Once upon a time, long, long ago (in the mid- to late-'70s) in a land long forgotten by time (actually Chicago), a young Army buck sergeant with a buzz cut successfully campaigned a very quick Lotus Super 7 in the SCCA's Midwest Council. In order to do this, the young man attended several high-performance driving and race schools.
Fast forward to 2006, that young sergeant is now retired with a lot less hair, is no longer racing, has two Corvettes (a '78 SA and an '02 roadster), and still has some fire left in the ol' belly. So when the opportunity to attend the Spring Mountain Advanced Driving School in Pahrump, Nevada, presented itself, he jumped at it. The fact the school uses C5 and C6 Vettes, as well as a nice selection of Z06s, just added more flame to the fire.
Before leaving, I (who'd you think it was?) gave some thought to what I wanted out of this school. Several items came to mind immediately. Perhaps the most important was technology. In the years since I last raced, cars have become ever more sophisticated with antilock brakes, brake force distribution, traction control, and stability control. Would these improvements change the way newer cars are driven, especially at track speeds?
Another area I wondered about was driving position. In the good old days, I would sit pretty far back from the wheel with my arms extended at the three and nine position. Was this still true? And, most importantly, was there a different mindset now needed to go fast? In my day, instructors stressed being smooth. If I was sliding the tires, I was going slower. Is smooth still the quick way around?
I arrived in Pahrump for the three-day course ready to explore the Corvettes, my limits, and, hopefully, get answers to all my questions. The total Spring Mountain Motorsport Ranch is 193 acres and includes room for a proposed condo complex that would feature outstanding track views and free track days. The track itself can be configured several ways. For our sessions, the course was 2.5-miles long with ten turns, rolling hills, and two major straight-aways-one over 1,800-feet long.
After a short Monday morning briefing and some coffee, we picked out a Vette and climbed in. The class was only an hour old! One of my questions was answered right away. The preferred driving position has changed.
There are a maximum of 16 students in each class with enough instructors for one to every three or four students. They all carry multi-channel radios, and every car has a receiver so the track coaches can talk to each car or everyone as needed. As soon as my butt hit the seat, an instructor was there to adjust my driving position. Today, the classic arms-extended position is out. More in favor is the NASCAR model, with arms bent at a 45-degree angle and hands at nine and three o'clock. Legs also need to have a good bend at the knee. Why? The NASCAR hot shoes have discovered that leverage is important and by being closer to the wheel, they can use more and different muscles to turn the wheel, thereby reducing strain on the arms and shoulders. Same with legs. A good bend in the knees allows the driver to use all their leg muscles to brake and use the clutch as opposed to just the lower leg and ankle.
The class was split into two groups, one on the track or classroom, and the other doing specific skill enhancers. Our particular skill improver was something that hadn't changed in all the years-heel and toe downshifting and braking. We practiced these vital skills all three days of the school, usually first thing in the morning. The instructors stressed that downshifting was not to slow down, brakes were for that, but rather to match the motor revolutions for a smooth downshift that didn't upset the balance of the car.
Listening to the instructors, it soon became obvious there are several keys to driving a modern Corvette fast: car control skills and knowing when to go slow to be fast.
Car control is without a doubt the most important aspect of high-performance driving, and as I soon learned, things have changed. The emphasis now is to understand what it takes to keep your Vette as well-balanced as possible in every situation and to use weight shift to maintain balance during acceleration, braking, and cornering. there were specific skill-building exercises for all these situations.
As an example, when I began racing, threshold braking meant applying maximum braking in a straight line before entering the corner. Today, the preferred braking technique involves carrying speed deeper into the corner and using ABS to brake in the corner in order to hit the apex. (Basically, the apex is where you stop entering the corner and start accelerating out of it.) For me, this technique was the hardest thing to master. Braking in a straight line had been pounded into me previously at every turn. The advent of ABS made this obsolete because ABS not only stops you as quickly and efficiently as possible, it also allows you to maintain control in corners while applying max braking.
