It’s 7:00 am and I’m still a little tired (I hate waking up early), but I get ready to leave my hotel in Utica, MI to start heading up to Michigan Proving Grounds, or MPG for short. I, like anyone else, think I’m a good driver, but I can use all the practice and teachings I can get. I’m getting ahead of myself, though.
I e-mailed the manager of MPG, Mark Mikolaiczik, who I’d met and talked to quite a bit at the F-150 press launch last year. We had talked a little about me possibly trying to become a test driver for Ford. Unfortunately for me, they don’t have any spots that need to be filled at the moment. But when I e-mailed Mark inquiring about the Ford Driver Training program I had read about in Road & Track just a few months ago, he was very eager to have me up to go through it all. I was so ecstatic. It was like being told that I was going to be taught how to be a Ford test driver, without having to actually work for Ford and move to Michigan. Wait a minute, that’s exactly what happened.
We coordinated through our schedules and came up with July 29. That was the day I was to meet him at the lobby at the Michigan Proving Grounds at 8 in the morning. I flew up the previous day into Detroit and picked up a 2007 Mazda 6 rental and drove my way up to Utica, where my hotel awaited me. I ate some not so great sushi in my hotel room while thinking of all the cool things I figured I’d be doing the next day. Visions of sliding the tail-end out in a controlled manner, whipping around the track faster than the test drivers themselves, and showing that I was the best that anyone had seen bar none rolled through my mind. A fantasy of a 23 year old, unknown, wanna-be next Michael Schumacher. I was digging it. I couldn’t control my thoughts, I was far too excited. So excited that I couldn’t get to bed until around 2 am, simply because I was unable to turn off all of the cool romantics I was having about what kind of car I was going to be able to show off in, be told I was awesome, and possibly be offered a spot as a driver for Ford Racing.
I was already awake to beat my alarm clock and hopped up to start my day with a shower. The usual for most human beings. When I got out of the shower I was still so nervous. I had been nervous since I had officially booked my flight, hotel and rental car information. We all believe day to day that we’re good at this and good at that, well, I think I’m good with cars. I drive sensibly on the road, have never been on a professional race track, only on test tracks at press launches. But, I believe that I have a keen sense of a car’s abilities, and my own as well. Something that’s always stuck in my mind from a friend years before I got my license was, “Don’t let your driving exceed your driving abilities.” Great advice. Ironically enough he was power-sliding around a turn in a 2004 Cadillac CTS-V that he had just sold to an executive from SAS. He was a car salesman, and had sold my dad a bunch of cars, and he was only 5-6 years older than I was. I didn’t get my license until I was 18 for my own reasons. I wasn’t scared, I loved cars. I was just safe. I didn’t want to become a statistic.
As I was driving to the 40-acre private testing facility, I was wondering exactly where I was. There doesn’t seem like there’s much to do in Romeo but hunt, drive cars, make babies, and work. Once I hit an all dirt road and saw a couple of private Ford property signs, I knew I was in a driving mecca once again. I had visited here in 2008 playing with the new 2009 F-150. You see the beautiful trees and the landscape show up more clearly. It’s a beautiful facility. Something, like, 100-miles worth of test track is here at MPG.
I pull into guest parking, call Mark and find out that he unfortunately had to work in Dearborn that day and apologized profusely for not being there to meet with me. I definitely cannot blame him for not being there. I’m not sure if I would want to be working for any auto company right now, what, with all the finger pointing that goes on. But nevertheless, Mark hooked me up with Robbie Schaffer, a Level Tier-4 Ford test driver. An official man by certification standards. He took me around to the tower just above some of the testing area where I was to drive, and took me into a board room to give me my formal class training. This is necessary for Ford to weed out all of the people who don’t really know what they’re doing. Luckily I made it through the class time.
