Mercedes AMG Driving Academy PRO Training Inside Look
We've got an inside look at the Mercedes AMG Driving Academy PRO Training – what may be the nation's preeminent driving program
by Thomas Philips | 03 August 2010
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Think back to a happier time. Think back to a time when you got excited about something to the point that nothing else mattered. I remember as a six-year old, my first time going to Disney World. It was magical. Mickey, the rides, Epcott – the whole thing put me into an utter state of euphoria. At that moment, it didn’t matter what else was happening in the world. War. Famine. A nuclear holocaust. I didn’t even care that I managed to escape the tight clutches of my parents. I was invincible, and the only thing that mattered was taking in as much of this incredible place as I possibly could.
The older you get, these magical times become more and more infrequent. Things that used to excite you become commonplace. Take the first time you drove, for example. Your heart was pounding. Your palms were sweaty. Their was an underlying nervousness, but it was quelled by the rush of adrenaline you felt as you pressed the gas pedal for the first time. Now, most driving has become ordinary. You go to work, you run errands, you take your kids to school, but that surge of adrenaline that once existed is nowhere to be found.
But there’s hope. There is a way that you can rekindle that passion you once felt, not only as a driver, but as a kid, completely infatuated with the singular task in front you. It’s called the Mercedes-AMG Driving Academy, and if you’ve never experienced it in person, I’m going to tell you why you should. It’s an experience that’s unlike any other, and one that absolutely must be experienced to be believed.
Mercedes-AMG Driving Academy Overview
Before I tell you about the Mercedes-AMG Driving Academy PRO Training, let me give you a quick overview of the Mercedes-AMG Driving Academy as whole. In the U.S., starting this year, there are a total of three Mercedes-AMG Driving Academy variants – BASIC, ADVANCED, and PRO. In BASIC, drivers are introduced to the fundamentals of vehicle dynamics and controlled maneuvers in a one-day track program. You’ll start off with various focused exercises, including learning the basics of oversteer and understeer, threshold braking, slalom technique, etc., while the second half of the day is spent undertaking high-speed lead/follow exercises on the track. If it’s you’re first time attending a driving school or you’re new to driving on a closed course, it’s a fantastic introduction to more advanced driving maneuvers that you can utilize both on and off the track.
Once you’ve completed the BASIC program, the AMG Driving Academy progresses to ADVANCED training, which is a more intensive two-day program that takes what you learned in BASIC and applies it in much greater detail to the track. More focused exercises, high-speed lead/follow lapping and onboard data capture that allows analysis of select aspects of your driving are some of the highlights, and the event concludes with an autocross competition that tests your abilities to read race lines and to apply the other handling techniques you’ve learned in a timed event. If you’ve attended the BASIC program, one of the past AMG Challenges or a qualified driving school (such as Skip Barber of Bondurant), it’s the ideal next step in taking your driving skills to the next level.
And finally, once you’ve completed both the BASIC and ADVANCED programs, the highest U.S. Mercedes-AMG Driving Academy level is the brand-new PRO program. In Europe, Mercedes-AMG has been offering a variety of programs including BASIC, ADVANCED, PRO and MASTERS skill levels for the past several years, but this year marked the first time in history a PRO event has been held in the States. It’s a three-day program held at Road Atlanta, and after building on the skills learned in the BASIC and ADVANCED courses, it’s an event that culminates with timed open lapping on one of the greatest road courses in the country.
I was at Road Atlanta and attended the AMG Driving Academy’s PRO event, and I’ve got a detailed look at what’s in store for you, should you decide to attend. But regardless of the class you’re interested in, whether BASIC, ADVANCED or PRO, read on, as my time in the PRO training is still going to give you a lovely taste of all three programs. If you’re short on time and want the five second summary, I’ll make it simple for you: if you’re considering any of three, stop deliberating and just go. You’ll have a fantastic time, you’ll meet a lot of terrific people, and you’ll learn more than you ever thought you could about driving. Easy enough, right? Now, let’s get to what makes the AMG Driving Academy so great.
Mercedes-AMG Driving Academy PRO Training: Day One
Starting day one, I felt a little like I did my first day of high school. It was my first time attending an AMG Driving Academy – I had no idea what lie in store, nor did I know any of the other attendees – so there was a good dose of excitement paired with a bit of uneasiness of the unknown. Arriving at Road Atlanta for the first time did little to calm my nerves. As you approach the AMG shelter that’s to be your home base for the next 3 days, you must first pass turns 11 and 12 – a sweeping set of high speed downhill turns that make you instantly aware of the rather daunting elevation changes of the track. Questions of whether I should really be entrusted to pilot the nearly $200,000 SLS AMG around such turns briefly pop into my head, but as I near AMG’s mobile home, any fears are dissipated, replaced by the sheer awe of seeing the fleet of AMG vehicles that will be at my disposal for the next three days. Parked neatly outside the AMG building is a stable of AMG models – the SLK55 AMG, the C63 AMG, the E63 AMG, the CLK63 AMG Black Series, the SL63 AMG and the SLS AMG – roughly eight of each. It’s a beautiful sight, and the reality of what I’m about to do has finally become palpable.
