It was an offer I couldn't pass up. Would I like to spend two days at the Rupert Bragg-Smith Advanced Driving School, behind the wheel of a bevy of brand-new 2000 Corvettes, as a guest of General Motors? Does a bear...well, you know? Of course!
I'm nuts about motorsports, especially road racing. There aren't too many things I like better than going out and running laps on a road course. Spectating is fine, but getting on track is much, much more enjoyable. I've done road racing on and off since the early '70s, as time, finances, and family situations allowed, and though my talents as a race driver were and are modest, I can't get enough of it.
Although I've managed to get a heap of wheel time over the past few years, I hadn't done any serious driving or attended a school for at least 12 to 14 years. After receiving the invitation from "The General," I started thinking honestly about my driving habits and current skill level. And truthfully, while I could probably drive considerably faster and better than 99.9 percent of the people on the road, I'd gotten into a lot of bad habits-particularly when it comes to running clean, consistent, and fast laps on a road course. So I approached attending Rupert Bragg-Smith's school with both a lot of enthusiasm and a fairly high degree of trepidation. So what? The worst I could do would be to embarrass the hell out of myself, and I was bound to come away with some new insights in driving fast and skillfully, and probably much better.
The Bragg-Smith Advanced Driving School is located at the Spring Mountain Motorsports Park in Pahrump, Nevada, about 60 miles west of Las Vegas. The track was designed by Rupert Bragg-Smith primarily as a school and test track. It's 2.2 miles long, with 10 turns. Rupert describes it as "highly technical," an apt description considering the elevation changes, constant and decreasing-radius turns (some slightly off-camber), sweeping and tight corners, and a 1,000-foot, mildly downhill straight. The course is probably too narrow to use for competitive events, but its configuration is ideal to teach and practice high-speed driving skills or for race car test and tune sessions. There is almost no condition, short of Armco or concrete barrier walls (like what's used on temporary street courses), on any track, that you won't find an equivalent of on the Spring Mountain course.
The school is unique in that it uses nothing but current-year Chevrolet Corvettes and Camaros for its school cars. Each and every Corvette, a mix of coupes and hardtops, is equipped with the Z-51 suspension and a six-speed (Hurrah, no automatics and no base suspensions!). The Camaros are also top of the line, performance-wise-strictly SS six-speeds. In other words, serious cars for some serious driving. And the school had just received its fleet of 2000-model cars, roughly a dozen each Vettes and Camaros. Unlike some driving schools, Bragg-Smith-and GM-have enough confidence in the Corvettes and Camaros that the cars remain totally stock, right down to original equipment tires and brake pads. And in the five years the school has been in operation, they have yet to break a Vette or Camaro
We, the very fortunate 15 or so participants, came into Las Vegas from all parts of the country on Wednesday, November 17th. Early Thursday morning, after grabbing a continental breakfast, we boarded a bus for the one-hour ride to beautiful Pahrump and the Bragg-Smith school. The assemblage was a mixed group of media types, staffers from Road & Track and Autoweek and an eclectic blend of writers for "lifestyle" publications. The only Chevy-specific magazine people in attendance were Shane Reichardt, Associate Editor of our sister publication Super Chevy, and myself. So the first order of business upon our arrival was a brief presentation about the 2000 Corvettes and Camaros by Cheryl Pilcher, Assistant Brand Manager-Product, Corvette, and Scott Settlemire, who holds the identical position for Camaro. Then it was time for school.
Bragg-Smith starts off with a ground school to explain some of what the students will be exposed to during the upcoming sessions. He talked about proper driving position, and how to grip the steering wheel-things the average driver takes for granted, but things that can and do have a vital effect on how well a driver can control a car in an emergency situation or maneuver-or at high speed on a race course. Most people, but very few who have any racing experience, position themselves behind the wheel like they were in a lounge chair. Too far away from the pedals and steering wheel, backrest laid way back, relaxed but definitely not alert and ready to react. Then there's the one hand on the steering wheel, sometimes draped over the top or holding it at the bottom of the rim. Wrong! You need to sit close enough to the pedals that your legs are not fully extended with a pedal pushed fully to the floor. This gives you more leverage and better control. You should never have the seatback reclined to the point that your arm is straight when you reach for any point on the rim of the steering wheel. Again, it's leverage and control. And you should essentially always-except when shifting-have both hands on the wheel, once again for leverage and control. Many schools (including ones I've attended in the distant past) recommend the hands be at 10 and 2 (like on a clock). Bragg-Smith teaches 9 and 3, and forces you to think about it and work at it on track. It makes a lot of sense; most emergency maneuvers and turns on a race track seldom require more than 1/8 to 1/4 turn (1/2 turn is about the maximum) of the wheel. With your hands at 9 and 3, you rarely if ever need to move a hand from the rim to complete a maneuver. And finally, he instructs you to "push" the steering wheel in the direction you're turning, i.e. if you're turning left, push the wheel up and to the left with your right hand rather than pulling it down with your left. Try it, it works!
