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Wednesday - April 20, 2005

High Performance Driving School

My friend Steve "Sneidley" whom flies R/C sailplanes with me also has an interest in Corvettes.  Last year we both decided that it would be fun to take a high performance driving school to learn how to drive our Corvettes better, and to learn the limits safely on a road race course.  It was something we both have been wanting to do for some time.  So we scheduled last weekend in Savannah, Georgia, the 18th and 19th and took our class at Sports Car Driving Experience located at Roebling Road Race Track.

I'll start off by saying I should have done this right after I  bought my first vette, these cars have so much untapped performance that never gets appreciated on the street it is amazing.  And I rapidly learned how much I didn't know how to drive, and I have some very bad habits to untrain myself of in the future.

Each day started with breakfast made to order in the classroom, and then a classroom session mainly instructed by Peter Argetsinger.  I really enjoyed the physics lessons in high performance driving, weight transfer, driving the correct line, into corners slow and out fast, and how much that affects the top speed on the straights.  But it never got overwhelming, it was always down to earth with plenty of question and answer time.

The next thing I know I am getting help getting into and getting strapped tight into a race prepared Z06.  This is a race prepped version of the car I drive now, strip out all the interior, full roll cage, race seats and 6 point harness, race tires, fire extinguisher system, race prepped 460hp engine, and really LOUD and MEAN sounding.  My instructor straps in next  to me, and our helmets have an intercom system so we can communicate over the lope of the small block nervously idling.  The first lesson is an autocross course setup on the main straight.  The race Z06 is amazing, anywhere I point it, it just sticks and goes.  I am sure I was slow and wide, but I completed the course without knocking down a cone.  It is really informative and comforting to have an instructor in the car in communication with you the entire time, this makes the learning process happen so quickly.  And the instructors at this school are top notch, every one of these guys went out of their way to make sure you understand the lesson, in a very positive and fun way.  It felt like we were all family in a very short period of time.

The days were split with an awesome BBQ lunch each day (lots of food southern style, you wont go hungry here!)  And then after lunch another short classroom session, and back in the cars to apply the classroom lesson on the track.  On Saturday this was going to be a lead - follow exercise where each driver will get  a chance to follow John Sturm in his Porsche 996 for a lap to learn the line, and then slide to the back of the line of vettes on the track.  I wasn't in the first group, and as I was gawking at John's Porsche in the pits and he asked me if I wanted to come out and drive with him.  I instantly said yes and strapped in.  Now this is the first time I am seeing the entire Roebling Road race course from inside a car, and John is telling me the story of how he bought this car out of state over the Internet with a robotic web cam after I told him about my business in virtual microscopy.  Mind you he is negotiating this course as smooth as silk as he talks to me, and I quickly realized the deal about heal toe shifting.  Eventually I get my turn in the lead-follow exercise and that ended the first day.  We went back to the hotel for a swim and Jacuzzi and then out to a very nice restaurant in downtown Savannah.

The next morning it was the same routine, a nice breakfast made to order, some interesting classroom time, and then out to the track.  We are divided into three groups so there are not a lot of cars on the track at once, and so I happen to be in the third group so I initially find a little time on my hands.  As I wandered through the pits taking pictures I notice that Henry Gilbert is setting up his race prepared Z06 and looks like he is going to drive it.  Henry Gilbert of Gilbert Racing is a very cool guy, fun to talk to with lots of knowledge and stories.  Henry was talking about doing stunt driving for the new Miami Vice movie, and working on past movies such as Transporter 2, 2 Fast 2 Furious, and being a driving instructor for the Fast and Furious movie.  I asked him if he was going to take the Z out, and he said he was setting it up for a race next weekend.  I said "Cool!", and he said, "Wanna ride along?".

I don't think I even replied, it was just a big smile as I went and grabbed a helmet.  We get helped climbing through the cage and into the race seats, and I get strapped in TIGHT, the guy just pulled the harness in about as hard as he could.  OK, now I understand what strap in tight means, I am not going anywhere in this seat.  Henry gives me this smile before starting the engine, I know this smile.  I have had pilots give me this smile before riding in their planes for the first time, with skiers about ready to show you their favorite local run on a mountain that you have never skied before, the smile guys show you when you are about ready to do your first F3J tow launch in soaring...  it's a rite of passage, I am going to change your world kinda smile.

I notice Henry doesn't have an Instructors helmet on, he has a full face with a HANS device and a A/C tube, and we don't have an Intercom.  The Z comes to life and sounds mean, nasty, ah, the smell of racing gas...  this is going to be good.

Henry takes a warm up lap that was just a little faster than the lead and follow exercise we were doing yesterday, and then the second lap he just hits it.  I have never been full out on race track before, and let me tell you Henry is getting it on.  OK, I never knew this car had so much in it, the G's are incredible in braking and cornering.  Henry is taking the race slicks to the limit and on one corner all the tires break loose and he does a full drift, never backs out of it, right to the limit, this is just unbelievable to me.  I looked at him and this huge smile (SEG), and he briefly looked at me and I think he was smiling too.  A few more hot laps, then a cool down lap and back into the pits so Henry could have a few more adjustments made.  That was it, I was hooked, I want to learn how to drive like that.

I eventually got my first time on the course, and although I didn't push it very hard, it was considerably faster than what you would drive on the street.  It's nice having an instructor sitting next to you on a intercom system so you get live feedback on what you are doing, and guidance for the correct line, etc.  Just like in flying sailplanes, being smooth is important.  And there are subtle correct ways of doing things, as compared to forcing them or doing them incorrectly.  Not only do you have an instructor by your side, but they also shoot in car video so you can check out how you did. 

Here is a video of me taking a few laps around Roebling Road.

Gradually you get used to the track and are able to push it harder and harder, but everything is at your own pace at this school.  I really didn't want to go off course, and I didn't know how far to push it, but I did take it to the tires squealing around most of the corners and braking to the threshold of the ABS system off the straights.

At the end of the second day we did the autocross course again, but this time they brought in a fire truck and they hosed down the course to make it nice and wet.  Everyone completed the course in less time then they did they day before, in worse conditions.  That goes to show how much we accomplished in that short period of time.  The first woman that ever attended this school drove the fastest time through the autocross course, although she had a bit of experience doing this as she was the current SCCA national champion in autocross.  I was quite pleased with my close second place, I don't think this will be the last time I drive on a race course.

If you drive a Corvette and have never been to a high performance driving school, I highly recommend you check this school out and find out what your vette will really do on the track.  If you have ever wanted to know what it was like to drive on a race course, or just understand how to drive better, I highly recommend a high performance driving school.  I should have done this years ago.  Check out Sports Car Driving Experience located at Roebling Road Race Track in Savannah, GA., John Sturm, Henry Gilbert and their crew will take care of you in top notch fashion.

(Special thanks to my friend Sneidley for taking most of the above pictures)

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