It has been three years since my first event as a member of the Midwest Automotive Media Association. It is a membership I take seriously, as it has connected me with the region's best automotive media people, as well as seeing up-and-comers enjoy the fruits of their success with us grizzled veterans.
It is a big deal, really. Their events and meetings are worth the trip down from Minneapolis. Not just because of the accommodations or the food. Not just to connect with fellow media types. It is because of the experiences. With each experience, the appetite of doing this work grows deeper and wanting to do more than my current capacity. That is, as long as the capacity is managed well.
That first event was the MAMA Fall Rally. It was held at a hotel in Hoffman Estates, northwest of Chicago. The idea was to experience new vehicles out on the countryside in the Northwest Burbs in a loop that was OK. It was engaging, but my perspective was of a newbie to the game.
The next year, MAMA moved the Fall Rally venue to the newly-opened Autobahn Country Club in Joliet, Illinois. Autobahn is one of several private motorsports venue where membership has its privileges. It is where the finest enthusiasts can take their racing machines onto the track for some hot laps. Other could sign up for a track experience driving some of the hottest vehicles ever created. A select few were able to build their own garages to store their vehicles year round. This property has two road courses and an off-road set-up inside of one of those tracks.
Being on this kind of property was a rare treat in my world. Sure, I have access to two motorsports venues near where I live and attend the MAMA Spring Rally out at Road America for the past few years. Still, to be in the air of a crowd that can afford to live out the dreams of the greats of motorsports is truly something special.
It was also a no brainer for MAMA to move the Fall Rally to Autobahn a couple of years ago. The owner of Autobahn just happen to be a member of MAMA and has offered the property as the venue since 2013. It sounds like it is a good time…but I have never been.
A drive from the Twin Cities was in order. I had the 2015 Lexus LS 460 AWD in my possession with marching orders to drop it off with the media fleet at Autobahn the morning of the Rally. A couple of nights in Madison broke up the trip, which included seeing an old friend play in the Madison Gay Hockey Association.
Tuesday morning turned into a carpool with my esteemed Madison-based colleague Harvey Briggs of Pursuitist.com. Having Briggs on board simply made the carpool in the big black Lexus sedan a good chance to have some serious conversations about our business and the state of the industry. It is safe to say that Briggs and I did not solve the world's problems along the Illinois Tollway system.
Briggs and I had to head down to Autobahn on Tuesday morning thanks to an invitation from Buick to have a track day with the 2016 Regal GS. This has been my warrior on prior MAMA media drives – the first car I took on the track ever at Road America last year and the one that helped me get out of my slump during autocross on the karting course. Getting the opportunity to take the Regal GS on a track and through an autocross course definitely fed into my need for some fun.
At Autobahn, the Regal GS was set up in an autocross on a paddock ground, as well as on the 1.46-mile North Circuit. For the track, we ran on a lead-follow format that is paced depending on the speed of the lead car. After lunch and a presentation, we were split into two groups for the remainder of the afternoon. My group had a very good mix of professionals – including Briggs, Paul Strauss of Awesomer.com, Tommy Burkhart of Car-Revs-Daily.com, Andrew Krok of CNET and Rich Cotta of Consumer Guide Auto…to name a few. It was indeed a mix of driving competencies in our group…something I was indeed happy to learn from. Plus, we had good conversations about the Regal GS and its abilities on the autocross course and, later, on the track.
There was one thing we did discuss – drive modes. The GS Mode was designed for track situations, with heavily weighted steering, tightened suspension settings and quicker shifts from the six-speed automatic transmission. As our group compared notes between GS and Sport on the autocross course, we found out a lot about the Regal that both delighted us and made us question some of its virtues. More on that when we hit the North Course.
In the lead-follow session, our group took turns taking the Regal GS on a flat 1.46-mile, nine-turn course. On paper, it was an easier course to work through than Road America. Yet, we found how much work we had to do on the Regal GS to keep up on the line through the track. That was my problem. Just when I thought I had the line down, the lead changes it…slightly. I am not a track pro, but for someone trying to learn the track and the lead-follow format, it was a bit much to absorb. As one of my car community folks back in the Twin Cities, I do need some good instruction. My track work was, at best, "meh."
As for the Regal GS, this track day confirmed a lot about the car that I already knew. However, there was one thing I needed to do the next day during the Fall Rally – drive it out on the road.
