Hands down the world's best present to give an automotive enthusiast is to send him or her to race driving school. Whether it's for Christmas, a birthday, Father's Day or whatever the occasion you can't go wrong with giving someone track lessons. Thankfully, nowadays there are a lot of options when it comes to driving schools. There are packages for NASCAR driving, Formula cars, karting, exotic cars and even ones where you can bring your own vehicle to learn on. In addition to the variety of cars you can choose from, there are driving-type choices: defensive driving, new driver program, racing or, in our case, high performance driving.
High performance driving school best suited our needs because it combines the best of both worlds - part defensive driving skills needed for daily driving on the street and part racing techniques that are great for track events. We were more than thrilled when Robbie Montinola, an instructor at Skip Barber, called us up and invited us to attend their brand new two-day High Performance Driving School. Skip Barber developed this driving experience with the Turbo kind of reader in mind - someone who owns a high performance vehicle and wants to learn how to get the most out of it driving-wise. We all know that a high-powered car doesn't mean crap if you don't know how to drive it. Why do so many Porsches, Ferraris and Lamborghinis get wrapped around telephone poles? Some rich guy bought one but hadn't the slightest clue as how to pilot that much horsepower.
Having accepted Robbie's invitation before he was even finished asking, we then went on a mad quest to track-prep our Project 240SX in time for the event. Skip Barber invited all participants to bring out their own vehicles to test at the track. (A Turbo bragging moment: Of all the different magazine editors that attended this school, Turbo was the only one that brought out a vehicle to test - and we drove it out 300 miles to get there. No one else brought either their personal, or magazine project car to test out. Scared perhaps?) Barely getting the Koyo radiator and SP Engineering bucket seat installed in time, we cut it close - but the 240SX came together in the nick of time. I then stopped over at Sparco and spent my rent money on racing gear - gotta have the right tools is my motto. With both me and Turbo's S14 track-prepped, we headed out to the famous Las Vegas Speedway. The trek to Vegas was going to be an expedition in itself considering the 600-mile roundtrip voyage in scorching 110-degree heat.
There are Skip Barber driving schools on over 20 tracks in the United States, including Laguna Seca, where we were looking forward to going back to. However, the historic course was undergoing renovations so we headed out to Sin City. The Las Vegas Speedway is an impressive and expansive motorsports park with every type of track imaginable - oval, drag strip, race course - and enough wide open space to create drifting and autocross courses. With the backdrop of the nearby base's Blue Angels, Stealth fighters and F16s performing overhead you can't beat the ambiance. You also can't top the fact that Sin City surrounds you, so when you are sick of racing (as if that ever happens) you can hit up the casinos, clubs or whatever suits your fancy.
The Skip Barber two-day High Performance Driving School is geared towards drivers looking for more high speed and high g-load exercises." It's structured with a nice balance of some classroom instruction, but heavy on the track time. Per Skip Barber's tenets, vehicle dynamics are emphasized "to convey the importance of physics as it relates to vehicle safety, balance and car control." Once the basic principles are covered you are out on the track performing techniques on Skip Barber's array of Porsches, BMWs and 510 hp Dodge Vipers. Just the experience of getting to drive 325 hp Carrera 996 and 997s, 240 hp Boxsters, 333 hp BMW M3s, 255 hp 330is and Viper SRT-10s is unbelievable, and even more fun when you are pushing them to their limit on the autocross and race courses.
With tons of instructors, all with years of racing experience, there was a lot of expertise on hand to share with us one-on-one. Our lead instructor, Randy, shared a really good point at the beginning of class: the amount of money you spend on their driving school will do more to improve your track time than any aftermarket part you could add to your vehicle. It brings home the point that a lot of people spend money on car parts when they are overlooking one of the biggest factors in racing - themselves and their driving abilities.
We started the day with a pre-test of tracking our lap time on the race course. This was the crowning principle to show our improvement in time by comparing our pre-test lap time to eventually our post-test time at the end of the driving school. Turbo's second bragging moment: our 240SX kicked ass against the school's Porsche 911. Out of ten students driving the loaner 911 (because they didn't bring their own vehicle) we took fourth place. Not bad for an N/A S14 that makes half the power of a 996 Porsche.
Having been quite satisfied with our Project 240's performance (and glad that nothing broke so we still had our ride home), we were off to the classroom for some instruction. After learning about tire contact principles and how to shift the weight of the vehicle to our advantage, we hit the braking test course in the Carreras and M3s. Practicing threshold braking and suddenly jumping into a different lane last minute at high speeds meant there was a lot of tire screeching going on. Next it was off to the wet skidpad with the BMW M3s and 330is to practice our powerslide and trail braking techniques. (Clearly a crossover appeal for you drifting fans.)
Day Two brought us back into the classroom for some more pointers and then out to the autocross course to take out the Carrera, M3 and the insane Viper. Without any electronic controls like vehicle stability and traction control, the Viper is a beast to drive. It makes the Carrera and M3 look like you're driving an automatic minivan. Just trying not to spin out took all of my concentration (and left a big bruise on my calf from trying to brace myself in place). It was certainly a thrill to drive and then to experience a ride-along with our instructor Conrad who happens to be the Jasper Performance drift driver. Riding while he seamlessly drifts the Viper on the autocross track was phenomenal.
After the exhilarating autocross fun, we spent the afternoon taking all the cars (except the Viper) out on the racetrack for hours of solo track experience. This way we piloted the vehicles alone and followed behind instructors who modeled the perfect line to take, noting the corner's apex and when to brake upon entry and accelerate upon exit. Having the luxury of so much track time was terrific.
We left the school satisfied with having improved on our driving techniques. I found that I knew the concepts for most of the techniques beforehand in theory, but because I hadn't had formal instruction I couldn't apply them to their utmost potential. Sure, I could have told you before what trail braking was, but it was a whole different experience to have a professional instructor sitting next to you giving you blow-by-blow instructions on how to perfect it. We definitely would recommend high performance driving school, whether it be for one day or two days, for enthusiasts who want to track race their vehicles. It'd be a shame to invest so much in your car, and ignore the key factor of your driving potential: the driving part.