A half-dozen Mercedes-Benz SLS AMGs tear toward Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca's fabled Corkscrew. It's raining as these brutes approach the slick switchbacks. As trained, we hit the brakes hard, turn in left, pause, dive right, and off we go, another lap in automotive heaven.
Let's be clear. Riding a Pinewood Derby special down the Corkscrew would be a blast. But for $1,595, Mercedes lets you play would-be racer for the day with these $200,000 gullwinged beauties and a slew of other tweaked products as part of the company's AMG Driving Academy. The party is mobile, with instructors and cars -- including CLS63 and E63 sedans, SL63 and SLK55 roadsters and C63 Coupe -- setting up at tracks across the country.
"For a while we had something called the AMG Challenge, but in 2009 we took a look at our AMG schools in Europe and realized we could adopt that here," says Eric Linder, who runs sports marketing and consumer events for Mercedes-Benz North America.
It also doubles as effective marketing. The eight hours spent shuttling among AMG models makes one re-evaluate BMW M and Audi S machines, and at least add Mercedes' in-house tuner models to the wish list. But this isn't a sloppy fantasy camp. In true Teutonic tradition, the AMG Driving Academy runs a few dozen participants through skill-building sessions that bring to mind driver's ed, if driver's ed teachers had race credentials and the cars were tire-shredding sleds dreamed up in Affalterbach, Germany.
As the skies darken over Monterey, our group starts the day at Laguna Seca's drag strip. Paired up, we practice tearing down the straight, but the goal isn't speed, it's control. Smoothness off the line means gently squeezing the throttle on these AMGs. Stomp too hard and you get wheel spin; too soft and you're left in the dust. Up ahead, there's a blue cone that comes on fast. Our goal is to hit the brakes there and ease the car into a box made up of cones. Sounds easy. Most of us overshoot the box.
"The best braking force comes from really hitting the pedal hard right away, then easing up as you need to," instructor Rick Dilorio says of the counterintuitive action.
After running the sedans through a slalom course - starting very wide and slowly tightening the turns with quick flicks of the steering wheel - we switch over to SLK and SL AMGs for additional braking instruction. Here the mission is to first hit 40 mph and slam on the brakes, then make another run to 50 mph, hit the brakes, "and steer around an imaginary propane tank," says Dilorio with a smirk.
Next it's over to a skid pad drill, where we take SLKs into a moderate-speed right-hand bend. Just as the car crosses a puddle Dilorio barks over the in-car radio, "Kick the throttle!" That sends the car into a spin, which the vehicle's various electronic stability programs help moderate. But the point here is to use countersteer to bring the car around, and when we're told to shut off all electronic babysitters the group does endless pirouettes.
Confession: At this point, halfway through the AMG Driving Academy, I'm wishing for more driving and less academy. This all seems a bit tedious and sometimes downright scary; how many times do you slam on the brakes and activate ABS in real life or deliberately put a car into a spin? But the wisdom of running participants through these basics proves obvious the instant we transition over to the SLS AMGs and start lapping what is perhaps one of the most iconic tracks in America with its sinuous turns and vertiginous elevation changes.
"The SLS does exactly what you tell it to do, so that can be good and that can be bad," says lead instructor Tommy Kendall, a former NASCAR and SCCA Trans-Am series star. "We preach smoothless at all times. But more than that, keep your eyes a few turns ahead. When your adrenaline goes up, your eyes tend to go down. If you can really master that, you'll be way ahead of the game."
Kendall's point about looking a few turns ahead is perhaps the biggest takeaway from the day's event. Easy to say; difficult to do. As we lap Laguna a dozen times in lead-follow sessions, keeping eyes locked on the next apex or braking point means trusting that your peripheral vision can get you through the turn at hand. The few times we master that ballet makes all the difference in the world as the car glides effortlessly around the track.
But then comes the real payoff. With the rain falling hard now but with lap speeds increasing, the heavy SLSs sometimes lose traction in the turns. Normally, this would be a DefCon One panic moment. But after spending so much time slipping around during the braking and skid pad sessions, fear intuitively gives way to confidence bred of experience.
If you want to burn some rubber and have fun, a track day through your local car club will likely do the trick. But if improving your skills is the order at hand, the AMG Driving Academy is ready to school you. Anyone who likes what they experience at Basic Training can move up to Advanced Training ($2,995, a two-day school that ups the speeds and collects data on your performance) and then Pro Training ($3,495, two-and-a-half days with emphasis on solo track time).
There's also a Euro-only race-spec Masters program, where your steed is an SLS AMG GT3, as well as a studded-tire Winter Sporting school above the Arctic Circle in Arjeplog, Sweden. For that matter, the rest of the AMG Driving Academy programs also can also be experienced in Europe at tracks such as Ascari in Spain and the Nurburgring in Germany. Although the program -- which comes free with newly purchased or leased AMGs -- is wrapped for 2012, next year's coast-to-coast track line-up will be announced soon.