Rupert also discussed heel and toe downshifting, which is used to match road speed, engine speed, and gear selection, and explained how it applies to smoother and safer downshifts. For those of you who have heard the term "heel and toe" and don't know what it means, first off, it ain't using the heel and toe of one foot to simultaneously apply brakes and "blip" the throttle to match engine revs as you downshift. In reality, it's using the ball of the right foot on the brake pedal and rolling the outside of the foot onto the throttle to crisply hit it enough to raise the rpm to match the speed of the gear you're downshifting to
If there's any one item that Bragg-Smith emphasizes over all others it's what he calls "visual scanning." An entire article could be written on this topic, but in essence it's understanding and learning how your eyes effect and control all aspects of driving. Many of the driving exercises are to practice visual scanning, and becoming aware of the control your eyes have on where you aim a car. Example: you're coming into a 180-degree turn with an apex at 110 degrees. As you enter the sweeper, you should already be picking out and focussing on the apex. At the same time, you need to constantly scan where you are relative to other cars, and as you draw closer to the apex, you should be sighting ahead towards the next apex. It's kinda hard to explain, and it took me a while to grasp the concept and get the hang of it. But, once I did, I began cutting better laps than I would've thought possible, and I realized that during all the years I've spent on track, I've always looked at an apex as I drove through it then started looking towards the next. And I relied more on memorizing a particular course to "master" it rather than on scanning far enough ahead to be setting up for the next turn while I was still in the previous one.
A great deal of time is spent in a variety of driving exercises. These include wet and dry braking, with and without ABS, while learning to control and direct the car under maximum braking. There were also sessions to learn skid control, lap after lap on an oval to practice picking out turn-in points and apexes (again, visual scanning), and what seemed at the time like endless runs up and down the straight, accelerating up to fourth and 60 mph, then braking and downshifting.
The fun part, of course, was getting out on the track in the C5s. Lapping was done with groups of five or so students and one instructor, doing "lead-follow" with the instructor at the lead. All the school cars are equipped with two-way radios, and each group is on a different frequency. After a certain number of laps, the instructor would radio for the car directly behind him to pull out of line, allow the other cars in the group to move forward, and fall in at the back of the pack.
I was frustrated and angry with myself most of the first day. Breaking old, bad habits and relearning how to do things you've done for decades is, I think, harder than starting off as an untrained rookie. I found myself repeatedly regressing to an old way of doing something, realizing it was wrong, then working at the proper way, only to do the same old thing five laps later. By the end of day one, I was really down on myself and wondered if I'd lost my touch, even wondered if what middle-age me was going through was a little like trying to teach an old dog new tricks.
Back in my room at the Hard Rock Hotel after dinner that night, I sat in a chair and practiced, over and over, things I'd had problems with earlier, visualizing that I was in one of the C5s, on the school track. And, apparently, it worked.
Day two started off with repetitions of some of the driving exercises, particularly the acceleration, braking and downshifting runs back and forth on the straight. Then it was time to divvy into groups and head out for track time. And suddenly, it all seemed to come together
I was "in the zone," clicking off lap after lap that felt good, hitting the corners where I should time after time, sighting ahead. I really feel that I was running cleaner, better laps that second afternoon than I ever have before, and it felt damn good!
Day two ended too soon. But right then I decided I have to come back. I want to do the "Level One A" school again, to refine and re-inforce what I learned. Then it'll be Rupert's "Level One B" and on to the "Level Two." The 150 to 200 miles I logged in C5s on the school track were a whole lot of fun in addition to being a great learning experience. I'm practicing, on a daily basis, many of the techniques Rupert and his instructors taught us. It's the summation of a lot of little things, but I know that I'm probably a better, safer, and faster driver now than I've ever been.
Besides, where else can you take new Corvettes out on a race track, log a ton of laps, and leave with a higher level of skill than when you arrived?