Motor Trend - - Contents - Frank Markus TECHNOLOGUE

Old dog at­tempts to learn expert tricks.

This space is usu­ally ded­i­cated to advances in inan­i­mate tech­nolo­gies—sci­en­tific in­ven­tions cre­ated by ex­perts. But this month I was in­vited by two com­pa­nies to ex­pe­ri­ence first­hand the train­ing each in­vests in the ex­perts re­spon­si­ble for those in­no­va­tions.

Har­man de­vel­ops pre­mium au­dio sys­tems for 25 au­tomak­ers un­der nine brand names. To en­sure each sounds both ex­cel­lent and brand-unique, the com­pany has trained 100 expert lis­ten­ers in five coun­tries. Each must pass a hear­ing test and demon­strate an abil­ity to iden­tify vari­a­tions in seven bands of au­dio. That’s spec­tral anal­y­sis. Spa­tial per­for­mance is a sys­tem’s abil­ity to place each in­stru­ment or vo­cal in­put on a sound­stage. Dy­nam­ics is about clar­ity at vary­ing vol­ume lev­els. In­tegrity has to do with buzzing, squeaks, and rat­tles in the sys­tem in­stal­la­tion. Ex­perts as­sess th­ese four at­tributes as they lis­ten to seven au­dio tracks per car on 200 cars per year, com­par­ing each against 400 ref­er­ence cars.

Acous­tics man­ager Brad Hamme plays sev­eral paired snip­pets of mu­sic for me, vary­ing only by an al­ter­ation in one band or an­other. Well, sign me up for a Har­man in­tern­ship—i man­age to iden­tify a few cor­rectly! He then in­vites me into a Ford Edge with the lat­est B&O Play sys­tem to hear demo tracks from mul­ti­ple gen­res, point­ing out where var­i­ous in­stru­ments ap­pear to be and not­ing how the sys­tem main­tains sound­stage am­bi­ence at var­i­ous vol­umes. Hamme also in­structs me on au­dio-eval­u­a­tion vo­cab­u­lary— words like rich ver­sus muddy, nu­anced ver­sus honky, crisp ver­sus harsh. By the end, my tin ear has ma­tric­u­lated to, per­haps polypropy­lene?

Days later I spend an af­ter­noon sam­pling Ford’s two-week, 80-hour Tier IV high-per­for­mance driver train­ing pro­gram. Of­fered to the most promis­ing driv­ers with five years of ex­pe­ri­ence at the more lim­ited Tier III level, th­ese 20 or so “top guns” often con­trib­ute to mul­ti­ple pro­grams, whereas the 300 or so Tier III folks typ­i­cally get as­signed to spe­cific projects. (The two lower tiers are for mov­ing cars around and sub­jec­tive anal­y­sis of be­hav­ior be­low 100 mph.)

I start out on a wet, 200-foot-di­am­e­ter skid­pad in a Mus­tang GT with win­ter tires in back. The ex­er­cise is to sense in­cip­i­ent slip and hold a con­tin­u­ous drift. Chief in­struc­tor and throt­tle whis­perer Ben Ma­her coaches me to look far­ther around the coned cir­cle and to limit my throt­tle reg­u­la­tion to a nar­row band of be­tween 60 and 80 per­cent, as my oc­ca­sional lift­ing is re­peat­edly hook­ing up the tires. Within maybe 40 min­utes I’m out of breath and drenched in sweat—but hold­ing my drift. Next up: fig­ure-eight drifts, con­nect­ing to a smaller 50-foot­di­am­e­ter cir­cle. This is su­per tricky, as the tran­si­tion past straight ahead must be quick but not too quick, or the car will spin. It does so again and again, as I learn to quickly cen­ter the steer­ing wheel to re­duce the vi­o­lence of th­ese spins. I even­tu­ally mas­ter this tran­si­tion ( but not the one back onto the larger cir­cle) be­fore we switch ve­hi­cles and ex­er­cises.

Next I fo­cus on de­tect­ing in­cip­i­ent roll in the “buggy of fun”—an old Ex­plorer Sport Trac out­fit­ted with 250 pounds on the roof and a stack of weights that can be ad­justed ver­ti­cally in the back. It also has out­rig­gers to pre­vent wear on its ex­oskele­tal rollcage. Here my ob­ject it to slalom the truck, in­creas­ing speed and/ or steer­ing in­put rate un­til a wheel (or wheels) lift, then steer out to pre­vent the rollover. I man­age sev­eral lifts, with the out­rig­gers only touch­ing twice.

We end by au­tocross­ing the Mus­tang FP350S, which has zero po­ten­tial to roll over but plenty of in­cip­i­ent drift to sense (pre­cip­i­tat­ing one “re­con” spin) be­fore the tires heat up. As the tires and my abil­i­ties come up to speed, Ma­her urges later and later brak­ing off the straight. Soon I’m lap­ping at 70 per­cent of his speed and feel­ing like an­other 76 hours of his tute­lage might close the gap. n

FA­VORITE TOY Chief in­struc­tor Ben Ma­her, here with a Mus­tang FP350S, helps train Ford’s high-per­for­mance test driv­ers.

AU­DIO ED­U­CA­TION The au­thor tests his ears in a B&O Play–equipped Ford Es­cape.

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