Floor It: Inside Southern California's High-Speed Driving Schools
Where the A-list learns how to let loose that Lamborghini -- from the luxury automaker academies to the hot new racetracks that are luring the industry's big wheels.
This story first appeared in the Sept. 28 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
All his life, Josh Hutcherson had a passion for sports cars -- and for pushing them to the limit. But he never knew how to channel it until a stint at the Audi Sportscar Experience in Sonoma, Calif. "I love cars. I've grown up just driving like a maniac, and I finally got to do that in a legal place, which is nice," says The Hunger Games star. He recently spent a day doing cone and turning drills before circling the Sonoma Raceway in an R8 Coupe as part of the automaker's dedicated driving school (one day, $1,895).
Hutcherson is part of a tribe of industry enthusiasts who seek such thrills -- in everything from McLarens and Aston Martins to Formula 1 monsters -- at schools and high-end driving experiences nationwide and as far afield as an ice track near the Arctic Circle. It's easy to see why: Southern California ranks as the biggest U.S. sports-car market for some brands (including Lamborghini and Porsche) and at the same time suffers the nation's second-worst traffic (after -- surprise -- Honolulu, according to a recent study). In an era when street-legal cars like the 2013 Nissan GT-R (see review, page 62) provide performance once reserved for the racetrack, it's too tempting not to break free of West Third Street or Olympic's stop-and-go.
"You have no chance of going anywhere near the optimum performance threshold of these sports cars, which can get to 100 miles an hour in 5 ½ seconds. It's like having a $100,000 kitchen and only buying prepared meals," says race-car driver Justin Bell, an automobile reporter for the cable channel Speed and host of the eBay Motors web series World's Fastest Car Show, who does one-on-one driver training with private clients in L.A. (see sidebar).
Entertainment-biz speed freaks who want to put their own cars to the test often head to Willow Springs International Raceway (which had a cameo in Sofia Coppola's Somewhere). Owners can access the track, located about an hour north of L.A. near Lancaster, by joining a Southern California car club devoted to such autos as Shelbys, Cobras and Porsches.
Don't own a supercar? There are plenty of opportunities to get behind the wheel of the fastest cars under the sun, often with no experience necessary. Offerings at the 3-year-old Exotics Racing driving experience in Las Vegas, for example, include a Ferrari 458 Italia, a Lamborghini Aventador LP 700-4 and an Aston Martin Vantage S ($199 to $3,699, depending on number of laps). Its 1.4-mile, 11-turn private track, opened in April, was designed by owner Romain Thievin, a French championship driver who was Matt Damon's stunt double in The Bourne Identity.
While speed thrills abound, these academies and experiences (which run anywhere from a few hours to several days) are places to also improve handling skills, learn safety and understand increasingly complicated technology -- in a controlled environment. Earlier this year, New Line senior vp production Sam Brown got out of his Audi A5 Coupe and into a NASCAR race car at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif., participating in the Rusty Wallace Racing Experience (a birthday gift from his wife, Paramount vp production Amanda Brown; 12 laps, $499). "I'm not even a guy who is super into sports cars. I'm a guy who sits at a desk all day, and it was easy for me to do and one of the most exhilarating things I'd done in a long time," says Brown, who was gripping the curves at speeds as high as 150 miles an hour.
Car enthusiasts are eagerly anticipating two upcoming driving opportunities. In November, global racing circuit Formula 1 -- the subject of Ron Howard's 1970s-era film Rush, due out in 2013 -- will open its first purpose-built track (construction cost: $350 million) in Austin, which will include driving academies. In fall of 2013, Porsche is set to debut a 53-acre Experience Center in Carson, Calif., with a test track, special surfaces that replicate rain and ice conditions and an off-road area with 45-degree declines and ascents.
In this day and age, every sports car manufacturer worth its V-12 engines has its own proprietary academy to teach you its cars' unique capacities (prices range from hundreds of dollars for a few hours to thousands of dollars for longer). In addition to Audi, Aston Martin and Jaguar run performance schools at the Ford Proving Grounds in Romeo, Mich.; Ferrari Driving Experience participants visit Quebec, Canada; the Mercedes AMG Driving Academy sets up at five tracks throughout the U.S.; and Porsche has its Sport Driving School at Barber Motorsports Park in Birmingham, Ala.
Most of these schools are free with the purchase of each brand's flagship vehicle (think upward of $300,000 for starters), but they also offer paid options that can be useful for potential owners looking to extensively test top-of-the-line vehicles before making a heavy financial investment. Another perk: getting to drive a hotly anticipated car before it's readily available to consumers. Guests at the Lamborghini Academy, which takes place at various European locations, were at the front of the line to handle its new Aventador, which now has an 18-month wait list.
