The Road to a Racing License

There is no crying in sports-car driving, but I did it anyway. Tears of joy. After a decade and a half of reviewing cars for a living, I had decided to get my racing license. Though I had been fortunate enough to spend countless hours on racetracks testing out cars, putting them through speed, handling, and braking maneuvers, I had not put myself out there to see if I actually had any mettle. In the heat of competition, with life and limb at risk, would I really be able to take these cars to the speeds I knew they were capable of? Could I muster up the nerve to pass somebody?

To qualify for a racing license, I signed up for the three-day Masters Plus program at the Porsche Sport Driving School just outside Birmingham, Alabama (porschedriving.com). Yes, I was frightened. I had been to more than a half-dozen performance-driving schools in the past, always having fun, always driving freakishly fast, learning more about precision maneuvering each time. But understanding how to race—really race—was different. At the Porsche school (there's one in Leipzig, Germany, as well; porsche-leipzig.com), I strapped on my helmet, hopped into a cherry red 911 Carrera (we also drove the quicker Carrera S and the superspeedy Turbo Carrera), and spent the first two days perfecting the art of acceleration and braking, following the racing line on dry pavement, and then a different line when it began to rain. I also mastered the finesse involved in passing. Here's a hint: it means taking advantage of your competitor's driving mistakes.

On day three, I finally understood a big rule of racing: a driver is either accelerating or braking. There is no coasting in racing. It may sound obvious, but it was a very scary lesson to learn. I was reminded again and again that if my foot wasn't on the gas pedal pushing down, then it should be hard on the brake. One or the other. The instructors, all of whom are bona fide race-car drivers, didn't seem to find anything wrong with speeding pedal-to-the-metal into a hairpin turn, only to brake just shy of or even deep into the curve. No time to coast. No time to catch your breath.

It's all about putting your life into the hands of the driving instructors. The Porsche school's chief instructor, Hurley Haywood, is a three-time winner of the 24 Hours of Le Mans and the most winning driver of the 24 Hours of Daytona. When Haywood told me to floor it, I did. I trusted his experience, and the wisdom of all the school's instructors. After each half-hour lapping session, my fellow speed demons and I pitted for a one-on-one critique of our driving. It was a turn-by-turn evaluation of how well each of us handled the car, and advice on how we might shave seconds off our time.

At the end of three very fast and furious days, I had obtained the paperwork necessary to apply for my coveted SCCA (Sports Car Club of America) license. This meant I could legally race my car on a designated racetrack against others afflicted with the speed gene. Oh, yeah, the crying part. I boarded my flight home and replayed those three days in my head. I had set a goal of passing just one person. I did that, much to my amazement. Then, I did it again. And again. During a grid-pattern starting session, I moved up from seventh starting position to third. It was a moment of immense exhilaration, and I had overcome a lot of fear to do it. Hence, tears of joy.

There are several exceptional driving schools that offer classes for beginner to racer. These are my favorites:

The Porsche Sport Driving School has a one-day ($1,795) and a two-day ($2,995) high-performance class that teaches important techniques for handling sports cars under high speeds, as well as an advanced master class and the three-day Masters Plus ($5,295). Porsche fans will go nuts for the cars and the challenging tracks.

In Parma, Italy, would-be speedsters can test their track skill at Maserati's Master GT class (mastergt.it). The two-day program takes place on the Varana de Melegari racetrack. Initially, I was worried that it wouldn't be challenging enough because the racetrack is flat and doesn't offer the rigor of learning to drive over hills and dips. But Maserati's pro instructors were quick to assess each participant's skill level and nudged us to drive outside our comfort zones. Soon I was pushing hard on corners—no matter they were flat—and driving better and faster than before. We drove the sporty GranTurismo and the sportier GranTurismo S, the Quattroporte S and the Quattroporte Sport GT. A grueling wet-track class had me skidding and spinning repeatedly until finally I had my light-bulb moment and figured out how to right the vehicle. The Maserati program ($5,335, including hotel and meals) offers significantly more driving time than many of the other schools I attended, as well as expert classroom instruction to get the most out of these Italian beauties. Ultimately my trepidation about the track proved all wrong, as I discovered that each racetrack holds its own unique charms.

Italy's top exotic, Ferrari, has an outstanding fantasy camp for speed freaks. Open exclusively to Ferrari owners, the driving school (experienceferrari.com) in Mont Tremblant, Canada, or Maranello, Italy, is almost too good to be true. The two-day basic course ($9,400, including hotel and meals) puts students in the all-new 458 Italia, the F430, the 599 HGTE, and the California. When I stepped onto the track and saw the lineup, I nearly wept. (It's becoming a habit.) What Milan is to fashion, Maranello (Ferrari's home) is to automotive glamour. Ferrari's program combines classroom and track time with telemetry. Here, computers record steering, brake, and acceleration inputs so that instructors can evaluate how well a student navigates the course. (Maserati's school also uses telemetry for assessment.) Instructors overlaid a graph of the ideal drive around the track on top of my track time. It showed where I let my speed down, where I braked too early, and where my steering was less smooth or exact. By comparing my drive with one made by a professional, I was able to see where I could improve. Students wanting more Ferrari time (or a racing license) can sign up for the advanced racing course ($11,900).

See you on the track. I'll be the one with a box of tissues.

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