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Back to School: Learning the ZR1 at the Ron Fellows Performance Driving School

Posted May 2nd 2011 11:57AM

Corvette ZR1 at the Ron Fellows Driving School
Ron Fellows Performance Driving School - Click above for high-res image gallery

Pahrump, Nevada is a smallish city in the acute, southern tip of Nevada. The population is roughly 70,000 and most of it, when behind the wheel, sticks to the posted speed limits of anywhere between 25 and 45 miles per hour (40 to 72 km/h). At any given time, however, a handful of drivers will be doing well beyond those numbers. They are the temporary residents who have shacked up at Spring Mountain Raceway for the Ron Fellows Performance Driving School.

Free tuition is just one of the many perks that comes with purchasing a ZR1.
Set up to teach drivers how to get the best out of their own driving and, if they happen to own one, the best out of America's sports car, it's one of just two official Corvette schools in the country. In fact, free tuition is just one of the many perks (including building your own engine) that comes with purchasing the most almighty of all Corvettes, the ZR1. Within one year of taking delivery of your car, either at the dealership or the Corvette Museum in Bowling Green, Kentucky, you can seek tutelage at no additional cost from Mr. Fellows, or attend Bob Bondurant's school in Phoenix. We sought our training in Nevada.

Being Nevada, it's hot. With Corvettes to train in, it's fast. And having been developed with Ron Fellows, it's thorough. It also happens to be a lot of fun. Continue reading...

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Photos copyright ©2011 Jonathon Ramsey / AOL, courtesy of Ron Fellows Performance Driving School

As with other Nevada ranches, like The Bunny and The Mustang, Spring Mountain Motorsports Ranch is where you go to get your jollies, except here you get them from cars instead of Thumpers and thoroughbreds. It bills itself as being located "in the desert oasis of Pahrump, Nevada," but really, the ranch itself is the oasis: 220-acres large and not even an hour from that glittering Hades otherwise known as Las Vegas.

It has a four-mile-long private track good for multiple configurations, from 1.5 to 3.5 miles (2.4 to 5.6 km) long, broken up into the South Track, North Track and Radical Loop, and featuring 20 corners in total. Speaking of which, the track designers copied some of the most compelling corners from circuits around the world, such as the Long Beach Grand Prix course and Mosport International Raceway, and the entire length has 50 feet of elevation change.

Ron Fellows Performance Driving School

Supporting the racers on track is a 45-foot timing tower and an observation deck, while off-track are 86 private garages, 26 condos with garages, an 8,000-square-foot clubhouse, gym, pool, racquetball court, gun range and on-staff massage therapist to work out the kinks after you've finished with the kinks. The setup is attractive enough to have lured the Lotus Performance Driving School, the Radical School for Performance Driving and Racing, an SCCA License Recommendation School and what we're here for, the Ron Fellows Performance Driving School.

We'll say this right now: That latter school is one of the most engaging we've attended. While Mr. Fellows has 26 ALMS victories, three ALMS GT1 championships, one Rolex 24-Hours of Daytona victory and two GT1-class wins at the 24 Hours of Le Mans to his credit, impressive racing credentials don't necessarily make impressive teachers. Yet Fellows and his team of instructors, led by Rick Malone, have come up with a set of driving drills that mixes class time, seat time, ride-alongs and solo driving to keeps things fresh and moving. Fast. We seemed to be at every station – classroom, track, skidpad, etc. - for just long enough and with just enough instruction and independent driving for everyone to get it.

Corvette Z06, Grand Sport and ZR1 at Ron Fellows Driving SchoolCorvette Z06 at Ron Fellows Driving SchoolCorvette Grand Sport at Ron Fellows Driving SchoolCorvette ZR1 at Ron Fellows Driving School

We arrived in the late afternoon and commenced with an autocross course with a couple of wet corners, driven with two Corvette Grand Sports, one on Michelins, one on Goodyears. This wasn't traditional fare for the usual student, but a primer for the assembled media that would eventually include our profession's call-to-arms: a stopwatch. Few things get Piloti-toting scribes to go all Berserker Fangio faster than the mention of timed laps, and sure enough the Nevada sun was soon setting to squealing rubber, airborne cones and whispers of "I think he's done some racing before," "What kind of line did you use through the chicane?" and "Wow. That sucked." The clock – or perhaps it was our feet – wasn't kind that day, so we settled our chi afterward on the gun range.