Before we were able to do that, some of us out-of-town media and industry folk were treated to dinner at a very special garage. Word was that we were not to do any live social media from this place. Yet, as soon as we got there, one name reigned supreme inside – Bobby Rahal. It was an amazing place – a paean to his success, his influences and his love for the automobile and motorsport. Little did I know that Rahal would be there to greet us and engage in conversation. He had some stories – good ones. I did not take notes, so do not ask…
The next morning, the big Lexus had to be dropped off with the media fleets and breakfast was served. A few presentations and talks later, we hit the paddock. Similar to Spring Rally, we had a choice of automobiles to drive. On one end was the 2016 Scion iA, a familiar steed from my time in Grand Rapids, Michigan for the regional media drive. On the extreme end were such wonderful machines, including a Range Rover Sport SVR and a Nissan GT-R. In-between were some of the vehicles I drove in three arenas – the North Course track, an off-road course inside of the North Course and the streets surrounding the Autobahn complex.
The list of vehicles I drove in these arenas were quite formidable. I did get another run in a Hellcat. It was the Dodge Challenger this time. It would have been more enjoyable had I not had to dodge the semis since our location is near a major intermodal transit center for trucks and train traffic. Not to mention, I had a Hellcat that wanted to play around in the corners than making a proper right turn. Don't get me wrong – I love the Hellcats. Rather, I am such a masochist to love it so much.
Other vehicles I ended up dodging the semis with were the 2016 Volvo S60 Cross Country, the 2016 Volvo XC90 Inscription, a Mercedes-Benz C 300 4Matic, a Chrysler 300C Platinum, and the 2016 Buick Regal GS. I will say that the Regal is actually wonderful on the road in both Sport and GS mode. Yet, I felt it needed to be on a much more open driving situation – one with curves and elevations to truly get the feeling I have been hypothesizing about this car on. Looks like I will get that chance soon enough…
On the North Course, I took two cars out. One was the Nissan 370Z NISMO, similar to one owned by one my compatriots in the Twin Cities car community. The series of laps in the NISMO Z did not produce my best effort on the track. I was struggling with it, mainly due to the fading brakes on that car. I feared of losing it a few times, hence why I upset a couple of colleagues behind me. Maybe I needed more track instruction after all.
Or, maybe I needed to get behind the wheel of a car I truly know the feel for. Remember the Lexus RC F that I considered to be the best car I ever driven in my life? It was there. The same exact Ultrasonic Blue Mica 2.0 version that won my heart and almost everyone that came in contact with it. I was so happy to see it that I had to hug it. Then, I took it on the track. It was the one thing I really wanted to do with it, but was a bit skittish in doing so. My chance arrived. It confirmed everything I had suspected it would do. You can say what you want about the weight and the configuration, but I would track the RC F again. It really felt at home on this course. It was also good to drive that spectacular car again…it did leave me speechless as it did the last time.
There was one last thing I wanted to accomplish before leaving the Fall Rally. It was by the convincing of one of the fleet managers that I go out to the off-road course. But, I never drove off-road before. I rode along a few times, but never had the chance to take a vehicle onto a technical course full of tight turns, steep elevations and descents on surfaces that require a lot more traction than usual. Luckily, I had a colleague, freelancer Andy Mikonis, with me to show me the ropes. He demonstrated the two off road courses available to us. The "woods" course was technical in nature, with water crossings, a steep decline and tight turns. The other was just outside the woods – a two-track run through a field with elevations and steep banking. The "woods" course was a bit out of my league, so I took the outer course to look at two pickups – the Chevrolet Colorado Z71 and the 2016 Toyota Tacoma TRD Sport 4X4.
Driving the outer course was easy, since all it took was to keep the transfer case in 4-High and let it do the rest. In the Colorado, it was a piece of cake. Although, the Chevrolet was quiet and felt a bit numb while going through the technical parts of the course. The Tacoma had more "bite." You felt the Tacoma working on these surfaces to get the tires to grab where it landed and to ensure proper suspension articulation when it needed it. Definitely a tale of two trucks on this outer course.
Through that two-track course, I got newfound confidence. I can go off track and know how a truck or SUV would interact with it. The next time I would do such a task is at Road America for next year's MAMA Spring Rally. Or, I could seize the opportunity at a potential future secret Victory & Reseda off-road course…somewhere outside the Twin Cities.
The MAMA Fall Rally is an opportunity for us Midwest-based journalists to get our impressions on vehicles we would rarely drive in situations that would warrant some ability and patience. The latter is true with our road course. Getting track and off-road time is important to hone in your skill sets for driving competency. That certainly goes for me.
The bonus was meeting Bobby Rahal and hearing what he had to say about his influences and career.
The takeaway was a hodgepodge of things: Getting key driving competency experience and reacquainting with key vehicles that had been a part of this work. In all, it was worth the trek down to Joliet. Thanks again, MAMA! It was indeed worth the membership!
DISCLAIMER: Event logistics and accommodations were courtesy of the Midwest Automotive Media Association and its sponsors.