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Story by Cherise LaPine-Grueninger, Photography by “Mustang” Matt Carter
Perched on a cerulean vinyl barstool at the Motor City Casino, I discovered the difference between myself and a Grand-Am driver is that I can down a double of Ketel One in a single swig. The Grand-Am driver cannot.
Which was kind of entertaining, since said driver had spent the day attempting to scare my pants off. I was his captive in the lush passenger seat of a 2009 Audi R8 while he treated Waterford Hills Road Course like his personal playground, which it was, since our small Speed:Sport:Life crew had the place nearly to ourselves. The vodka revelation occurred during my second consecutive weekend traipsing across the Midwest to spend a day on a road course with Audi of America’s finest offerings, and was the first time over those two weekends that I hadn’t felt like the standout dumb track novice in pristine Pumas, with tangled pigtails tucked under a borrowed helmet.
I don’t scare easily, and at least this time around, I knew what to expect. The previous Friday, however, had seemed a bit more risky. I’d left my night shift ad agency job and driven from Chicago straight to Columbus in a thoroughly miserable rental Hyundai Accent. My GTI had informed me (in her way) that she didn’t intend to make the trip, and in typical fashion, I felt fortunate that the front end clunk developed in time for me to make alternate travel plans. The motivation for this ordeal? Jack said he’d coach me around Nelson Ledges in a 2009 Audi A6 3.0T Quattro if I could make it to SSL’s regional headquarters in Ohio. The A6, I told myself, would be worth the effort.
I arrived a few hours past sunrise and Jack was ready to go, blessed with the exuberance of someone whose head has been in contact with a pillow sometime in the past 24 hours. Mine hadn’t. I was groggy and bitchy and needed a shower. Undeterred, Jack tossed me a few blankets. Too tired to even acknowledge the car with a once-over, I slid my aching body across the A6’s backseat for a nap.
It was a really nice backseat, perfectly suitable for my plight. I vaguely recall that I admired the stitching up close and personal, my face inches from the leather, before passing out. The center cupholder armrest held my coffee without splashing on me. And though most of our passengers disliked the brown and black interior, I’d seen a similar package on a super classy VW CC, which I enjoyed immensely. Both the A6, and in retrospect, the CC, stirred a particular memory of an aqua 1996 Audi A4 I almost bought after graduating from college. Plus, the two-tone coordinated nicely with one of the pairs of shoes Jack brought, just in case an opportunity arose for which he could justify changing his shoes.
Despite the car’s (surprisingly and somewhat disappointingly) quiet engine, despite the smooth ride and overall plushness, despite the stitch imprints on my cheeks, I hadn’t achieved much useful rest upon our arrival at Ledges. I helped unpack the A6’s cavernous trunk (my suitcase, several helmets, two laptop bags, two camera bags, a racing suit, towels, blankets and the aforementioned superfluous shoes) and damn near collapsed on the grass. I was relieved when tasked with a relatively simple assignment: chauffeur a photographer slowly around the track. I settled into the driver’s seat, making all the adjustments necessary to maintain a professional-looking posture. Exiting pit lane, I concentrated on learning the course at low speed.
Though I’d spent several hours in the A6 by then, once behind the wheel I was taken aback by the subtleties of the supercharged 3.0. As noted in our Speed Read of the A6, the supercharged six-cylinder is a new configuration delivering power on par with the previous generation 4.2 A6, and will soon show up in the S4 and S5.
I’m accustomed to press fleet Audis of the traditional turbo variety and the car’s 3.0T badging sets forth certain expectations; the subtle “Supercharged” emblems on the fenders and actual power delivery are small consolation. I want to hear the turbo spool, and I want to feel the telltale thrust that a supercharger lacks. I thoroughly enjoy the stimuli byproducts of power delivery, especially when the sound bolsters my credibility on the track. Lacking the tactile feedback I’ve come to expect from Audi, the surround-sound experience that relies on more than just speed, the A6 may behave more like a performance car, but it feels less like one.
