12:57 p.m.Rob Hallstrom, now at the front in the SL65, leads us down yet another dusty desert boulevard. Instead of ending prematurely like the others, this one crests a big hill to reveal long expanses of empty pavement, some straight and fast, some tight and twisted. We'd found Highway 138, and more importantly, AMG's natural habitat.
1:16 p.m.Back at the front of the pack, Bidrawn sees deep triple digits. Hallstrom is close behind. A few of us watch from high on the hill as the SL and SLK rip through the landscape with unreal velocity. Bidrawn pulls over several hundred yards into the twisty stuff. He looks white, even from two miles away. His voice hisses and crackles over the Wal-Mart-special radios: "Everyone will leave traction control in the ON position... got that? Leave ESP on or get fired." He sounds pissed.
1:23 p.m.The rest of the group joins Bidrawn and Hallstrom and we realize why he said what he said. A thick layer of fine sand is strewn across many of the corners, most likely deposited from the previous rains. The stuff is like graphite; just walking across poses a challenge. Apparently, Bidrawn hit a patch and plowed through the first turn. There's plenty of room for runoff, but a few hundred yards ahead the shoulder is a little less forgiving (as in over the edge down a 300 foot embankment).
1:26 p.m.We spend the next hour or so blasting up and down this stretch of road. The loop takes about 15 minutes to complete and here everyone cycles through the various cars. The SL and SLK stay very busy, rarely sitting still for more than a few minutes. A few years ago, the SLK would most likely have been ignored.
2:21 p.m.Missy and Markas took off in the G55 30 minutes ago and have yet to return. Bidrawn's sure they've eloped to Vegas. Then we see them on top of a nearby mountain. We'd later find out they'd been screaming into the radios for 30 minutes. Didn't matter though, as Bidrawn has summarily executed three of the radios with his 454 Casull and is searching for a fourth.
2:43 p.m.We watch as the G-Wagen crawls down the mountain, scaling 40-degree inclines and clawing through loose gravel. It's an impressive sight. On his return, art director Platt suggests we beat feet and get to the photo location.
3:13 p.m.We all arrive at the main photo location unscathed, but the sun is already well into its downward slant. Jay and Markas put on their driving caps while Hallstrom sets up his photo rig at the apex of a particularly sweet corner. Bidrawn and I take off in the G55, headed for a nearby dry lake bed to grab some off-road action shots.
3:31 p.m.Bidrawn instructs me to drive the G-Wagen off a three-foot berm at speed. I figure he just wants some shots of the suspension articulating, so I oblige him.
"Faster!" he screams. "I want to see some daylight underneath that tank."
Oh, he wants me to jump it. I increase my speed to around 20 mph, hit the berm, go momentarily weightless, then crash to the earth wearing 5,590 pounds of steel, aluminum, leather and chrome.
"Faster! Come on, you puss!"
I take the next pass at 25 mph, the one after that at 30. My neck snaps forward on each violent landing; the teeth rattle in my skull. Each time I expect the G-Wagen to auger nose-first into the ground like a plummeting cinder block, but its monstrous suspension soaks up the shock of each earth-shattering collision with remarkable aplomb.
3:49 p.m.Back behind the wheel of the SL65, engineer Chen reaches out and touches the face of God as full boost hits at the photo corner's entry. The tail steps out momentarily, tires burning, then snaps back in line as Chen miraculously pivots the ber-roadster around the apex in a fit of brilliant driving.
"Now that's a great shot!" Hallstrom gushes, grinning broadly and clapping our engineer on the back as Jay exits the car and promptly loses his lunch next to one of the 18-inch AMG alloys. It was no big loss; those burgers were pretty nasty anyway.
3:52 p.m."OK, I got it," Bidrawn yells as the G55 barrels past him for the tenth or eleventh time, dragging me haplessly along with it. I coast to a stop and the driver's door is thrown open. "Move over, monkey boy," Bidrawn growls. "You did a pretty good job. At least, you didn't screw it up too bad. Let's go find some mud."
4:18 p.m.Hallstrom finishes up his pan blurs with Missy sitting pretty in the CLK cabrio. A fistfight breaks out between Platt and Chen as the SL's key becomes a point of contention for the eighteenth time that day.
4:31 p.m.We were here just a couple weeks before, after the freakish winter rains, and there were puddles and mud everywhere. Now the only water we can find is a small, brush-choked pool a stone's throw off the main dirt road bisecting the dried mud flats.
"Let's try over there," Bidrawn says, pointing to the mucky, swampy area. The G-Wagen charges forward for all of five or six yards and bogs. "It's OK; we're OK," he assures me, locking the front diff, throwing the tranny into four low and putting the shifter in reverse. The G55 slides backward, sinks another six inches, and bogs again. I can hear mud sucking at the wheels and undercarriage. I think we might have problems.
"It's OK. We're OK," Bidrawn insists.