I told Robbie that I wasn’t just here for an exciting experience and a review to throw up here on RawAutos. I was also looking to be formally trained and actually work hard to show my true abilities to myself. I was going to have fun, of course, but I was also going to sweat. Man, I didn’t realize how much I was going to sweat, though…
We went over the 34 page handout before I was let loose. One thing that was different about my driver training course, was that I was going to be doing the full, 2 day course in a period of about 8 hours. That seemed grueling. Once we got the class room stuff over with, we set out in an automatic Ford Fusion to go drive Lommel test track, which is made to resemble their Lommel Proving Ground in Belguim, just with no straightaways.
The whole day would consist of three fundamental rules, with one major lesson thrown in: safety, consistency and pace. And if you’re spinning out of control, always do a safe bail-out! A safe bail out is when the car starts to spin and you immediately return the front wheels to their normal position, pointing straight ahead. Whenever you are going to bail out safely, you always want to plan your exit off of the road. Ever wonder why people hit the telephone pole in an area 2-acres wide? It’s because, subconsciously, the aimed right for it. They weren’t looking for a safe area to make sure the car landed there. Also, don’t hit the brakes when going off. You always want to try and avoid going off any surface sideways, because you could be involved in a tripped roll-over situation; where the car slides out sideways and plants the tires against something that ends up rolling the car over. The fundamental rules are described as follows:
Safety – Ability to drive near the limit safely without colliding with any objects and ability to abort early enough to complete safe off-pavement exits.
Consistency – Ability to drive consistently near the limit with minimal variation.
Pace – Ability to drive at an “advanced driver’s” pace.
The first test is to stick to driving the track at an average pace, in one lane only, and without making the car have any fuss. Seemed simple enough. And it was. Robbie then opened both lanes on the track to my full usage. Again, I was to get familiar with the track, getting feedback from the car and from Robbie on how to drive the track properly. This was considered the sub-limit cornering precision module. The first of 5. I did rather well at this course, getting good job’s for pointing out certain landmarks that would help me to remember where to hit the brakes, start turning in and accelerating. Robbie also helped quite a bit with this, getting into the drivers’ seat and teaching me some great tips to know where I wanted to look ahead to spot my turn-in point and as I’m turning, look ahead again to know my ending point where I am landing and fully accelerating out of the turn.
First module, complete and done with!
The second module was rather interesting. It’s held on a wet jennite surface, which is basically a slick track that is watered down to make it even more slippery. Like ice. This is where I was taught how to defeat ABS, again, in the Fusion. The Ford Fusion that they’ve prepared for the training does pretty well to oversteer and drive very quickly around any track Ford has. It also has a really handy ABS off switch. First, you go through some cones and slam on the brakes with ABS left on. You realize very quickly that it’s supposed to stop you faster, but it’s not perfect, and you can still lock up the wheels and just slide. Next, you have to do the same thing with ABS turned off. And once you get past the first set of cones and slam on the brakes, you realize that you’re just sliding to your impending doom of sliding right into the danger ahead of you. That’s if you don’t try and correct the steering and drive yourself off the highway. But, miraculously, you still fall shorter of the braking distance with ABS disengaged… Interesting. After you’ve shown how miserable both abrupt stops can be, you must hit the brakes and stop in a certain distance, usually shorter, with no ABS enabled. However, you must do so without locking the brakes or tires up. Just listen for the sound of harsh wheel hop on the pavement, that’s called lock-up. I hit the brakes and locked them up, for some odd reason, waiting for ABS to do it’s job. I forgot it wasn’t on. And I realized, no matter how much I hate these electronic nannies, I’ve come to get used to them and wait for them to step in when the computer thinks I suck at driving. I did it a few times until I finally got the hang of it and was able to stop far shorter than with ABS on, and without locking anything up. Then you have to do a sudden brake, lane change, brake fully situation. That took me only two tries, I think. It was weird having to do it. Again, you get used to the car doing it all for you, and you don’t think of how difficult it actually can be when you’re trying to break yourself of an old habit.
Module 2, completed and passed!
