|Customer On Track|
|Richmond International Raceway - June 23, 1999|
|The PeachParts team was graciously invited by Brian Tate of Tysinger Mercedes-Benz in Hampton, Virginia, to participate in the 1999 Mercedes-Benz Customer On Track. The event was held June 21-24 at Richmond International Raceway in Richmond, Virginia. On-Track is an event that MBNA puts on in cooperation with the dealerships who sponsor and participate in it. Participation by individual dealerships is optional. While very costly, dealerships do get good PR, product feedback, the ability to buy the cars used at a reduced cost, etc out of it. If your dealership does not participate in On-Track or similar events it wouldn't hurt to ask them why. Especially if your dealership charges Really Big Money! Tysinger's participation is typical of their professionalism, customer service that is truly beyond anything we've experienced anywhere else, and commitment to excellence. They are a relatively small dealer who clearly understand the importance of "owning their customers for life". Unlike other dealers, they spend relatively little on advertising in the traditional sense but, go overboard to treat their existing customers well. They rely heavily on word of mouth from their loyal customers to spread the word. As for what went on at this three day event, read on...|
|Introductions & Briefing|
|We began our day at 9am with breakfast and an introduction to the professional drivers and Mercedes-Benz staff who would be our hosts for the day. The day's activities were broken down in to four segments. First there was a tech session with a representative from
MBNA. Second, you were able to take ML320's and ML430's out on a custom off-road course to experience both their on and especially off-road potential. Third, everyone competed in a timed autocross driving an identical C230
Kompressor. Fourth was driving the field of brand new cars on an infield road course and culminating with hotlaps on the high-banked oval. A dozen or so brand new MB's sit with helmets at the ready for their day of trials. Which one did we pick? Thankfully, we didn't have to worry about picking...we were able to drive all that we could get our hands on! The list included a W220 S500, W220 S430, E430, E320 4matic, CLK320 Cabriolet, CLK430, SL500, SLK230
Kompressor, C230 Kompressor, ML320, ML430 and an E55.
Among the brave group of professional drivers who would guide, teach, and thrill participants during the On-Track sessions included:
Kenny Hendrick: Currently involved in NASCAR's Craftsman Truck Series out of Charlotte, NC, this southern Californian has a long background in sports car racing. In addition to being 1988 Sports Car Club of America Formula Ford National Champion, he competed in SCCA Trans Am and International Motor Sports Association GTO for three years. His oval biography includes the 1986 United States Auto Club Western States Midget Rookie of the year. He also has worked as a driving instructor with the Bob Boundurant School of High Performance Driving.
John Jones: A native of Thunder Bay, Ontario, Canada, John has been in motorsports since 1982. Now a resident of Denver , CO, he drove three seasons in Championship Auto Racing Team's PPG Championship garnering 1988 CART Rookie of the year honors and finished 11th in the 1989 Indianapolis 500. He was 1985 IMSA GTO Champion in a Ford Mustang. In 1986, 1987, 1990 he competed in the European F3000 championship and was 1983-1984 Canadian F2000 Champion.
Rupert Keegan: This Miami-based Englishman raced from 1977 to 1982 in the world's premier racing series, Formula One, with Lord Alexander Hesketh, Surtees, Arrows, Williams and Rothmans March. Add two years in Indy cars, three years in World Championship Sports Cars, including four years contesting the prestigious 24 hours of LeMans, and the British Formula 3 Championship in 1976, and you have more experience behind the wheel of a racing car than most people have driving to work.
Nathan Liber: Currently a driving instructor at the Road Atlanta racing school, Nathan earned 1995 Hooters Cup Formula 2 Pro series Rookie of the Year honors, even pulling off a win. With ten championships in racing karts including three national championships in the quick and dangerous 125cc shifter karts, he was selected to represent Team USA competing in a series of kart racing events in Russia.
Robbie Perez: Loma Linda, CA spawned this 1985-1986 National 80cc Motocross Champion. Robbie began racing karts in 1990 and advanced to race the Barber-Saab championship in 1993. Currently headquartered in Charlotte, he is a teaching golf pro and consultant for the McDonalds racing team on the American Speed Association circuit.
|Shuttling to and from the racetrack in several ML's we were able to experience their on and off-road prowess back to back. Once at the off-road test track we found a Azure blue 1999 ML430 and white ML320 waiting for us. The steep hill had been soaked with water to produce a muddy surface but was no match for the ML's. Time and time again we motored to the summit with ease and experienced the reassuring automatic braking effect as we slowly motored down the other side. The off camber right hander was truly a testament to the ML's low center of gravity. I'm not sure which is more impressive...the off-pavement obstacles that vehicle is able to traverse while still being comfortable on the street or how well it handles on the street while still being utterly competent off-road.|
|The Tech session went smoothly with highlights on the ML's, W220, S500, and others. This highly knowledgeable representative was even able to (mostly) explain the function of the S500's "COMMAND" center. Following the presentation of the various models a question-and-answer session finished out the rest of the segment. Our viewpoint is a bit skewed by Benzmac's wisdom but the representative seemed very helpful and answered all guest questions promptly.|
|The Autocross was a timed competition where guests drove a C230 Kompressor alone and were timed. The snaking course of cones was setup by racing great Rupert Keegan who also coached all participants. Everyone was given two timed runs with the winner being chosen at the end of the day. Your time was only penalized if you knocked over a cone during your run. In which case you were penalized 1 second for every "dead" cone. PeachParts would like to congratulate Misty for winning the official On-Track "cone killer" award with a total of seven downed cones in one run. The On-Track champion I am happy to report is none other than yours truly, taking not only the fastest time of the day but also the fastest time of the entire week. PeachParts continued the driving tour de force with a podium finish by Bill Wood as well. Many thanks to the drivers and organizers for the 1st place "trophy", a Bell racing helmet signed by all the drivers.|
|The final and most exciting part of the event was the infield road course and hot-laps on the high banked oval. Drivers picked the car they wanted to take around the course and had a professional driver riding with them. These brave souls coached out your best and also helped you keep from wadding up a brand new piece of German engineering. After negotiating the infield road course you pulled onto the high banked oval to really experience the thrills. Once you were done lapping the track in your car or cars of choice it was the professional's turn. Driver and passenger switched places and the professional took you around the course at 10/10ths. Seeing the wall rushing by only inches away at well over 100mph and zooming through the turns quick enough to rearrange your internal organs is a humbling experience for nearly anyone. All cars participating were 100% stock with OEM street tires. We could all of stayed out there until the tires gave way. We can't think of a time recently when we have learned more or had more fun! Believe me, driving a banked oval at triple digit speeds is not as easy as it looks on TV.|
|Why is this man smiling? This is Bill Wood your PeachParts webmaster...and you'd be smiling too if you were slicing down the high bank turns at RIR in a brand new CLK320 Cabriolet on a beautiful sunny Virginia day. Especially if you had a NASCAR driver as your co-pilot helping you find the fast way around the 3/4 mile oval.|
|Our Impressions of the Cars|
The individual cars will be reviewed in detail in the near future. However I can't let the topic go unmentioned for now either. My personal picks are as follows:
C230 Kompressor...this car is pure fun to drive. While not about performance numbers like some of its bigger brethren, it pushes all of the same buttons the M103 300E did. Those being nimble/tossable feel, rev happy engine, balanced handling, intangible "fun to drive", and total practicality.
