This past weekend I took the 328 down to Kilgore to go through the Practical Driving Improvement course sponsored via the East Texas Police Academy and Kilgore College. Excecutive Summary: WOOHOOO! I HAD A BLAST! GOTTA GO AGAIN, NEXT WEEKEND WOULDN'T BE TOO SOON! Longer version follows First, go here: http://blc1.kilgore.cc.tx.us/etpa/pdi.htm That's the home site of the course. Inital thoughts, then detailed thoughts: 1) Minis and Audis are pretty impressive cars 2) It's taken 15 years for them to catch up to the 328 3) Threshold braking is pretty cool, and something I didn't know about before. 4) Rotation + panic braking in a mid-engined car == smoke, 180 degree view of the course, and lots of cones flying..... 5) It'll buff out 6) Rotation + power on in a mid-engined car == smoke, 360 degree view of the course, and a massive grin 7) It'll buff out 8) The "highway course" (a 1 mile road course with almost no straightaways) is a kick. I have to find a real track day soon! This course was billed as a driving instrucion class for civilians to improve their safety skills. It's probably the best $50 (+housing+food+gas+detailing) that I've ever spent. We spent 2 solid days learning the limits of the cars and ourselves -- I exceeded both several times. The class is usually smaller, but this time we had almost 30 drivers and a ton of cars. Lots of MINIs and Audis, with the occasional VW/BMW/Vette/etc thrown in. Oh, yeah. There was a Ferrari there too. The people were all great, the instructions were great, and the weather was great once it warmed up in the morning. The class started with an exercise called the Lollipop. There's an official name for it, but I forget what it is. You start by slaloming through a set of 4 pylons, then turn around a circle of cones so you're pointing back at the start, and then come back through the pylons. The point is to teach car control, shuffle steering, and how inertia affects the cars in tight turns. The Crown Vics run it in the 20 second range, so they set the requirements for us in the 18 second range. I'm a lousy driver, but in this particular event the Ferrari power and handling helped significantly. Even with a bad turn around the lollipop I qualified in the first run. A few runs later I was trying a different line and somehow got the rear end rotating. As I spun around I hit the gas and ended up with a complete 360 aimed right back down the course. I just went ahead and powered through the slalom and enjoyed the grins on everyone elses face. I was laughing too! After everyone qualified on the lollipop (some cars had trouble, including a Subaru WRX that had significant turbo lag problems), we broke into two groups. My group got to do a pair of precision handling drills, called the Box and Back. The Box is a tight maze of cones, all right angle turns and about 2 feet wide. Well, it's actually a lane wide, but it doesn't feel like it. The point is to learn the best way through the turns (hint: wide arcs) while not clipping any cones. Our qualifying time was 30 seconds. It took several times, but I finally got a 29 to qualify. Not a bad time without power steering. The MINIs loved this course, it was as if it was custom built for them. I think the record was in the 26 second range. Next was the Back. At least this one wasn't timed, otherwise I'd still be back there. In this one you had to back through a maze without tagging any cone. Quick, what's the first rule of Italian driving? "What's behind me does not matter!" There's a reason for that. Blind spots and slow steering mean that there's no way I could hit the 1:10 qualifying time they use for the Crown Vics. I'd be stunned if I was under 3 minutes. I did get through it, with people calling the corners of the car as I cranked the wheel. I was more than a bit sore the next morning That night was barbecue at a local joint. Good ribs but we overwhelmed the staff. On the second day the groups switched setups, and my group got to do the highway evasion and react-and-respond drills. The course setup for this is a single lane of asphalt leading to a large patch of concrete. Cones separate this concrete area into three lanes -- one straight ahead, one to the left, and one to the right. Traffic lights hang above each lane -- more on those later. For the lane evasion we had to rocket down this lane (almost a sidewalk, it was that narrow) and then change out of the center lane to the left hand one. The center lane is blocked by cones, and you have a mere 18 foot gap in which to move to the left hand lane. Then a bit further on you have to jump back into the center lane. To pass, you have to do this twice, cleanly, at 40 and 50 MPH. I killed a bunch of cones My car didn't have any stability problems, but I kept clipping the cone with the left rear panel. Finally the instructor got fed up with me and ran it himself in the Ferrari, and clipped the left rear panel. Another instructor was watching and said that the car was reacting quicker than expected, and so I should just barely delay the move. Once I did that, I started hitting the gap much better. At 50, I learned what hitting the brakes when the car is rotating does. I turned to the left and the car oversteered on the recovery. Instead of just riding it out and taking the cones, I tried to save it with the brakes. Very bad idea! The rear end came around and I ended up plowing through the course in reverse, scattering cones like democrats running from tax cuts. Smoke, noise and I stopped facing up the course. So the instructor and I had a little talk and he explained what I did wrong. I came back through and hit it almost perfect. When we all qualified, then they made it tough. The next exercise was the react-and-respond. Remember the traffic lights? The three lanes were opened, and when the car comes down the lane towards the concrete pad the instructors use the traffic lights to close certain lanes. You then have 1.5 seconds to realize which lanes are closed and react accordingly. Green means the lane's open, yellow means the lane is usable but slow down, red means that lane is closed. Three reds means stop NOW! I did really well in this one. Some others had problems, and some swore the lights weren't turned on until after they passed them Now on to the Grand Finale The highway course is a 1 mile road course designed to test how well you've picked up on the skills. It is mainly curves, with a concrete and asphalt surface designed to upset your car as you swing through them. It also includes evasive maneuvers and diminishing radius turns. Most importantly, it's fun to run. Qualifying time was 1:05. The instructors could run through faster than than in beat up Crown Vics. And honest to God, I saw them scream through the thing in a Crown Vic in reverse and almost hit that time. Really very impressive. My first run was a 1:07. I asked an instructor to ride along the next time and he helped with the lines. I also made a point of riding with people who were faster than me. Over 7 runs, I dropped my time from 1:07 to 1:00 flat, and was still improving when they stopped timing people (although we kept running the course). The best time of the day was a 57.something in a MINI. The record is held by one of the instructors at 54 seconds in a DPS Mustang Interceptor. I would STRONGLY recommend this course to people who haven't had any sort of performance driving school. I really felt I improved my skills, and I learned what my car would do in a moment of need. The class probably isn't useful for dedicated track junkies or SCCA roadracing gods, but everyone else should take something similar at some point in their lives. Earlier, when I mentioned going to this on the boards there was grave concern about the possibility of damage to the cars. Well, I did everything wrong, had the car backwards, spinning, took out lines of cones, and had scuff marks all over that 328. Every bit of it came off when I had the car detailed on Monday. That's not to say that damage is not possible, but my car didn't have any. If you take your Fcar, make sure the cooling system is in good shape because we did a bunch of idling. Also, we were driving through grass, parking on grass, and the roads to the place were typical east Texas county roads. That means loose rocks and gravel is a possibility. The people are great, the education is great, and the price can't be beat. The fext one is in Mirch or April of!2004 and I fully plan on being there with the 328. Come join us!