In the mid 1990’s, when 911’s were still air cooled, Amanda Marshall sang a song about looking for the promised land “out beyond the lights of Birmingham”. I don’t know if she found it, but I certainly did. It’s called the Porsche Sport Driving School at Barber Motorsports Park, which is as you may have guessed, located just outside Birmingham, Alabama.
There are tons of suggestions out there for best driving experiences to be had in the USA. Most are all too predictable; everybody mentions the Pacific Coast Highway, or long open interstates through sparsely populated states. Nobody’s Top 10 list I could find includes flying into the middle of Alabama, but it is here amidst the swampy humidity and fantastic BBQ food, that one of the best automotive experiences in the world can be found.
Driving a modern sports car on the road is an effort in laughable restraint. Anything with a recent Porsche badge on it has capabilities far beyond the legal limits and reasonable safety of driving on asphalt shared with lesser vehicles and untrained drivers. These cars are thoroughbreds spending their lives grazing with cows in fields of stop and go traffic. Sadly few of these cars will ever realize their potential on a track.
Driving a Porsche on a racetrack is a bucket-list worthy activity. However, organizing such an experience presents a number of logistical issues. First, there is acquiring a Porsche. You can purchase, lease, borrow, or perhaps even steal one - your choice. If you happen to already own one, taking that vehicle to a racetrack requires mechanical checkups and if you’re smart, some extra insurance. Taking a hard turn at 90mph is not the time you want to be thinking of how much it will cost you if you hit the wall. Once you have the car, you need to get time on a track and perhaps most importantly find someone who actually knows how to drive a car on a track to give you some lessons. No matter how much Gran Turismo you’ve played on the Playstation, if you haven’t had professional instruction and many hours of experience, you have no clue what you’re doing. Mike Tyson famously said of boxing “everybody has a plan, until they get punched in the face”. Driving on a track is a similar experience. You may think you know how to take a corner, but until you feel the forces of hard breaking and cornering, and the instinctive panic your body will respond with if the car starts under or oversteering mean that the only way to get good at it is by doing it over and over again. Local driving clubs, and chapters of the Porsche Club of America have fantastic High Performance Driver Education (HPDE) events for those who already have access to a car, but there is something otherworldly about what is offered by the Porsche Sport Driving School: The opportunity to drive someone else’s fleet of well maintained Porsches, on a pristine track, with a team of experienced racers as instructors.
I took the “Performance” 2-day course back in 2013, and have finally gotten around to writing up my impressions.
If you think you’d like to try this yourself, be warned of two things.
- It will ruin much of your enjoyment of driving on public roads. Everything you can reasonably and safely do on regular roads will seem boring and slow in comparison to track driving. In fact, I think it’s made me a safer driver day-to-day. Knowing that the edge of capabilities of my car are so far away means I mostly stick to a sedate style of getting around when on the road.
- No matter what you think going into the course, you will leave wanting to buy a Porsche. If you have a Porsche, you will want to buy a newer one. If you already have a new one, you will want to buy another one.
The track at Barber Motorsports Park has everything you want. Fast bits, slower bits, a surface so well maintained you could eat off of it, and most importantly, a lack of walls anywhere near the road surface. It’s a track you can have amazing amounts of fun on, with little fear of consequence.
The cars are equipped with video and data recording systems which let you leave with a set of videos of your on-track performances, overlaid with your speed and RPMs. However, these systems were somewhat problematic during my run of the course. I only got videos of a few laps, thankfully it did include my hot laps. They also were not HD (hopefully they are by now!), so the videos ended up looking like they would be best displayed on an old 19-inch Hitachi TV.
Follow the Leader
Most of the time on track is spent in sessions of Follow the Leader. The students are split up into groups of 4 or 5, and each group is assigned an instructor who leads the pack. Radio equipment in each car allows you to hear the instructors, but isn’t two way, so if you have a question it will have to wait until theres a break. Each student takes a few laps right behind the instructor and then on the long straightaway before turn 1, drops back to the rear of the pack. This give each student some time behind the instructors. These instructors are so good, they can drive around the track at high speeds, while watching you in the rear view mirror and offering constructive feedback. They often often do this while driving a Bosxter S, whereas their students are driving 911 Carrera S’s with significantly more power. I was never once able to get close to the rear bumper of the instructor despite my best lead-footed efforts.
I found this part of the course frustrating. The makeup of your group can really affect the flow of things. Even one slower driver will drag down your entire pack. As too can other packs of cars, whether it’s running up behind a pack of slower cars or having to hold up for a pack of faster ones behind you who are being allowed to pass. During the lapping sessions on a few occasions when I was behind the instructor, I found us pulling far away from the other cars in the pack and then having to slow to let them catch up. I think the instructors could do a bit better in rearranging the groups during the course to ease that friction, but its a difficult optimization, and people do improve during the two days so it’s not always the same people who are slower the entire time. People also get tired and or sick (more on that later) so even the fast drivers may not always be driving consistently.
