Slamming on your brakes in the pouring rain is not something that comes naturally to most drivers.
So, when I and other non-professional drivers taking part in the German Auto Import Network’s (GAIN) performance driving school Friday were asked to do just that by an instructor in the parking lot outside Western Speedway, I felt some serious trepidation.
After realizing on my first try that the Audi S4 I was driving would, indeed, stop quickly even on the wet concrete, Adam Pedersen – the certified instructor and rally race driver is pre-owned sales manager at BMW Victoria – said with a smile, “That was OK, but next time I want you to I want you to hit the brakes hard.”
He and fellow instructor Yoshi Hildebrandt, who gave us classroom instruction ahead of time, had laughed when Pedersen told us amateurs anyone braking a brake pedal today would get to take home the car.
Having learned how well anti-lock brakes work, I and the others proceeded to another wet weather handling drill, this time in a BMW 428. It offered another eye-opening experience in which my driving partner, John DaSilva, and I swivelled around some downed cones without braking, until we straightened the wheels again, that was.
Then it was on to the slalom course, where we got to first sit as a passenger, then drive the snakelike course at the wheel of a bright yellow Porsche Cayman. Up second behind my boss Randy Blair, I tooled around the now sun-dried course in a shade over 31 seconds. Not bad, I thought. But as this group of enthusiasts gained knowledge from those who went before them, the times dropped steadily.
Red Barn Market co-owner Ashley Bourque, looking quite at home in the Porsche, made it around in a field-best 26 seconds and change, but dumped a cone for a three-second penalty. In the end, the final driver – my partner John – ran a clean run in just over 27 seconds to take the unofficial title.
To wind up this amazing day where the smiles spanned as wide as the homestretch, the teams picked their cars again for a pair of 18-lap circuits around the Western Speedway road course.
Wanting to gain an edge before knowing the rules, I chose the only manual transmission car in the field, a Volkswagen Golf GTI turbo. Of course there was no passing on the course – there was half a million dollars worth of metal in the group – but still, the VW proved nimble and fun to drive, if a bit underpowered compared to the rest.
Someone wanted to try out the five-speed for the second go-round, so John and I jumped into a Mercedes C-class coupe to growl around the rest of the way.
Afterward, John summed up his experience:
“I was a little nervous at first in the rain, but in the end it turned out to be a great day,” he said, noting his favourite car was – surprise, surprise – the Cayman.
“The handling and the braking ability of all these new cars, and the traction control, was really eye-opening. It gave me a little more awareness of the capability of these cars and what you can do without losing control.”
Pedersen said they see a wide variety of drivers at their events.
“I’ll get people that are extremely nervous just to hit the brakes the first time, to the point where when we come off the racetrack, they’ve been pushing their car hard enough that they’re getting squealing out of the tires,” he said.
“I (also) see guys who are really enthusiasts (who) maybe have taken some driving courses. They get behind the wheel of their car, they learn a little more about it. Generally these are guys that own more high-performance cars. This may not be something they learn a ton at, but it gets them interested in taking their driving level, their skill level, a little further.”
Having a controlled facility that allows drivers to exercise some of the capabilities of the cars makes it a fun and educational day, he added.
“The advanced traction control system, stability control system and ABS programs, most of us don’t use those on a daily basis. This gives us an opportunity to feel those. We can talk about them all day long in the showroom, but it’s a different experience when you get to actually push them and activate some of these things.”
Hildebrandt enjoys seeing people’s reactions when they realize what they, not just the cars, can do when they get behind the wheel.
“For us it’s really a pleasure to do this driving event and to see at the end everybody leaving with big smiles,” he said, “and asking ‘What’s the next event? Can we do this again?'”
GAIN is working on obtaining its own track to run its driving programs. Watch for updates and find more information about the driving programs at gain-vi.ca/gain-performance-driving.