After a quick check-in, I begin meeting other drivers (there’s a little more than 30 total), and immediately I felt a certain sense of camaraderie – not as Mercedes owners, but rather as a group of individuals that love driving. The ages are varied; the home states range from as close as Georgia to as far as California and Rhode Island; but all share a common passion for automobiles. Almost everyone I talk to has attended numerous AMG driving events in the past, and all are of the same consensus that as far as driving schools are concerned, the AMG Driving Academy has no equal. As to what level that meant my skill set would be at when I left the AMG Driving Academy, I didn’t know; but if I had half as much fun as those that had attended an AMG event in the past said I would, I knew that at the very least, I was in for one hell of a time.
Following the inaugural meet-and-greet, the affable Don Harple, lead instructor of the U.S. Driving Academy, took the stage and gave us an overview of the program we were about to undertake, the track, basic driving principles, and the instructors that would be leading us for the next three days. It was more or less an abbreviated refresher course of what was learned in the BASIC and ADVANCED programs, and as I was about to learn, it was the first of many building blocks that would eventually form the foundation for open lapping on the third day. Once we had received adequate in-classroom training, myself and the participants were split up into four teams and assigned to one of four driving modules. On the way out, Don recommended a Dramamine patch for those that tend to suffer motion sickness. I passed, but trust me, when you attend, if you have any doubts, take one. It’s best to err on the side of caution.
Dramamine patches in place, I and the other participants met our instructors for the first time, and each team was assigned vehicles based on their specific driving module. If you’ve never attended an AMG Driving Academy and are unfamiliar with driving modules, they’re basically a series of focused driving exercises that teach you the finer points of vehicle dynamics and driving techniques. They’re utilized in all three programs – BASIC, ADVANCED and PRO – and they serve as real world applications of the building blocks taught in the in-classroom training.
My team, the yellow team, was first assigned to the skid pad – a driving module conducted in the SL63 AMG. If you’ve ever seen drifting, you already know the drill. A circular portion of the track is wetted down, and you drift in a broad circle. It’s meant to teach you the basics of understeer and oversteer, throttle manipulation, and how to transfer weight off the rear axel. Easy enough I thought. Myself and each of the drivers each picked a partner, and I teamed up with an AMG Driving Academy vet by the name of Ed. He’s attended numerous driving programs; he drives a RENNTech-tuned SL55 AMG and a Ford GT (among others); and he’s brought his own driving helmet. If anyone knew what they were doing, it was Ed. Round 1, I rode shotgun (remember, this is my first AMG Academy), so I figured it was best to get as much extra instruction as I could. We were last in line, so there were 3 cars in front of us – then we hit the skid pad. And just like that, in the course of about 3 seconds, I understood why were here. Ed kicked it into second, hit the accelerator, and feelings reminiscent of your favorite amusement ride instantly encompass you. You feel your pulse quicken, you feel your insides churning, and you feel a completely different connection to the vehicle than you ever have in the past. It’s a beautiful thing.
Following multiple runs on the skid pad, Ed and I swapped, and it was my turn to apply that which I just witnessed to the track. Adrenaline still surging, my first run began with me applying too much power, resulting in the back end kicking out past the point of no return. I regained my composure, remembered how much power I had at my disposal and hit the skid pad again, this time keeping the SL under control for what seemed like forever (in reality, I have no idea how much of the skid pad I made it around). My run ended when I hit an extra slick portion of the skid pad, and the back end kicked out for a second time. The problem was, I didn’t hit the brakes quick enough, so the car stalled. I didn’t realize it at the time, but when I restarted the car, traction control defaulted back to its original state of being on. My next runs all resulted in the back end staying firmly planted (thanks to traction control), and by the time I realized the problem, my runs were over. But as frustrating as the skid pad was, it showed me one of the many key traits of the AMG Driving Academy – it’s incredibly addicting. I’m still pissed at my performance on the skid pad, so much so that I want to go back to another one, just for a second round on the skid pad alone. Almost every time I drove was like that – I wanted just a little more time in the car, because I knew could improve a little more.
