The current crop of cars is faster than ever. Yet the majority of drivers rely on dusty skills learned in a high school driver’s education class in cars that are rarely permitted to go faster than 35 miles per hour on mostly empty local streets. Many EVs and four-door performance sedans go from zero to 60 in less than five seconds, with top speeds of 160 miles per hour or more.
Even when a driver is obeying speed limits, a casual afternoon drive can suddenly become a life-or-death scenario if a car swerves into your lane, a semi-truck tire blows out, or a deer leaps into your path. Modern cars are equipped with a plethora of computer-driven safety systems, but the driver’s abilities remain the most important factor when it comes to safe driving.
Manufacturers such as Chevrolet, BMW, Porsche, Audi, and Cadillac recognize the need for drivers to have driving skills that match the impressive abilities of their vehicles. Accordingly, they host performance driving classes for their customers and the general public. Conducted in the safe and controlled environment of a racetrack road course (as opposed to the oval tracks used by NASCAR), drivers receive instruction from experienced instructors who are seated next to them.
Just like in grade school, driving school students ride a bus to class from a nearby hotel. And while the students also spend time in a classroom, the similarities end there. Students at the Porsche Track Experience, held at the Barber Motorsports Park near Birmingham, Alabama, spend the majority of their time on the track in one- or two-day classes, honing their vision skills, learning car handling techniques on the track and on skid pads, learning how to correct understeer and oversteer, and learning how to drive smoothly around even the tightest corners.
The question of why anyone would attend a driving school is a good one, and learning to be a racecar driver isn’t the answer. The students span all ages with various driving skill levels. Most simply enjoy driving their cars in the way that they were designed to be used or going fast on a road course. But they all share a common desire to be safer on the road.
Some schools also offer courses for new drivers. These classes are a great way to instill teenagers or anyone else new to driving with proper skills in a day or two, compared to the traditional method, which requires many years of trial and error. With a curriculum focused on correct techniques, new drivers can achieve a quantum leap in skill levels in a day or two.
The skills taught sound simple—and they are—but mastering them requires expert instruction and time behind the wheel. Motorcyclists learn early on that their bikes will go exactly where they look, requiring intense focus on twisty corners. This is also true when driving a car.
“The way to avoid trouble on the road is to learn how to really see everything in front of you, looking where you want the car to go,” said Michael Gay, event marketing manager for the Porsche Track Experience. “When you are driving fast or on a challenging mountain road, don’t get distracted by the scenery, the sound system, or your passengers. You also need to be aware of traffic beside you and use the mirrors to see what is behind you. The goal is to not be surprised.”
Out on the track, instructors coach students to look where they want to go and a bit ahead. The car will smoothly follow that path, and as they hear throughout the class, smooth is fast. Learning how to drive the proper line is another objective. Instructors talk students through corners, explaining how to visualize a course around corners and along straight stretches of road. Their brain uses the visual input from their eyes to send signals to their hands and feet to direct the car.
In racing, brakes are used hard at the last possible moment to maintain maximum controlled speed through the turn, accelerating out of it as quickly as possible. On the street, this behavior might result in intense conversations with local law enforcement officers, but the basics are useful. Students are taught how to master their brakes to either slow for a corner or to come to a complete and sudden stop, experiencing how the car’s handling changes when applying the brakes. These skills may be invaluable on the highway. Time on the skidpad teaches the difference between understeer and oversteer and how to correct them.
So why would someone attend a performance driving school? To graduate as a better driver, while having an excellent adventure.
Racing techniques work on the street, too
One of the first lessons taught in performance driving seems too simple to work, but it does: Look where you want to go. By focusing on the road ahead, your brain tells your hands and feet what to do.
Smooth Is Fast
The fastest drivers flow smoothly through and around traffic, maintaining a safe distance from other vehicles. The goal is to make adjustments to steering or speed in an unruffled manner.
Be Open to Change
Driving fast safely relies on quickly reacting to dangerous drivers or road conditions. Learning to be aware of other vehicles and allowing time to react makes you a better driver.