I had submitted this one to an outlet a while ago, but it never ran. Sad face. So here it is for Riverside Green readers—enjoy!
If you’re a fan of performance cars, it’s nearly impossible for you to argue with much of what Ford Performance has been up to in the last few years. The Boss 302 changed our perceptions of what was possible to accomplish on track with a pony car, and then the Shelby GT350 ripped open that envelope with a serrated blade. The Focus and Fiesta ST brothers packed more fun per dollar into a car than we’ve seen since the original GTI. And at the other end of the spectrum, let’s not forget the Ford GT and its return to motorsports dominance.
However, the one we were all waiting for, the one our European brothers have been taunting us with for generations, was the Focus RS. Complete with 350 horsepower, all-wheel drive, blindingly beautiful Nitrous Blue paint, and, yes, the publicity stunt that is “Drift Mode,” the RS arrived on our shores in 2016 with more pomp and circumstance than even Edward Elgar could have imagined. Despite my personal skepticism of all the promotion, it took me exactly four autocross runs with a press car to decide to add one to my personal fleet of Blue Ovals back in October. I happily paid MSRP at Glenn Ford in Nicholasville, Kentucky and drove off with my own blue hype machine.
But perhaps even more impressive than Ford’s commitment to building these machines is it’s commitment to teaching people how to drive them.
Starting with the aforementioned Boss 302 and the wildly successful Boss Track Attack, Ford has offered a free day of world-class instruction and track time at Utah Motorsports Campus with the purchase of any of its Ford Performance cars—and they even provide the cars! As an owner of a 302 and a FiST, I had already attended two of these events and even as a somewhat accomplished road racer and autocrosser, I had come away with new skills and a new understanding of the capabilities of my own car both times.
Imagine my excitement earlier this year when I received a notification from UPS that Ford Performance had delivered a package to my house. Sure enough, inside that package was a nifty little mounted RS shift knob, a certificate with my VIN on it, and an invitation to the new RS Adrenaline Academy at the Ford Performance Racing School at UMC. I signed up to receive an email the moment that registration became available, and when the link arrived several weeks later, I immediately signed up for the very first session. 42 hours later, every single 2017 class was sold out.
So it came to pass that I found myself driving my rental Chevy Impala onto the grounds of Utah Motorsports Campus at 7:00 am this past Tuesday morning. If God were to build a motorsports complex, well, he’d probably build nothing like Utah Motorsports Park. After all, most of God’s big projects have some pretty massive design flaws. Hell, even the Earth itself is gonna crash into the sun in just a few billion years. UMC has no such issues. Surrounded by the gorgeous vista of the Rockies, UMC boasts two top-notch circuits, each with its own set of challenges designed to test even the most skilled drivers. However, the vast acreage of runoff and the widest racing surface in the US makes the tracks welcoming and safe for novices, as well.
As my fellow students filed into the Ford Performance Racing School welcome center for class, I noticed that we had one thing in common—we were all males. Beyond that, our class of 14 participants ran the gamut. Some had quite a bit of track experience, while some had never even autocrossed before. We had the young, hip SoCal hipster and the bespectacled NorCal tech worker. We had a white-haired southern gentleman, complete with a pack of Marlboros, and a Native American in his fifties from Denver. One student actually drove his own RS all the way from Wisconsin. And then there was me, the autowriter who didn’t get the invite to the press preview despite having bought four Fords in the last four years (but I’m not bitter).
FPRS instructor Drew Staveley kicked off this very first RS Adrenaline Academy with a brief introduction to braking and cornering theory on the whiteboard. “You’ve been programmed for years to brake lightly and slowly apply more pressure,” Staveley explained. “Braking on the racetrack is essentially the opposite. You want good initial pressure, get all your braking done before turn-in, and then you want to trail off of the brakes as you turn in.”
After this crash-course (no pun intended) in racetrack driving, we were shuttled off to the East Track, where a fleet of Focuses awaited, resplendent in gray, black, white, and, yes, Nitrous Blue. The plan was to start with a Lead/Follow session with an instructor guiding four of us at a time around the track in one of the school’s Mustang GTs.
“We’ll rotate each driver in the group to the front after each lap. I’ll increase the lead/follow speed based on the group’s pace,” explained instructor Donny Edwards. True to his word, by the end of the second lap, my group was running at roughly 85-90% speed around the course. I was pleased to see that everyone was comfortable running at a solid pace, so when it was my turn to be at the front of the pack, I stuck my nose to the rear bumper of the GT and hung on for dear life. Soon enough, our lead/follow turned into a chase.
Unfortunately, my chariot was already demonstrating one of the FoRS’ more annoying tendencies, which is to cook the brakes early. When the RS’ brakes go away, they engage ABS immediately and then the pedal falls away from the driver’s foot. It doesn’t happen in every corner, but it’s disconcerting, to say the least. My car did the same thing after a 20-minute session at Road Atlanta earlier in the year—the only cure that I’ve found is a complete bleed of the front brakes.
After the lead/follow, it was time for another session with an instructor in the car. I switched into another RS, hoping the braking issues wouldn’t show up again. My instructor, Kyle, asked if I had any track experience. Not wishing to overstate my capabilities, but not wanting to be nannied, either, I replied that yes, I did, and that I’ve done a bit of instructing, as well.
