Wheels of Prosperity

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With all that’s affecting the automotive industry, it’s easy to forget the depth and reach of what is actually the largest business sector in Michigan. As Detroit Mayor Dave Bing recently pointed out during a reception at The Collaborative in Birmingham, the region may be losing manufacturing jobs, but its technology centers keep growing.

That metro Detroit is the brain trust of the global auto industry bodes well for our long-term growth. R&D activities here support everything from wind tunnels to test tracks, and GM, Ford, and Chrysler — along with suppliers and foreign OEMs — operate multiple proving grounds that are the envy of the world.

Contrast that with England, where the sprawling Millbrook test track north of London is shared by multiple users — including motorcycles, military vehicles, commercial trucks, and passenger cars. While Germany and Japan have more validation centers than most other auto-producing nations, Fiat actually operates a test track atop its headquarters in downtown Turin. There’s not much beyond that.

Back home, everyone gets to join in the parade. Apart from supporting thousands of good-paying jobs that contribute to our quality of life, the vast collection of research facilities provides a major stimulus to business and leisure travel. While the boost to air travel, car rentals, and hotel accommodations is apparent, there’s a tourism angle, as well.

Every year, between August and September, Ford opens its sprawling Michigan Proving Ground in Romeo to dozens of Aston Martin owners (in 2007, Ford sold the bulk of Aston Martin for $925 million, but retained a 15-percent stake). Following a session that provides a brief history and overview of the track, each Aston Martin participant is paired with one of Ford’s professional drivers. First up is a 2.5-mile straightaway, followed by a precision steering and evaluation course, a water-soaked vehicle dynamics pad, a hill course with up to 60-percent grades and, finally, a 5-mile high-speed oval track (180 mph maximum speed).

“We have owners that come back year after year, and the overall mission is to provide advanced driving techniques to limit a driver’s risks, no matter what vehicle they’re operating,” says Ford track-safety technical specialist Kevin Markham. “We also want them to have fun.”

Among Markham’s driving tips: Never let your mind or eyes wander from the road, accelerate slightly halfway through a turn and hold the wheel steady, use two hands as much as possible, and brake in a straight line before making a turn.

At $2,500, the program isn’t cheap — but the training stimulates our economy, improves overall commuter safety, and provides a lifetime of memories.

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