*January 2006 saw the launch of the Skip Barber High Performance Driving School. Unlike any other school we've attended, this program not only teaches basic and advanced car control techniques, it also lets you test a variety of high-performance vehicles in a high-performance environment.
Skip Barber already has highly successful racing school programs, so where did the idea of a high-performance driving school come from? George Ayres, president and CEO, answers: "We saw that in the last 10 years, baby boomers have more interest in lifestyles and experiences, which has aided in the growth of the high-performance premium car market. We recognized where the high-performance market is going, and created a new program people would like. And since our customers drive these types of cars already, maybe they'd want to drive them with our instructors and get the most out of them."
Companies like BMW and Porsche offer high-performance driving schools with their products, but Skip Barber's approach is unique. "Although these factory programs do offer skills instruction, they're mostly brand loyalty programs," says Ayres.
"It's more of a sales strategy than a driving skills strategy-which is our mission. We don't make or sell cars, so we've got a unique experience where there's a multi-car comparison, including front-, rear- and all-wheel drivetrains, as well as front-, mid-, and rear-mounted engine layouts in a high-performance environment. Factory schools can't really do that."
Having participated in numerous car club driving schools where one brings his/her own car and flogs it on the track, my expectations weren't especially high. I thought Skip Barber's two-day course in Sebring, Florida, would be more of the same. After the first day, however, it became obvious where the extra money goes in this program.
First, you're driving very different cars-some of which exceed $75,000-and driving them hard. The instructors encourage you to disable the traction control. Second, jumping from car to car to see the real differences is a great opportunity that perhaps only the instructors at weekend car club driving schools-or automotive journalists-get. Besides track time, there is also get wet skidpad training with sudden changes in asphalt grip, emergency lane-change maneuvers with full ABS testing, specific heel-toe training-even double-clutch downshift training for dog-geared drivers or synchro-shot Alfa Romeo owners-all in one school. Plus, you save all that wear and tear on your own car.
Skip Barber's fleet comes untouched from the factory. Even the alignments are set to factory specs for accurate comparisons. Put the Sebring road course together with M3s, Porsche 911s and S4s, and it's a perfect day for any fan of German engineering. All three cars are within 15 hp of each other, yet behave so differently due to their layouts and weight differences (a 420-hp Audi RS4 was there too, but the clutch had been toasted the previous day by a student who liked to ride the clutch pedal).
The school also uses new Vipers and Porsche Boxsters at some of its other locations, which include Lime Rock, Laguna Seca, Road America and the Daytona Speedway. "We're always looking to add more cars to the fleet to meet customer demands," says Ayres.
Although I enjoyed a good amount of track time at the end of the second day (Sebring's Turn 17 is really something), the best part was on the wet skidpad in a BMW 330i. Here I learned the most and gained more confidence in overall car control, especially in wet conditions.
The launch at Laguna Seca has been a big success for Skip Barber, with nearly every seat being filled. When asked why he thought the take-up rates were so high, marketing director Dan Hubbard replies: "It's basically explained by the input I get from people who have done it. One student said: 'I check out BMW and Porsche dealerships, and all I get to drive is a few blocks. Here, I get to push it on the autocross, skidpad and track.' It's an environment they're not getting anywhere else."