We skipped ahead to module 4 really quick, because the testing surface was open. It was being used prior to that, but was unoccupied for a few minutes while the other testers using it went to lunch. This is where I learned high speed lane changing at a safe pace. Again, in the Fusion, we set off down the track at about 30mph to start off with. I came into the coned area, threw the car left and then back right again. Safe, and simple. Robbie gave me a tip to start my lane changes a little later and to stick closer to the right side as I’m going in, then sticking closer to the left side as I’m about to go back into the right lane. It was good advice, and I set off down a few more times until I quickly worked my way up to about 65-67mph. I passed that quickly and easily.
Module 4, you’re mine!
Now, this is where it gets fun! And this is also where I quickly perfected the art of a safe bail out. Go ahead, just ask my test instructor, Robbie Schaffer, or The Stig, as I started calling him. He’s a huge Top Gear fan, just like us, and we were reciting episodes back and forth. Ever wondered how to control understeer and oversteer properly, and also how to induce them properly? This was the training. First, you take the Fusion to understand its limits on a giant skidpad, but you then go park it and pick up an automatic 05 Mustang that is a sandy beige exterior with red interior, once again on the jennite surface. I interestingly named the Mustang Gatemouth Brown. I don’t know why, though… There have been some famous Blues musicians and singers with the name Gatemouth, and the most famous to me is a guitarist, fiddle player, singer, writer, and every other instrument you could think of, Blues musician. Again, don’t ask me why. Robbie laughed, but you could tell he may have thought I did drugs…
For this module it starts to get more important to remember your three inputs, brake, steering and throttle. Not in that order. You need to be able to sense when the car is going to do something that is not normal. You have to drive and find the limit, stay on the limit and then cross the limit line, but doing it in a controlled state. Remember, weight plays a huge part in all that you do. Now is the time to learn to control it and use it to your advantage.
Robbie showed me how to induce understeer, but get out of it simply and without any fuss. Whenever you feel the front-end going wide, simply slow down and turn into the understeer. You get out of it quicker than trying to do the opposite. Now, if you want to induce oversteer, I think most of us understand how to do that, but for those who don’t, simply eye your point of attack (the point on the track where you’re going to start inducing automotive labor) and start turning in and giving it extra gas around the same time. If need be, hold in the brake while you’ve got the loud pedal pushed in, too. You will start to oversteer. Now just make sure that you hold it by countersteering and giving light stabs to the accelerator pedal. Don’t over do it or under do it, or else you’ll spin. It’s really tricky to get a good handle on it. But I was finally able to get about a quarter of the way around the track holding a controlled yaw slide.
Module 3 finished. 10-4. 11-5. Every time Denny, the tower operator, would say 10-4 into the walkie talkie, Robbie would say 11-5 (not into the walkie talkie). It is actually quite funny when you’re there in the moment. But that’s why I said that.
After this was over, went in for lunch. Robbie had some things to tend to really quick, so he dropped me off at the cafeteria on the grounds and I went on eating my lunch thinking of how I could have improved my oversteering abilities the whole time. I kept using my Sobe Life Water bottle to simulate weight transfer to myself, and trying to figure out all of the logistics and train my mind to function better in a controlled yaw state. Robbie warned me that I’d do it, and I did.
Now, the final lesson of the day, and the true test of pass/fail is the limit handling test. This is the really difficult one. All along I’d have to find the limit, stay on it without going unsafely over it, and keep a consistent pace at the limit. All within a certain percentage of time versus the normal test instructor’s times. But this time, I had an even harder task of driving around the watered down jennite surface at a more significant pace, and I couldn’t make hardly any mistakes. This is the judgement of whether I’d be considered to pass the Level Tier-Three Advanced Driver Training. You see, Ford has four stages of test drivers. If you are a Tier-1, you’re just a regular guy that drives on the facility grounds for any reason. That’s pretty much the UPS or FedEx guys. Tier-2, you actually are trained. Tier-2 drivers are considered to be, “Anyone conducting formal vehicle testing or formal evaluations”. But I was being trained to be a Level Tier-3 driver. Which is the highest you can be trained to be without being a Ford employee. Tier-4 is the highest for a Ford employee. Those guys are the true professionals. There are only 2o Ford employees that are trained that high, and Robbie Schaffer is one of them.
