Race tracks and speedways are always located on the edges of civilization. This makes perfect sense; who wants to live next to a concrete Hot Wheels track that smells like ripe rubber and features screaming engines?
Well, here in Florida, an alligator or three. Not exactly pets, they thrive in the soupy margins of the West Palm Beach International Raceway. While we are there to participate in the AMG Performance Tour, the glittering string of high end 2012 Mercedes AMGs provide a sharp contrast to the prehistoric terror of spiny hide and gnashing teeth that rest in the reeds. A groundskeeper has baited one to snarl at me – with an apple pie.
AMG is the performance brand for Mercedes-Benz Cars. As you would expect, the higher up the money scale you go, the more car you get for your buck. We are testing a dozen cars here that cover the range from two-door coupes to a wagon to a roadster. While they all feature monstrously responsive engines – as you would expect – they also feature handling dynamics predicated on a particular car. You can take the big 4-door S63 screaming down the back straight at 230km/hr, but it is still a more sedate feel than taking the SLS AMG Roadster for the same ride.
So what’s the point, you might ask. While Mercedes offers several driving academies, this one is available only through dealer invitation. Buy one of these beauties, and your dealer might plunk you in the seat for a day. While I’m tempted to be reminded of that old ad telling me that membership has its privileges, the fact remains that advanced training is available – and recommended – for all drivers, at some level.
We take driving for granted. On a closed track with a car built to take the punishment, you can truly dissect the physics of driving well. You’re not going to take a corner in your downtown the way you will on a racetrack, but understanding how your car will respond – and respond at speed -will instil in you two very important things: your car’s limits, and your own.
All the cars we are driving feature the AMG Speedshift MCT 7-Speed Sports Transmission. In essence, the car responds like a manual, but you drive it like an automatic. Some of us joke that it’s pretty easy to feel like a race car driver when you don’t have to work a clutch or shift.
It’s brilliant engineering, but it reinforces my belief that if you’re going to own high performance cars, you owe it to yourself (and anyone who might end up driving it) to get to a track for some professional training with it. Point-and-shoot driving at these levels has its drawbacks; it takes practice to resist slamming on your brakes and jamming on your accelerator in response to any change. Learning how important vision is – look up; look waaaaay up – gives you time to respond more smoothly. Slowly releasing the brakes or easing up on the accelerator provides more control and better handling in anything you drive.
Advanced driver courses never fail to remind me one of the most overlooked parts of getting the most from your car: tires. It essentially all comes down to four hand sized patches between you and that smooth ride, or a collision. It’s also one of the reasons I often recommend the various Mercedes-Benz and AMG driving academies (see sidebar): you’re using their vehicles, and smoking their tires.
With the day drawing to a close, it offers up some surprises. A colleague is shocked to find while driving the SLS Coupe, he can’t catch the E63 AMG Wagon down a straight; he comes in exclaiming he’d buy that awesome wagon in a heartbeat – if he had 100K for a wagon.
It may all be fine German engineering, but a day at the track in the hot Florida sunshine is as American an apple pie.