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Pedal to the Metal

Life in the Fast Lane
You don't have to have seen the movie Grand Prix a dozen times to crave the power of driving a real race car. You can live the fantasy right now, at a high-performance racing school.

There are dozens of driving schools across the U.S. that provide a hands-on race-car experience.

This growing trend attracts both racing enthusiasts and aspiring professional race-car drivers -- even everyday people hoping to improve their defensive driving skills.

And a few laps on a famous course is becoming a popular high-end gift.

Every conceivable type of car, from NASCAR and Grand Prix to dragsters and go-carts, has its associated school.

Auto manufacturers such as BMW and Audi have high-performance programs, and racing stars such as Mario Andretti and Richard Petty are often enlisted to bring in the students.

Some schools provide their own track, while others use existing raceways like Watkins Glen in New York, Laguna Seca in California and Lime Rock in Connecticut.

Classes typically run from several hours to several days. Prices vary widely -- from $75 for a three-lap ride to $5,000 for a full week leading to racing certification.

Most schools have no minimum requirements other than a valid drivers license.

Some cars, such as Formula racers, however, have a size restriction, limiting drivers to under 6'3" and 220 pounds. And many of these schools offer "bring-a-friend" packages, with substantial discounts for additional drivers.

Days of Thunder

A typical course holds classroom sessions in the morning, then it's off to the track in the afternoon, to learn control, braking and driving fundamentals.

Sometimes the instructor is in the seat next to you, guiding you through a helmet-to-helmet communication device. Or you may follow the instructor, who's driving another race car or a pace car. As you get more experienced, you may even participate in "dog fights" by lapping other racers.

For the less adventurous, almost all schools offer ride-alongs, where you'll ride shotgun as the driver powers through laps at over 180 mph. These ride-alongs can be found at almost every major speedway event and are a cheap and noncommittal way to see if you can take the speed.

Several carmakers also offer high-performance skills classes. For example, both the Audi Driving Experience and the BMW Performance Driving School offer a choice of one- or two-day programs combining classroom theory with hands-on driving.

Satisfy the Need for Speed

The courses teach, among other skills, off-road recovery and skid-control maneuvers, emergency lane changes with controlled braking techniques and inclement-weather control. Some courses are geared for teens or first-time drivers and provide invaluable defensive-driving experience.

Your Own Le Mans

Many popular NASCAR race schools, such as Richard Petty's and Jeff Gordon's, can put you in a car for as little as $399.

After receiving instruction, you'll suit up, get buckled into an authentic Nextel Cup car and drive six to 10 laps around the speedway.

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