On the second day, after a number of track sessions, everyone is cleared off the track and only one driver from each pack goes out at the same time for hot laps. This time the instructors sit in the passenger seat, and give one on one instruction for a few laps. Without any of the traffic of other cars near you on the track, things get going a lot faster. Finally, all those things the instructors were saying about looking ahead and opening up the wheel sooner after the apex all start making more sense and really helping out.
Here’s a video of me trying to do a fast lap, while inevitably not looking far enough ahead, and not braking quite hard enough. At least I did the lap at a respectable pace.
The final exercise at the end of the second day is getting in the passenger seat and going out for a hot lap with an instructor driving. This is where you learn that for all you’ve learned, there is really so so much more to learn, and so much more that these cars are capable of in expert hands. I’m not kidding, these guys are extremely fast. Your body and mind will be telling you the car is about to come completely unglued and fly off the track at any moment. It probably is close to doing so, but the skills of the instructors are really on display here and I feel safer in a car with them at 120mph than with most drivers at 30mph. Nevertheless, if you have managed to avoid motion sickness thus far, you may not make it out of this with your dignity intact - I think this is the reason why they don’t organize a dinner the second night.
While not on track, the remainder of time is spent in the skills area. The skills area is basically a set of exercises set up in the parking lots of the racetrack.
In this exercise you learn how to brake. Everyone who knows how to drive, thinks they know how to stop. Except, when it comes to a track they don’t. When driving around on the roads and approaching a stoplight, the standard method of braking is to gently start with a small amount of force on the brake pedal, and then add to it as you get closer to the light and stopping. This gives a smooth stopping experience that your passengers (and your car’s brakes) will appreciate. On the track this is completely backwards. Your aim is to keep speed for as long as you can, so at the last moment possible, break extremely hard and then ease off, and finally trail a small amount of braking into the corner. The “threshold” in threshold braking refers to the point at which you are braking as hard as possible without locking up the front wheels and engaging ABS. Whether or not ABS is better or not than modulating the brake pedal with this technique is a major philosophical debate. In truth it probably depends on the type of car, but every track driving instructor I’ve had has always been adamant about not engaging the ABS. This isn’t something that comes naturally, so it is often one of the first things an instructor will teach a new track driver. The exercise is pretty simple, there are two braking stations set up around a circular small track - and the aim is to accelerate up to the stopping point then threshold brake. New drivers usually don’t brake hard enough at first, but after enough repetitions, they get the hang of it.
Heel-toe downshifting is one of the more advanced, yet fundamental skills one must learn to be competent a driving a manual transmission, especially on a track. When downshifting to a lower gear, the engine needs to be running at a higher RPM, and so after disengaging the previous gear, the driver “blips” the throttle by hitting the gas pedal before re-engaging the new gear. The PSDS has a simple course set up to practice this skill. My instructor for this lesson was Hurley Haywood. He is the most winning long distance driver in the world. He’s won the 24 hours of LeMans race 3 times, and the 24 Hours of Daytona 5 times. To put it frankly, this is like getting beginners dance lessons from Michael Jackson. I do a pretty good job of the downshifting in day to day driving or at track days, but in front of such a master I had two left feet and flubbed it a few times. Perhaps the point of learning heel-toe downshifting well, is the ability to do it under pressure, whether that’s beside a driving icon, or fast approaching a turn under a lap timer.
Weight Transfer and Throttle Braking
The weight transfer exercise teaches you about using the weight of the car to help improve grip and keep balance during a corner. When the car is accelerating, the weight is pushed to the back of the car, when it’s decelerating, it’s to the front. When you need to turn, ideally the weight should be forward in the car so the turning wheels have maximum grip. Obviously hitting the brakes is a good way to move the weight forward, but they key of this lesson is to learn how to shift weight forward and rearward with just the throttle (pressing and lifting). Not having to use the brake to transfer weight forward can help you keep speed up. This exercise really comes in handy on the autocross track, where the corners are tighter and weight transfer and throttle braking can really make a measurable difference in your lap times.
High performance driving instruction is all about teaching you how to deal with the various behaviors of a car at high speed, but in a safe environment. However, one of the most important things to learn is how cars behave right at the edge and even beyond the edge of their traction when cornering. Except, throwing a $100k car around a corner at 60mph isn’t a very safe way to find out. Wouldn’t it be nice if you could experience understeer and oversteer at 5mph? Well, on a skidpad you can. It’s basically like driving on ice, except without the cold temperatures, though the Carrera S they had for this exercise did have heated seats. Given that it was nearing 90F outside the day I was there, I would have been just fine with a little ice around.
This exercise also serves to show the amazing difference in stability offered by turning on Porsche Stability Management (aka, traction control). Drivers are taken through various turning exercises (figure eights mostly) and shown the difference in how the car handles with and without PSM. With PSM you can do the turns at significantly faster speeds without losing control.
On a huge section of parking lot, the instructors set up what looks like a go-kart sized track. This is autocross. In it you drive a Boxster S around the very tight course and have laps timed. Next to lapping the actual track, this is the most fun exercise in the course. The great thing about Autocross is it offers a very safe way to explore weight transfer and the limits of grip. You’re typically only going 30-40mph, and the only thing you’re going to hit if you make a mistake is a small pylon. While practicing, I managed to come into a corner much too fast and nearly spun right out. There may have been a pylon or two out of place afterwards. Eventually I managed to drive hard enough and kept enough control to win the timed lap autocross challenge.
