Audi Sportscar Experience at Infineon Raceway, Sonoma CA
June 8, 2009 - Words by Anthony Marino, photos by Stéphane Vannier
Audi Forum Sonoma
29359 Arnold Drive
Sonoma, California 95476
There aren't very many 'good' reasons one should crawl out of a warm cozy bed early in the morning, especially when it's damp and chilly outside. Heading to a racetrack to test out a handful of various Audis, however, is one of those good reasons. That's exactly what lay in store for me on this day, as the sun began trying to peak out from behind the rain clouds over Sonoma California. Stéphane (AKA: Avantéix) and I were about to head to a true gem for us Audi enthusiasts, where nestled upon a hill overlooking Turn 1 at Infineon Raceway (AKA: Sears Point) sits the Audi Forum Sonoma. It is situated just next to - and partnered with - the famed Jim Russell Drivers School and it's home to the Audi Sportscar Experience. Here, anyone over the age of 21 and a ticket to enter can partake in a number of different driving courses. The options range in length, price, and types of vehicles driven. On this day we were here for the S-Model Plus One-Day Program which puts you behind the wheel of everything from the new TTS to the big V10 powered S8. It's basically up to you as to which of Audi's S-cars you want to wring out.
We arrived to Infineon at 8 AM where we were warmly greeted and ushered upstairs for check-in. Stéphane had been to The Forum once before, but I am ashamed to say that this was my first time visiting the facility. I had of course heard many great things about it but words (and even photos) do not do the place justice. Walking past the garages of the Jim Russell facility you come across what looks like some crazy red spaceship that had landed upon a small trackside hill. As you walk up the steps towards what the Audi Forum you cannot help but make that "ship deck" connection. It's all very clean, very modern, and oh so cool. But wait, there's more!
Step inside The Forum and the cool factor is turned up another notch, especially for us Audi nuts. It's like you've died and gone to Audi heaven. There's Audi memorabilia, Audi merchandise, Audi parts, Audi brochures, and even Audi TV playing on a sleek white flat-panel display. Once your eyes settle back into your head you're instructed to sign in and are then handed a lanyard with a personalized badge. Very official. I believe there's also coffee, tea, and water if you want it but I was close enough to wetting my pants with excitement and anticipation as it was.
After checking in you are introduced to your instructors for the day, typically numbering between 2 and 4 depending upon the size of the class (number of "students"). On this day we were lucky enough to have a very small class which meant more one-on-one time between students and teachers as well as more track time for us aspiring racecar drivers. Our two instructors were veterans of the motorsports scene, with both past and current experience ranging from Le Mans to Drift. Even after just a few minutes inside the classroom part of the day, I knew that we couldn't have asked for better instructors than both Lonnie and Tony. They immediately made us all feel comfortable and quite confident that we were in good hands. After the introductory classroom discussion and visuals on safety and the basics of high performance driving (which meant pushing these cars much more aggressively than we would typically drive our own) it was time to get behind the wheel of a car.
The first in-car instruction was on a coned slalom course. It was recommended that we use the TTS for this lesson and I must say that it was a fine choice indeed. What a nimble little rocket the car is! Firstly though was getting ourselves properly adjusted within the car - positioning the seats, steering wheel, and seat belt to allow for optimum range of of motion and line of sight. Then came a few slow-speed drive-throughs with the instructors. They pointed out where the turn-in points were located in order to best take the course. They were very good about attending to each individual's skill set and comfort level. Not everyone is used to - or even wants to - push a car to its limits. That personal level of instruction was fantastic and I felt that it went a long way to each of us getting better, faster, and more comfortable with the car. Sure I succeeded in knocking over a cone or two, but that is why the day's program is laid out the way it is. Better to kiss a cone than a wall!
The wide array of students an instructor sees in a day really isn't something you think about until you arrive at the program and meet the others who will be partaking on the day's journey with you. You're fairly aware of your own driving knowledge and motoring skills (or lack thereof) but this can really vary greatly within each session. For instance one of the fellow attendees on this day was a woman a bit older than myself and Stéph who hadn't ever stepped foot on a racetrack or even driven a manual transmission car in several years. Owning an automatic Mk1 TT she seemed a bit intimidated at first by the prospect of pushing a car to its limits, but boy did she pick it up fast. I commend her bravery and willingness to just go for it. Driving a stick really is like riding a bicycle - you don't ever forget how. After a few laps and some one-on-one instruction she'd knocked the rust off in no time at all. More
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