Some people think fully self driving, autonomous cars are only a couple years away, or maybe three to five years. Or maybe who really knows, given the troubles some of the big autonomous driving companies are having recently. It turns out driving is hard, and programming software to handle all its complexity may be even be harder.
In the meantime, it’s going to be humans like you and me behind the wheel. Given that most of us had our one bout of basic training back in driver’s ed class - where in my case my instructor (a PE teacher) read the newspaper while I creeped ever so slowly into the one, big, gnarly circular intersection in my hometown - it may be time for some of us to hone those basic skills, and learn new ones.
Imagine my surprise when I discovered some of these basic skills - that could save my life at some point - we’re tightened up during a posh track experience at the Porsche Experience Center (PEC) in Atlanta.
You see, I was thinking this was going to be a fun story about Porsche (PAH3.DE) giving its loyal fans and customers a once in a lifetime, track-like experience: ripping a 911 around the PEC’s one-mile handling circuit, blasting off a few times with launch control, and learning how to oversteer and drift with wild abandon.
We did do a couple of those things (no drifting, of course), but the course also provided some enhanced skills to negotiate a unique car - in this case, a 911 GT3 - in conditions one doesn’t normally encounter (until it’s too late) ...
Porsche offers a slew of courses, or experiences, at its Porsche Experience Center in Atlanta, as well as a new facility out in Los Angeles. The PEC is basically a Disney World for Porsche enthusiasts - a track for driving courses, fine dining and catering at your service, and rare Porsches everywhere.
I decided to take the Porsche 911 GT3 experience at the Atlanta location. The 90-minute course includes personal, one-on-one instruction from one of Porsche’s driving coaches. I was paired with ex-race car driver and all-around awesome guy, Melvin Hodges.
We headed into the classroom first, where Melvin went over the essentials of the class, what we were trying to accomplish, and most importantly the different parts of the track at the PEC.
Where the magic happens
We began the course getting warmed up on the one-mile handling circuit that surrounds the entire track. We took it slow around the corners, learning the nuances of the track, and of course the dynamics of the 911 GT3.
Now a little more info on the GT3. Think of it as a race car that’s street legal, but dialed back just a tad so civilians have a chance of actually being able to drive it. Sporting 500 horsepower from a naturally-aspirated (rare these days) 4.0 liter flat six, the GT3 howls to 60 mph in just 3.8 seconds, on the way toward a top speed of 198 mph. Yes, this is serious sports car that can hang with most supercars.
After our short time on the handling track and a couple of launch control-induced blast offs, it was time to head into the main entree, or ‘course’ if you will: the handling and dynamics area.
The first area we tackled was the kick plate. Here’s out it works: driving at around 20 mph, when the GT3 enters the beginning of the wet surface, sensors trigger the kick plate to move, sending the back of the car sliding at random similar to what may occur during wet weather or snow conditions. Since you don’t know which way the rear of the car will skid or spin, drivers must counter-steer quickly and effectively, to right the car and get it back under control.
Needless to say this took a few a tries. Even for someone like me who tests all kinds of cars and trucks and does a few track days during the year, getting used to driving on a wet surface where you don’t know when the rear of your car gets spun out, is disorienting at first. But after repeated tries you do get acclimated to the slick conditions, and the dynamics of the car.
And it’s this repetition, and Melvin in my ear coaching me, that gave me the skills I need to potentially handle a similar situation if it occurs in real life. A similar situation happening in a busy intersection could mean severe injury or worse, if you aren’t able to get under control.
I’m not exaggerating here either. Whether it’s in a course like Porsche’s, or similar hands-on tutorial that helps drivers with inclement conditions, it’s these skills that could make the difference.
In a similar vein to the skid plate, the low friction surface or skidpad part of the PEC gives drivers another opportunity to get a feel for the GT3, a rare rear-engine car that most drivers aren’t accustomed to driving. As Melvin says, the skidpad allows us to push the car to the limit of adhesion on the road, and feel how different the GT3 is versus other cars.
As you can imagine, ‘blipping’ or tapping the accelerator pedal on the wet surface while turning induced some pretty heavy oversteer. How do you correct a car that’s in an induced oversteer? In this environment, practicing with no consequence can give drivers the ability to ‘catch’ that oversteer with proper steering technique, to correct the car’s trajectory. Again, something that could come in quite handy when your car’s back end get’s a little “loose,” as they say in the Nascar world.
Putting it all together
The other portions of the experience, like the slalom and the low friction handling circuit (where the driver encounters extreme understeer conditions), were just as informative. I came away with a better understanding of the nuances involved in driving a finely tuned machine like the 911 GT3, but also the skills that could help me as a driver avoid major pitfalls that one encounters driving the icy, winter roads of the Northeast. Having a great instructor like Melvin there the whole time provided instant feedback after every mistake, and skill attained.
Oh yes, let’s not forget that spending 90 minutes doing anything in a 911 GT3 is a downright blast. That alone is worth the cost of admission for the PEC 911 GT3 driving school, I mean, experience.
The Porsche Experience Center 911 GTE experience costs $875 and is only available in Atlanta and Los Angeles. If the course doesn’t sound like your cup of tea, but you’d like to buy your own 911 GT3, the starting price is $143,600.