Excitement set in as soon as our shuttle bus entered the gates to Barber Motorsports Park and the winding, 2.38-mile-long track with its 17 turns and 80-foot elevation change came into view. The 20 of us who signed on for the two-day performance-driving course at the Porsche Sport Driving School in Leeds, Alabama, could not wait to get into the hot seats of the brand-new Porsches lined up at the starting grid. The school prides itself in using only current-model cars straight from the showroom. “We have 35 cars in the fleet and switch them out 800 times a year,” says Jeff Purner, an instructor and the school’s manager of operations. From the Porsche Cayman S, with a top track speed of 172 miles per hour, to the 911 Turbo, which hits 60 miles per hour in 3.5 seconds and tops out at 194 miles per hour, the full line, including even the Panamera GTS sedan and Cayenne S sport-ute, makes taking a course here the ultimate test-drive for buying a new vehicle; in our group, only six people actually owned a Porsche.
But if you leave here ready to purchase one of its vehicles, Porsche considers that just a bonus. As instructor Cass Whitehead put it at the beginning of the class, “Our goal is to make you a better, safer driver. Make you more aware of your surroundings and what the car can do.” Cars today are so technologically advanced, they practically drive themselves, which can take the thrill out of being behind the wheel for most enthusiasts. Learning how to handle these sophisticated machines can make all the difference in a simple run to the grocery store—as was evident after only the first morning session.
Before we could even get near the cars, we had to take a seat in the track’s classroom to meet the instructors and our fellow students and get briefed on “vehicle dynamics.” We had congregated bleary-eyed at 7 a.m. in the lobby of our hotel, the Renaissance Ross Bridge Golf Resort and Spa (a base for the school), to be shuttled to the track a half hour away. Needless to say, not many were talkative during the ride. So as people introduced themselves, the diversity became apparent: a father-and-son team from Atlanta (a 60th-birthday present for the dad); a local guy who had been at the school a month prior for the one-day course that “changed [his] life,” and he was back for more; other men, in their late twenties to early forties, from Denver, Miami, D.C., Dallas, California’s Laguna Niguel.
A woman from Puerto Rico and I were the only females (the same course is offered for women only at other times of the year). She was there with her husband, who owns four Porsches. When he went to pick up one of them in Germany, he let her drive it on the Autobahn, where there is no speed limit. As he explained it, she loves to go fast and got a bit carried away trying to race a woman who had passed her in another Porsche—and crashed. He brought her to the school to make sure she knew how to drive fast safely before she ever took out one of his cars again.
A quick review of everything from the proper driving position (not so far back that arms are almost straight and legs are stretched) to handling a vehicle in the rain (careful braking and gentle acceleration) and we were finally ready to get into the cars. The morning involved high-speed laps around the track; skid-pad lessons on stopping oversteer (steering into a skid and straightening out to keep the car from spinning out of control) and avoiding understeer (easing up on the brakes and slowing down before entering a corner); performance driving techniques; and maneuvering through cones on an Autocross circuit. By lunchtime, a quick 45 minutes, we had covered the basics with such thoroughness that the rest of the day was devoted to mastering the track like a race-car driver, with more laps, an Autocross session and cornering drills. We went back to the classroom for a day-one review before heading to the hotel for a casual dinner with the instructors. The big surprise was how taxing such driving is on your body; it’s a real workout and makes you realize why race-car drivers need to be so fit. Day two brought more challenges, with heel-and-toe downshifting and off-roading in the Cayenne on a specially designed course in the woods near the track. At the end, we were sent off with certificates of accomplishment and ready to take on the Master’s program—a rev closer to the racing level!
The Porsche Sport Driving School is the largest of its kind in the States. Courses are in session 120 days a year and are offered at six levels. The two-day performance-driving course costs $3,200, not including accommodations and airfare. To sign up, call 888-204-7474 or go to porschedriving.com.
On the Road: New Mexico
From behind the wheel of a Mercedes-Benz GL-series SUV.
Not long ago, a German car manufacturer would have scoffed at the idea of cup holders, labeling them a driving distraction. Times change, and the GL-series SUVs from Mercedes-Benz have a distinctive American twist being made in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, rather than Stuttgart, Germany. The shifter is located on the steering column to accommodate a pair of cup holders that will also keep your drinks cool. In fact, there are so many amenities in these vehicles that they are the automotive equivalent of a five-star luxury hotel room. The rear seats raise and lower; onboard cameras offer 360-degree views; and software develops a driver’s profile in order to later advise him or her to stop for a coffee break if it detects erratic driving behavior.
Our 300-mile ride began in Albuquerque, New Mexico, on the Turquoise Trail to Santa Fe, where the Four Seasons Rancho Encantado became home base for a round-trip to Taos. This area seems to have more art galleries than gas stations, but with a large, 26.4-gallon tank, there was little risk of being marooned in desert terrain.
We drove all three GL-series models: the GL350 BlueTEC ($63,000), with a V-6 diesel engine; the GL450 ($64,000), with a turbocharged V-8 and direct fuel injection; and the slightly more aggressive-looking GL550 ($87,000), also a turbo V-8 with fuel injection but with more horsepower. All that muscle doesn’t translate into a sprinter’s speed, as these seven-passenger SUVs are heavy. They are nimble for their size, however, with an optional active curve system that yields a more comfortable ride. —Frank Vizard