It wasn’t even dawn yet. Kevin and I fought the sleep out of our eyes, up at 5am, which felt more like 4am thanks to the hour time difference. We managed to force ourselves up and walked through a shower unfazed. We knew what was coming, and we had to eat and get the hell on the road if we were going to make it to the main event on time.
On the way there, we caught fellow ST’er Trent out on the road from Salt Lake City out to rural-tastic Tooele (our hosts were kind enough to explain it is pronounced “Tweelee”) where Miller Motorsports Park is located. Kev took the opportunity to get some great rolling shots of Trent’s Ford Focus ST. Trent’s car was stock, and being an older gentleman the modern style of tuning was a bit foreign, but he was very interested in how Kevin and I have modified our Focus ST and Fiesta ST respectively.
As was the case at the Hoonigan Reception on Day II, Trent, Kevin and myself were the first to arrive at Miller Motorsports Park. Around 7ish we found the doors were already open, and as promised, we were let into the Miller Motorsports Park museum, housing a collection of tens of millions of dollars with of history-making FoMoCo and Shelby racecars, including one of every variant of the legendary Ford GT40, from the genesis of the race car (including the 2nd oldest GT40 in existence) and even one of the few street-legal original GT40s, and hiding off in the far corner is a modern day Ford GT. Here are just a few quick shots of all the glorious sheet metal stashed away in one place. This is a proper collection.
We wandered around for a few minutes, taking in the details of these classic racecars, observing what performance trends and tricks have changed from the sixties to today. It was a great way to wake up and start the morning.
As the rest of the class began to trickle into the Ford Racing School building at Miller Motorsports Park, we signed in and got suited up in the classroom, which sported Block-esque graffiti art splashed on the walls, giving a nice contrast to the Miller Cup FR500 Mustang parked at the back of the classroom. Since I knew we were going to be given suits and helmets and would be in them for the day, I dusted off my trusty Puma Motorsports Driving Shoes for the day to suit the mood.
We had a light breakfast with croissants, coffee and such, and as we would be told again and again throughout, the Ford Racing School instructors reminded us of the importance of staying hydrated throughout the day. The staff really went out of their way to ensure that we had a good time with the experience, letting us know that if we needed to use the bathroom during the exercises we’d have ready access and that stations with bottles of cold water would be available at every stop. We took advantage of it throughout the day – being at altitude you tend to go through water more quickly, so remembering to have water or gatorade/powerade/somethingwithelectrolytes every so often will keep you from a nasty headache later in the afternoon. And given that the afternoon is when you’ll actually get out on the racetrack, you need every bit of your concentration.
The instructors sat us down and talked about the things we’d be doing throughout the day. We’d start by learning the stunt techniques, forward 90* e-brake turns, forward 180* e-brake turns – then we’d learn how to do a reverse 180* J-turn, like you often see on TV and movies in car chases, then we’d move on to a thing called the Skid Car to learn more advanced car control techniques in a slow-speed, controlled environment. After completing those skills clinics, we’d be taken out onto the track in groups, in a van with one of the driving instructors at the wheel, explaining the course, etiquette for the track and some basic tips for how to take the turns of Miller Motorsports Park’s East Track. Giving us a look at the track in advance mirrors some of the techniques employed by professional race drivers to familiarize themselves with a track’s layout before the actual race. And that was just what they had in mind for the morning.
The instructors broke us up into groups of four or so and shuttled us out to the sites of the various skills clinics. We started out in Focus STs – the ST Octane Academy cars are mostly stock with just a few minor tweaks. Most notably, the cars are equipped with a special hydraulic “drift brake” in place of the standard emergency brake, an up-sized Radiator to cope with 8-hour trackdays and the Focus STs sported a Ford Racing Exhaust System, developed by Borla.
Last but not least, while the OEM brakes of ST models are pretty damn good, the reality is that for track duty, track-spec brake pads are the way to go, and so both the Focus ST’s brakes and the Fiesta ST’s brakes have been fitted with upgraded Brake Rotors, Pads, Stainless Braided Brake lines and high performance brake fluid to handle the demanding conditions of being driven at their limit all day, every day. Outside of the roll cage and tow hook, the cars really are close to stock – the Recaros in the cars are the same ones you get when you get the Recaro option (except for track use they’re equipped with 4-point harnesses). It truly is an opportunity to feel out what your street car can actually do on the track.
