At the AMG Academy, the world’s most exciting spin class
A half-dozen Mercedes-Benz SLS AMGs tear toward Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca's fabled Corkscrew. It's raining as these brutes approach the slick switchbacks. As trained, we hit the brakes hard, turn in left, pause, dive right, and off we go, another lap in automotive heaven.
Let's be clear. Riding a Pinewood Derby special down the Corkscrew would be a blast. But for $1,595, Mercedes lets you play would-be racer for the day with these $200,000 gullwinged beauties and a slew of other tweaked products as part of the company's AMG Driving Academy. The party is mobile, with instructors and cars -- including CLS63 and E63 sedans, SL63 and SLK55 roadsters and C63 Coupe -- setting up at tracks across the country.
"For a while we had something called the AMG Challenge, but in 2009 we took a look at our AMG schools in Europe and realized we could adopt that here," says Eric Linder, who runs sports marketing and consumer events for Mercedes-Benz North America.
It also doubles as effective marketing. The eight hours spent shuttling among AMG models makes one re-evaluate BMW M and Audi S machines, and at least add Mercedes' in-house tuner models to the wish list. But this isn't a sloppy fantasy camp. In true Teutonic tradition, the AMG Driving Academy runs a few dozen participants through skill-building sessions that bring to mind driver's ed, if driver's ed teachers had race credentials and the cars were tire-shredding sleds dreamed up in Affalterbach, Germany.
As the skies darken over Monterey, our group starts the day at Laguna Seca's drag strip. Paired up, we practice tearing down the straight, but the goal isn't speed, it's control. Smoothness off the line means gently squeezing the throttle on these AMGs. Stomp too hard and you get wheel spin; too soft and you're left in the dust. Up ahead, there's a blue cone that comes on fast. Our goal is to hit the brakes there and ease the car into a box made up of cones. Sounds easy. Most of us overshoot the box.
"The best braking force comes from really hitting the pedal hard right away, then easing up as you need to," instructor Rick Dilorio says of the counterintuitive action.
After running the sedans through a slalom course - starting very wide and slowly tightening the turns with quick flicks of the steering wheel - we switch over to SLK and SL AMGs for additional braking instruction. Here the mission is to first hit 40 mph and slam on the brakes, then make another run to 50 mph, hit the brakes, "and steer around an imaginary propane tank," says Dilorio with a smirk.
Next it's over to a skid pad drill, where we take SLKs into a moderate-speed right-hand bend. Just as the car crosses a puddle Dilorio barks over the in-car radio, "Kick the throttle!" That sends the car into a spin, which the vehicle's various electronic stability programs help moderate. But the point here is to use countersteer to bring the car around, and when we're told to shut off all electronic babysitters the group does endless pirouettes.