Taking the AMG Challenge


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The day began at 7 a.m. sharp at California Speedway in Fontana, Calif., but it wasn't so bad since the first activity of the day was breakfast. Let's just say that Mercedes-Benz knows how to do meals like it knows how to make cars. During breakfast, the team leaders were introduced and they reviewed their racing résumés. Our special guest, race car driver Tommy Kendall, then told a few hilarious driving anecdotes.

Following breakfast, our Mercedes-Benz instructors described what we would learn at the 2003 AMG Challenge event:

  • a better understanding of car control, vehicle dynamics and braking techniques
  • what it takes to really hustle a car around a racetrack quickly and consistently

The instructors even went so far as to say that we would leave the event with new enthusiasm for the art of high-performance driving along with a huge adrenaline rush. What they could have added and felt confident in saying as well was, "Oh yeah, you'll want to rush right out and buy one of the Mercedes-Benz AMG models."

So what's AMG? The first two letters stand for the names of the company founders: Hans-Werner Aufrecht and Erhard Melcher, and the last letter signifies where the company was created: Grossaspach, Germany, back in 1967. What Mr. A and Mr. M did was modify Mercedes-Benz automobiles for better performance, either for road use or racing, in which they were heavily involved. As the years went on, AMG became known as a premier tuner of Mercedes-Benz automobiles, and eventually offered interior and exterior modifications. Custom instruments, steering wheels and seats as well as ground effects, spoilers and wheels were added in AMG cars. The company did such a great job that Mercedes-Benz brought it in-house in 1990, and as a result AMG now has its own high-performance skunk works, similar to rival BMW's "M" division. There is now an AMG version of nearly every Benz model, featuring powerful engines, agile suspensions and subtle accents inside and out to set them apart from their more common brethren. These are, of course, the very things that get the juices flowing in a driving enthusiast.

There were about 75 attendees at the event which were divided into five groups to be put through 10 exercises. Included in the mix was a 40-minute classroom session to teach us about basic performance driving concepts like apexes, understeer, oversteer and so on. Mercedes built in two sessions each of driving on the oval track and open lapping on the road course. This allowed us to hit these activities first thing in the morning at low speeds to get a feel for the cars and the track, and then we drove them later in the day at higher speeds.

Exercise 1 — Oval Track.

I couldn't believe it…only 8:20 in the morning…and they're going to throw us on an oval track in very fast cars when 99 percent of us have never even set foot on a racetrack. Nevertheless, I was so excited I could barely contain myself, as I strapped on my helmet and jumped right into the CL55 AMG. I hit 120 miles per hour on the straights and went into each turn close to 100. It was like nothing I have ever experienced before.

Now, had it not been for the very brave instructor riding shotgun in each of our cars, I never would have been able to handle the car the way I did. Basically, the instructor's job, besides praying that nothing happens, was to explain to each driver when to accelerate, when to brake, when to close the distance between you and the car in front of you and so on. One thing I learned within three laps is that you can't just get in the car and drive like you would on a freeway — it's all about driving in a groove, hitting the turns just right, accelerating at the right time, letting off the throttle at the right time. I used to ride a motorcycle, and it required a lot of extra thinking and calculating that you wouldn't normally do when driving a car in the same environment. Well, driving on an oval track makes riding a motorcycle seem like a Sunday stroll.

The car was amazing — the seats were very comfortable and supportive, and the lumbar was great. Though the standard CL suspension was tweaked to AMG standards, it was still a very smooth ride and the acceleration, well, let's just say if you ever want to be thrown back in your seat when mashing down the throttle at 100 mph, this car will do that for you. They also let us drive the oval in a 2004 E55 AMG. This car was second to none — let's see, a high-performance midsize luxury sedan just shy of 470 horsepower. It has Corvette Z06 performance and can hold your baby seat in the back safely or carry your significant other and two friends to dinner in comfort and style…this is an all-around package and it plays in everyone's sandbox very well.

Exercise 2 — Basic Car Control.

Here we had the opportunity to take CLK55 AMG coupes out on a coned-out course set up in such a way that if you try to just muscle through it, you'll slide the car into cones — as I did on the first lap. By lap number two, I was much improved but still far from perfect. I understood that I needed to make very subtle steering wheel inputs, but to become skillful at it, I would need more than four laps. One lesson I carried away from this activity is that if you are going to mash down the accelerator, you have to be equally aggressive with your braking — which is what I wasn't doing in the beginning. Another lasting impression was the effectiveness of the car's Electronic Stability Program (ESP). I felt it working as I moved the car through the cones, and had it been off, I never would have been able to hustle the car through this exercise with the same level of control.

Exercise 3 — Skid Pad.

Um, yeah, S55 AMGs going around in circles on a wet surface thanks to the services of a water truck…need I say more? OK, I will: the skid pad was definitely one of my favorite activities. I have always loved spinning my tires, fishtailing and sliding, and that's just what they let us do in this exercise. Once again, I was blown away by how well ESP helps the driver maintain control of the car in slippery situations. Later in the exercise, we were instructed to turn off ESP. Cut to me spinning out the car followed by me laughing out loud in delight. More importantly, it was helpful to see what to do when the tires lose traction in slick conditions, especially if you're driving a car that doesn't have stability or traction control. We also learned what steps to take with acceleration and braking to recover from oversteer and understeer situations.

