I had already puked twice in one morning, after spinning a car around on ice all day, which didn’t help things. After two days of learning how to drive an Audi S4 on a full-on ice course in Sallbach, Austria, the moment of truth had arrived: I was going to take my timed lap around the course. The crisp mountain air, for the first time that day, felt good. It must’ve been the lunch that evened me out. Something did. Whatever it was, I started to steel my nerve, and the countdown to my lap began, and, when I last needed it, a single thought cut through my concentration somewhere along the lines of How the fuck did you get here, exactly? I remembered the moment that landed me in Austria, flinging a one-ton metal machine around on ice in the biggest and best race I’d ever been in, and how it started with a meeting, just like any other meeting: I was in trouble.
Or at least, I thought I was in trouble. Because when your editor—or boss, for that matter—calls you into “the” office towards the end of the month, and specifically, the wrap-up month of December, the same one that’s drained you in every which way possible while you’ve checked out around Thanksgiving, you’re sure it’s a stern talking-to, and not a trip to Europe you’re going to win. And then…
Me: So, I’m sorry if I… Chris: What? Me: Huh? Chris: You got a drivers license? Me: Yes? Chris: Is it expired? Me: No? Chris: Great. You’re going to Austria in the first week of January to go drive cars around on ice. Audis. They wanted someone from us to go. We’re sending you. You want a junket, you’re gonna get a junket, and you’re gonna get to see how much junkets suck. Don’t forget to get your shit in by then. Me: Is this vacation time? Chris: No. You’ll be working. You’ll file some blog posts or something.
And that’s how that one went.
Did I want to go on a junket? Absolutely! But did I kind of, sort of, very much want to go somewhere sunny? Absolutely.
So I get sent to Austria in January?
Then again, who was I to complain? These are the awful kvetches of people paid to write. But the never-something-for-nothing cynic in you has to good sense to be skeptical, too: Is there anything about being away from work and in another country could suck? The possibilities started to set in: other journalists, awful, awful other junketeers, which is only to begin with what they’d think of me. Endless lecture after endless lecture about cars, things I didn’t know nor that I’d had any previous experience with, besides driving and maybe crashing a few. And Austria? Ignorant dumbass American that I am, here’s the sum knowledge of what I comprehensively understood about Austria:
And here’s what I knew about Audis:
1. They drive with all four wheels, which is why the engine they run on is called the “Quattro.” I think.
So, no, I wasn’t going to the beach, and yes, I had my reservations. But: time out of the office paired with a place I’d never been before? No matter what, I’d find the trouble. Also, I love driving cars, especially manual transmissions, and especially with loud music playing. And I’d prove Chris—and all the naysayers of junkets everywhere—wrong. No matter what kind of effort I had to put into my fully paid time out of the office.
The first few emails came though. What size am I, when can I leave, and when do I need to be back? What size am I? Was this for apparel, or was I being fitting for a seatbelt? All of the sudden, this had become very exciting, and very, very real. Hell, I even had something I hadn’t even heard of in years: a travel agent. The calls from Audi’s corporate booking office got more and more exciting.
You’ll be flying into Frankfurt, and from Frankfurt, into Salzburg, Austria. Make sure you have your passport, and if you need anything, please don’t hesitate to give us a call.
Even though I couldn’t even see the person on the other end of the line, I could tell: this was service with a smile. This was the kind of service you don’t get as an ‘ordinary person.’ I hear the cash register and gunshots from “Paper Planes” going off in my head, shortly before my “reporter’s instinct” (or “conscience”) kicked in: as someone who’s seen the damage and controversy a junket can cause—which, in extreme cases like New York Times travel and Critical Shopper writer Mike Albo, is job termination—I’m supposed to be wary of them: the influence they can exert over what you write, and the material culture they can manifest. After all, is it really good for me to be getting things for free that everyone else has to pay for? How is this “good” for me in any way? Because it’s definitely not a sustainable lifestyle, making what I do, unless I continue to take these trips and convince myself that I somehow deserve them. Finally: Can I ever objectively and honestly cover something for readers if it’s already been subsidized by a corporation whose only intention in covering my costs is to get them some moneygrubbing press?
As soon as I saw the email with the words “Business Class” on it, I immediately had the answer: Fuckit, we’ll deal with it later. Two days before the trip, a big, red ski jacket came in the mail from Audi. I was going to Europe, I was going to drive cars, and it was going to be cold.
I would need this big red jacket. So I took it out of the box and tried it on. And it fit really, really well.
Adventure to The Rhineland
And it was like every other flight to JFK, too: except, well…Business Class. Which means a shorter line to the ticket counter, if any. A shorter line at security, which there definitely was. A luxe lounge with a “screening room,” floor-to-ceiling windows of the tarmac, and all the free booze you can swill before you get on the plane, which there was. And of course, a shorter (and separate) line to board the plane than everyone else in “steerage.”