For a more far-flung destination, Mercedes' four- to five-day AMG Pro Ice Driving Experience ($6,100) takes drivers to the tiny town of Arjeplog in Swedish Lapland, where they learn handling skills (such as correcting from a sudden slide) in AMGs outfitted with special spike tires. Mercedes operates its own boutique lodge nearby, and there's a real igloo in which to enjoy a scotch at day's end.
These academies -- according to ICM partner John Burnham, a longtime car enthusiast and vintage racer -- are smart branding tools. "The manufacturers have figured out that this is a new way to get people interested in high-priced cars by spotlighting performance," he says.
Participants in DXL Prestige's tours ($6,995 to $14,995) aren't just driving the world's most advanced road-going production cars (Ferraris, Porsches, Mercedes, McLarens). Those with an auto-exotic fixation are doing it in the most gloriously over-the-top way possible, in locations from Pebble Beach, Calif., to Germany's Nurburgring motorsports complex.
Take the several-day Tuscany trip, for instance. It stops at specially closed-down Prada and Gucci boutiques for shopping sprees, visits ancient wineries for personal tastings and pulls over for Michelin-starred meals -- all accompanied by world-class former professional race car drivers like 24 Hours of Le Mans winner Didier Theys, who jump in your ride for personal lessons while you pilot, say, a 458 Italia. "You really do have an incredible experience," says actress and former Playboy Playmate Pilar Lastra. "Everything from beautiful hotels to history lessons, awesome food and amazing events -- like getting to sleep in the hotel that's right on the track in Germany."
The roving Formula GP Experience (four hours for $999) lets drivers learn the fundamentals of track racing (hard braking, throttle control, etc.) and practice on go-karts while being reviewed closely by instructors. Then they strap themselves into specially constructed three-seat Formula 1 race cars to experience the full stratospheric G-force of the sport alongside a professional Grand Prix driver -- such as American Le Mans driver Martin Plowman or the legendary Arie Luyendyk, a two-time Indy 500 winner.
"One of the most important things a student will learn is an understanding of the physical demands the car places upon them," explains Plowman of the critical aspect of riding in a real F1 car. While the school has existed for three years in Europe, the program is opening for the first time this fall in the U.S. -- with weekends currently booking in Palm Beach, Fla., New York, Chicago and Las Vegas before bowing in Austin in November in conjunction with the F1 race, which is expected to lure 120,000 fans.
RADAR DETECTORS NECESSARY
Some sports-car owners can't resist the urge to gun it right at home in L.A., despite safety and ticket risks. The famous stretch of Mulholland between Malibu and Agoura Hills known as The Snake is a draw for motorcyclists and speed demons (car fanatic Jay Leno has been spotted). Up where it gets windy is beyond the territory of most police -- and also rife with blind corners, absent guard rails and steep drop-offs, with little room for error. A Ducati could rip by any time at eye-blurring speeds. Another speed spot is Sepulveda between Pico and National, one of the longest uninterrupted road stretches in West L.A., and between the 405 and Marina del Rey is the 90, the world's shortest freeway at 2 miles long. "This is my favorite place to open up my Audi S4," says TV writer Matthew Carpenter (Painkiller Jane). "You can see so far ahead, there's really no room for cops to hide."
L.A.'S A-LIST PRIVATE COACH
When flush Angelenos get seduced by a shiny new supercar -- then realize they don't know the first thing about how to handle their six-figure-plus, high-performance gift to themselves -- some invariably find their way to Justin Bell. Sure, he teaches private clients (for $1,500 to $5,000 a day, not including track costs) in the serious pursuit of race-car driving skills. But Bell also will meet customers at their houses and take them out on Los Angeles' more challenging roads to help them understand how to make those Ferraris and Lamborghinis purr, even if it's just on a weekend zip to Malibu. "Sometimes there's a complete mismatch between the individual's talent and the capabilities of the car," says Bell (no relation to Lake Bell), who has worked with managers, producers and executives around town (he won't name names) to help improve how they handle their everyday sports cars. A race-car driver himself, he's the son of Derek Bell, a five-time 24 Hours of Le Mans winner and driver in Steve McQueen's classic 1971 film Le Mans. When clients first come to him, says Bell, they often see cars as simply a way to get from A to B -- or as an extension of their ego. "But driving is a skill. The mental element and the physical interaction that you need to be great behind the wheel is as tough to teach as learning to play amazing golf," says Bell (who coached the likes of Drew Barrymore and Gerard Butler for segments when he was an auto correspondent for The Jay Leno Show). The only problem, he admits, "is that telling someone who has been driving for 20 years how to improve their driving isn't always the smoothest road."