Though I've had the opportunity to test drive several Aston Martins over the last few years, I always left feeling unsatisfied. I wanted to go to fast, to push the car its limits. An occasional burst of speed passing a car on a city highway or suburban lane felt like a tease with concerns of traffic, speed limits and safety always trumping the thrill. That desire was met head on when Aston Martin invited us to spend a day at their Performance Driving Course, a day-long, one-on-one tutorial taught by one of their experienced performance driving instructors in your Aston Martin of choice. Best of all, while owning an Aston is a stretch for most of us, a day on the track is a fantasy that's both educational and a lot more accessible.
The Course is currently offered in the U.S. at Ford's 3,800-plus acre Michigan Proving Ground and in the U.K. at Millbrook Proving Ground, one of the largest facilities in Europe. Accompanied by CH editor-in-chief Josh Rubin, we arrived in Michigan first thing in the morning where we were met by our instructors Kevin Markham and Sal Gusmano.
Though Josh and I both consider ourselves fairly accomplished drivers, it's humbling to spend a day with professional drivers who have over 50 combined years of test and performance driving under their belts. After an introduction to the PDC, going over the plan for the day and signing some waivers, we were eagerly escorted to our requested rides for the course, a 2011 V12 Vantage coupe with a six-speed manual transmission and a 2011 four-door Rapide sedan. Starting in the passenger seat of our respective cars while Kevin and Sal took the wheel, we headed out to our first stop.
Our instructors explained the goal of each of the six tracks as they drove the first lap of all six, giving detailed advice as they pointed out the details of the track and the car that would be put to test. The first lesson was to get a feel for the cars (we both drove both throughout the day) by accelerating as quickly as possible down the 2.5-mile straightaway, safely coming to a stop, turning around and doing it again. This in itself was about the most fun I've had in a long time. After a few laps, the instructors introduced an "emergency stop." Once we were cruising at 100 mph, they called out "STOP!" and we slammed on the brakes, holding the pedal down as hard as possible to come to an incredibly quick and controlled stop.
Once we had a first-hand understanding of the term "assometer" (a word coined by Kevin meaning "your interaction with the car, the way you sit in it"), we were instructed to change lanes as we braked, simulating a real-life emergency braking and avoidance situation. The cars performed admirably (as did we) and with that experience under our belts, we headed to the Lommel track, modeled after a section of Belgian highway with rolling hills and sharp turns.
Lommel gave us the opportunity to test our skills and the car in a more common road setting. Kevin and Sal provided a better understanding of how to take turns properly—when to use the brakes and when to accelerate. Basically, this meant braking in a straight line before the turn, looking as far outside the turn as we could, and accelerating as we eased out of it. Each lap saw an increase in our skill and speed. Both Josh and I felt we took away valuable information that applies to day-to-day driving as well as track driving.
Next we headed off to the traction control (aka skid) pad, a wet track where we got to experience driving the cars with their multiple modes (On, Off or Track). Assometer ratings on high, this is the part of the day when you make funny faces and say "Wow! Awesome; let's do that again!" over and over again as you spin the car into oversteer. It's also the equally important moment when you understand the engineering involved in the cars and how to leverage it—whether you want the car controlled and tamed, loosened up, or completely left to your skill to master.
After lunch, we headed out to the Gleneagles Cincinnati track, once again modeled after existing roads (this time in Scotland and Cincinnati). Longer and with the addition of a few straightaways between the turns, here we started to put the pieces together, using the skills we'd learned throughout the day. You realize that as much fun as you're having, you're also building up a set of skills, as well as a better understanding of the physics involved in driving. Next stop was the hills course where we put the cars through steep climbs, descents and nice wide turns. Kevin and Sal took us to the top of one of the hill tracks, among the highest points in that part of Michigan—perfect for taking in the beautiful countryside, the impressive facility and for the requisite Facebook shots of us posing with the cars.
Last stop of this thrill-seeking day was the five mile high-speed oval track, where we had the thrill of driving the cars to their maximum speeds. A gentleman's agreement prevents us from mentioning any specific numbers, but let's just say it was fast, really fast. It's the kind of speed that you want, but never have the opportunity to achieve, every time you get behind the wheel of one of these beautiful machines. This is a good time to mention that we were on a closed racetrack, following all safety precautions with professional drivers in the car with us. The instructors will evaluate your skills, the weather and track conditions and take all of that into consideration when planning your day and determining how fast you can drive. Safety is always the first priority. One fun thing we learned is that by going 96 miles per hour around the track, gravity basically holds the car on course through the turns; you can lift your hands off the wheel and the stays perfectly in the lane.
Our full day of driving behind us, we headed back to the Aston Martin lounge, debriefed on the day and the guys answered our remaining questions. We shook hands with Rick and Sal and left with a whole new appreciation for physics, the cars, their skills as drivers and instructors, and grins from ear to ear.
Aston Martin Driving Experiences offer several different programs starting around $1,000; each of which offers what promises to be one of your best days ever. You can drive in the snow, on a race track, through the countryside or spend an entire day learning the ins-and-outs of performance driving like we did. Schools are located in the U.K., Australia, the U.S., and at Germany's famous Nürburgring track. Aston owners are invited to bring their own cars; the rest of us get to use one provided at all of the courses, which you can specify when you make your reservation (they are always the current model year). The PDC is $2,500 in the U.S. and £1,164 in the U.K. They are very accommodating of sharing that time, so it's possible to go with a friend and each chip in half, though the total driving time is still the same. Prices include a light breakfast, lunch, refreshments and the time of your life, but not travel. Drivers must have a valid license and be over 25—though if you're the kind of person who gets an Aston for your 16th birthday you can probably work something out.