Friday, as I got on the plane, I was thinking about just what I should expect out of the Autoweek ZF Fantasy Camp. All ready the folks at Autoweek had provided me with a new piece of luggage, several shirts, a Flip HD video camera, Piloti driving shoes, along with several other very cool items. The agenda they sent gave me a clue that there would be a Friday night dinner, that Saturday would be filled with test driving at Ford’s test facility, across the street from our hotel, the Dearborn Inn. Sunday could be our own day, or we could opt for a private tour of the Ford Museum (guess what I chose).
Now, I have autocrossed and done several HPDE track days, but this sounded like it would borrow some from both experiences. Well, I would find out on Saturday.
But this was still Friday and when the flight touched down in Detroit I was glad to see that it wasn’t raining. It was bit overcast, but brightening up. The entrance of the Dearborn Inn came into view along with a row of ten cars parked out in the grass between the hotel and the street. These were the half-million dollars worth of automobiles that twenty of us lucky guys would get to drive and evaluate over the next couple of days.
After checking in and dropping my bag in my room I hurried down to the cars to get a closer look. By the time I reached the green there were being moved and positioned so that we (the “campers”) could get a close look at them.
The Autoweek staff along with the sponsors from ZF and Meguiar’s, were there, too, greeting the campers as we showed up and making us feel like VIP’s. A video crew set up and followed us as we explored the cars and shared our thoughts and opinions. They would continue to capture our activities on Saturday as well.
Chip Foose showed up and turned out to be just a genuine a human being as he appears to be on Overhaulin’. He shared with us some humorous and touching stories as well as gave us some insight into a future project similar to his past series.
We all mingled around a great dinner that was followed up with some fine cigars for those who indulged. It gave us a chance to find out more about our comrades and collectively consider what our next day would be like.
Soon the cars were packed into a trailer moved to the proving grounds across the street. It was our cue to mentally prepare for tomorrow and our great adventure.
How do you sleep when you know that the next day you are going to have a once in a lifetime experience? As best you can.
Saturday morning I got prepared by going through all the stuff I felt I had better have ready. Certainly a camera. I had recently purchased an upgrade to a digital camera that I had been using for the past five years. It was time. Autoweek had provided us with a three ring binder so that we could capture our evaluations in an organized fashion, so that was packed in my bag, too. The weather was a question mark. The advice to dress layered was appropriate for Saturday. Things were damp from some storms that rolled through over night, but it was not raining at the moment.
Downstairs were gathered our eager group of twenty plus representatives from ZF, MeGuiar’s, and, of course, the Autoweek staff. The Featherlite Coach pulled up to the entrance of our hotel at the appointed our and we climbed aboard for our short ride to the Dearborn Development Center in the back of the Ford facility.
Behind the gates we caught glimpses of automobiles that Ford was testing. We would speculate amongst ourselves about the possibility of seeing some of them in the future.
Breakfast awaited us in the Center’s main building, along with ten professional drivers from the Ford staff. They would be in the passenger seat of our cars for most of the day acting as our mentors and guide us through the evaluation process while familiarizing us with the track setup.
After breakfast we gathered around the presentation screen and learned the course layout that we would be using to judge the cars with. The course would give us an opportunity to evaluate acceleration, braking under controlled and emergency conditions, handling in consistent as well as transitional modes, along with ride properties over rough surfaces.
Chip Foose, who would be participating with us, spoke to us about his past and present projects. How can someone so successful be so humble?
The excitement was building. Soon we would be testing the cars.
Outside the building sat two rows of five cars each. In each car in the passenger seat was a professional driver. While we had been taken through a graphical representation of the layout we would be driving the instructor would be there to guide us through the road course and help us find ways to make the most of our evaluation period.
So there were twenty drivers for ten cars, and that meant that we campers would take turns as a driver as well as a back seat passenger. That was important since it would clearly show the reality of some of the design choices made by each manufacturer as to whether or not they could accommodate an adult rear passenger (I am six feet tall) with a modicum of comfort or force them to adapt to something quite less accommodating.
Tom and I paired up and I sat in the back of the first vehicle with my camera. These were all coupes so it was understandable that rear seat egress would not be as facilitating as a sedan, but some design choices definitely were more accommodating than others.