The Ford Racing School instructors for ST Octane Academy started us off with forward 90* turns to gauge where each member of our group was at, driving skill-wise and to hone our skills. After getting us comfortable with 90* E-brake turns, they stepped it up and moved onto forward 180*s. I struggled a bit with forward 180s, having a hard time getting my entry right to come out pointed at the correct side of the “U” shaped box used for the clinic.
After learning to go forwards in a Focus, we switched over to Fiesta STs to learn reverse 180s. The exercise is a little unnerving – you need to gun it in reverse to get up some speed, hit the clutch and yank the wheel hard as quickly as possible – all while keeping your bearings to back up straight and also focusing on where you want the car to point after the turn. It’s very much a vision and perception test and really forces you to use your peripheral vision. Reverse 180s were a riot, and since I usually park by backing in, they came fairly naturally to me, but mentally getting past gunning it in reverse is something most people will have to make an effort to overcome.
What came next was very humbling – the Skid Car. Check out the raw video above to see what I mean. The Skid Car exercise puts you behind the wheel of a sedan outfitted with a special hydraulic outrigger setup that reduces the contact patch of the car so that the instructor can easily induce understeer or oversteer in the car at the touch of a button. I have quite a bit of time logged in Forza Motorsport getting cars to controllably slide through corners in a nice smooth drift- I figured, “hey, when it comes to oversteer I’ll make easy work of drifting around the course”. Big mistake. Donny, our cheery instructor for the Skidcar exercise overheard me make a comment about having an idea of what to do with oversteer. Donny grinned as if to say “challenge accepted”, tapped a few buttons on the chunky outrigger controlpad and bam, the car’s rear end started to come around – I countersteered like I would to try and get a car to slide – NOPE! After a few spins I was definitely feeling humbled. If you think you’re a good driver, one of these skid cars will show you otherwise.
After a break for lunch, we were escorted out to the Urban X track to learn the course in preparation for the Competition Timed Lap on the course later in the afternoon. We started learning the course in the smaller Fiesta ST, giving us a larger margin for error on the tight urban X course. Combining both an Autocross timed lap and stunt technique judging, the Urban X is unlike any parking lot course I’d ever run before.
After getting familiar with the Urban X, it was time to swap with the other group again, and it was finally our turn to get out on the track. We’d be running Miller Motorsports Park’s East Track, first we’d go out solo for a lead-follow session on track with an instructor to get us into the proper line for the course. Our group lined up behind Instructor Cam, who was driving one of the Ford Mustang FR500s used for the Mustang-specific Ford Racing School, led us out.
We’d get to try the Fiesta ST first, then switch over to the Focus ST for another lead-follow session, allowing us to get a feel for how both cars behave on track, as there’s a big difference in character between the two.
Look where you want to go.
That’s it. Seriously. Your hands, without needing to think about it, will automatically subconsciously steer you towards what you’re looking at. It’s something that I learned that served me well as a motorcyclist and it’s especially useful for racing. Why is this?
Your brain subconsciously does a thing called “Target Fixation.” If you’re at that tree in the middle of the corner and you’re focused on it, you’re going straight for that tree. As you go around the course, you’re not looking so much at where you are now, but looking through the turn at your path ahead, focusing your gaze on the visual cues that tell you where you need to be on the track to get through the next turn. If you’re looking at an obstacle, you’re probably going to hit that obstacle.
After we’d gotten familiar with both Focus and Fiesta ST, we were then given the choice – did we want to do our hot laps in a Fiesta ST or a Focus ST? Naturally, I went with a Fiesta, and my codriver Kevin opted for a Focus.