Another thing the class spent time doing was following various instructors around the course. Using their radios to point out areas where I could improve went hand-in-glove with following the instructors line, braking, shifting, and accelerating points. This allowed me to observe how each instructor handled the various challenges on the track while I was memorizing it. By the end of the second day, the instructors were motoring around at a pretty good clip. One technique I found interesting involved lightly touching the brake before a turn to allow the car weight to shift forward, giving the front tires more bite, thus allowing a higher corner speed with more control.
Early on I mentioned when to go slow to be fast. Basically, this means it is more important to slow down and set yourself up to exit the last turn in a series on the best line to allow the most acceleration. Turn 3 at Spring Mountain is a blind, up-hill, 90-degree corner with an extremely late apex. Turn 2 is basically a constant-radius turn that allows the car to build up a good head of steam, but also forces the car to the opposite side of the track from the entrance to turn 3. Turn 3 is followed by a chicane and a 180-degree turn 4, which is just before turn 5, a double-apex corner leading to the kink, which should be taken at full throttle.
Successfully navigating this section of track begins with carrying speed as long as possible, braking late while turning hard into turn 3, clipping the apex, unwinding the wheel, and accelerating to set-up for the chicane, a quick pressure on the brakes to allow the car to steer better and a squeeze of power before braking and setting up for turn 4. Simple, huh?
Well, if I mess up and enter turn 3 too hot, brake and turn in late and miss the apex, then I'll be off line at least until turn 4 and quite possibly through turns 5 and 6, and because the apex leading to the kink needs to be perfect to allow max speed, if the car is still behind from Turn 3, this will cost beaucoup time. So, I needed to slow down earlier, get the Vette balanced, and make sure to enter turn 3 correctly, hit my marks and accelerate out, thereby setting up for the kink, which is still several corners away. Hmmm, maybe not so simple after all.
I used turn 3 for this illustration for a reason. The 'ol hot shoe overcooked this corner once or twice, and I can attest to the fact that ABS and stability control work very well, thank you.
There is another area I'd like to mention here. The instructors constantly stressed looking where I wanted to go. If possible, look two or three corners ahead and to trust my peripheral vision. To underline this, instructors would place a cone on the course that I would be unaware of. I would be coming out of a turn at full song and there it was. If I stared at the cone, bang, every time. Instead, if I looked where I wanted to go and used my peripheral vision, I missed it every time. The instructors emphatically emphasized that the further ahead I looked, the better. This skill has the most carryover to the street. From potholes to cars dead in the road, the further away I see them, the easier it is to avoid them.
Day three was about all the fun anyone can have sitting up! After the normal heel/toe braking practice and a quick blackboard session on rules, all sixteen of us were turned loose on the track, eight at a time. We'd be brought in every once in awhile to have our driving critiqued and to switch cars.
OK, so what did I learn? Were my questions answered and would I recommend the school? I learned one thing real fast: 60-year-old reflexes ain't as fast as 20-year-old ones...but that doesn't mean slow! As mentioned before, the driving position has changed. Matter-of-fact, I tried that improved position in my Vette on the drive home and found it to be less stressful and more relaxing.
Electronics do make a huge difference today. ABS has changed the entire process of getting through a corner. ABS also has allowed drivers to count on uniform, precise braking that is repeatable over and over. Stability control, which on the Corvette can be adjusted for road or competition mode, is the driver's last resort, and what a wonderful thing it is. Caution, this doesn't mean that stability control is going to save your butt every single time, but working in conjunction with the driver, it gives an extra cushion of safety. Engineers and race car drivers understand a lot more about car control now than years ago. The importance of how to shift the car's weight using brakes, throttle, and turn rate to achieve car control is an art that anyone can learn.
Finally, you may ask: was the Spring Mountain Advanced Driving School worth it? All 16 of us agreed it is not only worth it, but Chevrolet should provide the school to every Z06 owner and make it available to any Corvette driver.
What were the highpoints for me? One was getting the opportunity to drive a new '06 Z06 on the track as fast as I could go. Another was leaving the school with increased confidence in how to manage the various systems on my Corvette. This should mean many years of happy driving.
If you're interested in attending Spring Mountain, contact Trasi at: firstname.lastname@example.org. or call (800) 391-6891.