For this lesson, I had to drive the Ford Fusion around the tight, wet jennite course in 61-seconds. I also had to hold that consistent pace for three laps once I set it. It was fun at first getting my bearings around the track. You enter the course towards the end of the track. You go, quick slalom heading into a tight left and be hard on the gas to start the timer, slam on the brakes when you see the dirtiest cone on the left. Look where you’re going to end up after the right turn, and try and get the rear-end around quick enough to hit the gas and then let off it almost as soon as you’re on it, enter a quick lane change; right then left and SLAM on the brakes. Do your best not to understeer into the tight right hander and get on the gas as soon as you’re at the apex to only slam on the brakes again into a hard left. You should be fully accelerating after about the 4th or 5th cone on the right passes by. Keep on the gas hard until you feel the car go into neutral and hydroplane. The revs will immediately hit the limiter, get on the brakes and turn right and try and end up closer to the left side of the track to enter another quick lane change, left to right. Start driving fast pointed straight to the part where the left side cones start to curve into the big right turn which enters back into the slalom. Hold a consistent speed through the cones, and turn back to the left being hard on the gas to set your lap time. Hopefully that paints a good picture… I’ll try and get an overhead picture or drawing from Ford soon.
I started out nice and slow and just took some time to learn the track. My first lap goes by. Wow, I can tell this isn’t going to be as easy as the others. Not only will this require all of my attention, it will also require all of my strength to reel the cars in. A few more laps go by, and I’m quickly shaving off valuable seconds. More laps go by, “Two seconds,” says Robbie as I’m closing in on the time I need to build my consistent pace around. Another lap goes by. “Good. Just need two more seconds.” I’m starting to really sweat now. I’m getting that I feel like quitting feeling as I do in a driving game when I can’t beat the better drivers… My palms are getting sweatier, and I’m starting to push the envelope more and more until I’m understeering badly. “Roll off the brakes sooner on that turn,” says Robbie. The only problem is, I don’t remember being on the brakes. It was weird, that same turn for about 4 or 5 laps he says the same thing. That is until I finally speak up and say that I wasn’t even on the brakes. At first I kept thinking that maybe I was hitting the brakes without really realizing it, but after the same thing kept happening – understeering to the point of crashing through cones – I knew it wasn’t me.
I kept understeering hard into most of the turns, no matter what I did to try and do away with it. I was consistently 2-seconds off from where I needed to be… After a few more laps, Robbie then assessed I was driving as far on the limit as I could. He decided I should stop and let him take over. It was then obvious that the tires were dead. Thank God! “I knew it wasn’t me,” I kept smiling and saying. That’s the first time in my life where I actually would have rather taken a full 200 question math exam than continue to drive. I thought I was going to fail one of the most important tests in my life, or at least I think so.
Finally, once Robbie and I assessed that it was the tires, he took my 63-seconds and started calculating the average times out and compensating for the times I needed. I was doing well. I was successfully finding my limit and driving right on top of it. I was missing a few apexes here and there, but I was keeping a pretty good line.
Then it was time for the beast, a 2003 Mustang Cobra. All 4.6-liters of supercharged goodness, putting out 390 hp and 390 lb-ft of torque. The factory seats are great in that car. The factory clutch, since it was one of the first off the line, is like pushing into a brick wall; I loved it. The only problems were, the seat to steering wheel ratio and position, along with the pedals. Everything was easy to get to, but it was hard to find that comfortable spot. And I’m sure if I were a tad closer to the pedals, I would have been a tad faster, too. The shifter was great, though. But I only needed to leave it in second throughout the whole track, so I didn’t get to use it to its full advantages. But, if the steering was the perfect position for you, it’s resting on your knees. Put it up one notch higher, and you’re a Mack truck driver, however, it has to do. It was the only way.
