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Being Schooled in a Ford Focus RS and F-150 Raptor; Fun With Someone Else’s Tires

Buying a performance car comes with a free day at the Ford Performance Racing School in Utah

Buying a performance car comes with a free day at the Ford Performance Racing School in Utah

It is hard to beat this free gift with purchase. With fabulous mountains as a backdrop, the Utah Motorsports Campus (formerly Miller Motorsports Park) in Tooele, Utah, offers the use of hot cars and trucks, professional tracks and instructors, and access to high-speed desert trails and off-road terrain. It is home to the Ford Performance Racing School, and a day of instruction and safe-but-crazy fun is included in the price of a Ford performance vehicle. For buyers of a Focus or Fiesta ST, that has included the Mustang GT 350 Track Attack program and the ST Octane Academy.

Ford has expanded the program to include the RS Adrenaline Academy to celebrate the launch of the 2017 Focus RS in North America. This is the first year of the Raptor Assault program for the performance F-150. Other performance carmakers offer driving schools, but jumping into the off-road performance arena is something Porsche and others have not yet added to their driving schools.

Sessions are underway now. Whoever is out there today is having a blast. We know that because Ford gave a small group of journalists a sample of what buyers experience. It’s usually a two-day program, but it was condensed into a single day for us. We still got a taste of how the program builds from basics for the first-timer to tips for the advanced driver.

This is not race certification, says Jim Owens of Ford Performance marketing. It is an opportunity for customers to learn what their vehicle can do, gain skills and confidence, and fuel an addiction that might spur them to find a local autocross, track, or off-road trail. “It’s an experience, not a classroom,” Owens says.

The morning was devoted to the 2017 Focus RS with its 350-hp 2.3-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine that also generates 350 lb-ft of torque. It starts with classroom time to go over the fundamentals of why cars perform the way they do and a description of the reaction to each action. We got one try each—enough to make you grin and want more.

Once equipped with knowledge, racing suits, and helmets, we fastened the four-point racing harness and headed for our first exercise: drifting on the 10-foot-radius circle that had been freshly sprayed with water. Shift into first, turn stability control off and drift mode on, crank the wheel for a tight turn, and then slam down on the accelerator to send the back end spinning.

Other exercises included the figure eight to play with acceleration, braking, and tight cornering. We got two shots at launching the car. In the RS, it could not be easier. Once launch control is turned on, you floor the gas pedal and then dump the clutch to shoot forward before continuing through a short handling course. An autocross course with a slalom put all the skills together in a timed run.

We got to unwind the RS on the Utah campus’ east track, which serves up 14 turns over 2.2 miles (3.5 km). It is a lengthy session that includes a lead-follow where small groups follow professional drivers around the handling course for tips on the best line to take and why, and when to brake, release, or add throttle. An instructor hops in for a ride-along at some point, and of course there are hot laps at the end so the instructors—many with racing experience—can show how the car behaves when taken to the max.

Ford F 150 Raptor at Ford Performance Racing School 99

After lunch it was time to move on to the 450-hp Raptor, a true novelty because there was no program for the last-generation truck. We put the pickup in rock crawl mode and climbed the side of a hill. The gauge showed we were at a 30-degree angle, enough tilt that I would have fallen out the open window if not for my seatbelt. The exercise is designed to scare the owner a bit while showing that the Raptor does not slip even at outrageous angles. There is also a jump on the campus, but we could not try it because the landing area had been flooded with heavy rains. But there was another steep hill to climb to practice left-foot braking.

Then we headed out for a 15-mile (24-km) drive to Jacob City Trail Head and Rattle Snake Canyon for an off-road course in a truck designed to do ridiculous things. It was a chance to prove itself during a slow climb over boulders where all you can see is sky and while going fast on a high-speed sprint across a bumpy and rutted desert path. The dichotomy of being a performance off-road truck was showcased in its ability to go 15 mph (24 km/h) in rock crawl mode, in sixth gear and 4-low, on a rock-littered trail at an elevation of 6,100 feet, and not even appear winded. Switch to Baja mode (4-high) for instant throttle as the truck flies over a hardened sand path.

Ford started the owner’s program in 2012, offering a free day at the track with instruction for those who bought a Mustang Boss 302. It has grown over the years as Ford has expanded its performance lineup. The automaker plans to offer 12 new performance vehicles by 2020. So far we have seen the Focus and Fiesta ST, Focus RS, Shelby GT350 Mustang, and Raptor. The Ford GT is slowing trickling its way into buyers’ hands, and we expect to see a new GT500 sometime this year. Ford officials have hinted at a Fiesta RS and engineering RS versions of crossovers such as the Escape. Fusion has a Sport, but no ST or RS.

Buyers of a Ford performance vehicle are treated to a reception the night before and then a full day at the facility. Participants must arrange their own travel to Salt Lake City and pay for their hotel stay. They can bring a nondriving guest, for a fee ranging from $179 USD to $249 USD depending on the vehicle program.

The car programs will run until the end of October, and the Raptor program will continue until the end of November. The school can handle more than 2,000 people and had 1,700 signed up before it even started on April 2. The new RS Adrenaline Academy sold out in two days when registration opened in March, and the school added more cars and capacity to handle the demand from new buyers.

Dan McKeever, the school’s owner and president, says it best: “Who wouldn’t want a free day with someone else’s tires?”

Read Motor Trend reviews on Ford’s performance vehicles: