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Higher Learning in High Gear With Ford Performance Racing School

Motor Trend logo Motor Trend 5/22/2015 Alex Nishimoto, Manufacturer

Many car enthusiasts dream about pushing their car to its limits on a racetrack, but there's a lot you need to know before you can get to that point. Luckily, there are several performance driving schools around the country where you can learn. Motor Trend was recently invited to experience one of them: the Ford Performance Racing School just outside of Salt Lake City, Utah.

Formerly known simply as Ford Racing School, the name changed when Ford consolidated its many performance brands, including Ford Racing and SVT, into one global Ford Performance identity. Although the name is different, the school still operates out of Miller Motorsports Park in Tooele, Utah, roughly 30 minutes from Salt Lake. Yes, the track that recently announced it's closing. (More on that later.) I was enrolled in the two-day Performance School, which uses modified 2015 Ford Mustang GT coupes. Students also have the option of upgrading to higher-spec, last-gen Boss 302 Mustangs, which are essentially full-blown race cars.

Ford Performance Racing School© Provided by MotorTrend Ford Performance Racing School

Day 1: Hitting the Ground Running

The first day started off as most driving schools do: in the classroom. I was fortunate enough to be in a small group of just three students my first day. With two instructors, we were able to work nearly one-on-one in most exercises. After about 30 minutes of going over the basics of car control, weight transfer, and the racing line, we donned our fire suits and open-face helmets and left the classroom for our first in-car lesson.

The first exercise didn't involve the Mustangs; instead we were in a beat-up old Ford Fusion. Known as a "skid car," the Fusion features a set of training wheels and a hydraulically controlled suspension that allows the instructor to raise or lower one part of the vehicle in order to simulate understeer or oversteer. Correcting understeer is mostly about patience. You slow the car down, take out some steering, and steer back into the turn once you feel the car starting to regain front grip. Having gone through the Bob Bondurant school previously, I had some experience with the skid car already. But that didn't prepare me for the oversteer half of the exercise, seeing as I kept spinning out with the rear lifted. Eventually I got the hang of it, but a lot of it is seat-of-the-pants feel and intuition, which is hard to learn in a day. One fellow student, a native Utahan, had the countersteering down pat thanks in large part to his experience driving in the snow. The two Californians had a harder time mastering the art of the slide.

Ford Performance Racing School© Provided by MotorTrend Ford Performance Racing School Next, we strapped into our cars and headed on track to practice some heel-toe downshifting. The 2015 Ford Mustang GTs, which replace the school's old S197-generation Mustang GTs, were all still pretty much brand-new. In service only since early 2015, the cars showed little wear inside and out. The cars aren't quite stock, as they receive Ford Performance goodies such as the FR3 suspension kit with upgraded shocks, springs, and anti-roll bars; a Ford Performance radiator; and a Ford Performance exhaust. The Mustangs also get an external oil cooler, differential cooler, 3.73 rearend, OMP racing seats with four-point harness, a custom rollcage, and 285/35R19 BFGoodrich gForce Comp 2 high-performance tires. Although the exhaust might add a marginal amount of power, the school rates the cars at the same 435 hp and 400 lb-ft of torque as a stock GT.

In our first on-track lesson, we covered heel-toe downshifting and limit braking, the practice of braking hard but not quite hard enough to trigger ABS. The exercise was fairly simple. You accelerated all the way to the braking zone then got on the brakes, engaged the clutch, blipped the throttle with the heel of your right foot, and shifted down a gear — all while keeping pressure on the brake pedal. The faster you went, the easier this seemed to get. After several runs, we headed on track for a slow lead-follow lap. We learned the line by following the instructor, and we occasionally stopped to get out and see certain details of the track surface. This helped show us where we might have grip and where we might not. Exiting a turn quickly, you might not notice that the track starts to fall away, but on foot it's much easier to see whether the pavement is perfectly flat or slightly off-camber.

The lead-follow laps continued, gradually picking up speed. Each student got a chance to follow the instructor directly, which helped give a point of reference for where your tires should be at the turn-in and apex points. After about 30 minutes, we headed back to the paddock for another classroom session, and then on to lunch.

The second half of the day was surprisingly freeform. We basically had back-to-back open-track sessions for the remainder of the day. With just three cars on the track, we had a lot of room to ourselves. But if we did come across another car, point-by passing was allowed on the straightaways. That's an agreement struck between the car passing and the car being passed. The car being passed needs to give you the signal that it's OK to pass on the left, shown by a finger pointing out the window. Once the signal is given, it's the passer's responsibility to get ahead of the slower car safely before the next turn, and the job of the one being passed to remain on the racing line but slow down so the faster car has room to get around. If you get a point-by but don't think you can get it done in time, you don't attempt the pass.

Ford Performance Racing School© Provided by MotorTrend Ford Performance Racing School Having this much track time and this much open space really helped us perfect our lines. We could just turn lap after lap without running into another car. Sessions lasted about 20 minutes before we'd come back to the classroom to get pointers from the instructors. We'd then get right back into our cars and head to the track again. For the novice with no prior track experience, it might seem a bit fast-paced. But I feel the instruction you get in the morning adequately prepares you. Plus, the repetition helps drill the line into your head. By the end of the day, you could almost drive the course blindfolded. Knowing the track wouldn't help us on day two, but the skills we learned would.

Day 2 – A Little Rain Can't Spoil the Fun

For the second day, we suited up as soon as we arrived. We would be going straight onto the track after a quick tour around the course in a van. There were two more students on the second day; each making up a prior class missed due to snow. Two students also opted to drive the upgraded Mustang Boss 302. That upgrade, which costs an additional $650 per day, requires a full-face helmet, neck-supporting HANS device, and an earbud for a walkie-talkie. The school supplies all of the gear as part of the upgrade cost. These cars, loaded with a host of racing goodies, were much faster. The began as standard 2012 and 2013 Boss 302 Mustangs before the school added an FIA-spec rollcage, MCS adjustable coil-overs, a Ford Racing front splitter (stock on Laguna Seca models), a carbon-fiber rear wing, a MoTec color display, a fire-suppression system, a Tremec T56 Magnum XL six-speed manual transmission, Brembo four-piston front brakes, and 18-inch Forgeline wheels wrapped in BFGoodrich gForce R1 DOT-R competition slicks. The result is what the Ford Performance Racing School calls the Boss 302 FRS, and it's a "monster," according to head instructor Johnny Kanavas. With a race tune, the cars make between 460 and 480 hp.

Ford Performance Racing School© Provided by MotorTrend Ford Performance Racing School Having more people and faster cars on the track changed the game slightly. But the big wrench thrown into our comfort-zone gear works was that we would be on a different track. The road course at Miller Motorsports Park is 4.48 miles in its entirety, and it's designed to be split into two separate tracks that can be run simultaneously. The previous day we were on the west track, but today we would be driving the east. Both courses had their challenging corners, but the east track was considerably more technical. After our van ride around the east track, we got into our cars and went out for a fast-paced lead-follow session. This helped build a rhythm that made it easier to set up each corner and again gave a good point of reference for where you should be on the track for a given turn.

We pulled into the pits, and each student rode shotgun with an instructor for a hot lap. I was paired up with Johnny, who currently races in the IMSA Continental Tire series. In his hands, the relatively heavy Mustang was a ballet dancer on track. They say smooth is fast, and this was one of the smoothest ride-alongs I've ever had. Johnny called out everything he was doing throughout the lap, commenting on braking, throttle, and steering inputs; where the car should be positioned on the track; and where we should be looking. It was a lot of info to take in but hugely beneficial to see and feel what it's like when done right.

Ford Performance Racing School© Provided by MotorTrend Ford Performance Racing School In the next session, I was able to immediately apply what I had just learned. It's hard to say if I was any faster, but it definitely felt better. I developed a nice flow from one turn to the next. Things just started to click, and I was having the time of my life. When it finally felt like I had learned everything I could, another curveball was thrown our way. This time, from nature. We broke for lunch, and while we were inside, the skies opened up. It poured for the better part of an hour, casting doubt on the possibility of finishing the second half of the class. The instructors went out on track to see how doable it would be. After surveying the east track's condition and watching the weather reports, eventually the call was made to let us go out again. While the Boss 302s were switching to rain tires, we spent some time in the classroom going over how to drive in the wet. Then we strapped into our Mustangs and headed for the pit entrance.

