I went to Utah recently to drive the $ 400,000 Ford GT supercar — a rare privilege as only 250 will be built in 2017 — but the day before I hit the road and the racetrack, Ford put me through its one-day Performance Racing School program.
For eight hours, I received high-level on-and-off track instruction from professional drivers. We had at our disposal the 526-horsepower Shelby GT350 (the single-day course is offered for free to any new owner of a Ford Performance vehicle).
I learned a lot. But here were my five biggest takeaways:
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1. Nobody except a pro driver is a pro driver.
Being taught to drive better on track is a humbling experience. I’ve tracked numerous cars, but the pros who’ve been doing it since they were little kids in go-karts and who have actually raced for money are about 50,000 miles above me in terms of ability.
I’m not fit to sit in the same car with them, much less a track-ready beast like the 526-horsepower Shelby GT350. That said, they’re the best at figuring out what you’re doing wrong and how to fix it.
At the Ford Performance Racing School, by the end of a day of driving and learning, you get a hot lap with one of the instructors. This will and should boggle your mind. I can drive fast. But a pro driver drives fast on an entirely different plane.
2. Driving hard and fast is for the racetrack — not the road.
Ford offers a day at its Performance Racing School — located at Utah Motorsports about a half-hour from Salt Lake City — for all new owners of Shelbys, Focus RS and STs, Raptor pickups, and Fiesta STs so that they can fully explore their cars’ capabilities.
In the case of the GT350, the capabilities are mind-boggling. (I’ve also tracked a Focus RS, and its capabilities are also mind-boggling, just in a different way.)
If anything, the way these cars can be pushed near their limits on a track should remind you that they shouldn’t be pushed anywhere near their limits on the public roads.
That’s a big takeaway: speed is seductive, but it’s dangerous and needs to be controlled. The FPR instructors stress safety, safety, safety. So, of course, you’re wearing a racing suit, helmet, and are strapped in with a four-point harness the whole time.
Speed is for the track, not the road.
3. You have $ 1 to spend — and not a penny more.
This might have been my favorite piece of wisdom, dispensed by instructor Charlie Putnam as he was explaining why you should only attempt a pass except on a straightaway and with the cooperation of your fellow driver (at our level).
Putnam gave the example of a driver coming into a corner right before a long straight preparing to pass a car in front of it. The driver is steering, braking, and preparing to get hard back on the throttle.
But a driver can only use 100% of any of those inputs. If you’re using 50% steering, you only have 50% left over for braking and throttle.
The driver who wanted to pass forgot this rule. He had “a dollar to spend,” as Putnam put it, but because he went too hard back on the throttle while still spending some of his buck on steering, he went over $ 1 — more like $ 1.30.
Crash! Luckily he was OK.
It was a great lesson. Performance driving is all about balancing the inputs. Overdo it on any of the inputs and you’ll lose the car. At best, you’ll have to correct, costing you time on a lap. At worst, you crunch your car.
4. A lot of it is in the eyes.
This is my big problem. When driving fast on a track, you have to be constantly looking ahead.
The eyes will tell your hands where to drive the car.
If you stare ahead and focus only on hitting your marks — corner entries and apexes, for example — you’ll be forever reacting rather than anticipating and the car will always be late to going where it’s supposed to be.
This bad habit was costing me whole seconds per lap.
5. Use all the track.
On a road course, straights give way to different types of curves and corners.
To plot the fastest route, you need to establish and follow the best “racing line.” Our instructors exhaustively stressed this: the fast line is the fast line. It’s physics. If your car steps off the line, you’ll go slower.
To find the line, you have to use the entire track. That means rolling wide on out of some turns or keeping it tight on others. The key point is that you want to be in the best possible place to take on the next racing challenge.
So how much better did I get?
Maybe 5% better.
I definitely got more comfortable with a very high-horsepower car, something that I generally avoid when hitting the track.
I think I could add some improvement, however, the next time I’m on track, thanks to the superb fundamentals that the Ford Performance Racing School instructors instilled in me.