Ford sells seven thrill-inducing vehicles through its Ford Performance division. Anyone who buys one can take advantage of perhaps the greatest perk in the car world: a full-day of driving instruction at Ford’s Performance Racing School.
The program is free to all new owners of Shelby GT350s and 350R Mustangs, Focus RS and STs, Raptor pickups, and Fiesta STs. (And something is under construction for the $US400,000 Ford GT supercar, which is just beginning to be delivered to the first of 250 customers in 2017.)
All that’s required is that your get yourself to the Salt Lake City, Utah area and make your way to Utah Motorsports, where track-ready versions of your car will be waiting for you, along with a group of experienced instructors with serious racing credentials.
It’s called Track Attack, and while I was in Utah to test drive the new GT at the racing complex, I was put through the course, alongside a group of newly minted Shelby GT350 owners.
I’m under no illusions that I’m a good track driver, but I do have some track experience. Little did I know how much more I had to learn.
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The Racing School and the Track Attack program are based at the Utah Motorsports Campus, a complex of two tracks complete with paddocks, pits, race-control towers, and even a karting course. The facility is about a half hour drive from Salt Lake City.
Welcome to the fun! I was preparing to participate in a drive of the Ford GT supercar and welcomed the chance to get some instruction before taking on the $400,000 Le Mans-winning beast and its 647-horsepower engine.
Any Ford customer who buys a Ford Performance vehicle is offered the chance to attend a one-day racing program for free. All they have to do is get to the venue.
That's Jim Owens, a Ford Performance Manager Manager, welcoming a group of journalists and some new Ford Shelby GT350 owners to the Track Attack.
As with any proper racing program, we aren't going to go straight to the track. These instructors guided us every step of the way, on the track and in the classroom, for about eight hours. That's Charlie Putnam talking, with Brian Smith to his right and Drew Staveley to his left -- all experienced race-car drivers.
And here's James Burke, who taught our first major lesson. Most recently, He raced Lamborghinis! But he knows his way around Ford's performance lineup. Not to mention the two tracks at Utah Motorsports.
We were told we would be driving Shelby GT350s with six-speed manual transmissions, so we needed to be able to comfortably extend our left clutching foot and keep a 90-degree bend in our arms when holding the steering wheel at 3 o'clock and 9 o'clock. James will later review the basics of the dreaded heel-toe shifting technique.
While we were getting schooled, we gazed upon the glory of a Mustang that's been kitted out for tracking.
The GT350 was introduced in 2015 when Ford redesigned the iconic Mustang. It owes its name to Carroll Shelby, the legendary race-car driver, engineering, and team manager who led Ford to victory at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1966.
The GT350 has a 5.2-litre V8 engine, dubbed 'Voodoo,' that can make 526 horsepower and, thanks to its flat-crank design, a sweetly aggressive exhaust note. You can pick one up starting at $US57,000, which is quite a deal for this much car.
The altitude, dry climate, and cold weather can lead to dehydration. We're told to drink a lot of water -- and take plenty of bathroom breaks!
We'll be gazing at the Cobra all day -- Carroll Shelby's first serious performance machine was the AC Cobra back in 1962. The moniker carried over to Ford when the two teamed up.
The tachometer is more important on the track because you want to know how hard your engine is running. This sucker redlines all the way up at 8,200 rpm, meaning you can wind it out to nearly 100 mph in THIRD GEAR!
OK, Ford put my name on the car. If you're an owner, this is an amazing touch. You really feel like a race-car driver.
An instructor led us around at about 40 mph, so we could familiarise ourselves with the track, especially the entry points, apexes, and exit point of the corners.
Driving this car felt good. I missed a chance in 2015 to sample it at Lime Rock, a race track in Connecticut. The weather was simply too lousy then.
Next, we checked out this odd-looking Ford sedan. It has outriggers so that we can learn about 'contact patches' -- the small amount of tire that actually touches the road at any given time.
Oversteer is when the back end starts to move off on its own, leading to potential spins. Understeer is when the front end gets out of whack, which can send the car off the track.
On to the braking and the heel-toe course. The goal here was to get used to the feeling of the ABS system and to practice braking and 'throttle blipping' simultaneously with the heel and toe of the right foot. I've been practicing it for 20 years and I'm still not very good.
OK, so the weather got a little gnarly at one point. Yes, that's ... snow. Understandably, we all took it pretty easy until it let up.
After lunch, we all piled into vans so that the instructors would show us how to drive the course. Then the instructors hopped in the cars with us and gave us tips and pointers as we went around.
We learned about flags, too: green means go, yellow means be careful, black means get off the track, and the checkered flag means -- you win! Actually, it means laps are over, head back to the pits. Red means ... something very bad. Stop the car where you are and stay put.
After our free laps, we'd also got 'hot laps' from the instructors, so we could see how the track could be carved up by a pro.
Four of us at a time drove the course -- and we were allowed to drive it at speed. I was hitting 100 mph without braking a sweat down the main straightaway and getting the feel of how much grip I had in the corners.
For a 526hp car with 429 lb-ft of torque, the GT350 felt remarkably manageable to me. My confidence picked up and I could focus on braking and steering. The throttle took care of itself.
We were also permitted to pass, but only in a designated area after pointing out the window to let the following driver know it was OK. I did this twice.
So what did I learn?
I'm pretty familiar with my weaknesses as a driver, so it was great to have race-tested instructors help me overcome them. Typically, I don't like to turn laps in cars as powerful as the GT350 because I feel as if I can never get the machine under control, but in Sport Mode the beast bent to my will and made me comfortable in a hurry (the magnetic ride control and traction management give you all sorts of margin for error).
I spent most of my laps in third gear, savouring that 8,200 redline on the big flat-crank V8. This enabled me to concentrate on setting up my corners and hitting my apexes, while still hammering the GT350 down the straights and every so often hearing the rev-limiter tell me I needed to go to fourth. (That really just led me to prepare for breaking sooner, rather than lose time upshifting for half a second before downshifting and having to get my heel-toe right into the corner.)
My biggest problem is looking ahead on the track: instructors told me all day to look ahead, look ahead, look ahead -- put my eyes where I wanted my hands to steer the car. After a while, I got it, and my final lap was technically satisfying. I drove the track fast, but made good corner entries and exits and could feel just a touch of oversteer underneath me as I unwound the wheel and brought up the throttle.
The instructors stressed a valuable rule: you have three main inputs and 100% to work with. You can use throttle, braking, and steering. If you're at 90% throttle -- building up speed on a straight, for example -- that leaves you with only 10% available for braking and steering. If you're using 80% steering in a corner, going too hard to the throttle -- 30%, say -- overloads the car by 10% and you could lose it.
As far as the program goes, it's a no-brainer if you buy a Ford Performance vehicle (even a Raptor, for which there's an extensive off-road course in Utah). Not only will you learn what your car can really do, you'll meet like-minded people and get some of the highest-calibre instruction, on and off the track, you're ever likely to experience.
Oh, and you'll get to do so amid some spectacular natural scenery.
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