Higher Learning in High Gear With Ford Performance Racing School

Ford Performance Racing School© Provided by MotorTrend Ford Performance Racing School The rain had let up by this point. The track was still more than a bit damp, but at least we weren't being pounded by torrential rain anymore. We gave each other plenty of space. The first car out immediately got squirrely after hitting a puddle going into Turn 2, warning the rest of us to tread carefully. Soon it was my turn, and I took it easy the first lap, lengthening my braking zones and turning the speed way down. There were large puddles of standing water nearly everywhere, but they seemed to be mostly off the racing line. Still, adjustments had to be made to our lines, as we didn't want to get too close to the apexes, because they were all located on slippery, painted rumble strips. A few cautious laps in the rain built up my confidence until I thought I got the hang of it, so the obvious next step was to hammer down on the throttle when I got to the straightaway. "Nope, not yet," my rear tires quickly told me as I started to slide, almost entering a spin. The instincts gained from the previous morning kicked in and allowed me to steer out of it this time. I wouldn't be doing that again.

The rain turned out to be the best thing that could've happened, as it teaches you to be smooth — or else. The effects of weight transfer are all magnified in the wet, so if you're not smooth, the car will let you know right away. In the rain, I was constantly aware of my throttle and braking inputs, making sure to ease on and off both so not to upset the car too much. The finesse it teaches you is invaluable. Instructor Bill Rhinehart even teased, "We should be charging you an extra $200 for the rain!"

Ford Performance Racing School© Provided by MotorTrend Ford Performance Racing School The track drained and dried incredibly fast. By the end of the roughly 25-minute session, there were hardly any puddles left. When we came back out after the classroom session and bathroom break, the course barely resembled the river-divided stretch of pavement we saw shortly after lunch. Throughout the day, the instructors would join us on track in their own Mustangs, shadowing us and then passing to show us a thing or two. On this final run, we saw a lot more of the instructors. The great thing about these Mustangs was that audio from the walkie-talkie was piped through the in-car speakers. When the system worked — assuming we weren't at wide open throttle — we could hear the instructor coaching us on our driving or just telling us they wanted to get by to show us the line. Your volume needed to be close to maxed out, and sometimes you'd lose signal inexplicably. It wasn't perfect, but it was a whole lot better than being flagged to come in any time an instructor wanted to talk to you. By swapping places back and forth, you could really fine-tune everything: watching the instructor's moves, copying them, then getting immediate feedback on whether you were improving. The last session went by quickly, and before we knew it we were back inside receiving our graduation certificates, plaque, and other goodies. It felt like I had really earned it.

Money Well Spent?

The two-day performance school costs $3,195 and includes the rental of a 2015 Mustang GT, helmet, and fire suit. Breakfast and lunch are also provided. An optional limited liability plan, which covers any damage to the car after a certain deductible, costs an additional $132.82 per day. The school isn't cheap, but that price gets you a car that's ready to race, along with access to instructors who have competed professionally. The price is also in line with the competition. This program is roughly equivalent to the Bondurant School's Corvette Grand Prix two-day course, priced at $2,795. Bondurant recently updated its fleet, as well, so students who enroll in this program would get to drive a 455-hp C7 Corvette Stingray. Having taken courses from both Ford Racing and Bondurant, I can say that the level of instruction is top-notch at both schools. You will walk away from either experience a better driver and with the feeling that you've gotten your money's worth. The Ford Performance Racing School, however, offers more track time at a newer, state-of-the-art facility.

One could argue that you can get the same education attending a high-performance driving school with your local club. I've gone this route, too, and have had some very good instructors over the years. Although the price of entry is much cheaper, it's worth considering that with an all-inclusive school like Ford Racing or Bondurant, they're providing a well-maintained car along with tires, brake pads, gasoline, and any other consumables you might go through on a track day. You just show up and drive.

One Big, Fat Question Mark

In May, the Larry H. Miller group, which operates both the school and Miller Motorsports Park as a whole, announced that the track would cease operations by October 31, 2015. By that date, all 511 acres of the complex will be returned to Tooele County, which has leased the land to the Miller group since the track opened in 2006. The county has no plans to run it as a track, but instead hopes that someone with deep enough pockets will come along to continue running the facility, which hasn't been profitable since it opened. A number of entities are said to have expressed interest in the assets, and in the coming weeks the track's operators will meet with them to see if their visions for the track's future line up. It's unknown if the school would go down with the track if a deal isn't worked out by October 31. As of this writing, Ford Performance Racing School has six two-day classes planned before the October deadline, so you still have some time if you'd like to enroll. But here's hoping Miller can be saved and I'm not among the last students to experience this truly world-class driving school.

Ford Performance Racing School© Provided by MotorTrend Ford Performance Racing School
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