Exercise 4 — Classroom Session.

I've never been much of a student, and I like to learn everything hands-on, but our instructor, Bill Cooper, squeezed in a lot of information but not so much that it felt like information overload. What we learned in the classroom helped out in our exercises later in the day, which included revisiting the oval track at much faster paces. Ultimately, you need much more than 40 minutes in a classroom if you're serious about performance driving. But with an $850-per-person admission fee for the AMG Challenge, 40 minutes was all I wanted on this day. "Let's go back to the track," I thought, "and beat on the AMGs some more."

Exercise 5 — Open Lapping.

Open lapping is like autocrossing, but much more spread out and on a racetrack — which gives you the opportunity to hit much, much higher speeds, that is, if you have the skills to pilot a car going that fast. I parked myself in the CL55, and with an instructor's help, hustled the car around the track. As on the oval, the instructor told me when to get on the throttle, when to let off and when to brake. I really enjoyed this event, especially when I tried it in the E55, which is actually smaller and nimbler than the CL and better suited for driving on a track. I'll admit it, this exercise takes finesse, which I don't have a lot of when it comes to driving — I tend to muscle my way through racing. At the same time, everything we discussed in the classroom — about approaching turns and hitting apexes, and how much you should brake and when — all started to come together on the track. Of course, on an emotional level, I loved the relentless acceleration on straightaways (all these AMGs get up to 60 mph in about 4.5 seconds, give or take a few tenths), mashing down the brake pedal and taking turns at high speeds. Another thing that stayed with me throughout the day is the high level of concentration it takes to pilot a car around the track — and do it correctly.

Exercise 6 — Individual Autocross.

In this exercise, the instructors timed us to see how long it took us to maneuver an SL55 (with the power retractable hardtop in the open position) around a coned-out autocross course. Autocrossing is fun because it requires both speed and precision. Going fast is all well and good, but you've got to be smooth with your steering, braking and throttle inputs to get through the tight turns without being penalized for knocked-down cones. The SL55 was amazing in this setting. I was a bit surprised that Mercedes let us autocross it rather than the smaller SLK32, but I'm sure glad it did, because this was a great way to see just how nimble this high-dollar grand touring car is.

Exercise 7 — Team Autocross.

This was fun. First, each team member took a practice lap through the autocross course. Then, we all had to line up and each person raced the car through the course, passing the car to another teammate, and the clock didn't stop until the last person crossed the finish line. We did this event in the C32 AMG, which was impressive for both its performance and luxurious accommodations. I'm not a big fan of its $50K price tag, though, even if it does make 349 horsepower.

Exercise 8 — Open Lapping.

Just like before, but this time much faster. I went right for the E55 because, again, I appreciated it being able to do everything well, but later wished I had opted for a bit less car, perhaps the C32 or SLK32. Basically, I was doing fine until we were instructed to go through the course faster, which in all honesty I should have been able to handle, but fatigue was starting to set in. I ended up missing one particular turn twice in a row and introduced the E55 to the grass. It was one of the back-to-back turns in opposite directions that you essentially just drive straight through with slight turning. I was, of course, turning the wheel too much. In hindsight, it was sort of cool, because how many people get to do that in an $80K vehicle and not care? But it was also an eye-opener: Even though I had been listening to the instructor seated next to me, the E55 was simply more car than I could handle at that speed. After some discussion, my instructor said, "Why don't we try it slower?" That did the trick.

Exercise 9 — Oval Track.

We hit the racing oval again in the afternoon, but much faster this time. In the morning session, I had hit 120 mph in both the CL55 and the E55. But now, after a day of driving and classroom instruction, I was hoping to go a bit faster. I knew I needed to concentrate and use as much finesse as possible. Ultimately, I was able to hit 140 mph and I felt a lot more confident in this round, drawing upon the tools I'd picked up in the course of the day. Besides that, the instructor was assertive yet patient, which helped a bunch.

Exercise 10 — Advanced Car Control.

This exercise was identical to Exercise 2 — Basic Car Control, but this time we shut off the ESP in the CLK55. This was an enjoyable activity, because we got to get the car a little loose through the turns. In doing so, you really get a feel for two things: One, how much a stability control system will allow you to get away with mistakes, and two, how much more challenging and fun racing is without it.

To top off the day, we were able to take some late-afternoon hot laps with professional drivers at the wheel. These guys can drive, and drive well. They went through the open-lapping road course at much higher speeds than we did and with three passengers versus the one we had when we drove. It was exciting to see them pushing these AMGs to the limit, getting the cars into controlled four-wheel drifts when exiting some turns.

All in all, the AMG Challenge proved to be an incredibly entertaining and informative experience for a car enthusiast of average driving skill. Although I was exhausted at the end of the day, the only question in my mind was, "Will I spend $850 to take the challenge again next year?" The answer is yes — without hesitation.

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