It was an offer I couldn't pass up. Would I like to spend two days at the Rupert Bragg-Smith Advanced Driving School, behind the wheel of a bevy of brand-new 2000 Corvettes, as a guest of General Motors? Does a bear...well, you know? Of course!
I'm nuts about motorsports, especially road racing. There aren't too many things I like better than going out and running laps on a road course. Spectating is fine, but getting on track is much, much more enjoyable. I've done road racing on and off since the early '70s, as time, finances, and family situations allowed, and though my talents as a race driver were and are modest, I can't get enough of it.
Although I've managed to get a heap of wheel time over the past few years, I hadn't done any serious driving or attended a school for at least 12 to 14 years. After receiving the invitation from "The General," I started thinking honestly about my driving habits and current skill level. And truthfully, while I could probably drive considerably faster and better than 99.9 percent of the people on the road, I'd gotten into a lot of bad habits-particularly when it comes to running clean, consistent, and fast laps on a road course. So I approached attending Rupert Bragg-Smith's school with both a lot of enthusiasm and a fairly high degree of trepidation. So what? The worst I could do would be to embarrass the hell out of myself, and I was bound to come away with some new insights in driving fast and skillfully, and probably much better.
High-performance driving schools...
High-performance driving schools are a lot more than just strapping yourself into a car and trying to drive fast on a race track. "Ground school" or classroom sessions are a vital component. Here, Rupert Bragg-Smith was explaining one of the cornerstones of his school's teaching, visual scanning.
The Bragg-Smith Advanced Driving School is located at the Spring Mountain Motorsports Park in Pahrump, Nevada, about 60 miles west of Las Vegas. The track was designed by Rupert Bragg-Smith primarily as a school and test track. It's 2.2 miles long, with 10 turns. Rupert describes it as "highly technical," an apt description considering the elevation changes, constant and decreasing-radius turns (some slightly off-camber), sweeping and tight corners, and a 1,000-foot, mildly downhill straight. The course is probably too narrow to use for competitive events, but its configuration is ideal to teach and practice high-speed driving skills or for race car test and tune sessions. There is almost no condition, short of Armco or concrete barrier walls (like what's used on temporary street courses), on any track, that you won't find an equivalent of on the Spring Mountain course.
If there was any one portion...
If there was any one portion of the school with "hurling" potential, it had to be the skid control car sessions. It's easier to spin out in this specially rigged 2000 Impala on a dry skidpad than in a C5 on a wet surface with the traction control deactivated.
The school is unique in that it uses nothing but current-year Chevrolet Corvettes and Camaros for its school cars. Each and every Corvette, a mix of coupes and hardtops, is equipped with the Z-51 suspension and a six-speed (Hurrah, no automatics and no base suspensions!). The Camaros are also top of the line, performance-wise-strictly SS six-speeds. In other words, serious cars for some serious driving. And the school had just received its fleet of 2000-model cars, roughly a dozen each Vettes and Camaros. Unlike some driving schools, Bragg-Smith-and GM-have enough confidence in the Corvettes and Camaros that the cars remain totally stock, right down to original equipment tires and brake pads. And in the five years the school has been in operation, they have yet to break a Vette or Camaro
We, the very fortunate 15 or so participants, came into Las Vegas from all parts of the country on Wednesday, November 17th. Early Thursday morning, after grabbing a continental breakfast, we boarded a bus for the one-hour ride to beautiful Pahrump and the Bragg-Smith school. The assemblage was a mixed group of media types, staffers from Road & Track and Autoweek and an eclectic blend of writers for "lifestyle" publications. The only Chevy-specific magazine people in attendance were Shane Reichardt, Associate Editor of our sister publication Super Chevy, and myself. So the first order of business upon our arrival was a brief presentation about the 2000 Corvettes and Camaros by Cheryl Pilcher, Assistant Brand Manager-Product, Corvette, and Scott Settlemire, who holds the identical position for Camaro. Then it was time for school.
Back and forth, back and forth,...
Back and forth, back and forth, practicing heel and toe downshifts on the Bragg-Smith school track's 1000 foot straight. The regimen: accelerate through the gears into fourth to 60 mph, then brake and downshift fourth to third, third to second, and second to first. Then, hang a U-turn and do it all over again.
Bragg-Smith starts off with a ground school to explain some of what the students will be exposed to during the upcoming sessions. He talked about proper driving position, and how to grip the steering wheel-things the average driver takes for granted, but things that can and do have a vital effect on how well a driver can control a car in an emergency situation or maneuver-or at high speed on a race course. Most people, but very few who have any racing experience, position themselves behind the wheel like they were in a lounge chair. Too far away from the pedals and steering wheel, backrest laid way back, relaxed but definitely not alert and ready to react. Then there's the one hand on the steering wheel, sometimes draped over the top or holding it at the bottom of the rim. Wrong! You need to sit close enough to the pedals that your legs are not fully extended with a pedal pushed fully to the floor. This gives you more leverage and better control. You should never have the seatback reclined to the point that your arm is straight when you reach for any point on the rim of the steering wheel. Again, it's leverage and control. And you should essentially always-except when shifting-have both hands on the wheel, once again for leverage and control. Many schools (including ones I've attended in the distant past) recommend the hands be at 10 and 2 (like on a clock). Bragg-Smith teaches 9 and 3, and forces you to think about it and work at it on track. It makes a lot of sense; most emergency maneuvers and turns on a race track seldom require more than 1/8 to 1/4 turn (1/2 turn is about the maximum) of the wheel. With your hands at 9 and 3, you rarely if ever need to move a hand from the rim to complete a maneuver. And finally, he instructs you to "push" the steering wheel in the direction you're turning, i.e. if you're turning left, push the wheel up and to the left with your right hand rather than pulling it down with your left. Try it, it works!