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  1. #1
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    Post Audi Sportscar Experience at Infineon Raceway, Sonoma CA

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    Audi Sportscar Experience at Infineon Raceway, Sonoma CA
    June 8, 2009 - Words by Anthony Marino, photos by Stéphane Vannier

    Physical Location
    Audi Forum Sonoma
    29359 Arnold Drive
    Sonoma, California 95476

    Web Address

    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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  2. #2
    Registered Member One Ring
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    Mar 18 2010
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    Foster City, CA

    I did this school last weekend and think I should warn prospective participants about a few things with respect to the school format - apparently it is not always exactly as described here.

    First off, you are always paired off with someone, which means that half the time in the car, you are not driving, and sometimes they are not totally even with the lap counts, so you can end up driving less than half of the time on the track.

    On top of that, all laps are led by instructors in an ordered formation, and this can have less than ideal consequences depending on who is in your group. In the track sessions, at least the day I did it, we had two instructors, and 8 students. This means there were two groups of 3 cars each on the track - each group composed of an instructor always leading, followed by two student cars. (This is as opposed to some other school experiences where you are allowed to drive to your own speed at least part of the time.)

    The problem is the variability of the students mentioned in the article and the fact that the instructors are constrained to driving at the pace of the slowest student in their current driver group when on the track.

    In my group of four students, there were two slower drivers, one of whom was always riding with me (they swapped at lunch and I went from one slower driver to the other), and the other of whom was driving at the same time as me the entire time. This meant that during the later part of the day when I was starting to get comfortable, the instructor was seriously constraining the pace for either the person behind me or in front of me most of the time - when I was behind that person, I was often right on their tail feeling like we should be going much faster, and when I was leading behind the instructor, by the end of the day when I was getting comfortable with the track, it felt like the instructor was riding very slow while we waited for the driver far behind me. For my last few laps in the TTS and the R8 I was literally one car length behind either the instructor or the other student car much of the time, and when I was in the middle the instructor was not just calling out over the comm. system for the car behind to catch up but actually even braked to wait for him.

    They then ended the school at 3pm rather than 4pm, so we had two post-lunch sessions rather than the 3 mentioned in the article, one in the car we chose between the TTS and S4 and another in the R8, after telling us there would be two sessions before the R8, when there was no one on the track at 3. I hung around for a bit afterward and took pictures, and no other group came out from the Russell formula school they were conducting at the same time or otherwise - the track was empty. We could easily have gotten in another session and I have no idea why they terminated it early, but I have to be honest, I felt a bit shortchanged after driving maybe 20 laps for the day, and ending an hour early. There was also no S8 or S5 to drive - we were put in TTS for the slalom and S4 for the learning to apex exercise, and offered the TTS & S4 for the track, plus the R8 for the last session. I didn't mind that too much since I've recently purchased a TTS and wanted to learn to drive that car, but if I had come there wanting to drive the S5 or S8, I would not have been pleased.

    Now, all of that said, I still had a lot of fun, the cars and instructors were absolutely fantastic (great guys, one and all, and helpful and informative), and I definitely sped up a lot and increased my comfort and honed my technique dramatically throughout the day, so don't let me leave the impression that this was a negative experience overall. At the beginning of the day, I was feeling and driving very slow and hamfisted, and by the end, had picked up a rhythm and feel for the cars dramatically. The guidance of the instructors here to the track's features, their markers, and at the beginning, their pacing was very helpful here.

    But compared to previous track school experiences I've had, the fact that I only got to drive less than half of the day, and of that time, spent a large proportion of it in the second half being really held back by a lot due to other drivers, was a distinct negative, and when they then ended the school a full hour early and so we only got two sessions in the afternoon instead of three, it was a real bummer. I'm not sure why they did this, but when you're paying that much for a school, eliminating one of only a few sessions to begin with isn't something that should be done lightly and was a bit of a let down. People had completed the post-school talk and surveys and were on their way home before 3:30.
    Last edited by JimInSF; 03-18-2010 at 04:22 PM. Reason: Grammar & Added One Point

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