The following day was a heady eight hours of proper instruction in 14 Grand Sports, six Z06s and six ZR1s. We would spend our time between the classroom and various courses: braking and avoidance, skidpad, slalom, figure-eight, an oval that was more like a triangle, and heel-and-toe. Each segment begins with a stint in the classroom, but it's kept straight and lively; Malone & Co. know that the only place you can really learn these skills is in the car, so they don't try to teach you how to drive in the classroom chair. They just want you to know what to do once you're behind the wheel and know why you're doing it.

Ron Fellows Performance Driving SchoolRon Fellows Performance Driving School

Instructors are not in the car with you, they're just watching and offering tips and admonishments through walkie-talkies.
Once you're on any given course, it's blanketed with instructors. They're not in the car with you – although they'll gladly hop in if you want close-quarters training – they're just watching you and offering tips and admonishments through the walkie-talkies placed in every car. We realize everyone's favored method of instruction is personal, but we found it ideal. Usually we know what mistake we've made – we don't need an instructor in the passenger seat instantly quipping "You braked too early" as we're unexpectedly creeping through the collision avoidance maneuver. At Ron Fellows' school, as long as they feel you're getting it, the instructors leave you to learn your way in the car and around the obstacles, and are there to offer fine guidance whenever you ask... or whenever you need it, even if you don't ask.

To each his own, but that's what we liked best about the school. It can't be easy for instructors at any school to get into a car with a stranger – especially Berserker Fangio media strangers, many of whom have unrestrained impulses behind the wheel due to sentiments that run something like, "Of course I can drive fast – I write about cars!" – and trust them not to plow into immovable objects at Ludicrous Speed. Generous runoff, in the form of the surrounding desert, certainly helps. But we think it also has to do with the vibe of the instructors and the layout of instruction; you don't want to kill the tarmac, you really just want to learn. It's a feat considering you're in deliciously powerful Corvettes, and with nothing but soft sand to slow you down, you don't need to worry so much about crumpling sheetmetal or bones.

Ron Fellows Performance Driving SchoolRon Fellows Performance Driving SchoolRon Fellows Performance Driving School

"Forget about your wife, forget about your kids, forget about the job, forget all those things you left at home. Focus on the driving."
It's mid-afternoon when we finally get to take them on the track proper. We used the combination North and South loop, about 2.2 miles (3.5 km) with 10 turns that included nice elevation changes, a nearly blind 180 just after a hill, a changing-camber dogleg and the back straight good for the ton-plus. The track time began with lead-follows, which is when you realize how complex the Spring Mountain course is. Turns one, two and three have late apexes requiring wide lines to get just right, turn six is deceptively sharp, but through which you can run deceptively fast, and turn eight leads into a series of turns that, if mishandled at the beginning, will mess you up all the way onto the front straight, at which time you'll get mirrors full of your colleagues and a reminder of the day before: "Wow. That sucked."

Point being, this is no creampuff runaround set up to flatter the Corvette, and if you get it wrong, the Corvette's massive corral won't save you. As our lead-out instructor spoke through the walkies on our first lap, "This is when you need to focus. Forget about your wife, forget about your kids, forget about the job, forget all those things you left at home. Focus on driving."

If you do that to the best of your ability and you've paid attention throughout the day, you'll feel the thrill of the 'Vette not only on the four high-speed sections of the training course, but you'll see what the coupe – and you, with anywhere from 436 to 620 well-sorted horsepower – can do through the turns.

Hint: A lot. Just sitting in a ZR1 can make most drivers feel like a champ, as it should be. Get it right in a ZR1, and you'll feel like a God. As it should be.

So even though Ron Fellows Performance Driving School can't get you all the way to God-dom, Ron Fellows has laid out the way along a hot, twisty desert-bound road practically lit up and signposted as brightly as the Vegas Strip, "This Is How To Be Me."

We haven't found a fresher, more thorough or more engaging way to improve your driving. And you can do it in Corvettes. And if it doesn't work out the first day, you can always meditate on your mistakes at the gun range. Or the hot tub. Like we said, to each his own...

Related GalleryRon Fellows Performance Driving School

Photos copyright ©2011 Jonathon Ramsey / AOL, courtesy of Ron Fellows Performance Driving School


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