Monday, November 17, 2014

Events: Rusnak Auto Group Driver's Challenge

When the invite arrived in my inbox, I could scarcely contain my excitement. It has been a while since I have had the chance to attend one of these events that offers the opportunity to drive a variety of different manufacturer's products back to back. I reached out to my brother and we quickly got ourselves signed up to participate, opting for a group that would allow us to have plenty of fun while driving a selection of cars that gave us plenty to chat about.

On the day of the event, we hopped into West Brother's S2000 and headed up to Santa Anita Race Track (that's horse racing, for those not familiar with the LA area), which has an enormous parking lot that was not only housing this event for Rusnak, but also the homecoming dances for several local high schools. We checked-in and promptly jumped into line, just in time to be regaled by the sound of the dealership porters running a lap before they put away the cars from the last group on the small, but well-designed, track.

In quick succession, a series of sedans was whisked into the parking area in front of us. A total of 12 cars from various European manufacturers, encompassing both the entry-luxury, mid-size luxury, and large luxury classes was offered up for us to pick from. West Brother and I quickly hatched a strategy to cover a selection of cars we had either not driven before or had wanted to try out for a while. Since the group was fairly small, the line moved quickly and was really only limited by the number of instructors out on the course. I was up first and selected the Mercedes Benz E-Class to start off my afternoon.

Nestled into the nicely appointed leather interior, I chatted briefly with the instructor, who had been out in the hot sun all day, shuttling between cars and helping to make sure people did not kill themselves during this rather brief track outing. Peering around the cabin, I checked to make sure the car was in Sport mode before putting it into gear. I pulled out of the staging area, lined up at the start, and planted my left foot firmly on the brake pedal. My right foot went full force down on the throttle and, to my surprise, instead of just loading up the torque converter in the transmission, the car actually started to do a burn-out. Before I got myself into trouble, I promptly released the brake and the car launched ahead.

Gradually apply the brakes, turn the wheel, and the big Benz danced through the course, which included a nice right hand sweeper and several fairly tight hairpins. While the E-Class is hardly a small car, it performed fairly well when pressed at 6/10ths. However, I got a second go-around and I pushed much harder, dancing the car on the edge of the stability control, the brakes nipping at each wheel individually as if screaming at me that such behavior was undignified. The heft of the Benz, which offers a sense of solidity to the door closing, now felt like an albatross around the cars proverbial neck, causing the car to wallow uncomfortably in corners while sending the nose careening for the outside of the turn while I worked the pedals, trying to bring the heavy sedan back onto its intended line. The instructor in the car made a comment about how she turned well for being a small boat. By the end of the second lap, the smile on my face was fixed as if placed there by a ham-fisted plastic surgeon.

This cycle would be repeated over and over again the entire afternoon. Between the two of us, we managed to drive the new C-Class (nice, but not spectacular) and E-Class (luxurious, but boat-like), the A6 (surprisingly spritely with terrible steering feel), the Jaguar XF (great throttle response, but needs more brake feel), Volvo S60 (funnest car of the day) and S80 (dullest car of the day), and Maserati Ghibli (loudest car of the day). We each managed six different drives, with the wait dwindling to almost nothing as people trickled away. My last drive, which also happened to be the last car out on the track, was in the S60 R-Design, which I am glad worked out that way because that car is an absolute hoot to drive.

Grins plastered on our faces, the smell of overheated brake pads and boiling coolant lingering in the early evening breeze, we checked out and headed back to the S2000, having just had the chance to flog someone else's cars all afternoon with no consequences and no bill to pay. Best of all, it gave us a chance to really put a number of cars through their paces to see just how well they would respond in more extremely conditions that what we could possibly fathom encountering on the road. It is unfortunate that such events are so few and far between these days because dealers could really make a name for themselves among certain audiences by running such events. We were fortunate enough to be invited and we certainly hope to have the opportunity again in the future.