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Turning a Corner

The Lamborghini Esperienza allows you to put a supercar to the test—and you’ll push your own limits a bit, too.

IN HIGH GEAR
Lamborghini Esperienza features slalom, follow and acceleration drills.

“Brake! Hard! Now!” is what my instructor is yelling at me over the growl of the engine. What did I do wrong?

“Brake! Now!” Was it my line on that last corner? I’d hit the entry point, kissed (or clipped, depending on how you look at it) the apex and then hit the exit marker dead-on, setting up for the straightaway.

Still, again, even more insistent: “Brake harder, harder! Right now!” Too fast? Impossible. I went into that last corner at a little over 90 mph—a mere crawl in this vehicle. That can’t be it. If anything, I’m going too slow.

“Stand on that brake!” he says. “Lock it up!”

Finally, I stamp on the brake, and $400,000 worth of carbon fiber and a 700-horsepower V12 engine come to a shuddering ABS-assisted standstill. The car doesn’t skid; it just stops. Above the raspy idling of the motor, I hear my heart beating. Loudly.

What did I do wrong?

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I’m at Lamborghini’s Esperienza program at the Autobahn Country Club in Joliet, Ill., an all-day program that provides an introduction to Lamborghini’s cars as well as personalized driving instruction. For an entire day, participants are paired up with instructors for classroom briefings, behind-the-wheel skills drills and timed laps on the track.

It’s marketing with a lot of horsepower. Participants are often new owners or prospective buyers, sent by dealerships to get the kind of feel for the cars’ performance and capabilities that would be impossible on regular roads. Others may have received a day at the track as a gift—possibly from themselves. Several guys there are already Lamborghini owners who just wanted to try out the latest car.

Today, that’s the Aventador, a miracle of engineering with a top speed of 217 mph that does 0 to 60 mph in 2.9 seconds. For Lamborghini Esperienza, Lamborghini brings out a whole fleet of them, coupes and roadsters, in a variety of colors. I like to think that I’m too cool to worry about a car’s color, but, damned if that matte black Aventador doesn’t look like a stealth fighter, and, damn, I hope that’s the one they put me in.

Of course, this particular vehicle couldn’t creep up on anyone. The midmounted 700-horsepower V12—a massively muscular power plant, situated right behind the driver and passenger—broadcasts a magnificent, rumbling snarl.

And that’s while it’s still in first gear. Pushed harder, the engine’s throaty rasp increases in pitch, with each gearshift punctuated by a distorted ‘blip’ from the exhaust. Inside, you’re slung low in a leather-wrapped cockpit, looking at a full LCD dashboard and a central console with an array of controls. A quick pre-drive check reveals stability control, automatic and manual shift modes, and drive modes that change the car’s behavior: Strada (smooth), Sport (quicker) and Corsa (fastest). There’s no reverse gear. There’s a reverse button on the center console. Backward isn’t a big priority for this car.

In the middle of the dash is a red flip-up switch cover, like they have in movies where the president’s about to launch a nuclear missile. In the Aventador, the button beneath reads “Start/Stop.” The engineers must’ve had a good laugh over that one. Missile launcher, indeed.

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My instructor for the day
is Ritchie Antinucci, who has been with the Lamborghini program since 2011. Before that, he drove Indy cars and worked as a Formula One test driver. He’ll take the wheel first, through two laps of braking, slalom and acceleration drills, before turning the car over and coaching me through the same drills. As we motor toward the track, we discuss our love of MotoGP motorcycle racing, and he runs through the car’s specs. “2.9 seconds,” he says, and pauses. “But for me, it’s more like 2.6.” He smiles. I like this guy already.

We slowly pull onto the track, and he stops, turning to me to see if I’m ready. I’m generally a nervous passenger anyway, and it must have shown. “This car,” he says, assuringly patting the dashboard, “is wrapped around me.” It’s a simple statement, but I get the idea. He knows this car.

During those two laps, I find myself laughing in the same nervous way I do on roller coasters, except there are no rails, you’re in the front car and the stranger next to you is steering. And you’re about to take over the controls.

“This,” I tell Antinucci as I settle in, “will likely be the slowest lap you’ve ever done.” He’s nonplussed.

“That’s good,” he says. “We’d rather you come to the car with humility. Then we will teach you.” As I drive, I’m surprised by how manageable the vehicle is. Anything you ask it to do, it does. I take the slalom course at 70 mph with Antinucci telling me to “get on it, get on it,” and there’s no problem at all: Give it more gas and the car spits through another shift, leaping forward. Just three laps and I feel almost comfortable.

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There’s lunch in the luxurious trackside Lamborghini Lounge, then it’s back to the track for timed laps. The lead engineer briefs us not to touch the “magic button” (the electronic stability control). Leave it on at all times, he tells us. He assures us that if he hears a wheel squealing on a corner, he’ll know someone turned it off. Everyone at the briefing looks around to see who might be the kind of person to do such a thing.

I’m not exactly a speed neophyte: I’ve ridden motorcycles over 100 mph, navigated (and crashed) in off-road rally cars and ridden racing bicycles down California mountains faster than 50 mph. But after the thunderstorm that closed the track at lunchtime, there’s still some standing water in the track, and I, for one, am grateful for stability control and all-wheel drive. I’m not touching that button.

The lead-follow drills require you to stay five car lengths behind the instructor in the lead car, matching his line and speed. It’s exhilarating. The straightaway at 120 mph? No problem. It’s a bit like a driving video game, except there may be actual consequences. The reality is that the car’s capabilities are so much greater than my driving skills that I can never truly test the car’s limits.

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The final hot lap with Antinucci, however, does just that. The first thing I see him do is turn off the stability control. “Uh, Ritchie, aren’t we supposed to leave that on?” Again, he smiles: “For you, it’s true, yes. But for me? I think it’s OK. Ready?” I grab the door handle for a little stability of my own, nod and off we roar. Without the magic button engaged, he slides the car into the corners, drifting through the perfect line, working the paddle shifters, and brake and accelerator pedals like a jazz drummer. He is laughing the entire time—not showing off, but being a man at work, doing what he loves.

And that’s when the real genius of the Esperienza program strikes me: It’s one thing to admire the Aventador’s engineering and design, but it means nothing until you see the machine properly handled. It’s like being handed Jimi Hendrix’s vintage guitar: You appreciate the thing, but until someone truly plays it, you can’t understand the magic. Antinucci coaxes a note from the engine that I just couldn’t get close to. The sounds of that engine behind your head and the tires squealing are intoxicating.

I think back to my first lap that morning, when Antinucci was yelling for me to stop the car. What had I done wrong? “Nothing,” he answered, smiling. “I just wanted to show you what the car can do.”

And that’s just what he’s doing now.

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GET SCHOOLED

Lamborghini offers three levels of driving programs. Esperienza is the introductory course and is open to drivers of all levels. The two-day Track Accademia is a step up from Esperienza and teaches more advanced drills. Blancpain Super Trofeo is the top level, where drivers can compete in sanctioned races against other Lamborghini drivers—essentially renting a full race team for a weekend.

THE DETAILS
The Esperienza program is open to drivers 21 and older. $1,495

WANT ONE OF YOUR OWN?
Lamborghini Gold Coast, 834 N. Rush St., 312.280.4848