Learning Curve

July, 2010 (Bloomberg Markets) -- Porsche’s Alabama racing school gives amateurs a chance to pretend they’re blazing down the straights of Le Mans.

Racing legend Hurley Haywood has his eye on me. He’s observing from the side of a steep hairpin turn at Barber Motorsports Park racetrack. I’ve come in way too hot, and my Porsche 911, tires smoking, is hurtling sideways toward the spot where Haywood is standing.

Joggling the wheel to regain control, I give a sheepish wave to the iconic Porsche race driver and then roar away.

Having Haywood--who has won the 24 Hours of Daytona five times and the 24 Hours of Le Mans three times--watch over novices is like having Los Angeles Lakers basketball star Kobe Bryant coach a junior-varsity team.

Haywood, chief driving instructor, helped start the Porsche Sport Driving School and conducts 20 classes a year.

The three-day Masters Plus program is Porsche’s most advanced course in the U.S., costing $5,295. Graduates get a race license from the Sports Car Club of America that allows them to enter regional races.

This will be my year of speed. I’ve spent more than a decade testing sports cars, with a handful of track days each year. In 2010, I’ve resolved to polish my skills and do actual bumper-to- bumper racing.

Porsche’s school is an excellent place to hit that next level. It’s progressive: All students must first take the one- or two- day High Performance course, which costs $1,795 or $2,955. (There’s also a women-only class.)

Beginners learn basic handling skills on a skid pad--a flat piece of pavement designed for the purpose--as well as strategies for how to negotiate a road course, which typically has twists and turns, hills and crests.

Next is the two-day Masters class ($3,495), in which students lap the course at their own pace. Those who complete the Masters can jump to the Masters Plus, in which laps are nearly unlimited and passing techniques are taught.

All of this takes place on a pristine, 2.38-mile (3.83- kilometer) road course in Birmingham, Alabama. The dream of local businessman George Barber, the track has 16 corners, steep elevation changes, a blind crest and corkscrew and hairpin turns.

Your learning tool is a 345-horsepower Porsche 911. In the hands of the instructors, the school’s best asset, this basic model is shockingly fast.

In addition to Haywood, I recognize most of the instructors from my first time here seven years ago. There are 22 students, ranging from former CEOs to surgeons, and we each drive some 150 laps. Everyone stays at the same hotel, the Ross Bridge Golf Resort, with meals included and taken together. With so many alpha types, the atmosphere is both competitive and collegial.

On my final afternoon session, I am in the pits, helmet buckled, waiting to pull onto the track. I have to will myself to control my breathing and let my mind go blank. After all, a part of your psyche questions why you’d want to drive at 110 miles per hour into a dangerous curve.

Then I’m off, building speed. I pass a dawdling driver on the left and drag the 911 back onto the racing line just before a descending hairpin. I stomp hard on the brake before downshifting the manual transmission and blipping the throttle.

A complex move, made in blurred seconds. A mistake could be catastrophic. (There’s never been a death at the school, the management says.)

I’m in the flow now, relaxed, and I blow down the descending corkscrew, one of the track’s most difficult and scary turns, and my favorite. To get it right, you have to feel like you’re on the ragged edge, just this side of losing control.

The engine is screaming, and I’ve got the air conditioner turned way up. I’m sweating. I roar through the flat S curves, barely slowing. Perfect. Then a fast-descending left followed by an uphill right. I screw this up every time.

My eyes are up, and I’m following the curve of the road, pushing the car as hard as I dare, tires whining. I’m on the bumper of a slower car. Students aren’t allowed to pass here; I have to wait.

Then comes the last major turn of the course, a steep downhill leading into the long front straightaway. I blast by the other guy, running the 911 past 100 mph before slamming hard on the brakes and starting all over again. I’ve got 22 minutes left to do one perfect lap.

My first real race is within a month; I think I’ll be ready. Let the year of speed begin.

Jason H. Harper writes about autos for Bloomberg News in New York. jason@jasonhharper.com

#<535521.2245115.2.1.46.17993.25># -0- Jun/17/2010 15:56 GMT

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