By Jason H. Harper – Apr 15, 2010 (Bloomberg)
On the side of a steep hairpin turn at Barber Motorsports Park racetrack, racing legend Hurley Haywood has his eye on me. That’s because I’ve come in waaay too hot and my Porsche 911, tires smoking, is hurtling sideways toward the spot where Haywood is standing.
Joggling the wheel to regain control, I give a sheepish wave to the iconic Porsche race driver and then roar away.
Having Haywood, who has won the 24 Hours of Daytona five times and Le Mans 24 Hours thrice, watch over novices is like having Celtics basketball star Larry Bird coach a junior-varsity team. Haywood, chief driving instructor, helped start the Porsche Sport Driving School and attends 20 classes a year.
The three-day Masters Plus program is Porsche’s most advanced course in the U.S., costing $5,295. Graduates get a race license to the Sports Car Club of America, allowing drivers to enter regional races.
This will be my year of speed. At 37, I’ve spent a dozen years testing sport cars, with a handful of track days each year. It’s like skiing: You need time to get your legs back in shape, and even more to actually improve. I’ve resolved to polish skills and do actual bumper-to-bumper racing. This will kick me off.
I have no Schumacher illusions but I’m decently fast. Even if I’m not a natural, I feel more alive on a racetrack than almost any other place. Zen-like, you’ve gotta be present in the moment — a second’s inattention is a killer.
Porsche’s school is an excellent place to get started or hit that next level. It’s progressive: All students must first take the one- or two-day High Performance course, from $1,795 to $2,955 (there’s also a women-only class).
You learn basic handling skills on a skid pad as well as strategies on how to negotiate a road course. Road courses have twists and turns, hills and crests, unlike Nascar’s oval type of racing.
Next is the two-day Masters course ($3,495), where students lap at their own pace. Students who complete the Masters can jump to the Masters Plus, where laps are nearly unlimited and passing techniques are taught.
All of this takes place at a pristine 2.3-mile road course in Birmingham, Alabama. The dream of local businessman George Barber, the track has 16 corners, steep elevation changes, a blind crest, a corkscrew and a hairpin.
Your learning tool is a base, 345-horsepower Porsche 911 with the sport function disabled. For many Porsche owners, it’s a humbling experience — in the hands of the instructors, this basic model is still shockingly fast.
The instructors are the school’s best asset. In addition to Haywood, I recognize most of the guys from my first time here seven years ago. Excellent at assessing weaknesses, they still seem enthusiastic as a kindergarten teacher when you hit a corner perfectly.
Over three days, the 21 other students, who range from former CEOs to surgeons, will drive some 150 laps. Everyone stays at the same hotel, Ross Bridge Golf Resort, with meals included and taken together. With so many alpha types, it is competitive and collegial.
On my final afternoon session, I am in the pits, car turned on, helmet buckled, waiting to pull onto the track. The calm moments just before. Control your breathing, let your mind go blank. After all, a part of your psyche questions why you’d want to drive at 110 miles per hour into a dangerous curve.
Then I’m off, building speed. I pass a dawdling driver on the left, drag the 911 back onto the racing line just before a descending hairpin. Stomp hard on the brake before downshifting the manual transmission and blipping the throttle. A complex move, made in blurred seconds. A mistake could be catastrophic. (There’s never been a death at the school, the management says.)
I’m in the flow now, relaxed, and I blow down the descending corkscrew, one of the track’s most difficult and scary turns, and my favorite. To get it right you have to feel like you’re on the ragged edge, just this side of losing control.
The engine is screaming and I’ve got the air conditioner turned way up. I’m sweating.
I roar through the flat ess curves, barely slowing, touching the left wheels on the curb. Perfect. Then a fast descending left followed by an uphill right. I screw it up every time.
Eyes up, following the curve of the road, pushing the car as hard as I dare, tires whining. I’m on the bumper of a slower car now, pushing him. Students are not allowed to pass here; I have to wait, but I’m still on the gas, getting closer and closer — feet apart.
Then the last major turn of the course, a steep downhill leading into the long front straightaway.
I blast by the other guy. I run the 911 to redline all the way up to fourth gear — past 100 mph — before slamming hard on the brakes and starting all over again. I’ve got 22 minutes to get at least one perfect lap.
My first real race is within a month, where dozens of cars will be crowding the track trying to pass one another. I think I’ll be ready.
Let the year of speed begin.
Porsche Sport Driving School, Birmingham, Alabama. Courses start at $1,795. Information +1-888-204-7474; http://www.porschedriving.com
Porsche Sport Driving Schools operate courses in at least 15 countries, including Australia, Brazil, China, France, U.K., Germany, Hong Kong and Japan. Information: http://www.porsche.com
(Jason H. Harper writes about autos for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
To contact the writer of this column: Jason H. Harper at Jason@JasonHharper.com.