Sitting down in a Lufthansa Business Class chair is…basically one of the best experiences sitting down you’ll ever have. It’s also somewhat unnerving. There are two chairs on each side, with three in the middle. Between each chair is a console that holds your fold-out table, as well as a “nightstand” with cupholders. Under it is a place to store your shoes. Yes: your shoes. Behind that is a place for miscellaneous belongings, including a place to store your glasses, should you decide to fold the entire chair out with the touch of one button, and go to sleep. There are three options on the remote—upright, reclined, and sleeping—that change the chair into default positions, and four different switches to control the contours of the chair, including a “massage” feature. No joke. The remote also controls a screen in front of you, packed with video games (like Tetris!), maps to the airports you’ll be flying to, movies, music, and also: instructional videos on how to use your chair/remote. Seeing as how it’s a seven-hour flight, even the most caveman-like technologically-inept individual can have it figured out somewhere over the Atlantic. There was also a fluffy pillow, a big, warm, cozy blanket, and a “sleep kit” that included a toothbrush, toothpaste, earplugs, an eyemask, “sleep socks,” and three golf tees, should we happen to land in Pebble Creek, I guess. And then came the first drink: water, juice, or champagne.
I took all three. And proceeded to take more, and then, some more. Because I’m not sure who can afford to take this flight, but I do know this: it’s expensive. At least $3,000. Who was I to waste it?
The food started coming. The menu was apparently arranged by a Four Seasons chef from New York; on the way back, a German chef with three Michelin stars. For regular food, it was pretty great. For four courses of airplane food, including a desert course with coffee (and Bailey’s!), it was stellar. Somewhere between watching The Brothers Bloom, playing Tetris, and watching Michael Jackson’s This Is It, I fell asleep. I woke up to go to the bathroom, which was unfortunate, because the guy next to me had his chair fully extended. Lesson: always get the aisle on the business class flight, especially if you piss a lot. I had to wake him up to get around him. He wasn’t happy. I came back with another glass of Johnny Walker Black and passed out again. And woke up in Frankfurt, Germany, with 45 minutes to get to my flight.
The Frankfurt Interlude
Here’s what you need to know about transferring in Frankfurt: don’t take your time. This is the ninth busiest airport in the world, and as for that reputation for German engineering, the layout is for shit. You’re going to pass through passport control, then customs, then another security line. You’re going to walk a lot. There’s no really great German food to be found, which is sad, because I wanted an ‘authentic’ bratwurst if I was at least going to have my feet on the ground there. There’s just a lot of space to walk. I finally found my Air Austria gate with a few minutes to spare, and stepped into a smoking “capsule” to light up. Instead of the nasty smoking lounges of yore, they’re basically round boxes with fans and ashtrays in them designed to let you smoke away your gate change so you don’t freak the fuck out in Frankfurt Airport, which was the best credit to German design I saw while there. The gate called our flight, and we went through the gate, down a flight of stairs, and…into a shuttle bus that drove all of the passengers on the flight what seemed like halfway around the airport, into the middle of the tarmac.
It was around 40 degrees fahrenheit—not too bad—and being a stone’s throw on the ground from enormous jumbo jets—way closer than you’d ever get in America—is pretty fun, but I could see how the whimsy of this experience could be sullied by rain, which thankfully, we didn’t have. We boarded our Air Austria flight to the sweet sounds of—what else?—Mozart. It was a propeller-jet, and the only thing separating business class from coach was the different colored fabrics covering the seats. We settled in, the plane took off over some mountains, and thirty minutes (and a pretty solid sandwich) later, we descended through one of the lowest cloud covers I’ve ever seen onto a tarmac in Salzburg, Austria, at W.A. Mozart airport.
Somewhere on the flight, six of us realized we were on the same trip together, because some of us were wearing the extraordinarily red Audi jackets provided to us for the junket. I kept mine off. As we boarded the bus, it was sussed out who was on this trip. The group was small, and consisted of:
– An editor at a popular men’s style magazine, from New York. – A car columnist for a large, syndicated newspaper, from New York. – A go-to freelance photographer who’d be taking still photos for Audi, from Detroit. – A go-to freelance videographer who’d be shooting film of the junket for Audi, from New York. – The editor-in-chief of a popular chichi mountain town magazine, from Colorado. – A magazine publisher who also owns a few restaurants in New York, among their other diverse holdings. – A photo editor from a winter sports magazine, from Colorado. – The Audi VP of Corporate Publicity, based out of Audi’s American HQ, in Virgina. – The Audi Business and East Coast PR/Events Rep, based out of New York. – and me.
So that’s four on the editorial side, two on the ownership/management side, two Audi reps, and two Audi photogs. The age range was fairly diverse, too, split pretty evenly between half the group being under 30, and the other half over.
We grabbed our bags and headed with a short, blonde, German Audi rep the guys on the trip eventually nicknamed “Suzy” (I believe this was because of our typically dumbassed American inability to pronounce her name, but I could be wrong) to a giant, blue bus, which whisked six of us an hour away into Austria’s mountains bordering Germany, to Kaprun, a small ski village that doesn’t look too different from, say, Park City. And after spending Christmas in Vegas and New Years Eve in New York, a blast of fresh, mountain air is the first and perfect reminder that there are things better than Manhattan sometimes. Above all of those things is air so thin and clean, you basically choke on it. Which I did, enjoying a nice coughing fit sometime after I got off the bus. We made our way into the hotel, the Steigenberger Kaprun, where a big Welcome to the Audi Ice Driving Experience sign awaited us. We grabbed our keys and went up to our rooms to settle in. Here’s what we found. Launguage NSFW, because I’m still slightly drunk from twelve hours of drinking-in-transit.