I get moving in the Cobra and promptly spin out turning hard left out of the slalom. I was used to lower power and more front-end grip from the Fusion. Oddly enough, the Fusion is set up so good, that you have to pass with 60-seconds in the Cobra. You only need 61-seconds to pass in the Fusion. That’s how quick it is and how well it’s sorted out. Once I get my first spin over with, I’m learning the ropes. later on the brakes, harder on the gas, and in no time you’re making “race car sounds,” as Robbie so perfectly puts it. It sounds cheesy, but I found myself saying it as soon as I’d hit the rev limiter from the point on the track where you start to hydroplane. It’s great. At one point, I was hauling! I was going so fast, that I decided to not listen to my own instincts, and push it a little more. I quickly hydroplaned in the normal spot with the tail flying out, barely making it through the lane change and doing everything I could to finally gain control as I was heading into the slalom. Robbie and I still have no clue how I was able to keep it together. I was opposite lock quite a few times. All that, and I only lost 5-seconds off of my previous time. Not too shabby, Joshua. I muscle it out a little harder, and whereas Robbie had decided that the tires on the Cobra were in need of being replaced, he decided to add on an extra second, so I would only need to drive at 61-seconds to pass. I still hit 60.99 seconds. I know I could have gone faster, too. I was really getting used to the Cobra, but you have a more limited number of laps in it than you do the Fusion. I was so comfortable and quick in the Cobra, that I was letting the tail drag a little out and just letting the wheel do it’s thing by coming back to me. It was so effortless and great to drive the Cobra fast. It was very predictable, but at the same time rough and raw if you weren’t prepared for it.
Next up, a 2003-4 Mustang GT automatic. It had racing seats, which were amazing! I only needed to run around in 64-seconds. Only problem was, this time you can’t spin, hit a cone, or do anything else wrong. This is the final part of the true pass/fail portion. If you screw up, you’re done. It’s over. But I didn’t. I was confident, and quickly found my pace and stuck to it. I reached 64-seconds rather quickly and easily, as you only had 3 laps to find it… I made it around! The GT was uneventful. It wasn’t bad to drive, but it wasn’t as much fun as the Cobra or the Fusion. Robbie kept having me do lap after lap to be consistent and keep my pace. I was starting to get a little nervous that I had failed, because I just kept going round and around… But, that wasn’t the case. It was all a part of the lesson.
Module 5, your tracks are belong to me!
In the end, Robbie had a few things to say, by just telling me that I did well and that I just needed to work on a few things. It seems that I’m the only person to complete Level Three driving without going through Tier-2 first.
Most importantly, though, this was a learning process. It’s the most fun and rewarding experience I’ve ever had in a car. But, in the end, it was there not just to be pleasureful and to make me feel like a wanna-be Michael Schumacher, it’s there to teach you about yourself. We all think that we’re good drivers. I just rose to the challenge of proving to myself that I was a good driver. At the finish line I realized that I am good, but I’ll always need improvement. There’s always more to learn!
So, to sum it all up; don’t let your driving exceed your driving abilities. Always train, train and train some more. Know your limits and don’t go past them. Would you like to know why people make so many mistakes on a daily basis while driving their cars? Because they’re not consistent. And most people have no idea where their own limit is. Not just in their car, but any car.
I recommend you check out the Michigan Proving Ground website and contact Kevin Halsted, the Testing Coordinator at, (313) 805-5552. Or by e-mail at, khalsted @ ford.com. You can also contact Michael Paggi, the Customer Service Engineer at, (313) 805-8106, or by e-mail at, mpaggi @ ford.com.
Thanks to Mark Mikolaiczik and Robbie Schaffer for letting me take part in this. And thanks to all the people at MPG and Ford who have been so kind as to work with me. I’m an up and coming site, and Ford has realized this from the beginning and given me opportunities that no other automaker has given me, and for that I’d like to thank them.