Tom drove us to the start and we waited for the signal that allowed for plenty of space between our car and the one in front. It was a right hand turn on to the straight and Tom went through the gears and we discovered how much torque would grab the chassis and haul it toward the first right hand bend. Armco was on both sides and the road surface was still plenty damp as Tom bent the car around to match the curve. Quickly we approached a tight turn back to the left and entered a heavily banked left hand bend that would lead back to the straight we had just come from. As the banking ended a set of cones came into view to show us where we would test the acceleration capabilities in a higher gear. This was to simulate the typical passing scenario we all encounter on the highway. By the second set of cones most cars would reach 100 mph and a few would easily exceed 110 mph. A little further down the track was another set of cones that were similarly spaced apart. At this station we were to initiate braking and in such a way that we didn’t change pressure, but stop the car at the second set of cones. This was a lot harder to accomplish than you would think as there was enough distance that you were definitely not making a panic stop. It was much more like the kind of stop you would make if you were coming up to stopped traffic at a traffic signal with plenty of distance between you and the vehicle stopped. Often in this exercise you would find that with moderate brake pedal pressure you would stop prematurely. This was especially noticeable in the Dodge Challenger that sported some pretty massive brakes.
After that we built up speed and entered a duplicate of the bend and loop that we had driven through at the start. It had the same tight left at the end that led to the heavily banked left bend. This put us on to the straight where we moderated down to 70 mph as we approached yet another set of cones. At these cones we tested the panic stop capabilities. It was a matter of getting right on the brake pedal as hard as you could. You hit it as if you were going to drive the brake pedal right through the firewall. Naturally this activated every car’s ABS system and pulled the car down to zero in rapid fashion.
It was amazing to feel the difference in how each ABS system worked. With the Cadillac STS you would feel each corner acting as almost independent systems, yet pull the speed down keeping the car straight and true. The Mercedes would react quite differently and you would feel the rapid pulses as if they were all acting as a tied together system. Both those vehicles would pull the cars down to zero with alacrity, and in a straight line, but with very different braking personalities.
Next we took a right turn back into the entry to the Development Center and another right to the start of a very different type of track layout. We would once again wait for clearance and then enter with acceleration a road that had quick elevation changes combined with turns. This was a lot like some country roads that you might encounter with a bit of roller coaster feel to them. The first hill turn was to the right and then left leading to a couple of mogul-type hills. This gave the driver a chance to slow down for a set of “rumble strips”. These strips were set parallel to each other so that we could evaluation how each car’s suspension would tolerate the small jolts and transfer them back to the driver and passengers.
Next was a tight left that lead to a short straight we could accelerate on. One after another were hills and turns that would give you an excellent feel for how a chassis handled multiple transitions. After the last hill’s turn the track pointed you toward a more distant left had sweeping bend that lead to a final mogul and back to where the cars were originally lined up.
While the first couple of runs through the complete layout was very much an experience of attaining familiarity with the many stations and transitions we soon drove through with familiarity. Counting our time as both passenger and driver we went through the course twenty times.
By the time I climbed out of the last car after the last run I was both exhilarated and a bit drained. Lunch was waiting for us and it was just in time.
After lunch we had a totally new experience to enjoy. Three stations had been set up for us. One was an autocross course that was timed and four of the cars were there along with professional drivers to coach us to be winners. Another was similar to an autocross course and was not timed. It was laid out with a couple of gates, a slalom consisting of three cones followed by a tight right hand turn. Then it had a mild chicane followed by a sweeping right hand turn marked out by pairs of cones. Three of our cars were at this station.
The third station was a very large wet skid pad laid out with cones to force you to learn the handling capabilities in this slippery environment. The other three cars were here.
My group was dropped off at the autocross course first. We chose up cars and received a single orientation lap with a lot of beneficial coaching from the guy in the right seat. Then we had a couple of more runs to see just what kinds of times we could achieve. Chip Foose was in our group and he was a ball to watch. Along with all his other talents he can drive, too.
One of the cars there had a professional driver from New Zealand that had a very impressive resume including time with Formula One teams. He was a lot of fun to have as a coach.
After switching between the four cars a couple of times and cranking out some pretty impressive times we hopped on a shuttle bus to the next station.
Even though this was not timed I think all of us were primed from having worked so hard on the autocross course. This one was a blast to drive and not having to consider that it was timed allowed for some exploring of handling characteristics that would not have worked on the autocross course. Chip jumped in the CTS and pushed it hard finding that understeer was certainly an aspect of these heavier cars.
I jumped into the Audi A5 Quatro because my car at home is AWD and I was curious to find out how the Audi AWD would compare. The car was very nice through the cones and pretty well behaved on the tight right, but as I poured on the power and took the wide ride hand sweeper it would just continue to push (understeer) and required the application of a bit of the brake pedal to get the tail end to come around properly. I had a few laps to see how well I could induce enough oversteer to get smoothly through the sweeper and then pulled in to change to another car.