Unfortunately, I did not have time to “get really fucking drunk and take a bath,” nor would I go skiing. Because, as I learned, we’d have a busy schedule. And we did. Some of the junketeers were meeting downstairs an hour after we got there, and I went with out with them for a beer at a local apres ski bar, followed by a trip to a supermarket across the street. Got back to the hotel, detailed my exploits in an email after to my boss, showered, and went downstairs.
The first night was simple: drinks at the bar, followed by a plated dinner not too off from your average beef-or-chicken wedding fare, and mostly get-to-know-you conversation. Everyone was exhausted, so most of us, including myself, went upstairs to sleep. Operative term: Most of us. Seven hours later, we woke up for breakfast, and our first training session.
Disclaimers and Driving School
I stared down at all the legalese in front of me: it was a long piece of paper with lots of small words and Audi’s logo at the top. “This is where I sign my life away, right?” I asked the Audi VP. He called back, across a typical hotel conference room with a long, U-form of three tables: Think of it as signing up for fun. Well put. I checked it over to make sure there wasn’t any language in it that would hold me responsible for running one of their cars into a ditch, and signed it. Our instructor opened by confessing that his English wasn’t the best, but it was far better than any of our German. We first learned our instructor’s name—Harald Büttner—and his deal. The Audi Driving Experience was starting for Audi owners and fans to get together and drive, and not just drive, but drive better. It was started in the early 80s, and Harald was with it back when it started. Next year is the ADE’s 30th Anniversary. They do about 800 events a year around the world, and 16-18K people a year participate in those events. Even though he only teaches this specific Audi Driving Experience four times a year, he’d be going to China to teach an experience the night of our departure. The guy is clearly an expert. And his mantra, which he made clear to us, was simple:
We’re not the founders of driving. We’re just trying to give good advice.
His argument that this kind of training should be mandatory for all drivers everywhere would make a little more sense about five seconds later.
Our classroom instruction was basic stuff you learned in drivers ed, but a little tweaked, because, well, Germans know how to drive cars better. For one thing, Americans sit far from their steering wheels and pedals. Why? We think it’s crash-caution, which is wrong. If you’re in the kind of impact where that would come into play, it wouldn’t make a difference how close you are to the wheel unless it’s already in your sternum.
When you get in the car, you should be sitting above the steering wheel, looking out over the hood of the car. You should be sitting close, and you shouldn’t be able to hyperextend your legs or arms, because it makes steering, braking, accelerating, and shifting much more reflexive, and less of a literal stretch. Also, you have more control when you don’t have to extent to press a pedal all the way down, which we’d be doing. And your hands should be at “nine and three” and not “ten and two,” because that’s the kind of steering position that makes drivers steer aggressively and erratically. These aren’t things we learned in “driving school”-driving school! We also learned what the hell a Quattro engine is: a power distribution that puts 60% of the acceleration in the back, and the other 40% in the front. This makes the Audi better than a lot of cars in some way, but I’m not sure what it is. We took a few more notes on concepts we’d need to know: understeering (the front wheels sliding out) and oversteering (the back wheels sliding out) and basically “don’t crash the car.”
After about 45 minutes of slides, we got in the bus, and headed to Sallbach, a mountain range 20 minutes out of town. And now, we’d be getting in cars, and driving.
The First Drives
The course was an ice field: everyone who got stepped on it almost slipped, instantly. After two days of hanging out on it, you learn how and where to walk on the ice, but for the moment, we were lucky none of us ended up on our asses, which we almost did. This was purely frozen-over concrete, and tracks were plowed out of snow. There were six things to crash into: a snowbank on one side, a snowbank followed by a river on the other, other cars, other people, the rest-shack at the near-end of the course, and a garage at the far end of the course. So, there were options.
Our first practices were simple: get in your car—a 2010 Audi A3 Wagon—and take a nice, easy drive around the course. Don’t go too crazy. And then we started with the exercises.
Each exercise went like this:
– Explanation: Harald tells us what we’re going to do. – Show: Harald takes us for drives in the car, and shows us how it’s going to work. – Drive: We drove.
That was it. So we started driving. We learn how to induce make the car slide with its front—understeering—and how to drive out of it. We learned how to induce oversteering—when the car slides out from the back—and we did more driving exercises around turns. It was, it goes without saying, a blast. And sometime around when we were lining up to do first “real” exercise— emergency stop exercises—I learned a vital piece of information: that some of the guys had been the night before to a local strip club right next door to our hotel, that it was a blast, and that we were going back tonight. Which is about when I got the signal to step on the gas and do this.
[Check in on Friday for the second half of Junkets On Ice.]