After the session on the skid pad, the next module was autocross – an event that’s basically driving as fast as you can around a miniature race track (used for karting). It’s purpose is to teach you how to read race lines, when to brake, when to accelerate, etc., and to make it happen, we used the incredibly fun C63 AMG’s. If you’ve never been on an autocross course, it’s a great way to get acclimated to tossing a car around. There’s nothing to hit, other than some cones, and you have some freedom to push the limits of the car. Screw up, and you put a couple wheels on the grass, learn from your mistakes, and move on. And although it doesn’t look fast, inside the car, it feels fast. Watching the speedometer, it’s amazing how much faster it feels on the course. 50 on an open road is nothing – 50 on the back straightaway of the autocross track feels much faster. There’s not much to say in terms of my performance, as our first time on the autocross course wasn’t timed. But after a few times around, I started getting acclimated to the car and how far I could push it, and by the end, I felt like I was putting in a decent time.
For our third driving module, it was on to focused training for turns 10 A and B – a difficult set of turns you approach coming off the fastest portion of the track. They’re basically a pair of 90 degree turns in rapid succession, first to the left, then to the right, and they’re integral to mastering the track. Because of their difficulty, the instructors used them to teach a few different aspects of driving, one of which was learning braking zones. Several markers were set showing the distance to turn 10 A and the appropriate line, and your job was to brake at a specific marker and follow the line laid out for you. Straightforward, yes, but adding to its appeal, we performed the drill in the SLS AMG. I’m not here to review cars –I’ll save those for separate articles – but I have to tell you, the SLS AMG is absolutely incredible. If you have $190,000 sitting around, you won’t be disappointed. Vehicle adoration aside, I took my turn in the SLS AMG and went to work. The drill began at the top of the hill that leads down to turn 10, and my job was to accelerate as fast as possible to the marker just before turn 10, and hit the brakes as hard as I could while following the line laid out in cones. And that’s exactly what I did. I hit the gas; I felt my organs shift rearward as my body was propelled back into my seat; and before I knew it, it was time to brake. And let me tell you, when you’re not acclimated to driving on a track, hitting the brakes at 80+ miles an hour – especially brakes as good as those found on the SLS AMG – is a harrowing experience. It’s incredible how much stopping power is at your disposal. My organs that were just seconds before pinned to the back of the seat had now shifted frontward, held in place only by the grace of the seat belt. If you think driving on a track isn’t physically demanding, you’re dead wrong. Race car drivers are without question well-conditioned athletes. As the exercise went on, we worked on maintaining more speed through the turn, and by the time the drill was completed, we’d learned the incredible stopping ability the SLS affords you; we learned when to brake; we learned the appropriate line to take; and in reality, we learned how not to kill ourselves on one of the most difficult portions of the track.
As the day was drawing to an end, we wrapped up our driving modules with a threshold braking exercise. For this module, we each took turns piloting a fleet of E63 AMG’s. The goal was to teach first the stopping power of the E63 AMG, and subsequently how under intense braking, the vehicle still remains controllable. To carry out the exercise, round one involved accelerating to 60 in a straight line, then applying as much braking power as possible. Round two involved accelerating as fast possible and braking at a set of cones; but due to the extra speed, you then had to add in a bit of maneuvering while the brakes were locked up to avoid the obstacle in front of you. And round three mimicked round two, only the instructor told you over the radio at the last second which way to avoid the obstacle – left or right. It was a fairly easy exercise, especially coming off the prior SLS training, but it was a good reinforcement that on the track, if you needed to lock the brakes up, the vehicle still remains controllable.
And just like that, day one of the AMG Driving Academy PRO Training was over. We took a quick lap around the track following the instructor, and that night there was a reception dinner at the Chateau Elan (a beautiful hotel nearby that I’ll be reviewing shortly). I won’t go into details about what I ate, but I will say that it was a great way to meet the other drivers, instructors and staff, and it reinforces the strong sense of community you’ll feel when attending. The AMG Driving Academy is about driving, there’s no question, but coinciding with the driving, you’ll meet a terrific group of individuals and walk away with some fantastic friends.
Mercedes-AMG Driving Academy PRO Training: Day Two
While day one was more a less a refresher course of the AMG Driving Academy’s BASIC program, day two accelerated things at a much more rapid pace. As another driver who’s attended numerous AMG programs told me, it’s phenomenal how quickly the instructors manage to build your skills. As he noted, it’s almost like squaring the difficulty level. If you start at a 2, you move to a 4, then to a 16 – but you’re taught in a way that makes you comfortable and prepared to do so.
