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Learning to drive sports cars at speed the Audi way

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Audi Sportscar Experience

Eating bad sushi the previous evening isn’t the best way to come into a full-throttle day driving Audi R8s at Sonoma Raceway, but sometimes a man’s got to buck up.

Although I’d logged a number of laps over the years on this my home track in a range of machines — including Porsche 911s, Ferrari 458s and even Audi’s slot-car-like R8 — I’d never taken the experience much beyond Lead-Follow 101, where instructors carve out a line ahead of you at moderate speeds and you try to replicate their expert lines.

You get that sort of baseline introduction on Day One of the Audi Sportscar Experience, a customer driving school whose U.S. homebase is here in the rolling cow-filled hills just north of San Francisco. But I was here for Day Two, which promised more envelope-pushing at higher speeds, a real test of whether I even remotely had a racing gene in my body (Day One costs $1,895, Day Two is $1,995, and the two back-to-back run $3,495, gourmet lunch included).

Many top-notch automakers offer what amount to traveling-circus driving schools, including the excellent Mercedes-Benz AMG Driving Academy, which I had experienced at another iconic northern California track, Laguna Seca. There, a series of big rigs disgorged a small fleet of SLS and other AMG fare for the day, let us play, then packed up and moved on.

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Admittedly there’s something thrilling about pulling up to a circuit and seeing a permanent structure dedicated to one company’s efforts to school its clients. Audi’s gleaming modernist steel-and-glass clubhouse and garage sit just off pit-lane, the better to promote its racing heritage for buyers who like their automobiles with a history of competition. Porsche will soon follow suit, opening a new $30 million driver-centric facility in Carson, Calif., just south of Los Angeles toward the end of this year.

Nursing a ginger ale just after 8 a.m., I listen as the Audi program’s chief instructor, Jeff Sakowicz, reminds the half-dozen students about the basics of braking (hard then gradually release), apexing (finding the perfect racing line through a turn) and steering (smooth inputs only).

“By the end of today, we want you to feel like you can drive around the race track on your own agenda, knowing where to do what,” says Sakowicz, whose manner is an apt cross between stern professor and encouraging parent.

Then it was off to an autocross warm-up in the parking lot with a quartet of Audi TTSs. “The point here is to build the proper line, not charging into corners but rather racing from one apex to the next braking zone,” says Sakowicz. My first few laps offer a mix of crisp apexing and measured steering inputs, but the speed is lacking. “Pick it up a bit,” Sakowicz urges. “And brake harder.”

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I do as I’m told, stabbing the TTS’s pedal just before turn-in, and hanging on as the nimble two-seater dances through a series of S-turns. I get a thumbs up as I bring the car in, but I don’t sense he means it. My room of improvement remains cavernous. And while nausea is staying at bay, I decline to ride shotgun as my classmates take their turn knowing that experience could put me over the edge and sill.

Just before lunch, we don helmets and hop into the flotilla of R8s lined up on pit lane. This is the real deal. Autocrossing is fun, but lapping a real track in 430-hp V-8 machines that belong there is thrillsville. Few tracks compare to Sonoma, whose dozen-plus turns with stomach-churning elevation changes routinely put professional drivers to the test.

Sakowicz takes it easy on this first go-round, reminding us all of the proper line around the circuit which includes two particularly vexing corners. Turn 2 is an uphill, off-camber right-turn menace that, if taken incorrectly, threatens to put you in the weeds, and 6 is an endless downhill left-turn carousel that asks you to literally muscle the car to the apex point. Both would prove my undoing in the afternoon.

At lunch I got to meet some of the class. They were a mix of professionals and business owners, some of whom owned Audis and had been to a range of driving schools, where others were realizing a longtime dream to hit the track.

“It’s in my backyard as I live here in the Bay Area, and since I’m not racing in the streets this is a way to get your ya-yas out legally,” says Phil Blaisell, an auto restoration specialist who drives a Jeep Grand Cherokee at home but whose track experience runs from Corvette driving schools to racing Mazda Miatas at Laguna Seca. “There’s nothing like being out here.”

David Laha flew in from Kansas City, where the podiatrist cruises around in what may be the only monstrous 525-hp R8 V10 Spyder in town. “I used to have (Porsche) 911s, which are maybe an easier everyday car,” says Laha. “But this (R8) has so much presence, it’s so low. I get people pulling up to me on the highway and videotaping me, it’s crazy.”

While Laha sheepishly admits he’s taken his R8 to breathtaking triple-digits speeds on short highway bursts, he feels this track day really gives him a sense of what his car can do. “You never drive your supercar like you should on the street, unless you’re taking your kid to ER I suppose,” he says with a laugh. “I love going over the physics of what these cars are doing as they’re carving around the corners. It’s another level of understanding.”

As we lapped the track repeatedly, I quickly saw what true driving skill looked like. First of all, while we all were struggling to concentrate on the line before us, Sakowicz was ripping through the course while holding a walkie-talkie in his left hand, securing a water bottle between his knees and downshifting by hitting the left paddle with his right hand. Crazy. And all this while looking in the rear-view mirror to correct our mistakes.

I quickly felt that, given another day at Sonoma, I could master turn 2 simply by repeatedly running the course with an eye toward a better set-up for that 100-mph bend. Turn 6 is another beast. Sakowicz indeed showed me how it was done, but it defied logic. His R8 powered through the sweeper on that inside line, but all the while the car felt like it was howling in pain and pleading to go in a different direction. The pro at the wheel paid the squealing tires no mind, and each time nipped the apex perfectly and roared off down a short 150-mph straightaway.

“You’ll get it,” Sakowicz said. But time was up for now. While I’d far from mastered this sinuous track, I had at least gotten an appreciation for both what the pros do on these circuits, and what cars that are built for everyday lives can also do on extraordinary days.

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