The Ford Performance Racing School kicks into overdrive
Two new programs at the Utah attraction – one devoted to the Focus RS hot hatch, the other centred on the F-150 Raptor – ratchet up the adrenalin
My first mistake is forgetting to bring antiperspirant. The ambient temperature near Salt Lake City in late March is not exactly overbearing. But the prospect of eight hours of high-intensity driving has me yearning for my Degree.
Here's the situation: There are two brand-spanking-new Ford Performance Racing School Programs to sample, each normally one day in length; on this day, they're boiled down by half to provide just a taste. One, dubbed RS Adrenaline Academy, is devoted to the Ford Focus RS hot hatch. The other, ominously labelled Raptor Assault, revolves around the most extreme version yet of the Ford F-150.
"I cannot tell you how proud we are that we do this, [helping] consumers understand the Ford Performance family," says Jim Owens, marketing manager for Ford Performance. "And we don't care what level you're at as a driver, you'll learn something here."
The Ford Performance Racing School has been in existence since 2006, but is kicking it into overdrive for 2017. The only driving/racing school supported by the Ford Motor Company, the two new programs join previously established courses geared to the Focus ST (Octane Academy) and Ford Mustang Shelby GT350 (Track Attack).
In case there is any confusion on this point, the marketing gurus responsible for branding these schools all majored in testosterone studies.
Mission control for the Ford Performance Racing School is the Utah Motorsports Campus (formerly Miller Motorsports Park), a state-of-the-art facility set within breathtaking surroundings. There are snow-capped mountains to the left, snow-capped mountains to the right and 511 acres of unbridled enthusiasm for all things fossil fuelled right down the middle.
The morning starts off like a Focus RS with launch control. The first cup of coffee is still percolating in my stomach as we make our way to the traction circle. A quick few rotations by the water truck and the paved surface is ready to withstand the punishment of the RS in drift mode.
The RS is an all-wheel-drive car blessed with the grip of an octopus in heat – keeping it perpendicular to the centre of the circle with the back end out is no walk in the wet. Working the flat-bottomed wheel like a rock star is key to the successful completion of the exercise; if the front wheels are locked at a set angle for too long, the Focus takes off like a heat-seeking missile in that exact direction.
Armed with the knowledge of how to get the Focus RS sideways, we take to the Urban-X track. This is a combination of pylons and larger, far more punishing obstacles – in other words, the ideal setting for unleashing your inner Ken Block, Rallycross daredevil.
The morning ended with a track session on the east course, a 12-turn layout with corners named "Fast," "Faster" and "Agony." This is where all 350 horsepower of the Focus RS comes into play, the sheer straight-line speed of this redoubtable little car surpassed only by its handling precision – and its ability to fly over curbing, seemingly unencumbered by the laws of gravity itself.
If all of this sounds like fun, well, you got that straight. But for those who like their high-performance motorsports mixed in with mud, ruts, rocks and sand, the Raptor Assault program is up your alley. "You're going to make this truck do ridiculous things," Owens promises.
While it's true that the Focus RS is too quick for public roads, the Ford F-150 Raptor is even more overengineered for everyday driving. Powered by a 450-horsepower twin-turbo V-6 engine, the Raptor comes equipped with a 10-speed automatic transmission, magnesium paddle shifters and six drive modes, including one for scaling El Capitan and another for eclipsing Saharan land-speed records.
The Raptor Assault program gives just a hint of what this potent pick-up is capable of: We shuffle around a sheer rock face at a 30-degree lean angle, grind jagged boulders into submission and summit those snow-capped mountains. Well, almost.
The agenda begins at a dedicated off-road course on the campus, where the Ford Performance Racing team have incorporated giant slabs of rock into the curriculum and have also crafted man-made jumps from truckloads of dirt. Eventually, the program veers so far into the Utah desert, chase helicopters begin to seem like a reasonable budget item.
There's nothing like slipping the Raptor into "Baja Mode" and barrelling across the landscape like you're Butch Cassidy or the Sundance Kid. The challenges are myriad. There are the tire-shredding rocks, surprisingly immovable shrub-like trees and punishing ruts created by recent damp weather. Then, there's the dust, so profound that it makes identification of the above obstacles damn near impossible. If this sounds a little unsettling, it is. If it sounds entirely unforgettable, that too.
Here's the kicker about the Raptor Assault and RS Adrenaline Academy programs – and it's a mule of a kicker: You need to own a Raptor to take part in the former, you need to own a Focus RS to enroll in the latter. But if you're already an owner, your tuition has been covered. In fact, the one-day course fees for the Foci, GT350 and Raptor programs are included in the pricing of the vehicles. All that's left is for you to get to Utah and cover travel expenses along the way.
And don't forget the antiperspirant.
The writer was a guest of the auto maker. Content was not subject to approval.