On tap for the day was another round of driving modules, albeit it significantly more advanced ones – portions are carried over from the ADVANCED program; portions are unique to PRO. First up: segment training. Segment training is a teaching method carried over from the European AMG Driving Academies, and it centers around splitting the course into sections and learning the intricacies of each. In our case, Road Atlanta was split into two parts: from the start of “The Esses” (the famous high speed bends that lead into turn 5) through the straight past turn eight; and secondly, the remainder, which covered turns 9 through 4. I started the day with the first of the two track segments (The Esses through the straight), and I did so in the beautiful SLS AMG. Seeing as how it was our first time to actually undertake portions of the track at high speeds, there was a definite level of excitement; but until we actually started, I didn’t realize exactly how well segment training would prepare you for open lapping.
Starting segment training, it’s basically a lead / follow exercise. The instructor pilots a lead car, and the line of drivers follow in their SLS AMG’s. But what makes segment training so beneficial is the instruction given. As with all driving during the AMG Academy, the instructors communicate with you via the radio. On day one, the instruction is relatively minimal, considering you already have a fairly good idea of what you’re doing, but during segment training, every element of the track is explained in real time. The specific line to take, shift points, braking zones, attributes of the track – everything’s covered in precise detail. And because the track is split into more manageable parts, it’s far easier to digest the wealth of information you’re being given.
Round one of the segment training is a moderately paced run, just getting used to the track and comfortable in the car. Round 2 is a little quicker, with the instructor drilling into your head the vital info you need to know to navigate the track. As the segment training continues, the instructor continually increases pace, and by the later runs, you’re running at a pace that’s maybe a 6 or a 7 out of 10 on the intensity scale. For the ADVANCED programs, all training is done on this same lead / follow format. In PRO training, however, this is the point where things differ. On the final run of segment training, the first test to prepare you for open lapping is given: the group is split, each starting every 20 seconds or so, giving you a free run through the segment. Aiding in your instruction, cameras and data recorders monitor your segmented run, and this information is stored for later, when you review it with an instructor and compare it to their run.
Following the first segment driving module, the second module for the day was data analysis of the segmented run. As already noted, data for the first segment was recorded during the final run, as was the same data for the instructor’s final run. During data analysis, the two are compared back at the AMG building, and an instructor goes over the runs with you, mainly focusing on your line, braking and speed. It’s a tremendous teaching aid, as it allows the instructors to provide a thorough analysis of the key aspects of your technique. And because data is recorded in both graphical format and with an in-dash camera, you can match the graph with the view on the track at any given point, allowing you to see precisely your problematic areas and how to correct them. It’s really one of the key attributes of the AMG Driving Academy – even though there’s not an instructor in the car with you, you receive a level of instruction equatable to if there was. You’re constantly receiving instruction; you’re constantly learning; and by the end of the segment training, you feel completely comfortable navigating the track.
After data analysis and lunch in the AMG shelter, the third driving module for the day was the second round of segment training. As with the first round, it was all about starting slow, getting used to the lines, and working your way up. Instruction, as in the prior segment, was completely and utterly comprehensive, with numerous points on the track, braking points, the correct line, etc. all scrutinized. Turns 11 and 12 are a high speed set of downhill bends, and the stretch in between them may be one of the hardest points on the track to maintain the correct line. To better help us understand the specific portion of the track, the instructors gave us the opportunity to actually step out of the vehicles and survey the stretch on foot while explaining the physics behind it (they did so with several other key turns as well). Ultimately, it made navigating the difficult portions of the track much easier, as it provided a uniquely clear view of exactly what we were dealing with.
And finally, following the second round of segment training, the day wrapped up with another run on the autocross track – this time, in a fleet of SLK55 AMG’s equipped with lap time recorders. Although for the most part I focused on the track, the times I looked I was putting in a time of about 18.5 seconds, whereas the instructors ran the same course in 17.9 seconds. The funny thing is, the faster you attempt to go, the slower you actually go. It’s all about staying calm and focusing on each minute point of your technique. As the instructors said, when you race, you spend your career trying to gain that .6 seconds. Anyone can go fast in a straight line, but add in the turns, and it’s a whole new ballgame.
Day two wrapped up with a bratfest in the AMG shelter; we all had a chance to chat about the day’s festivities; and more importantly, we were ready to turn PRO. Open lapping commenced the next day, and we were finally prepared to make it happen.