This disparity might have greatly troubled me under other circumstances, but that particular day, I was content to be 400 miles away from my desk, driving a car I trusted in a situation I thoroughly distrusted. Playing with the throttle, trying to coax a whine from the supercharger, I gradually escaped the need to sleep. The A6 responded eagerly to my fingertips (especially after my hand position was corrected), clearly capable of providing much more than my low speed learning curve laps required. Just a few trips around and I was considerably more confident, even though I was sharing the track with a modified Porsche GT2 and a Ferrari 599 Fiorano.
The photography session wrapped up fairly quickly. In need of fuel and sugar, Jack and I headed out through the gates. I wasn’t expecting my opinion of the interior to be vindicated in a McDonald’s parking lot, but I also wasn’t expecting Jack to accommodate the homeless guy who approached us for a ride. He glanced at me sideways, tipped me a wink, and opened the back door. I twisted around, wondering if I could grab the helmets from the back seat, and how effective they’d be in self-defense maneuvers.
“These seats is nice,” said the homeless guy as he slid in, “the brown and black.”
So the dude had decent taste. He also had a nervous twitch, one he said would best be satisfied by whatever stash awaited at his hypothetical girlfriend’s hypothetical place. Fortunately, we couldn’t take him quite that far; the A6’s instrument panel lit up to inform us we had only five miles until empty. Jack relayed this information to our passenger.
“What? How do you know that? The car said so? It talked?”
“No, man,” Jack said, pointing at the panel. “See here?”
“Damn,” he said, shaking his head. “That’s nice. This your car?”
We glanced at each other. “Not exactly,” we said.
For perhaps the first time in my life, I wished the car had a nav system. It would have blown this guy’s mind, though as a result, such a feature may have put us a bit closer to becoming carjacking victims. As I pondered the possibility, and whether a great story about the experience would be suitable apology to Audi of America, we reached our destination: the parking lot of a decrepit corner store.
“Just consider an Audi next time you buy a new car,” Jack called, as he pulled away.
“I sure will, man,” he called back.
Unmolested, fully fueled up, rehydrated, and back on the track with new confidence, I was perfectly primed to flog the A6 to my limit. This time out, I was far less concerned about making pretty engine sounds; it was my first in-depth lesson and I wanted to make it count.
The six-speed Tiptronic in gear, I set forth. I was pleased to discover the transmission’s fast and smooth responses to my illogical throttle pressure, and relieved that I didn’t have to dedicate neurons to shifting. Jack told me when to turn and when to brake, and I concentrated on remembering and anticipating his instructions each time around. The A6 took direction just as happily as I; together, we occasionally showed a bit too much exuberance as I wrenched the wheel towards the apexes.
A few laps in, I hit my peak, putting some considerable distance between the big A6 and a couple of Boxster drivers who had been trailing me on a straightaway. What made my day was enough to ruin theirs. I braked hard, successfully turning into Ledges’ Kink. They caught up and I let them pass, though as soon as we were all off track, they proceeded to lambast us for, essentially, not being enlightened Porsche Club of America drivers.
Thanks in large part to the 2009 Audi A6 (and in much smaller part to the fragile ego of man) the performance driving seed’s been planted in Speed:Sport:Life’s latest and most curvaceous convert. It matters little that I’ve driven cars more suited to such an environment before and since; I’ll always remember a specific car as a key element of any experience. Seasoned drivers and Porsche Club of America members, scoff all you like: yes, I am reminiscing fondly about tossing a premium barge-sized sedan around a road course.
When I was invited along for another track day (this time in an Audi TT-S) the logistics barely mattered. Leave straight from work again, in the middle of the night, to drive from Chicago to Detroit and back again in a mere 24 hours? Sure! (And oh, how I yearned for the highway manners of the comfortable A6 during that trek.) Thus, a week after my encounter with the A6, I found myself at the casino, sunburned and exhausted, toasting my driving coach and editor after yet another Friday on the track.