Preparing to shoot a few segments of Big Jon in 5 for BEER2WHISKEY in our upstairs studio at Barley's Taproom in downtown Greenville. That's owner Josh Beebe preparing for his closeup.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Hot Footing Around Leguna Seca in 2013 BMWs and Getting Snookered in Cannery Row: Highlights of Monterey

As I write this, I am sitting in the San Francisco Airport waiting to board my flight to Atlanta that will get me about four and a half hours closer to home.

I am at the gate a full two hours early. This is a situation of my own making. Because I insisted I fly Delta on a BMW event actually held in Monterey, I had to fly in and out of San Francisco rather than Monterey. Apparently Delta doesn't service Monterey.

Using the San Francisco airport required a two-hour slog to the hotel in Cannery Row on arrival and a trip of similar length on my departure. I guess we could have left the hotel 30 minutes or so later, but by then it would have thrust us into morning rush hour and probably added 30 minutes to an hour to the travel time; not to mention it probably would have also meant 30 minutes to clear airport security rather than the 10 minutes it took at 6:30 a.m.

Cooling my heels for an extra hour seems like a small price to pay.

We stayed at the Clement Monterey Hotel. It's in the heart of of the Cannery Row district. This is a shameless tourist trap comprised of T-shirt shops, restaurants, gift shops and whatever else some creative marketing type was able to devise to suck in the unsuspecting.

I fell prey myself. I was in my room at the hotel by 1:30. I had five hours to kill before we were scheduled to meet in the lobby to walk two blocks to dinner. On the drive from the airport, I spotted the Cannery Row Brewing Company.

Sipping on some micro-brew beers sounded like the ideal way to kill a couple of hours.

Those who know me, are well aware that I like breweries and brew pubs. In fact, I find it difficult to pass one by without at least sampling whatever Browns, Porters and Stouts it might concoct. If the shirts are compelling, I typically buy one of those as well.

After settling into my room, I made a beeline for the joint. It was just around the corner from the hotel.

I went inside, found an empty seat at the bar -- there were plenty of them -- and began looking around.

"Hey, hold the phone!" I thought. "Where's all the beer brewing apparatus: the tanks and so forth?" There weren't any. Why? Because despite what it calls itself, it's not a brewery; it's a damn tap room! For the uninitiated, a brewery brews its own beer. This joint had 30 or more beers on tap -- many of them produced by small breweries -- but it didn't make any of it.

Unbelievable: even the brewery is a tourist trap!

I wanted to channel Joe Wilson, point at the bartender and yell, "You Lie!"

I restrained myself and drowned my disappointment by drinking a couple of beers I'd never had before.

BMW flew us to California to drive the 2013 M5, M6 and Alpina B7. Zoom, Zoom.

It wasn't enough that we just drive these beasts, but BMW wanted us to push them to their limits -- not that I am in any way capable of actually finding their limits.

The venue was Laguna Seca. It was an opportunity for me to check off the Leguna Seca box on my bucket list. I've driven a passel of tracks over the years, but never this one.

Leguna Seca is no ordinary raceway. It's a tough course with an array of dips, curves, hairpins and esses. It's not for the feint of heart or overconfident amateurs.

I did a few laps in an M6. It's twin-turbo V8 is matched to an eight-speed, driver-shiftable transmission. Top speed is 155 mph. It rockets from a standstill to 60 mph in 4.1 seconds.

There is all manner of clever technology to help manage so much get-up-and-go. There are three settings for the steering, throttle response and suspension. They range from "Comfort" to "Sport Plus." Unlike some systems on other brand cars that claim to offer various settings, the differences among the settings on BMWs are striking.

I guided the M6 missile I was driving through three laps of hair-on-fire exhilaration. I wasn't done yet, however.

Fresh from his GT Class victory at the Road America Le Mans Series races in Wisconsin a few days before, Bill Auberlen was trackside minding his own business when I climbed out of the M6 and asked him if he was up to logging a few laps with me riding shotgun.

His reply, "I'm always ready. Let's go have some fun!"

I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that my five or so laps with him will probably be as fast as I will ever go in a car that big.

He tossed its 4,200 pounds around that track like it was a go cart. At one point I glanced at the speedometer and from my perspective from the passenger seat, it looked like we were going about 150 mph.

After the first three laps of turning my insides into jelly, he asked if I was getting sick yet. "Hell, no!" I shouted, "This is great!" Evidently he took this as a challenge and really put his foot into it.

There were a few other BMWs on the track that he deftly overcame until we ran up on some clown with a small video camera attached to the C-pillar of his M6. Despite being told in the drivers' meeting before hitting the track that we should maintain our lines and drive normally when another car approached from the rear, this jackass nearly came to a stop just as we entered a turn about half a car length off his bumper.

It was like trying not to hit a squirrel in the road: just when you think it's going to juke left it dashes right. Auberlen had a split second to calculate which way this goof was going to go and what he might do next. He decided to go under him as we entered the turn and it worked out OK. But he glanced at me and said, "That's why I never ride with one of you guys driving. Who stops in the middle of a race track?"

Who indeed? I thought.

I climbed out of the M6, babbled my thanks to Bill for a thrilling ride and then staggered off like a drunk on the final leg of a two-day bender. My eyes were watering, my legs rubbery and my heart was beating like a jackhammer. In other words, I had a blast.

With the track behind me, I began taking assorted BMWs on one of the hour-long road routes they had mapped out for us. By far the most fun I had was putting a 2013 M5 through its paces. What a rush!

The car I had was fitted with a six-speed manual transmission that was tasked to send the turbo-charged V8's 560 horsepower to the wheels. It has all the same performance technology as the M6 and weighs about the same, but really feels like a much smaller, lighter car.

I was reminded why the M5 is widely considered the best handling sedan on the highway.

Easily my biggest surprise, however, was the Alpina B7. Alpina works with BMW to develop higher-end-performance versions of its models. The B7 really acts like a much smaller car when driven aggressively. When you consider that the B7 tips the scales at nearly 4,700 pounds, yet can sprint to 60 mph from a stop in just over four seconds with a top speed of 194 mph, that's quite an achievement. Even more amazing is that it feels about half its size when being tossed through the turns.

So, here I am in the San Francisco airport, bleary eyed because my ride left the hotel at 5 a.m.

The price I'm willing to pay to have a little fun.

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