After making our choice, an instructor gets into the car with you and it’s track time again. Simply going out with a professional who can correct your mistakes and bad habits is where I felt like I learned the most – it will do wonders for making you a faster driver. I went out with Cam, a self-described “Track-Day Rat” with a salty sense of humor but friendly disposition. Cam’ll help you improve your line while still managing to get in a wisecrack here and there. As we went round the course and I pushed the car a little harder with each lap, I was reminded to actually turn the wheel LESS than I was doing to get the car through the turn another a few mph faster than I had been while also fighting the tires less. It was counterintuitive but something I would’ve never learned without someone else in the car to tell me. After a few laps, your instructor hops out, and then it’s all you. Just you and the car, going as fast as you’re comfortable with going.
Pushing the Fiesta ST on the track, I found myself in a totally zen state of mind – no worries or nagging self doubt – only the next curve, the next braking point, the next apex. There is no music. Your driver’s window will be down (this is for safety, should you roll the car or something they need to be able to get you out quickly), meaning that all you will hear is your engine, the tires and the wind itself. The snow-capped mountains loom in the distance on seemingly every side, giving the track this sort of unreal, epic feel – again, like living a video game. But at this point I wasn’t worried about whether or not it was real or whether I was actually there – this was happening here and now, and in these fleeting, shimmering few moments, nothing else mattered.
After several laps, time was up, and we returned to the paddock. The last thing we’d do on the main road course, we jumped into the passenger seat of a Fiesta ST with one of the instructors behind the wheel. While the instructors had made us fast and we’d been impressed by what the cars could do in our hands, now it was time for the pros to show us what the cars could really do with a professional behind the wheel.
For my hot-lap ridealong, I jumped in with instructor Tyler, a nice clean cut guy with a pronounced southern drawl – a man of few words, Tyler was able to wring every last bit of speed out of the Fiesta ST, getting it to three wheel through a few corners and the butter smooth line of someone that knows the track like the back of their hand meant that Tyler could push the car a good 10-15mph faster than I had been going in nearly every corner. I realized exactly how much faster I could be, but didn’t even feel bad. I just grinned and enjoyed the ride. I was still kind of on a buzz from hotlapping.
The last exercise of the day would be our final test: Timed Competition Laps on the Urban X course, this time in the larger, longer Focus ST, the course no wider than it was earlier. We were given one warm up/practice run, then we’d be judged on our best of two timed runs on the UrbanX course.
Kevin and I both managed to edge out a few friends from the SoCal Focus ST club’s times in competition, which is what we’d hoped to do at ST Octane Academy. We headed back to the classroom for the awards and to turn in our helmets and racing suits (yes, they wash them – all of our gear was nice and clean with light wear).
After a brief awards ceremony, we all received these neat Drift Brake Trophies for completion of ST Octane Academy, a unique T-Shirt – and what I thought was one of the coolest little extras – you receive two special ST Octane Academy exclusive badges for both front and rear, which feature a black fill with red outline instead of solid red fill. These limited run badges are only available to those who’ve completed the course.
After getting our trophies and returning our gear, we returned to our own cars in the lot, stashed our swag and cruised over to the Kart Track at Miller Motorsports Park for some cool-down Karting to wrap up the day.
After a heated race, we pushed hard and had fun egging each other on in the karts, using the tricks we’d learned on track to try and get one over on our classmates in the karts. And then just like that, it was over. The sun was beginning to sink over the mountains and the light of day began to fade, much like our time out here at ST Octane Academy had drawn to a close. Like every vacation or good time, it was over all too soon, and Kevin and I couldn’t stick around for the optional program the following day.
We said goodbye to the new friends we’d made in class as well as “See you again, drive home safe” to those we knew from home, made a final loop around the paddock and wished the cars that had entertained us so all day long a very fond goodbye.
And with that, we hit the road for home.
Once I got home, I took some time to apply my special ST Octane Academy limited edition badges to show others my exploits. All in all, Kevin and I had an absolute riot at Octane Academy – from the experience of enjoying my car in the picturesque mountain passes near Park City to learning how to improve my driving and finding out what my car could really do at its limits. If you’ve got a Ford ST vehicle and haven’t yet, I’d get on registering at http://www.stoctaneacademy.com and take advantage of this great FREE racing school program while times and dates are still available. If you’ve stuck with us this far, thanks for reading and I hope that this has given you some small insight into the full ST Octane Academy Experience.
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