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.

FinishLine Racing School provides short-track racing classes over one to three days, for $1,395 to $4,295, behind the wheel of a real NASCAR Winston competition car.

But it's not only NASCAR racers: You can get behind the wheel of a 600-horsepower IndyCar racer at the Mario Andretti Racing School or an authentic Formula Mitsubishi at the Jim Russell Racing School. The Andretti school offers everything from a $75 ride-along to a $2,999 day-and-a-half program consisting of six sessions on the track.

The Bridgestone Racing Academy, based in Toronto, brings a slightly different approach to the concept. In addition to its Reynard Formula car training, it offers a nine-race, three-weekend F2000 Racing Series, featuring a genuine winner's ceremony at the podium. It's yours for the measly sum of C$11,990.

Obviously, the living legends the schools are named after are seldom seen during the classes, with a few rare exceptions. One is coming up on Nov. 12. On that Sunday, Mario Andretti will be offering ride-alongs at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway as part of the Mario Andretti Las Vegas Fantasy Day. For $1,299 a ride, you can motor with the legend around the speedway for three laps at mind-bending pace.

Corporate events are also a big draw for the race schools, offering a unique way to impress clients, reward overworked employees or conduct team-building exercises.

Most car types are available for these events -- even dragsters -- and some schools have mobile facilities they can locate on a nearby site.

You and your employees can drive authentic Nextel Cup cars, compete in a sports-car autocross or participate in the "Pit Stop Challenge," racing against the clock in a simulated pit-stop environment. RaceSchools.com provides links to schools with corporate programs.

And if you've ever had a desire to be blasted into space, perhaps a safer alternative is to take guided runs at a dragster school.

Frank Hawley's Drag Racing School can give you training with gas-powered super-comp dragsters, explosive alcohol-powered funny cars, and even 250-horsepower Pro Stock Suzuki motorcycles, all helping you reach your dream of hitting 203 mph in a 5-second quarter mile.

Some of these cars require extensive racing experience to operate, though, and you'd better not forget to fill out that National Hot Rod Association medical form.

Or maybe you really feel the racing life is for you and you want to pursue a professional driving career. Many schools provide training toward NHRA Championship Drag Racing certification and assist grads in obtaining Sports Car Club of America regional competition licensing.

Whether it becomes a lifelong relationship or is just a fling, you'll have an automotive affair to remember at race-car school.



Enjoy the Good Life? Email us with what you'd like to see in future articles.

Russell Dean Vines is the president and founder of The RDV Group Inc., a New York-based security consulting services firm, and a bestselling author. His most recent book is "Phishing: Cutting the Identity Theft Line," published by John S. Wiley and Sons.

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