You've recently become the proud owner of the high-performance car that you have dreamed about for years. But it dawns on you that you might not ever get the chance to see what it can really do. Or worse, years of watching action movies have given you the false belief that driving a car fast is easy. (Trust us, it's not.)
In any case, you're not sure how to go about it. Binge-watching seasons of Top Gear or streaming Senna from Netflix won't do the job. Actually, whether it's serious speed that you're after or you just want to become a better driver, your best bet is to attend a high-performance driving school.
The term "performance driving school" describes any course that teaches driving techniques derived from racing, yet these skills can also be applied to everyday driving.
There are a number of performance driving schools out there. Most of them can be slotted into one of three categories: performance driving, racing or specialty. There are also driving opportunities at manufacturer-sponsored events. These aren't schools per se, but you can learn a lot at them.
Performance Driving School
If you ever wanted to explore a vehicle's handling limits, become a better driver or just have fun driving a fast car, a performance driving course is the way to go. These courses can range from a half day up to three days. The prices can vary from $500 to $4,000 depending on where you go and how long you plan on driving.
The fleet of cars available for your instruction will vary with the school, but they are typically high-performance vehicles such as the BMW M3, Chevrolet Corvette, Ford Mustang or Porsche 911. These are cars that people buy for their spirit and speed — provided they can afford them, of course. For those who can't, these classes offer a great opportunity to drive sports cars in a safe and controlled environment. Racing other drivers comes later.
"You have to learn the art of driving fast first," says Danny McKeever, owner and chief instructor of the Fast Lane Driving Academy in Rosamond, California. "Then you'll learn how to do it with other people."
Most performance driving courses start out with a classroom lecture that covers some of the more fundamental aspects of driving, such as seating position and hand placement on the steering wheel.
A performance-driving curriculum generally covers three modules: braking, skid pad and autocross, says Walter Irvine, instructor and business development manager for the Skip Barber Racing School.
The braking module teaches accident-avoidance techniques such as hard braking to engage an antilock brake system, and quick lane-change exercises.
The skid pad module features wet, slippery pavement that will let a car slide across the surface at a speed slow enough that a student driver can learn how to recover control. Some schools, such as the Bob Bondurant School of High-Performance Driving, use a "skid-car" — a vehicle equipped with anti-rollover bars that look like oversize training wheels — that allows the instructors to control the degree of the skid to simulate rain, snow, ice and complete loss of traction.
Finally, the autocross portion of the class places the drivers on an asphalt course with cones to help drivers identify the proper line through the corners for maximum efficiency, speed and even safety. The goal is to string together all the techniques the student has learned and test out the limits of a car.
"The limits in a street car are higher than people realize," McKeever says.
Racing school takes the basics of a performance driving course and pushes the curriculum further for the person who wants to compete with other drivers and enjoys the idea of shaving off a few seconds from his lap time. These courses sometimes feature open-wheel racecars that are faster, and with more precise steering and higher cornering limits than a street vehicle.
These open-wheel cars take away such luxuries as air-conditioning and leather seats, notes Cameron Corbin, events and promotions manager for the Bondurant school. "All you have is a pedal and steering wheel and nothing else." A common misconception that people have of racing school is that the skills you learn from such highly tuned cars only apply on the racetrack, Corbin adds.
Racing school courses can range from a day up to three days. The prices go from $2,100 to $5,850 depending on the school and the length of the course.
The Formula Car Racing School is the most popular and longest-running course taught at the Skip Barber Racing School, which has locations in 10 states.
Whether you drive a Dodge Grand Caravan or a Dodge Challenger SRT8, the driving skills share the same basic foundations that are part of the core learning experience at Skip Barber. "We teach driving based on the laws of physics, not a particular vehicle," says Irvine. "These are concepts that will apply in any platform."
There are a number of schools that offer kart, drag, or even NASCAR racing instruction.
While they may be fun for fans of those racing styles, many of the skills you learn don't translate into everyday driving. If you want to translate your track skills to your everyday driving, it's best to stick with the more traditional performance driving school.
These events are sponsored by the automakers and are designed to help owners realize the full capabilities of their vehicles and allow them to drive in a fashion that might not be possible on public roads. The Land Rover Experience, for example, shows drivers how capable the vehicles are off-road. Similarly, the Porsche Sport Driving School is designed to give Porsche owners a feel for driving a Porsche on a racetrack.
What To Look for in a Driving School
Here are a few questions to ask before deciding which school and course is right for you:
- Who are the instructors?
"It's all about the instructors," says McKeever. "If you look back at your own education, you're going to remember the good teachers...and the bad ones, too."
Go to the school's Web page and find out who's teaching at the school in which you're interested. For schools like Fast Lane and Bondurant, you will find that the person associated with the school is not just a name on the building. "Bob [Bondurant] is still here five days a week teaching," Corbin says. The same applies to McKeever who, in addition to teaching at his school, has been the trainer for the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach Pro/Celebrity Race since 1986.
At the Skip Barber school, instructors are hand-picked, Irvine says. They must have a well-established racing résumé and have the ability to teach those skills to other drivers, Irvine adds.
- What cars are in the fleet?
Half the fun of a driving school is taking the wheel of a car you wouldn't ordinarily drive. To make sure it's a car you're interested in, find out what vehicles the school offers. Some racing schools are sponsored by certain automakers and have exclusive rights to their vehicles. For example, Skip Barber has Mazda vehicles and Bondurant has Chevrolet, while Fast Lane has Celica models that were formerly used in the Toyota Pro/Celebrity race at the Long Beach Grand Prix.
- Where is the school located?
There are countless performance driving schools around the country. Bondurant, Fast Lane and Skip Barber are the well-established brands. But if those schools are not near you, take a look at RacingSchools.com to narrow down the search. The Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) also maintains a list of accredited schools. And while you may not necessarily want to get an SCCA license, most of the schools offer courses for varying skill levels.
Check Your Ego at the Door
A final note before you walk into the classroom on that first day: Even if you think you're a great driver, go in with an open mind and be ready to learn. "Women start off doing better than the men," says Corbin. "Some guys come in and think they know everything."
Don't be that guy.