SL500...lots of thrust, lots of brakes, lots of lateral grip, but not quite as much fun as the sum of its attributes. Big on the outside, small on the inside. The W129 is a bit porky and it shows in tighter turns. In a nutshell, the SL500 is the polar opposite of the C230 Kompressor.
E430...big, comfy, fast, fun to drive, perhaps the best overall package. The E430 (on Michelin's in a field of Conti's I might add) was the most stable at high speeds of all the cars I drove on the track. Not the best at anything, but one of the best at everything.
CLK430...always one of my favorites and the track testing just confirmed my earlier impressions. Certainly the most fun non-AMG car in the lineup today. Where the SL500 wasn't quite as much fun as its strengths would suggest, it is different with the CLK430. Here, great ingredients make for a great end result.
SLK230 Kompressor.... this little rocket is all about fun in the sun. Most of my miles in it were logged top-down as I must duck to keep my head from hitting the retractable hardtop. A racing helmet on my 6'4" frame does little to help that situation. The car is great at low speed twisties but can feel a bit twitchy on the high-speed oval runs. Grip and brakes are both top-notch, but the car could use a bit more power. With such a capable chassis, I was wishfully hoping for some "R" tires for the autocross course on this little slot car.
W220 S500 and S430.... having driven the S500 previously I was expecting good things. The new S is every bit the luxury of the past generation and then some. The new car is also much more of a driver's car. Throttle, brakes, grip are impressive for any car, let alone one the girth of a W220. The total package works flawlessly with the possible exception of the COMMAND center. The S430 gives you 95% of the "S-ness" luxury but without the immediate thrust of the S500. When helping bring some of the cars to Tysinger after the event I had the choice to drive back many of the cars I had flogged the day before. Knowing I had 2+ hours of high-speed highway touring ahead of me, just trying to keep up with our guide at um...autobahn speeds, I reached for the keys to the S430.
|E55....ah, the best for last. The 500E may have to step down from the top of the MB performance hierarchy. The seats were not as comfortable or as supportive as the ones I'm used to. Performance is amazing, but I'd like to see what the 500E could do with a few tweaks to level the playing field. (ASR defeat, similar rubber, etc) Okay, I'm biased and grasping, but this is one helluva car however you slice it.|
|After a "tough" morning of pushing brand new high dollar German iron to its limits we sat with Rupert Keegan for a delicious catered lunch. We could have listened for hours as he told of his first hand experiences with the likes of Ayrton Senna, Hans Stuck, James Hunt, Jackie Stewart and Mario Andretti. But, there were cars to be driven!|
|Other Interesting Sights|
|The owner of this beautiful 1977 450SEL 6.9 and the President and owner of Richmond International Raceway for the past 34 years is Paul C. Sawyer. We thoroughly enjoyed our conversation with this gentleman and commend him for being such a strong supporter of motorsports. He is clearly in this business because he loves it...a true "car guy". The '77 6.9 is his favorite of two 6.9's that he owns. The other one is a '79. Mr. Sawyer personally designed and supervised the 14 degree banking of RIR when the track was transformed from dirt many years ago (although the Petty family really wanted it to remain a dirt track). He is personal friends with the NASCAR France family and has received awards for his racetrack and contributions to motorsports. We wish Mr. Sawyer a very happy 83rd birthday and hope he takes that 6.9 out on his track for 83 laps to celebrate!|
|After spending all of the morning session and part of the afternoon session at the On-Track event
we were on cloud 9. If your dealership or any dealer even remotely close to you ever participates in one of these, do whatever it takes to attend. You will learn
a lot and have so much fun your cheeks will ache from smiling. When Brian Tate asked for
our help in bringing back some of the cars to Tysinger we gladly accepted. Who were we to turn down one last ride in these cars? The combination of professional instruction, world class facilities, exceptional service (we are accustomed to that from Tysinger by now), the latest and greatest MB cars to drive until your heart's content is quite close to a dream come true for most of us. Hopefully it will be for you as well if your dealer participates in these events. We at PeachParts are very thankful that Brian Tate and
Tysinger Mercedes-Benz were generous enough to invite us to their On-Track event.
-- Lee Scheeler