Unlocking the secrets to any great racetrack is a challenge for any novice racer. Learning the lines, finding the limits of the car and, of course, yourself when pushing to the edge.
It's unnerving, to say the least, but I fought my anxiety, gripped the wheel and planted my foot. I was here to learn one of the greatest tracks in the world and had the AMG Driving Academy to teach me every nuance of the 11-turn, 2.238-mile course of Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca.
The AMG Driving Academy is nothing new to Europeans. They've been willing participants for years, enrolling young drivers in the program since 2006. Adapting the formula to American pallets, the Academy offers three levels of driver education on tracks across the United States.
When it rolls into town, you don't need to worry about sharing the field with grassroots racers or test and tune teams – you get the track to yourselves for the entire session, whether its the one-day Basic level, two-day Advanced or even three-day Pro course. This means tracks like Laguna Seca, Road Atlanta, Lime Rock Park and Road America become your personal AMG playground.
As you'd hope, AMG brings its fleet of coupes, convertibles and GTs for you to experience. Our line-up included the SLK55, C63 AMG Coupe, CLS63 AMG, SLS AMG, SL63 AMG, E63 AMG, and the legendary CLK63 AMG Black Series (taxi rides only). Needless to say, our cup runneth over!
The Advanced level – the session we'd been invited to attend by Meguiar's – was a two-day intensive course designed to get you thinking faster, looking further and pushing harder. Admittedly, I'm no track junkie but dream I could be (he's a sort of Sergeant Slow – Ed). My previous track time has been very limited, so I'll admit to being apprehensive at first, particularly with this much high-powered machinery at my disposal.
Day one was perfectly paced. First, we tackled a slalom through Turn 4, then a trail braking exercise through Turns 1 and 2. Next was a skidpad designed to exercise power oversteer transitions, then an ABS braking lane change discipline before an autocross to put everything you'd learned into practice. Did I mention all this took place before lunch?
In the afternoon, the cars were lined up on pitlane to assault the full course with lead/follow laps. Driving onto the track I idolized as a "bucket list" destination proved to be a steep learning curve. Luckily, the AMG instructors encouraged us at every turn… even the intimidating Corkscrew was meticulously broken down and stripped of its menace.
By day's end our lap times were tumbling and I was excited to discover I came within 5sec of guest driver Tommy Kendall (you can see my "Final Lap" in a Mercedes SLS at europeancarweb.com
Throughout the day, while other participants ran their Final Lap, groups rotated from car to car. When finished, it's estimated we ran almost 50 laps in various vehicles, not to mention the autocross competition in the paddock area, where the fastest times were awarded various prizes including an official AMG racing helmet.
Checking off an item on your bucket list is hugely rewarding, but doing it with the AMG Driving Academy instructors pushing you to apply every lesson was beyond my expectations. I walked away with a newfound passion for track days and a better understanding of my daily driving habits (most of which are bad Los Angeles habits). It's provided me with more confidence and the desire to discover if I could handle the Pro Level, where open lapping takes place almost the entire day.
The AMG Driving Academy is open to anyone who wishes to benefit from the experience and training. It's recommended for Mercedes-Benz AMG customers who wish to explore the ability of their cars and learn to control them at speed.
Known for providing exceptional car care products, Meguiar's partnered with the AMG Academy as a title sponsor for the program. As a result, every car is kept looking its best by the on-site detailers, no matter what the conditions or how hard they're driven. Meguiar's even donates products to participants as part of a top three autocross prize, with one visitor receiving a free car detail on the day. meguiars.com
AMG Driving Academy Levels
One-day event. Includes breakfast, agility slalom, drag race, group photo, skidpad (wet cornering), ABS braking lane change, line technique, lunch. Lead/Follow laps, Taxi rides, Final Lap video, competition autocross and Victory Ceremony. $1795
Two-day event. Day-one: Breakfast, agility slalom, drag race, group photo, skidpad (wet cornering), ABS braking lane change, line technique, lunch. Sector training, line talk classroom, handling course/autocross, group lead/follow on full course. Driver reception and dinner.
Day-two: Breakfast, lead/follow, lead/follow Final Lap, competition autocross, data classroom, lunch. Lead/follow, lead/follow Final Lap, competition autocross, data classroom, Taxi rides and Victory Ceremony. $3195
Three-day event. Day-one: Lunch, technical classroom, drive modules (50min rotations), timed slalom, skidpad (wet cornering), ABS braking lane change, line technique. Driver reception and dinner.
Day-two: Breakfast, lead/follow, lead/follow video, data classroom, handling course/autocross, lunch. Lead/follow, lead/follow video, handling course/autocross. Debrief with beer and pretzels.
Day-three: Lead/follow group (60min rotations), open lapping at 4500rpm, open lapping at 5000rpm, lunch. Open lapping at 5500rpm, open lapping at 6000rpm, data competition, autocross competition, Taxi rides. $3995