Autoweek Fantasy Camp–2012 on the track

From my entry on what we did Friday you can see that Autoweek and ZF don’t let grass grow under our racing shoes.  Speaking of shoes, a box of  new Alpine Stars racing shoes were handed to us upon check-in to the Dearborn Inn.  Now how do you beat that?

Friday night was an opportunity to walk around and sit in all the cars that would be at our disposal on Saturday.  So let’s take a look at them:

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2012 Audi A6 3.0 TFSI quattro Auto Tiptronic Sedan

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2012 Audi A7 3.0 TFSI quattro Auto Tiptronic Sedan

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2012 BMW 328i Sedan

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2012 BMW 550i xDrive Sedan

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2012 Cadillac CTS-V Sedan

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2012 Chrysler 300 SRT8

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2013 Ford Taurus SHO

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2012 Hyundai Equus Ultimate

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2012 Jaguar XF- supercharged

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2012 LS 460L

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2012 Mercedes-Benz E550 4MATIC

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2012 Hyundai Genesis 5.0

The Hyundai Genesis and the Lexus LS were held in reserve as the other cars had made the top ten list of the Autoweek readers’ pole and were there to be our focus cars.

So bright and early we awoke with great anticipation on Saturday morning.  Our motor coach would be waiting for us at the front of the Dearborn Inn and at 7:45 it pulled away front the front of the inn and brought us across the street to Ford’s Dearborn Development Center.

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This is a special place.  There are Ford engineers that have never seen the side of the fence that the motor coach transported us to.  With a brief stop at the security gate we continued on, winding our way past research buildings and camouflaged cars out to the track area itself.

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Finally we reached the main building and made our way inside for a bountiful breakfast and an introduction to our day of evaluating cars.

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After our meal we sat down to an introduction by Ford’s lead test driver and driving instructor Kevin.  He helped us by setting the tone for our day of driving.  In the morning the key would be consistency so that we could use the track time for comparative analysis of all the cars.  While it would be tempting to stress the cars and see where their limits might be by racing around the morning course it would negate any hope we might have of performing a useful comparison.   In the afternoon there would be some special areas set up for us to exercise the cars and discover their handling prowess and limitations.

We were introduced to the Ford test drivers that would be in the passenger seat of all our cars.  These guys were the cream of the crop and would be providing excellent guidance on how best to use the track for comparative analysis.

Our next step would be to pair up and pick out our first test car of the day.  Several of us had been to Fantasy Camp the year before and one or two had also been there for the first year.  Dan and I got to the front of the line and he took the driving chores for the first lap around the course while I sat in the back seat to evaluate the passenger’s experience.  Once everyone was ready the safety marshals waved us on to the entrance of the course and Dan took us down the front straight at a good clip.  Our entrance to the track was about half way down the straight so next came a sweeping right hander that finished in a hairpin left turn that lead to a highly banked sweeper leading back on to a straight section parallel to the one we had started on.  Upon exiting the banking was a marker where we entered at a speed of 50 mph and punched the accelerator for about an eighth mile to see what kind of rolling acceleration each car had.  Many could easily top 100 mph while a couple others were just shy of 100.  Then the car coasted down to 70 mph for a braking zone test.

This was not a panic stop braking test.  That would come later.  This test was very illuminating in that you had about 1/8 of a mile to stop in, but the idea was to apply pressure to the pedal just once and let the car come to a stop without modulating the pedal.  And have the car end up at a particular point.  This is far more difficult to achieve than it might sound.  More likely than not, the car would either stop a good deal short or some little distance beyond the intended marker.  What did this show us?  It gave an excellent indication of the predictability of the braking system and how well it had been engineered to accommodate a driver.

From there we accelerated to a duplicate set of corners that we had driven at the beginning .  A right hand sweeper that connected to a left hairpin that lead to a banked sweeper that we used to get the car up to 90 mph.  Ahead of us was the panic braking zone.  At a marker we hit the brake pedal as if we wanted to drive the pedal through the floorboards.  With today’s stability control systems and ABS systems you would think that one car would be as any other in this kind of test.  Not so.  While every car pulled down quickly there were subtle, but important differences in each make and model.  Some would haul the car down in an exceptionally straight line with the rapid ABS pulses simply a reminder of the severity of your brake pedal’s request.  Other cars would do much the same but with a a tail wag here or ABS pulses just a bit too intense.  By the end of the morning the hot brakes were still performing well.

