Aston Martin’s man in the passenger seat is remarkably calm as we blast the V-12 Vantage down the lengthy 2.5-mile straight, a big 187 miles per hour flashing briefly on its American-spec digital readout. That’s an eyeball-popping 300.95 km/h, the fastest I’ve ever driven in 15 years of somewhat regular track and speed-limit-free autobahn driving. And as I discover later, it’s also seven mph faster than the supposed “maximum speed” listed on the track’s website.
I’m really hoping Aston Martin’s Salvatore Gusmano doesn’t get in trouble for this.
Gusmano is a man of many hats, some of which have occasionally overlapping responsibilities. On the one hand, as track safety supervisor for Ford’s sprawling Michigan Proving Grounds engineering testing facility, I’m sure Gusmano would rather I tone down the excitement over hitting this lofty three-century mark. Or perhaps just slightly fudge the exact speed we reached.
But he’s also an advanced driving instructor for Aston Martin’s North American Performance Driving Course, a one-day adventure experience that allows participants to drive their choice of Aston Martins on a variety of tracks, hill courses and MPG’s massive five-mile (eight kilometre) steeply banked oval. And wearing that hat, he gamely advised me to keep constant pressure on the throttle all the way around those world-tipping banked corners. Constant pressure meant foot to the floor all around the banking, and the slingshot effect of the car still accelerating coming off a 240 km/h-plus corner was incredible.
At 300 km/h, even looking far up down the track, the four highway-style dotted lanes constantly blurred into continuous lines. The four-kilometre-long straight somehow begins to magically blend into the corners that precede and follow it. I wish now that there was video that could tell me how long exactly I spent rocketing down that straight, for in my mind it didn’t seem like more than a few seconds at a time.
Aston PDC participants usually reach between 150 to 170 mph (251 to 274 km/h), Gusmano told me in our classroom orientation earlier. Some have lots of track experience and simply run the car at its maximum within a few laps, he notes, as long as your Aston Martin instructor/chaperone can see that you’re not going to endanger either machine or, more importantly, on-board occupants.
The majority of the course though is spent on much tighter test tracks, with intimidating metal guardrails or hard tree trunks to harshly impede your progress if one becomes over-enthusiastic. It’s all done progressively, with the slower and twistier sections first, to allow instructors to easily see and refine your cornering technique. Basic safety skills are practiced that are useful in any car, such as emergency lane changes at highway speeds, as well as a demo on a slicked-down skidpad of how electronic stability systems can almost – but not quite – eliminate the chance of a skid, even on a high-performance, exotic sports car.
The speeds increase on faster road course test roads as the day progresses, with an alpine course that is easily the most challenging of the day, with speeds topping 160 km/h, but with many steep hills, blind turns and the occasional tree at the edge of the road to encourage you to pay close attention. Its intimidating start has the driver confronted with a steep upward climb that would pin your head to the head restraint even if stopped, and even more so under the weight of a floored V-12 engine. It feels like you’re heading up a high-speed roller-coaster, but instead of a drop at the end, there’s a blind turn.
After a few laps, I thought I was reasonably quick around this alpine course. But after a stomach-churning blazing lap in the passenger seat with Gusmano at the wheel, I realized I wasn’t.
The high-speed oval was the velocity crescendo at the end of the day, but even though the speeds were much higher than at the alpine course, the drama wasn’t. This was one smooth and stable car, even four clicks off its 305 km/h top speed.
The $2,500 that the course costs is not inexpensive, and that doesn’t include travel there and back. But it’s a pretty safe bet that most first-time attendees will set their own personal top speeds as well, and though the majority of the day is spent in the Aston model you request when booking, the instructors can save time at the end for drivers who’d like to sample other Aston Martin models there that day.
The course is open to current owners as well as non-Aston Martin drivers alike, with courses available between May and October in Michigan, or a little shorter than its similar U.K. program. Aston’s original PDC is still run near the firm’s headquarters in Gaydon, where the program runs March to November, and can be combined with a visit to the factory to see one’s car being built.
But both the British and North American courses feel as though they are are designed by folks with more passion for driving than fear of lawsuits. And if a good stiff British-style upper lip is needed to chase automotive nirvana, well, that’s what Aston Martin provides.
Tech specs: 2012 Aston Martin V-12 Vantage
Type: Performance two-seat luxury coupe
Base price: $186,600; as tested: $194,438
Engine: 5.9-litre, DOHC, V-12
Horsepower/torque: 510 hp/420 lb-ft
Transmission: Six-speed manual
Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 19.1 city//12.1 highway; premium gas
Alternatives: Audi R8 V-10, Bentley Continental GT, Jaguar XKR-S, Mercedes-Benz SL 63 AMG, Porsche 911 Turbo S
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