As I've covered before, a car is not just a means of getting from point A to point B for me, and whenever I acquire a new one, part of the new car experience is bonding with it. I like to take whatever its niche is, and push it to see just what it can do, whether it's speed, handling, or off-road capabilities. Aside from being a big part of the fun of car ownership, this is also practical: Within six months of acquiring a car, I don't wonder what it can do or how it will react in any specific situation/conditions. I know.
This process of learning and experimenting with what a car can do is also a learning experience for me and my driving abilities. I won't claim to be the best driver in the world, that's incredibly arrogant, but my passion for cars has made me a better driver through my desire to explore what these machines are capable of. I've learned new techniques and practiced my skills in ways that most people never do. I have a lot to learn, and my new Audi is good at showing me just how little I know, but I want to learn it.
In the past, my Land Rovers brought me to explore the world of off-roading. My first Land Rover, especially, was very, very much a learning experience for me, on multiple levels. By pushing my truck into more and more extreme territory, I not only learned what it was capable of, but what I was capable of as a driver, and I learned so much about driving in extreme conditions that it became a whole new passion all on its own. This is the experience I've been having with my Audi TT.
For the most part, since I bought it, I haven't really left an urban environment, or ventured into truly challenging roads with it. I've been able to test its capabilities occasionally, taking sharp highway ramps as fast as possible, but that doesn't really show me anything about the car, aside from a single data point, maximum turn speed. And it certainly doesn't do anything for my driving skill; American highways are too controlled and limited to reach high speeds or exhibit precision, they're simply a means of getting somewhere. Granted, my Audi is great at that, very comfortable and luxurious, but I wanted more. I wanted to see what a real sportscar could do. The sportiest car I've ever been able to really experience was the Acura Integra I had in high school, which was totalled in 2006, so it's been awhile, and I've never had a vehicle this powerful or agile. I couldn't wait to see what it could really do.
Challenging roads are hard to come by in a major metro area, so what I really wanted, since the day I bought it, was to take it to the mountain roads near where I grew up. They're twisty enough to exceed the handling capabilities of most cars below 40mph, and when you throw in the fairly extreme grade of some segments, you get a road that's limited solely by the capability of the car and driver, not by speed limits and threats of law enforcement. In May 2013, I finally got an opportunity to take my Audi there, and see what she could do. I was not disappointed.
I was in my hometown for Mothers Day, and before the last day of my trip, I wanted to get up to one of the high mountain peaks for sunrise photos, and do my ritual mountain drive in the new car. So, in the middle of the night, I headed for Reddish Knob, a trip I've made so many times that I could pretty much drive it in my sleep. Perfect.
The drive started out simple enough, I zipped through curves with ease, going through the rolling foothills as fast as I dared, warming up before the real challenge. And, as expected, it was the most exhilerating thing I'd done in awhile. I was still in my comfort zone, though. Until the second part of the trip.
I stopped at a small lake on the way up, to take a break and make sure the car was ok (having just come from a Land Rover Freelander, it still feels weird to have a car that won't self-destruct on a whim). When I resumed my trip, I decided to step things up a notch. The steep roads and constant curves are difficult for an automatic transmission to make sense of, even a super-advanced one like mine. Plus, part of performance driving is getting the shifting right, a real weak spot for me, so I popped over to manual mode for the remainder of the trip. Instantly, I was grateful for the paddle shifters on the steering wheel, instead of having to keep one hand constantly on the shifter, it made things much easier, and when shifting can be handled with a finger-flick, it feels so much smoother and more controlled. Unfortunately, for a little while, I felt my inexperience shining through. My shifting was sluggish, I was always either too high or too low, and it distracted from my steering at a few points. Especially when I spent so much time looking at speedometer and tachometer trying to figure out which gear I was supposed to be in, or looking at the gear indicator to figure out where I already was (an unfortunate downside of paddle shifters and modern electronic shifting). But, about halfway up the mountain, I had a moment of clarity.
In one of my all-time favorite movies, How To Train Your Dragon, there's a scene that is always both riveting and heartwarming to watch. There's a video here, but it focuses on the main character, Hiccup, learning how to ride the dragon, Toothless, and how to work the prosthetic dragon tail he created. The dragon's prosthetic tail has a series of positions, controlled by the rider, which mimic the dragon's natural tail movements, and in theory, the cooperation of a skilled human rider can allow the dragon to fly as naturally as he could before the accident that damaged his tail. This scene follows the pair on their first test flight, where Hiccup has to put the tail positions he's written down to the test. At first, their flight is a bit awkward, with Hiccup sluggishly going through varying positions, and Toothless grudgingly attempting to both lead and follow. But, after recovering from a spin, Hiccup nearly loses his reference sheet while flying straight into a complicated series of rock pillars at high speed, where one mistake will send them head-on into solid rock. He tries to read from it for an instant, then drops it, proceeding into the obstacles purely on instinct. He doesn't make a single mistake. He and Toothless expertly navigate the rocks at dizzying speed, zipping through the exit without a scratch on them, something that wouldn't have been possible if Hiccup had still been reading from his reference sheet.
Along this drive, I had an almost identical experience. While I knew the road pretty well, there was a particularly nasty blind turn I had completely forgotten about, followed by a series of rapid back-and-forth curves, and it came up on me while I was going way too fast (or so I thought). Instantly, all of my gauge-watching ended, as I reacted to the turn and proceeded through the harsh curves after it. I stopped thinking about whether I needed 4th or 5th, I stopped thinking about whether I should take the turn at 40 or 50. I simply listened to the engine, read the road, and shifted on instinct, the things I should've been doing all along. In the process, I felt more in-tune with both my car and the road than I've felt in a very, very long time, and I made it through the remainder of the drive far faster than I originally thought possible (still didn't break a speed limit though!).
The experience was a truly special one for me. In the nerdiest terms possible, I felt like I just gained enough driving XP to level up, and when I made it to the top of the mountain, I had to just stop and reflect for a moment. But most importantly, it was an experience that reminded me how much joy I get from the essence of the performance driving experience. For years, I've been so hung up on comfort and gizmos that I've gotten even more disconnected from driving as an art than I was to begin with.
Much like my first off-roading trip, this trip was a driving experience that taught me a lot, but mostly showed me how much I have to learn. I've had a sporty car (Integra) and a fast car (Crown Victoria) in the past, but this experience showed me that I know almost nothing about sport driving. But I want to learn. I've now seen a glimpse of what my car can do, enough to see that the capabilities of my car exceed my own skills, and I want to increase my skills to match what my car can do. So, I plan to learn as much as I can, to get the most out of this amazing machine that's now a part of my life.
Sadly, I no longer live in the Shenandoah Valley, so zipping away to the mountains on a whim is generally not an option. But, I can probably find performance driving classes in my area. And I'll certainly be taking road trips to my old home from time to time, to do this sort of thing again. For me, it's not enough to have a fast car that'll do as much as I want it to. If my skills aren't a match for my car's abilities, not only am I disappointing the engineers who crafted her, I'm wasting my money on a machine I can't properly use. Both are unacceptable to me.