KERSHAW, S.C. – When you work at Ford Racing, sometimes there are perks of the job – and then sometimes there are really perks of the job. That was most certainly the case when I got to spend a weekend this summer with the Carolina Regional Mustang Club at their 13th Annual Driving School at Carolina Motorsports Park in Kershaw, South Carolina. With some of the best instructors imaginable, this top-notch experience gives young driving enthusiasts an up-close look at the capabilities of their vehicles, the taste of road racing, and an enjoyable weekend with people who like to drive fast – safely.
Although hosted by a dyed-in-the-wool Mustang club, the guys with Carolina Regional open up the raceway sessions to all makes and models just so that drivers of all ages can share in their passion for road racing. I personally had the date circled on my calendar ever since I got the assignment early in the year, and was looking forward to getting an opportunity to enjoy what performance cars are engineered to do. I hopped on a plane, picked up my rental car and headed out to the track and, before I knew it, I was in an 8 a.m. Instructor’s Meeting on a bright Saturday morning, learning just what the weekend was going to be all about.
Being from Ford Racing, I think some of the crew figured I should be assigned a high-level class but I wanted to get the full experience so I signed up in the beginner’s group, as I had no real road racing experience, and was ready to start from scratch like all the others in attendance. The instructors for the meeting and in-car assignments are all volunteers, paid only by free track time and seeing the enjoyment their students are experiencing. Topics at the meeting included passing procedures, goals for the divisions, and the three main points of emphasis in terms of importance: Safety, Learning, and Fun.
Immediately following the instructors meeting, an announcement came over the track loud speakers that the drivers meeting was to happen next. There, the drivers were told about all the fun that was about to happen after they get into their cars. James, Jim and Tom went over the basics with how the track was to be run and, looking at the group, it was obvious from all the nervous faces that some of the drivers were going to be learning once they get out on the track.
The drivers in attendance were broken up into four groups based upon their experience level. The three lowest groups had to attend special classes where the instructors mixed key information with some humor to put the beginners at ease. The class taught us what we were expected to accomplish in our first of four track sessions. Going through the basics, we were taught about steering through the slalom, reaction times, and braking exercises -- all which gave me more of an understanding about a car’s capabilities than I have learned in 10 years of driving.
Rocky was my first instructor, and with tons of racing experience under his belt I felt comfortable following his direction in pushing my car to its limits. I recall his attempts to have a casual conversion with me through our radio while I was holding on for dear life trying to steer and brake through the turns, swerving for the first time in anything other than a go-kart. After exercising more control after a few laps, I soon began to feel more relaxed.
The second class after our first track session was certainly more boisterous as the smiles and excitement of everyone in the room could no longer be contained. It was clear we had all caught the track bug. The instructor went over what was to be accomplished in our next session, and he proved right on point as we slowly but surely began to feel more and more comfortable throwing our cars around the race course.
With a couple breaks in between I got to hang out with some of the club guys and discovered just how much this weekend meant to them. Stepping down as Head Instructor for the first year, James Ray finally got to relax and a bit and enjoy the weekend as more of a spectator and organizer than the on-track head honcho. James told me that the school’s attendance has continued to climb and climb until finally this year the track had no empty slots in any of its groups. The good news is that the club has no plans to stopping the school event any time soon; sharing his passion (he is a regular atop the podium in NASA racing) is what makes him love being a member of the Carolina Regional Mustang Club (CMRC). Most clubs, including CRMC, have an enduring brand loyalty to the Mustang and all of its history. But as James told me, it doesn’t matter what you drive if you are a true driving enthusiasts – they just love to give people the opportunity to see what high performance driving is all about.
Session after session with my second instructor of the weekend saw me become more and more comfortable behind the wheel. The classroom sessions taught me about apexes, breaking points, track etiquette, and working on the “ideal line” which needs to be quickly translated to the track. Putting all that together helped my speed and smoothness grow and grow.
The most amazing part of the learning process – not only for myself but everyone in attendance – is finding out the limits of their vehicles. While instincts may have told me to hit the brakes every time I entered a turn at 85-90 mph, my instructor told me to steer through – seemingly putting my life in the hands of a man I had met just 36 hours prior! As a testament to the quality of instructors involved, what he taught me actually made me a better and safer driver. With a total of 200 minutes of track time for every driver, attendees got plenty of seat time to either practice their skills or at least try to develop a few.
I can vouch that the CRMC puts on an absolutely amazing weekend event. James even had a sign-up sheet for ride-a-longs in his custom-built Mustang race car that was three years in the making. They also had a raffle, with the grand prize covering entry into next year’s school, as well as a professional photographer on hand so that you could get pictures of you in your car on the track. Even if you weren’t out on the track driving at speed, a simple walk through the infield paddock area was a car show in and of itself – with GT500s, BOSS’s, Terminators, and even a few vintage Cobras, there was plenty of interest to be had off the track as well!
FORD PERFORMANCE PHOTOS / COURTESY NEIL CLAPP