steering wheel quickly in the other direction until you catch the skid."

If that sounds hard to comprehend and achieve, then I've explained it right.

It is not easy to monitor a car's speed, direction, position and feel at the same time. The first time I try this maneuver – also called "wet cornering" – my car spins about 540 degrees. It occurs to me to punch the brake long after it is necessary. My car comes to a rest facing the wrong direction, as I wonder where the orange cone is.

The second time I try this maneuver, I overcompensate. The car never skids at all. After that I under-overcompensate. The next time I probably over-under-overcompensate. Or something. The instructors offer a long list of things I am doing wrong. This becomes a common theme throughout the day.

* * *

Next up: Drag Race training. I settle into a new car. I'm revving it hard. I'm staring down my opponent in the next lane. There's a sophisticated lighting set-up called a Christmas Tree
that signals the start of our race. Right on cue, I jam my foot onto the accelerator. My opponent screeches off the line. I remain stationary. I have forgotten to shift out of Park. I do not win my first drag race.

My second attempt goes better. It is not hard to drive fast and straight when your car is a snarling beast. What makes this drag race tricky is that the winner must stop within a clearly marked patch of pavement. When I jam on the brakes, I go skidding right past this target. I do not win my second drag race.

On my third attempt, I am quick off the line. Nearing the finish, I lead my opponent by a car length. I pound the brake. Too early. So I ease up on the brake. My opponent catches up to me. So I hit the accelerator. This is not the best drag race technique. The instructors are quick to point this out.

* * *

Next activity. Different car. New instructions: "Throttle up to 50 MPH down this straightaway. When you reach the pylon, pretend a mother pushing a baby carriage has entered the street. Jam your brakes as you change lanes – first left, then right – around the obstruction."

I attempt this maneuver. The mother is able to leap out of my way. The baby sustains moderate injuries.

* * *

I am on the actual track now. Lime Rock's website describes it as "the most significantly historic road racing circuit in North America... 1.50 miles of up hill and down dale... deceivingly simple... immensely challenging." It's also very pretty.

The second half of the day's training regimen is essentially about combining multiple skills into longer runs. The first time around the track, I am following the instructor at slow speed. His voice echoes through my radio: "Follow my line. Hit your apex. Track out to the left. Don't brake early." All of that makes perfect sense as I follow. My challenge is remembering it.

The second time around the track is less slow. The instructor's voice is less gentle. "That's not the line I showed you. That's not your apex. Why are your brake lights on ten feet early?"

The third time around is faster and harsher. "Your line! Your apex! Your brakes! What are you doing?!"

What I am doing is driving faster than I have ever driven before. My instincts are battling my brain... my fast-twitch muscles are wrestling my sense of reason for control of the wheel... and my capacity for behavioral learning is reaching its limit. I want to think about my apex, but more than anything I am thinking: weeeeeeeeee.

* * *

After piloting my car around the track many times, I take a "taxi ride" with a professional driver. Same track. Top speed. My first thought in the passenger seat: Wow, this guy really knows what he's doing. My second thought: Uh, where do I hold on? My third thought: Dramamine don't fail me now.

* * *

The culmination of my training is an autocross competition – a winding, undulating, compact course. Every trainee gets three timed passes. The ultimate test of the driver's ability.

Like before, I first follow the instructor at slow speed. He really wants Team Yellow to do well at this. It's a point of pride among the instructors. He provides all the guidance needed to ace the course.

"Go full throttle off the line. Hug the inside until you get to this cone. Not this cone. Definitely not this cone. Point your nose at that white house as you come out of the first turn. Not the red house. Definitely not that clump of trees. Back to full throttle. Until here. Don't brake early..."

He continues on in that vein. On and on. Long beyond the capacity of my mental filing system. I'm like Lucy in the candy factory. I have nowhere to put all this information.

* * *

I get three practice runs through the autocross. The instructor informs us that a great driver can do this course in 35 seconds. He wants us to do it in 37 or 38. I just want to do it in a time that will not embarrass me.

My first practice run: 40 seconds and change. I am reminded of all the things I did wrong.

For my second practice run, I focus squarely on my problem areas: 41 seconds and change.

Final practice run: 43 seconds. I suck. My head is swimming.

The next three runs count. Each circuit is watched by everyone. Each time gets written on the big board. The drivers before me post their times. There are a whole bunch of 40's. A few high 39s. One 37 and change.

My turn. I decide to turn off the voices in my head and just drive.

#1: 40 seconds
#2: 39 seconds
#3: 38 seconds

Something has clicked for me. The lessons have begun sinking in. I get it now. I know what I'm doing. Sort of. I am confident that I'd be able to shave another second off my time with a couple more cracks at it.

I have seen the white house and I have pointed my nose at it.

* * *

There is an award ceremony at the end of the day. I learn that the fastest time through the autocross in the entire Academy was the guy on Team Yellow with the 37. He wins an AMG helmet. The second-fastest time in the entire Academy is in the low 38's (about 4/10 th of a second faster than me). That guy wins an iPad. I win nothing.

My wife picks me up at 5:30pm. "You look very happy" she says.

I am.

* * *

We talked and bragged about it in high school because there is something elemental about it. There is a deep-rooted appeal. A thrill. A joy. Brought to the surface by youth. Often restrained thereafter. But, man, if you can find a way to recapture and unleash that animal spirit... WOW. This is what being human is all about.

I don't know when or if this opportunity will recur. But if the invitation does arrive, I will definitely come again.

You get the metaphor, right?

Jason Hecker is a corporate communication writer, strategist, and creative director based in Chicago. His daily commute is approximately 40 feet.

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