When I started telling friends and colleagues that I was taking an ice driving course for vacation, there were some varied responses…What is that, how do you find something like that? And, my personal favorite…Why? Most startling, though, was when I did not really have an answer to…Why?
I hesitate to call myself a car groupie because groupie has such bad connotations. I prefer to tell people that I am in love with a car guy. More specifically, I am in love with an Audi guy. Over the years, I have learned a good amount on my own. I know what an intercooler does, more or less. I have learned to drive a stick. And I don’t confuse R8, Q7 or S5 with characters from Star Wars. Still, when it’s time for the HPDEs, it is he, not I, that you will find hurrying around that track. On the second day, you will likely find me, camera in hand, watching the cars go past. On the first day, however, you would often find me lounging by the hotel pool. This happens so often that, originally unbeknownst to me, it was dubbed the “Alison Plan.”
Given my proclivities for watching the driving, rather than taking on the high speed driving myself, I honestly did not have much of an answer for the “Why?” I expected it to be informative, I guessed. I knew I did not want to lounge by a pool in an Austrian hotel in January (the pool was indoor actually, but I did not know that when I agreed to go). And I desperately wanted to tell people it would be fun...but I was not entirely convinced that the fun would outweigh the overwhelming nerves I was feeling weeks before we boarded the plane.
I am home now. The ice driving is behind me. And I know now exactly WHY I did go. And I can say, without any hesitation, doubt or nerves, it was FUN.
Audi certainly treated us well. The food was scrumptious and plentiful. The drinks were flowing. The tours were wonderful. The people were welcoming. That much I expected.
What I didn’t expect was what happened when we got to the ice. Or, rather, what did not happen. I did not have the opportunity to be nervous, to feel like the most inexperienced driver there, or to feel anything other than the fun of the driving. Right away, the instructors—Haradl Büttner, Oliver Rudolph and three time Le Mans winner Marco Werner—made even me feel confident. Their tones were always calm and their explanations were precise. They never hesitated to answer a question or even to show you one more time what they meant. While all three are accomplished drivers, they are also amazing teachers, not only for the knowledge they pass along but also for their manner of instructing.
The first day began with a classroom session. We went over the basics, stressing the importance of some very simple things, like handling the steering wheel and seat position. We also got our first introduction to some of the situations we would be facing, such as oversteering, understeering and accident avoidance.
After the classroom session, we headed to the field of ice. We were broken into smaller groups, with about eight people per group, two drivers per car. Before each exercise, we received additional task-specific instruction, followed by the instructors driving us through the exercise themselves. The instructors made sure we received individualized attention and that everyone understood the exercise. As we proceeded into tackling each exercise ourselves, the instructors were right there with us, correcting, praising and again instructing in the calmest and most supportive way possible. There was never a voice raised, never a critical word…but I still knew what I was doing wrong and how to correct it.
Of course, when someone successfully maneuvered the exercise, conquered the skill or even just improved on his or her own skills and level, the praise was absolutely unforgettable. While I expected to consider any morsel of praise from a professional driver to be meaningful, I did not expect that the praise would come in masses. Every improvement was praised; every accomplishment rewarded. And, I must say, this was praise unlike any expected and unlike any previously experienced. I doubt I will ever again be praised with dancing, moon walking and raising of the hands to the sky. No “good job” has ever made me feel so accomplished or laugh so hard. I promise you, moon walking truly is the highest form of praise.
On the final afternoon, there is a timed course. I started to feel a twinge of those old nerves but, once again, they were gone before I pressed the gas pedal. Our instructors were still right there with us—instructing, helping and even dancing and moon walking. When my time actually placed second in the women’s division, I honestly felt as if I should hand the honor right back to the instructors. I know, without doubt, that I could not have done what I did…or loved doing it so much...without the wonderful instruction. Or the moon walking.
While I fully credit the wonderful instructors for chasing away every nervous feeling I had and giving me confidence that I never expected, the entire program is designed to create comfort and confidence. The social activities and day of touring prior to the driving allows the entire group to bond and share. I expected to be the least experienced driver there—and maybe I was—but it never felt that way. By getting to know the others in the group, it felt as if even the most experienced drivers were pulling for me, supporting me, and willing to show me how to improve on the exercises and not to show me up.
Breaking us into the smaller groups, allowed for individualized attention and instruction. It also provided considerable amounts of driving time for all drivers on each task. We had plenty of chances to adjust and learn. Practice makes perfect and we had plenty of chances to practice. At the same time, the smaller groups were also just large enough to allow time between attempts to observe other drivers, giving us a chance to learn from one another. Furthermore, having a driver in the car with me not only gave me an additional chance for close observation of another’s driving, but it also kept my nerves from being the only voice in the car. I was traveling with someone—that Audi lover I mentioned before. It was a wonderful experience to share this with him, and having his support right in the car with me silenced any remaining nerves.
When I reluctantly returned to work after this wonderful event, I obviously returned to questions: “Why did I go?” and “How was it?” Now without hesitation, I have an answer for why I went. It was educational—I learned about car control on a slick surface but also how that relates to driving in every day conditions. It built confidence—not only did I overcome those nerves while there, I found confidence in my daily driving that I did not even realize I was missing. Mostly, though, it was FUN—absolutely, without doubt, can’t-wait-to-do-it-again FUN. In fact, even before other people can question me about the event, one of my colleagues now jumps in with, “Ask Alison about the ice driving...she gets really excited.”
(Photos by Alison Gerlach and Chris Conners)