"Prepare for the white-knuckle
That's how Lexus advertised its Performance Driving School on its website and in its invitation to a recent event at New Jersey Motorsports Park in Millville.
As Mr. Driver's Seat, I play a performance driver in a weekly newspaper column, but my real experience has been limited to surreptitious thrills out on the open road. Now I could put somebody else's cars to the test in a closed course with professional drivers watching and teaching.
And you can too.
Racing Lexuses? Yes, it seems incongruous at first that the luxury division of Toyota (old motto: "Reliable like Dad; fast and nimble like him, too") would be shilling their performance times. Though the high-performance F division first launched with the 2008 IS F and expanded in 2010, this was the first time the brand had offered driving schools, according to Toyota/Lexus spokesman Corey Proffitt.
The class of about 36 students - owners, enthusiasts, and a few journalists - sat down to some classroom time before we headed out for events like slalom, skid pad, autocross, and lead/follow on the racetrack.
Chief driving instructor Jason Holehouse led the group through tips on seating position - "Butt anchored back in the seat; shoulders and back supported" - driving with your eyes - "Wherever your eyes go, your hands will follow" - and competing in the autocross - "Don't mistake smooth for slow."
He walked us through the course and how to maneuver turns that grow tighter as the car moves through them - brake first, then accelerate out of the corners.
If not? He traced the path of a car through the curve on a racetrack diagram. "This is where the tires start to squeal," Holehouse said, pointing to the beginning of the curve. Then moving on, he added, "This is where the passenger starts to squeal," until finally, "This is where the driver starts to squeal."
How about the competition? Driving enthusiast Todd MacDougal, 47, of Langhorne, is a veteran of such events. He'd driven with Dodge's SRT Experience three times and had paid for the Porsche Experience Center at its North American headquarters in Atlanta.
As the owner of a 2014 Ford Mustang GT, MacDougal had been waiting to get called for his first event driving his own car at New Jersey Motorsports Park. On the final day he would have gotten the green light for that event - a call that never came - he got an email from AutoWeek magazine telling him about the Lexus event.
"That just seemed like it was meant to be," MacDougal said.
As for price range, for the 2016 SRT event, the fee for non-owning drivers was $699; the Lexus event was $495 for the half-day and $895 for a full-day version. BMW also offers performance driving school in California and South Carolina, and other automakers do as well, usually limited to owners.
On the course: When it came time for the rubber to meet the track, my confidence momentarily waned; but then I realized our group started with the skid pad. After spending years driving around in the snows of Pennsylvania and northeast Ohio, I felt overqualified to spin doughnuts at about 15 mph around cones.
I buckled in,made some pretty quick circles and listened to the feedback of the instructors through the radio, and I felt as if I were a B student.
For the autocross, drivers donned crash helmets and drove through a timed course. Hitting a cone cost us two seconds here - and I managed to get through four rounds with all cones unscathed. I went from a 35-second time (the highest in the group) to just over 30, which was in keeping with the higher-end times. Victory!
Groups rode through the different events in pairs, a feature MacDougal liked, which is not always included in events.
"You could go through the autocross and see what you're doing," MacDougal said. "When you got back in the car, you had that to build on."
The final feature of the day: the lead-follow exercise on the racetrack, with drivers following the instructor's pace car. We exceeded 110 mph on the straightaways and screeched through the turns at a comparatively slow 60 or 70.
Marketer's pitch: Of course, no auto manufacturer event could be complete without a shot at selling you a car. Yes, I'd love a Lexus, thanks. But right now, it's mortgage or Lexus; choose one.
After some more chat, we were set free to go have lunch, but not before parting words from Holehouse.
"Very rarely do you get to go and flog a manufacturer's car out on private property," he said, and reminded us to be careful when exiting, because legal speeds will feel awfully slow.