High performance cars require tuned up driving skills

John McCormick
Special to The Detroit News

When you buy a high-performance sports car, it's smart to consider tuning up your driving skills.

For instance, Corvette buyers can take advantage of Chevrolet's factory delivery program in Bowling Green, Kentucky and hone their chops at the challenging National Corvette Museum Motorsports Park racetrack complex nearby.

For several years BMW has offered customers a performance driving school near its South Carolina plant and for Porsche fans, there's a fresh option; a just-opened $100 million U,S. headquarters building with a multi-function driver development track. Dubbed the Porsche Experience Center (PEC), the new facility next to the Atlanta airport is the German brand's largest investment outside its native country. A similar customer test track facility is under construction for Porsche in the Los Angeles area.

A visit to the PEC reveals an impressive combination of test track modules, a series of driving exercises designed to improve a driver's car control skills in simulated low traction situations. So even though you may experience the Porsche center on a 90 degree Georgia summer day, the surface conditions of parts of the track — wetted, polished concrete — will emulate that same stomach-churning sensation you feel when encountering a patch of black ice on a Michigan road.

The purpose of PEC is to learn how to deal with such tricky conditions in a safe environment, using a selection of some 80 mid-engined, rear-engined, rear-wheel-drive and all-wheel drive Porsche models and the skills of a talented crew of driving instructors.

One unique element of PEC is a 'kick-plate' module, the only one of its kind in the U.S. In this exercise, as you drive onto a wetted epoxy coated area at around 25mph, a metal plate shifts sideways, randomly left or right, throwing the car into a skid. Learning to correct the skid consistently is far from easy, but it can be done.

As with the Corvette program, Porsche buyers can take delivery of their cars at the PEC and take advantage of a test track session. To make it easy for drivers interested in taking the PEC course, Porsche has teamed up with Delta airlines to chauffeur travelers from the airport to the track and back, so that even someone with as little as a four-hour layover at Atlanta could sign up.

Given that Porsche sells a lot of SUV models in the U.S., it's logical that the PEC includes an off-road driver-training course. Built on the site of Ford's old Taurus factory, the PEC off-road course incorporates re-purposed old wooden beams from the Ford plant. Crossing an uneven, wooden 'scissor' bridge at one point on the course, the Porsche Cayenne SUV has two wheels off the ground. At this point, my instructor demonstrates that one can still open the vehicle doors, a feat other rival SUVs apparently cannot match because their body structures are not as rigid as the Cayenne's.

Encompassing all the driving modules at the facility is a 1.6-mile handling circuit. "This is not a race track," says PEC lead instructor Brian Cunningham, "but it's designed to emulate a winding rural road with blind corners and elevation and camber changes. Our instructors can help drivers explore the capabilities of the cars."

Beyond the on-track experience, PEC visitors who want to step up to racing can also evaluate their personal fitness levels and develop training programs at the facility's sophisticated human performance center. And for foodies, the PEC even offers a fine dining restaurant with 'new nordic' cuisine.

With today's performance cars becoming so advanced, capable and fast, it makes sense that automakers are upgrading their customer driver training facilities. For the consumer, investing in such a driving school experience is money and time well spent.

John McCormick is a columnist for Autos Consumer and can be reached at jmccor@aol.com