Mercedes-AMG Driving Academy PRO Training: Day Three
Day three arrived all too quickly, as there was an undeniable level of excitement to start open lapping mixed with the realization the AMG Driving Academy was coming to a close. Starting the day off, we received a final round of instruction along with stern warnings to stay within your limits. Being the first PRO event ever held in this country, this event was, in many ways, a test – a test to see whether the U.S. is ready for more intense driving programs. I have no doubt there were certain feelings of tension among the staff, considering how much was riding on its success, but among the drivers, there was just a sense of eagerness to get on the track. We were prepared beautifully for what were about to do, and considering we’d only been there for two days, I think it speaks volumes as to the greatness of the instructors and really, the program as a whole.
Before open lapping commenced, a final round of high speed lead / follow laps got underway, after which all drivers assembled in the pits for final open lapping prep. The same fleet of AMG models was on hand for the event, and open lapping was split up again by team, one driver per vehicle, with two teams taking the track at one time for roughly 15 minute intervals. To ensure we acclimated ourselves to open lapping, rev limits were set initially, and incrementally increased over the open lapping runs. And then, just like that, it was time.
Exiting the pits for the first time – you remember why you took three days from your busy schedule to come here. You feel your adrenaline pumping, you feel your heart pounding, and that passion for driving is once again rekindled. You know the track, you know the lines, and you go to work doing exactly what you’ve been taught. The nervousness I felt the first time arriving at the track is a distant memory. As the laps go on, you become more comfortable, you feel the car become an extension of yourself, and you go faster. Then, as quickly as you start, you’re back in the pits, waiting for the next round of driving.
Aiding in the open lapping, data recorders and in-car cameras are in place, monitoring your line, speed, etc., just as they did in segment training. After a few runs of open lapping, you then have the opportunity to review it with one of the instructors in the track-side, specially equipped Mercedes Sprinter, fine tuning details of your technique and addressing any problem areas on the track. In addition, instructors are positioned at most of the key turns, taking notes on your driving and relaying that info back to the pits. In other words, while it is open lapping, you continue to maintain that same superior level of instruction you’ve received throughout the program.
It’s an incredible experience, and one that upon witnessing it, clearly takes a tremendous amount of effort to pull off. Instructors continually relay information to you; the team of mechanics is constantly checking everything, making sure each of the vehicles is running perfectly (and in humid Atlanta conditions, that’s not an easy feat); data is analyzed track-side, fine-tuning your runs. You feel, quite literally, like you’re a race car driver, and to be honest, the AMG Driving Academy is about as close as you can get to being one (without actually being one).
As the day wound down, the final runs were put in, leading up the grand finale of the PRO event: timed lapping. Your goal was to run three open laps, with the first lap being the benchmark, and your second two lap times being as close to the first lap as possible. Whoever completed three laps with the smallest time deviation was the winner. It wasn’t until the closing reception and award ceremony that we found out the winner, but needless to say, it wasn’t me. It was, however, my first driving partner – AMG Driving Academy veteran Ed – with something like a few tenths of a second all that separated his three runs. That’s pretty damn impressive, if I do say so myself.
Wrapping up the day, a timed autocross competition was held (I’m not one to brag, but my team won), and lastly, to remind us that although we may feel like race car drivers, we aren’t, taxi rides were given by the instructors, putting us back in our place and showing us how much better they really are. The day ended with a closing reception in which awards for the timed laps and autocross competition were handed out, and after saying our final farewells, three days of remarkable driving came to an end.
Mercedes-AMG Driving Academy Closing Thoughts
If you’ve read this far, you should have a pretty clear idea that I’m an AMG Driving Academy believer. It was, in no simpler terms, an incredible, incredible experience, and one that I would whole-heartedly recommend to anyone that even remotely enjoys driving. The instructors are consummate professionals – they’re insanely talented; they’re completely approachable and willing to help you with any aspect of your driving; and they provide a tremendous amount of insight into the finer points of what you’re doing. There’s absolutely nothing you can’t like about them. The rest of the staff is superb; the mechanics do a simply beautiful job of keeping everything running right; and everything was carried out with incredible precision. Most importantly, you learn more than you ever thought you could over the course of three days, and while you’re learning, you’re having an absolutely fantastic time. It’s like you’re a kid all over again.
If you’re interested in attending the Mercedes-AMG Driving Academy for yourself, there’s a variety of BASIC and ADVANCED programs coming up starting at the end of this month and running through November, all of which take place at the beautiful Laguna Seca Raceway in California. They’re the perfect preparation for the next PRO event coming up next year (date TBA), and they’ll give you a chance to experience one of the most well-known tracks in the country. Pricing for the BASIC program is set at $1,795, and pricing for the advanced is set at $3,295. Having attended, I can tell you without question the AMG Driving Academy is worth every penny – you won’t for a second regret it. To learn more about specific dates or to make reservations, you can do so directly at the AMG Driving Academy website.