“Cool, man, then I’m just gonna ride along for a couple laps and help you learn this track. Deal?” Deal. I put the RS into “Track” mode, waited about 30 seconds to let the car ahead of me get a good gap, and entered the racing surface.
Initially the instructors had advised us to run the whole track in third gear, but as I was bumping up against the limiter in four sections, Kyle let me shift to fourth in Turn 12 and in the front straight.
“Dive in!” he shouted in Turn 11. “That’s it! Now unwind and go, go, go!” The RS, even on the stock Michelin Super Sports used at the Academy instead of the optional Pilot Sport Cup 2s on my car, just stuck everywhere. “Unless you close your eyes and mash the throttle, you can’t get in trouble here. The car will save you.”
Despite leaving that large gap, we caught up to traffic in about two laps. With no passing allowed, Kyle used the slower pace of that third lap to point out places where I could turn in better and get on the gas sooner.
“Thanks for making my job easy! Go have fun.” Kyle hopped out and left me to finish the session solo, suggesting that I might like the car even better in “Sport” mode, since the suspension was slightly softer in that setting.
He was right. Where the car dislikes being unsettled at all in Track mode—even running over gator strips makes it very unhappy—Sport mode allowed the RS to absorb bumps slightly better while still providing excellent throttle response and quicker, tighter steering. The RS at speed on track is just a brilliant car—there’s barely even a need for traction control, because the car just never gets out of shape. Driving the Focus ST on the same surface last year left me frustrated, because the ST plowed everywhere, its heavy nose refusing to pull through the corners. Not so with big brother RS. It’s happy to oversteer and power through at magnificent speeds.
I left another large gap before entering but still managed to catch up to traffic fairly quickly, so I pulled through the pits to give myself a little space. Unfortunately, the checkered flag waved on the next lap and my only track session of the day ended much, much too quickly. Oh well, on to lunch and the afternoon skills sessions.
Lunch was a more-than-acceptable selection of deli sandwiches and salad where I got a chance to chat with my fellow attendees. For many of them, the morning session was their first time ever piloting a car on a track, and the excitement radiating from them was palpable. For those of us with a little more exposure to track driving, the desire for more track time was equally evident.
Instead of more track time, though, we were cycled through three sessions that focused on three different elements: Launch Mode/Cornering, Sport/Track mode, and, yes, Drift mode. The cornering practice focused on maneuvering through a figure eight at lower speeds, and the Sport/Track mode session showed us how the car turns and accelerates in the various driving modes.
But, of course, it was the Drift Mode session that gave the people what they wanted. The drifting area consisted of a small radius circle that was sprayed down with water to allow for easy doriftos. In case you’re the one person on the planet who hasn’t heard of Drift Mode, it essentially sends power to the rear outside wheel, inducing a drift in a regular old turn. If you try to drift the normal, Lightning McQueen/Doc Hudson sort of way by pitching a car into a turn and then countersteering, it straightens out the car and forces you into a straight line—in other words, it thinks you’re trying to straighten and correct. It can best be said that Drift Mode prevents drifting rather than enabling it.
Nevertheless, we all gave it a go. My instructor and I both quickly discovered that ESC has to be completely disabled, as well, or else traction control will keep the car from drifting. Whew. This is a lot of effort to drift. I spun the car around a few times but never successfully did the Han-in-Tokyo-Drift maneuver. Turns out the reason that I kept spinning rather than drifting was that the rear differential was overheating—after a cool down, other students were more successful.
At long last, it was time for the final event of the day: a timed autocross through a cone-intensive course. Students were given one sight lap with an instructor, two practice, non-timed laps, and then one timed lap for all the marbles. The instructors had difficulty getting the timing lights to work, so we had to resort to hand timing. Alas, on my final timed lap, the braking issue reared its ugly head again, causing me to plow a turnaround and lose seconds of valuable time. As a result, I was unable to repeat my autocross victory from ST Octane Academy and finished in 2nd out of 14 with a 47.368.
For my day’s efforts, I was rewarded with a very cool trophy that consisted of a blue Brembo caliper mounted to a stand with my name on it. It wasn’t the trophy I wanted (the winning autocrosser got a cone), but it was still a satisfying end to a fun event.
For their first crack at running the event, the fine people from the Ford Performance Racing School got a lot of things right. Unfortunately, they’re going to be limited by the capabilities of the Focus RS. For one thing, it’s an incredibly thirsty car—one driver ran out of gas on track during the lapping session, and the cars were averaging about 6 MPG for the day. Yikes. Secondly, the significant brake fade/boiling issue could cause problems for inexperienced drivers, who could panic in such a situation. Thirdly, even with an additional rear differential cooler, the cars are still overheating the diff in Drift Mode.
That being said, Ford Performance continues to deliver not only world-beating cars, but also an outstanding experience for their customers. Experienced drivers might find the curriculum a bit light on track time for their liking, but novice and intermediate drivers will find the trip to Salt Lake City more than worth the time and money. And it goes without saying that both the instructors and the facilities are the best to be found in the United States, bar none.
After seeing the smiles on the faces of my fellow classmates, I think it’s safe to say that Ford is accomplishing what has to be the main goal of this program: creating customers for life.
Mark “Bark M.” Baruth has raced and driven on dozens of tracks across America and has stood on the podium with the SCCA and American Endurance Racing. He reviews performance models for Jalopnik. You can find him on Twitter and Instagram at @barkmfors.