My next one was the E350 and the professional driver in the passenger seat was the senior Ford instructor. He was fantastic to get coaching from. His resume included seat time with Sir Jackie Stewart. Even though there was more body roll than I expected from the Mercedes, it could maneuver through the slalom quite well and brake predictably into the tight right turn followed by plenty of acceleration through the sweeper. It was not only a lot of fun – it was a fantastic learning experience.
In no time at all we moved to the wet skid pad. I must admit that the thought of blasting around on a half inch of water with one of them being the hemi Dodge Challenger was something that made you think. I have had plenty of hydroplaning experiences in the “real world”. It was quite different to deliberately put yourself in that situation. It was another fantastic educational experience.
Chip also went out in the cars, but spent some extra time in the Dodge Challenger. And who could blame him? Once you had your first run through the wet course it was an absolute hoot to feel free to explore the limits. It was also impressive how well all three cars held their grip levels and navigated the course.
All too soon it was again time to grab a ride on the shuttle bus. We had worn ourselves out evaluating cars all morning long and had just spent the afternoon having a blast wearing out tires and ourselves. We were all wearing smiles as we headed back to conclude the day at the Development Center.
But wait – there’s more!
The shuttle buses dropped us back at the main building where we had started our morning. The cars were driven back to the building by the professional drivers from Ford. We would be going out in them once again only this time with helmets! The pros were going to take us out for hot laps!
You may get an opportunity to drive around a road course or and autocross course and feel that you have found the limits of the car and yourself, but when you are a passenger in the same car with a professional driver it is a whole new experience. Suddenly you find out what limits really are. It is thrilling, educational, and even a bit intimidating.
The drivers were all very impressive especially as they narrated their way around the course while driving beyond what you might imagine was the limit of a particular chassis. Calm professionalism doesn’t seem to be an adequate description, but it is close.
Even watching from the sidelines as the cars were driven around the course was an impressive experience. After all, we had all driven the same course all morning long with a good idea of what it took to make a car perform as it was driven by these professionals.
What perfect way to complete our time at the proving grounds. Ford was a fantastic host and the drivers that helped us throughout the day were top rate.
Exhausted is the wrong word to describe how we felt as we took the coach back to the hotel. Certainly we were tired, but it was buoyed by the adrenaline that comes with all the fun that we had.
Back at the hotel we had time to refresh and then get ready for the festivities that awaited us at our closing dinner. One big surprise was that a beautiful Aston Martin Zagato was waiting at the entrance to the dining room. This was a soon-to-be announced model that was absolutely beautiful. Having evaluated cars for the past couple of days it was natural for us to examine all aspects of this stunning car. Unfortunately it was not available for us to take around the track, but we did get to hear the cracking exhaust note as the V12 was started, revved up, and idled.
A more traditional type of music greeted us at our closing dinner. Many of the band members were actually Autoweek staff and they provided an accompaniment to our meal which was just out of this world. It was a buffet consisting of a fantastic variety of food. A person would have been hard pressed not to find something delightful.
And we had plenty of time to chat with the other campers, the Autoweek editorial staff, the various sponsors, and Chip Foose.
Cigars were available for those that partake along with more time to get to know each other better. We were so busy with the activities at the Development Center that there were not a lot of chances to talk and get to know more about the other campers, but this dinner was the perfect venue for getting to know each other better.
All good things must come to and end and later that night we headed back to our rooms easily falling to sleep to relive our past hours in our dreams.
Sunday morning we had our breakfast at the Dearborn Inn and I believe that all the campers were still wearing smiles left over from the prior day’s adventures. We had had the time of our lives and felt lucky to have done so.
But there’s more…
A few of us took an option to get a private tour of the Henry Ford Museum and I am happy to say that I was one of them. We met over at the museum at noon and were escorted by Christian Overland and two of the museum staff including a curator who was able to provide us with a great deal of history and insight into pieces of the museum’s collection. Many of the vehicles we were shown are not yet out for display.
Included in these vehicles was a lakes car made from a P-38 drop tank, and Henry Ford’s original 999 race car. All of us were absolutely enthralled with the vehicles and the historical commentary.
I finally had to pull myself away and face the reality of making my flight back home. It was a short walk back to the hotel and an equally short ride to the Detroit airport.
My flight had an unexpected four hour delay due to mechanical difficulties, but I never really cared. How could I? I had just been through the most fun weekend a gear head could hope for. The adventures of the past couple of days had me smiling as I waited for a replacement aircraft to bring me home while the other passengers grumbled.
The Autoweek staff told us that it only took eight minutes for all twenty slots to be filled this year. I was so glad that I decided to respond rather than wait a few minutes more to decide.