Porsche Performance Course: Dangerous Curves Ahead

When I informed my boyfriend I would be attending the famed Porsche Sport Driving School for two days in Birmingham, Alabama, he refused to talk to me for a week. That was his way of letting me know he would have gladly pushed me down a flight of stairs to take my spot. But this was the school's inaugural Women's Performance Course, and the writer needed to be female.

I was fairly certain I'd be the youngest person in the class by a landslide, but worse than that, I feared being the least skilled driver. I woke up 45 minutes before my alarm went off in the morning. Should I put on makeup? Will the others notice that I'm not wearing the right shoes? Am I supposed to bring my purse? It did not escape me that this was a feeling women only experience a handful of times in their lives: on the first day of school, a job interview and a first date.

Within the first 15 minutes on the ride over to Barber Motorsports Park, I realized I wasn't the only one and that almost everyone attending this Porsche Driving School was a novice. One woman, with some club racing experience, was excited to test out the skid pad for the first time. Another asked, "What's a skid pad?" I spied a number of expensive handbags and designer sunglasses.

The group hailed from all over the country. Jane from Missouri lived on a farm and rode a Harley, but she and her husband just purchased a new 911 Turbo. Gail from Manhattan drove a Cayman S. And of course, there's always a black sheep: Denise McCluggage from Santa Fe, a veteran journalist (one of the founding editors of AutoWeek, in fact) and racecar driver of over 50 years. She turns 81 next January.

With all the talk of new sports cars and golf-playing husbands, it was clear many of the women were empty nesters. Several mentioned that professional driving school was something they always wanted to do. A few wanted to learn how to drive their own Porsches better, but many also confessed a desire to try performance driving without being under the critical eye of a spouse or boyfriend.

Porsche had these nuances in mind when it created the Women's Performance Course, said Bill Buckley, a marketing representative from the automaker's North American headquarters. Buckley in fact proposed an all-women's class after noting for the umpteenth time that many female guests at the Porsche Driving School were openly uncomfortable driving alongside their spouse or boyfriend. He saw squirming faces and heard plenty of comments like "I can't do it with him here, he's always telling me what I'm doing wrong." Some women claimed the men would hold their Porsches hostage until they felt the woman had proven herself worthy of driving it — which inevitably meant beating his best track time.

Upon arriving at the track, we sat through about an hour of classroom time both days, where we were instructed in driving basics (proper driving position, understeer versus oversteer) and the physics of weight transfer while turning and braking. Then, we rotated through a series of cars — Boxster S, Cayman S, 911 Carrera — on an autocross and a skid pad, and practiced the oh-so frustrating heel-and-toe downshift. (If you can't drive a stick shift, don't worry, Porsche's Tiptronic automatic transmission works just fine on the track, too.)

We talked openly about how scared we were when we spun out on the skid pad. Would a man do that? We asked a lot of questions and posed for plenty of pictures. The instructors were all brilliantly patient, and never once spoke down to us. We started out slowly, and as our confidence increased, so did our skill level — and our pace.

Day Two brought a bit of friendly competition. We clapped and cheered whenever someone drove particularly well, doling out words of encouragement like candy bars. Driving on the track was particularly rewarding, as it offered an opportunity to apply our skills — and yes, go fast — in a controlled environment. Even the novices of the group came away feeling like racing gods. My favorite steed was the 911 Carrera S. Its 3.8-liter engine has lots of power at any rpm, and in any gear. Plus, the car we drove had the optional ceramic brakes, which felt like they would stop an elephant in its tracks.

To cap off the experience, we went off-roading in the Alabama woods in Porsche Cayenne SUVs. No coincidence here: The course, and the subtle sales pitch, caters to the growing number of female Porsche owners, many of whom are attracted to the added passenger and cargo space of the Cayenne.

Just like joining a women's-only gym, participating in an all-women's driving course has many benefits. Learning and working in a male-free environment is less intimidating, since women don't feel pressured to compete with men who may appear to be stronger, faster and "better" than they are — whether they are or not. The Porsche driving instructors assured us their women's class is identical to the standard course, and maintained that we drove the same cars just as fast as any of their male students.

We asked them whether there were any differences between male and female participants, and they were in agreement: Women are almost always better listeners and more open to instruction. Because of this, their skills (and driving times) tend to improve faster. Men tend to be more competitive and aggressive, and often project a "know-it-all" attitude that hinders their progress. That sound you hear is all the women of the world sighing in agreement.

If you're interested in attending the Women's Performance Course, go to PorscheDriving.com. Both one- and two-day driving courses are available.

Freelancer Jackie Liu writes for automotive enthusiast publications.