All Photos © BFGoodrich, Inc.
"How can I resist an event called 'Awesomecross?'"
I was driving back to Boston, having just attended the Atlantic City Classic Cars Show with the family, when I got an email over dinner in Danbury, CT. BFGoodrich was holding an event they were calling "Awesomecross." I was apparently one of only 25 people invited, but I knew why. I had missed the original launch event for BFG's latest Ultra High Performance tire, the G-Force Sport Comp 2, a couple of weeks before when my wife came down with Martian Death Flu, and so instead of getting seat time in California, my son and I spent two days in our pajamas watching Sesame Street and building a Lego zoo in which all the animals had escaped and had the zookeeper cornered. Good times.
BFGoodrich was graciously offering me a second chance to try out their tires. So over pizza in Danbury, while Jackson used his crayons to test local gravitational conditions, my wife and I discussed whether I should make a blitzkrieg 36-hour round trip out to California to do this "Awesomecross" thing. From the email I gathered that this involved a nighttime autocross track, driving on the G-Force Sport Comp 2, with real-time telemetry coming from the cars. It was also noted that the drivers would be hooked up to an EEG that could supposedly determine the driver's mood while all this was going on. Ok, I'm intrigued.
Oh, and powerfully red-haired snowboarder Shaun White was going to be there, as a part of his continuing relationship with BFGoodrich. I'm down with that too. I admire Shaun White, which is kind of out of character for me - I am an old-school skier, and the early relationships between skiers and snowboarders tended to be... somewhat contentious. White, however, has always struck me as a very classy guy, notwithstanding how atrociously he goes about misspelling his first name. Ok, I'm in.
After being dropped off at a single white tent looking tiny against the vastness of what used to be El Toro Marine Air Base, I was given a laser-engraved tire that would later be engraved with personalized information about my run, and introduced to four other journalists and a contest winner. The contest winner had apparently been told nothing at all about what was about to occur, and seemed genuinely afraid that he was about to be tortured in some imaginative manner. ("Tireboarding", someone who looked remarkably like me sniggered.)
According to Matt Farah's account of his experience in a different group, this man may well have been some kind of a ringer for the video shoot. He was taken away early to join a different group, and we never saw him again. Perhaps he was tortured after all. From the tent in the middle of nowhere, we were loaded into a black Sprinter van with blacked-out windows. One wonders, however, whether there was a point to turning off the interior lights and leaving us in utter darkness for the ride to our next stop, while a deep-voiced narrator gave us a spooooky introduction over hidden speakers.
We stepped out of the truck to find a camera crew just outside the door to catch our initial reactions. Ushered into yet another tent, we were "tested for G-force tolerance" by being placed one at a time into a carnival version of a six-axis flight trainer, a metal ball with a seat that will spin in all directions. A man in a white coat whom no one at all believed was a doctor occasionally interrupted his repeated mutterings of "Is it safe?" to call out random-sounding G-force results before announcing that we would all be allowed to continue. Whew.
Ok, so it was rather cheesy. My group, with the contest winner off being tireboarded, was made up entirely of auto journalists, and we all seemed a bit uncomfortable at being the "talent" in this video shoot. ("I'm not generally on this side of the lens", one muttered to me.) There even seemed to be a bit of quiet glee among the PR and engineering people at being able to upend the traditional press relationships and watch us perform for them for once. "Dance, monkeys, dance!" But all in all, it's hard to complain. We knew it was going to be a video shoot, it was after all in the release forms we signed.
Once we had all been cleared to drive, we passed into the massive hanger in which BFGoodrich had set up their traveling circus. To our right was Mission Control, a long table with a gaggle of engineers behind the raised screens of their laptops. Roughly in the center of the hanger was another table holding some large screens obviously set up to show the data from our runs. Towards the front of the hanger, near the neon-lit exit onto the track, 3 cars waited for us; a front-wheel drive Volkswagen GTI, a four-wheel drive Subaru STI rally car, and a rear-wheel drive Mustang 302 Boss. Time to get it on.
First, we watch as Shaun White enters, surrounded by cameras, and makes his run. When my turn arrives, it is in the Volkswagen. Dang, I wanted the Boss. The crew puts on an EEG sensor on my forehead under the helmet, then allows me to climb into the driver's seat. Under the bright glow of neon tubes lining the exit onto the track, I am given a countdown as the camera chase car slides in behind me.
Lap 1 is a recon lap, to get the feel of the track. The rest are go-laps. The track is laid out with reflectors on the ground. It is therefore impossible to see anything of the track but those reflectors directly in the headlight beams. Whenever the track curves, it disappears, which is somewhat disconcerting especially since I know from the diagram we were given that there are two diminishing-radius turns out there, starting out as wide sweepers before cranking down pretty tightly.
So, how did I really do at Awesomecross? BFGoodrich's video makes me look really great. You can take a look at the full run here. I got somewhere around 12 billion meaningless points, and ended up at the bottom of my group. In a total of four laps I did not in fact manage to approach the the limits of the Comp 2's capabilities. Through sudden diminishing-radius turns and sharp slaloms, the tires certainly gave me whatever I asked of them. But between traversing an unfamiliar autocross track at night and being filmed from multiple angles, I decided that discretion, and therefore caution was probably the better part of valor. I was not going to be the guy who got behind the track and spun a VW GTI in front of multiple on-track cameras, an extremely expensive crane-equipped chase car and a remote controlled helicopter. I remain serene in that decision.
This is not to say that I did not drive the car moderately hard. I did, and the tires certainly responded. What I did not try to do was push the tires beyond, or even to, their limits. With that said, I had an absolute blast. The course was highly technical and fun to figure out. Driving it at night, lit only sparsely by neon tubes was actually quite beautiful.
The EEG results showed that I was "focused" for most of the drive, only starting to smile on the last lap. That's quite true, I was totally focused on the track. Later on, the engineers asked me what I thought of the bells and whistles they had put in, like the wheel wells lighting up under G-forces, or the neon tubes that showed a graphic representation of the G-forces you were pulling around a curve compared to your last lap. I honestly hadn't noticed any of that.
After getting out of the car, I was interviewed by one of the film crew, who asked me, "Is this just another way to have fun in a car?" Adrenaline-drunk, I responded "It's the best way to have fun in a car." That is, of course, the line they chose to engrave on my tire, and put into the video.