After that test we pulled back in to the track entrance by the building, but this time we headed for the inside track where it represented a country road with slight hills and off-camber corners.  With an introductory set of corners we hit two hummocks and slowed for a 15 mph set of rumble strips.  These were like five solid hoses perpendicular to the road that would clearly identify what cars would have problems with road imperfections at low speeds and what cars were adept at those kind of challenges.  After that a quick left turn onto more hills and turns.  Some that could send a car flying if taken aggressively.  But that was not the point of this exercise.  Here we did our best to drive in a manner that was repeatable and would reveal just how well the designers had done.  Further on was a section where we could build up more speed prior to a sweeping left hand turn that ended in another quick hill.  This last one would clearly show how well a car handled the dramatic weight transfer that occurred as a result of the speed you carried and the changes as the car compressed going up the hill, became light as the crest of the hill was past, and then how the car dealt with the weight coming down on the right front corner at the bottom of the hill as you continued to ask it to turn in the left hand sweeper.  Then it was back to the building where you lined up the cars once again.

Dan and I swapped places and I had my turn to go through the same course and perform the same tests, this time from a driver’s perspective.

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This was repeated for each of the cars.  All the time we were keeping track of our impressions and doing our best to be consistent and objective.  Evaluating cars is not easy.

By the time we had run through them all we were ready for lunch.  As expected, our sponsors had provided us with food and drink that none could complain about.  It gave us a chance to talk among ourselves and share our impressions.  It also gave us a chance to talk to Tommy Kendall and enjoy his insights on cars and racing.  He was easy to talk to and he was always able to provide you with an interesting and amusing story.

Finally we were brought out from our conversations with a reminder that the day was not over and that we had a fun afternoon ahead of us.  The motor coach was waiting to take us out to another part of the proving grounds where three great challenges had been set up for us to use to really explore the limits of the cars.  The first area we got to was the wet skid pad.  And not just a 200 foot circle.  This was acres of tarmac constantly coated with a surface of water and a neat set of cones defined out driving challenge.  We accelerated from a start box to a quick left-right and on to a large left hand sweeper that challenged every car and driver to minimize low traction understeer.  With stability control as a given most cars were quite able to get you through without massive understeer, but we could also limit the stability control by deft pushes of control buttons.  That really gave the driver a chance to go back in time and deal with the realities of a low coefficient of friction.  This was not the kind of understeer that you would feel on a dry surface with it caused by a car’s balance being upset by body roll.  This was much more like you would encounter on a snowy road or in a heavy rain.  It was very educational.

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The second station was a high speed handling course that consisted of cone-defined areas of sweeping turns, a short slalom, and a set of left, right, left, right, transitions before you repeated.  This gave you an opportunity to really experience a car’s handling at the extremes.  The sweepers showed clearly how quickly understeer at speed would occur and then how well a chassis dealt with transitions.

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The third station was an autocross that was timed.  It took some discipline in both the suspension and the driver to accomplish with aplomb.  The clock made certain that your senses were not telling you a fib or two.

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All too soon we were packed back into the motor coach and made our way back to the central building.  Now we were in for a real treat as the Ford test drivers would take us around the inner track at speed.  With balaclavas and helmets the Campers lined up for their rides.  I think that the Ford test drivers were really looking forward to this part of the day.  It gave them their chance to get out of the right hand seat and exercise their talents to an appreciative ride-a-long audience.

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But wait – there’s more!  More in the form of a Boss 302 Leguna Seca with Tommy Kendall at the wheel!

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Imagine having a driver of Tommy’s caliber and experience driving you around an exciting road course such as the one at Ford’s test track in such a capable car at the Boss 302.

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This was one of the times when your day is coming to a close and you have a large smile on your face.  You may be tired, but you are ready to do it all again.

We climbed aboard the motor coach one last time for our ride out of the Ford fantasy land and back to the Dearborn Inn.  We had about an hour to clean up and refresh ourselves before we would get together one more time and enjoy a fantastic dinner out on the quadrangle.  There we spent time with the Autoweek editorial staff, the Ford test drivers, our fellow campers, and Tommy Kendall, enjoying the fine food and drink and saturating our minds in conversations about cars and motorsports.  As the sun started to head for the horizon we realized that another uniquely intense Fantasy Camp weekend was coming to a close.

Sunday morning we had our own large table to congregate at and enjoy a breakfast provided by the folks at Escort, Inc. detectors.  Some of us would follow breakfast with a ride to the airport, George would climb aboard his big block Boss Hoss and head back to Maryland, a few of us would have time for one more visit to the Henry Ford museum before we would all go our separate ways – our memories playing back the weekend of a lifetime.

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2 Responses to Autoweek Fantasy Camp–2012 on the track

  1. Michael says:

    Sounds like a dream trip, Jim. Thanks for sharing. I look forward to hearing your impressions of the cars.

  2. Lee K says:

    Yep. me too. I look forward to your assessment of each vehicle. I’m particularly interested in how the new BMW turbo four fared in such high-powered company.

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