“Kind of a shame my kids can’t learn cursive handwriting and heel-toe downshifting”, says Jeff Sakowicz, lead instructor for the Audi Sportscar Experience. He shakes his head, lamenting the state of American education in the classroom and out. Then he lifts his gaze back to me, his pupil for the day, a journalist who fears that his own demerits in heel-toe downshifting will soon be revealed.
Outside, sports cars doppler by at high rpms, prepping engine, tires, brakes. Sakowicz, who grew up in Ventura, California and has the light drawl of a guy who has spent the majority of his life at race tracks, resumes his presentation, discussing the Audi S Tronic dual-clutch automatic transmission and how we’ll best leverage it on the track. Downshifting, to my relief, happens on the wheel.
In the past decade, Audi has expanded their line from 16 models in 2005 to 42 models in 2015. To showcase their progeny and increase visibility for their illustrious R8, the German company launched the Audi Sportscar Experience at Sonoma Raceway in 2008. The track, a winding 2.52-mile route with 12 turns, rises and falls in the hills of its namesake; on it, Audi rips hot laps in the S4, S5, TTS and R8. For the Germans, it’s a West Coast love fest: the cars hug the track, the track heats up the cars. For Audi enthusiasts who have never hit the track, it’s a pilgrimage worth making. For lay drivers who want to learn to go fast, this is proper one-day crash-course training. For me, it’s proving ground for “Do You Know How to Go Fast?”
Humans are, essentially, vehicle potential restrictors. Cars go fast, humans fear things. The key, then, to good driving is getting out of your own way and letting the car do what it does best.
Sakowicz begins by explaining that humans are, essentially, vehicle potential restrictors. Cars go fast; humans fear things. The key to good driving, then, is getting out of your own way and letting the car do what it does best. Today, I’m going to overcome my own limitations using a three-pronged approach: classroom instruction articulating the conceptual part of driving, time spent on the track doing preliminary driving technique and engaging in some practice laps, and — in a final celebration of our learning — “hauling the mail” (a Sakowiczism) in a dozen or so hot laps on the track. I’ll acquire knowledge of an entire system of driving: where to sit, how to steer, when to brake, where to turn, how to hit apexes, where to look and when to drop the accelerator and redline the beast. Sakowicz starts with the seat.
The lower you are in the car, the better connected with the road you’ll be. (Low seat equals low center of gravity.) So drop the seat all the way. Then, move it forward so the knees are slightly bent, with left leg braced on the left side (for automatic), right heel comfortable and relaxed. Your back should be vertical, in good posture. Line the wheel up with a clear sightline out the windshield. Arms should be comfortable and hands at 9 and 3, thumbs casually pressed up against the wheel. There should be room enough to turn the wheel 180 degrees without overextending one arm or having an elbow jut into your lap. If your back pulls off the seat when turning 180 degrees, you’re too far away.
Positioning ties into steering. The visual is this: there’s a string tied from the bottom of the steering wheel to your right big toe. If you accelerate or decelerate hard, the wheel should be straight, to let out the string. As you turn, you pull your feet off the pedals. The mentality is supported by thinking about what cars are good at: accelerating and decelerating in a straight line and turning at constant speeds. “Cars are good at speeding up, good at slowing down, and good at cornering, but they’re not good at doing more than one thing at a time”, Sakowicz says.
Another way to think about it, Sakowicz tells me, is to consider what kind of grip a car has on the road. At rest, a car is balanced. In acceleration, the car’s weight shifts to the rear tires. Decelerate, and weight shifts to the front tires; turn left and it shifts to the right tires, and vice versa. Sakowicz encourages me to “saturate the grip potential of the tire”, to “allow the tires to feel the platform beneath them” by maximizing contact. To do that, the goal is to get the majority of the accelerating and decelerating done in the straights, then to enter corners as near to or at the maximum speed possible for the car.
“What attitude do you bring the car into the corner?” Sakowicz asks. The answer: a depressed one. Progressive braking, or slowly increasing brake pressure, isn’t what you want when trying to slow a car from 110 mph to 70 mph as quickly and efficiently as possible. The formula, instead, is to use depressive braking: hitting the pedal pressure hard before hitting the corner, then slowly letting it out as your round the curve. “’I’m going to slow down too much for this corner’”, Sakowicz says, “is a good feeling to have.”
The last thing I’m meant to keep jostling around the mind before Sakowicz sends me careening around the track is cornering: finding lines and hitting apexes. This is the intense mathematics of curves and lines — how to best optimize the positioning of your vehicle coming into one particular curve. The idea, roughly, is to find the perfect apex (the optimal hinge point) of the corner and aim the car at that point. For early apex corners, you tend to start on an inside line on the track and move outside. For late apex, it’s the wide sweep that then moves in. Finding that optimal apex is key, and then nailing the steps into the corner — straight line braking, entering the turn trail braking, hitting the apex, then increasing acceleration as the car straightens out — is where the subtle nuances of track speed comes through. If that’s not enough to overwhelm, Sakowicz adds that I need to look ahead of the corner we’re currently in. Or, as he puts it: “Got to keep looking at hope, not reality.”
The course seems perfunctory enough at 60 mph. “After lunch”, Sakowicz says, “we’re going to be boogieing.”
I take that note to the track. A slalom-style cone course is set up, along with a 180-degree turn. In the slalom I practice hitting lines, finding apexes and accelerating through them. It’s a controlled environment and errors don’t land you in a concrete barrier. I appreciate the gentleness of entry. The car, an Audi S4, handles the maneuvers no sweat. The next move is aimed at rounding the corner — starting slowly and working through the line. I’m alone in the car, but Sakowicz talks through the technique on a radio. Gradually, things speed up. Then, we head out to the full track for a casual lead-follow, Sakowicz in an A4, me in the TTS. The course seems perfunctory enough at 60 mph. “After lunch”, Sakowicz says, “we’re going to be boogieing.”
Audi’s Sport program gives deliberate progression to taking to the track. By the time we hit lunch — escorted in Audi’s swank S8 to Park 121 — I’m feeling prepared for the hot laps that follow. So far, the day has been education. When we return to the track, it’s time to begin driving.
All three cars — the S4, S5, and TTS — are given track time, and there’s ample time to get the adrenaline rush going. The first few laps consist of concentration, but by the third or fourth lap, the body begins to anticipate what it will accomplish with the car. My vision starts to lead. My hands begin to follow. At the end of the second lap session, I’ve seen speeds north of 110 mph — on a track that’s given to turns, not straightaways.
A couple times the car gets loose on the corners — coming in too fast, or just a victim of, as Sakowizc calls it, “the good ol’ centrifugal force”. But I learn and adjust. After the last hot laps, Sakowizc gives a final revisit to what we’ve covered for the day, then sends me on my way. I don’t drive an Audi on the normal road, and I don’t think the speeds I saw will match this training for quite some time. But the program did one thing exceptionally well: it brought a novice race driver into the realm of competence. It also, as a collateral advantage, sold the idea that a street-equipped car can go real fast, real quickly, and be a hell of a lot of fun to drive. And for a journalist who fears heel-toe downshifts and off-camber turns, this is where I proved that speed goes both to the cerebral type as much as the lionhearted.