Midway through the second day, there’s an extra section in the skills course - a 911 Turbo S with PDK, there for the indulgent pleasure of repeated launch control runs. This has no relevance to track skills, it’s basically intended for pure fun (and of course to make you want to purchase a 911 Turbo S). You put your foot on the brake, floor the gas, and a “launch control” light shows up on the dash/steering wheel, then you let go of the brake and the car takes off towards the other end of the parking lot. No matter how many times you do this, it never gets old. The acceleration is astonishing, and so is the braking (the version I had included carbon ceramic brakes). The instructor’s only words of wisdom were “Put your head back against the headrest before letting go of the brake. Or the car will do it for you, and she’s not gentle.”
Barber Motorsport track is a wide open track made for fast cars. The nimbleness of a Boxster isn’t on full display here, but it was still a really enjoyable drive. Thankfully for the Boxster, there was something much more suited to its strengths on tap. However you feel about the Boxster on the track in comparison to the other vehicles in the Porsche stable, when it comes to the autocross track, you will see the Boxster in a whole new light. I wish they had kept a 911 Carrera S near the autocross track for some comparison. I think the Boxster S would have shamed it around such a technical short course.
911 Carrera S
This car is brilliant. I own a previous model (997.2) 2009 Carrera S, and this car was better in nearly every way (I still like the 997 steering feel). Going into the event, I was firmly in the camp of purists who prefer a manual transmission. However, after my sessions with the 911 Carrera S, I think my next Porsche will have a PDK, it really is that good. The PDK transmission instinctively performs some moves that a manual transmission driver would never think to perform. For instance, when coming into a corner at a speed just a bit too high to downshift from third into second gear, PDK will hold third gear through the turn (as any good driver knows not to downshift in the middle of the corner and risk upsetting the balance of the car), but upon exiting the turn and flooring the accelerator the PDK may choose to downshift to grab even just half a second of the power band of second gear before executing a nearly imperceptibly quick shift back into third. My favorite feature about this car was the ventilated seats - it was nearing 100F during the day on track and a little air in all the right places made it much more pleasant. Ventilated seats are now on my “must have” feature list for future car purchases.
I have twice had the opportunity to drive the Panamara as a dealer loaner car while various maintenance procedures (planned and unplanned) were performed on my 911. Both times it was the V6 base model. There’s a reason for this (other than cost). If they had Panamera Turbo loaners people would hear a lot more “strange noises” in their engines that require long disassembles to diagnose. That V6 Panamera was one of the most underwhelming cars I’ve ever driven. I won’t comment on it further, it really doesn’t deserve the attention. Needless to say I was not exactly looking forward to spending some of my precious laps with another Panamera. How wrong I was! Despite sharing the same styling, the GTS is one hell of a different car. The adaptive suspension made the car feel planted and unroll-able across any corner. The V8 sounds vicious, and has gobs of power to pull around the very heavy chassis as if it were a much smaller car. In the end my real disappointment was that I only got a chance to do one set of laps in the Panamera GTS, and then it wasn’t driven again during the rest of the course. I was told by one instructor that they were hoping to have the new Caymans in but they hadn’t arrived yet so the Panameras were being used instead.
Having seen a Cayenne Turbo lap many of this countries great racetracks in the Cannonball Run (aka One Lap of America) in 2003, I was hoping to get a few laps in the Cayenne myself. Unfortunately the Cayenne is here only for off-road activities. Barber Motorsports Park has an off-road course where the original Cayenne had its press launch. We took it up muddy hills, through water, even up on two wheels through all sorts of natural obstacles and it handled everything perfectly. The only points during the entire PSDS course where I was genuinely afraid, were when we were going through mud and water and I felt more than a couple times that we were certain to get stuck and that there’s no way a huge heavy beast like this can navigate what at times felt like a mountain bike single-track. Truth is the Cayenne had no problems with any of it. I ended the course with a new found level of respect for this vehicle.
If you decide you want to do more than read about this experience, and try it for yourself - here are a few tips.
- Don’t bother with the 1-day course. A couple of hours on the track really isn’t enough to develop any skills.
- For mild motion sickness try ginger pills instead of Dramamine - They are less drowsy, which really comes in handy when you need to have the utmost concentration on the racetrack. If you have any history of motion sickness, and you happen to be in the morning skills section / afternoon track, don’t wait until the track sessions to take it, one of the first exercises in the skills section involved an instructor doing a few circular laps in a Panamera with 3 students showing what threshold braking and weight transfer feel like. One poor guy was sick after just that.
- The bus transport between the resort and the track takes a while (30min or so). It’s a boring ride, and the suspension is a little bumpy. I suggest renting your own car and enjoying that drive a bit.
- Go really hard at the autocross, who cares if you hit a few pylons in the warmup sessions, learn the limits of the cars.
- Bring a hat - it can be really hot and sunny there during the warm season and there’s not a lot of shade around.