Not Just a Luxury Brand – Unleashing the Lexus Love for Performance
In 1983, Toyota secretly undertook a project to build the world’s best car. The project resulted in the 1989 launch of Lexus, a premium brand with its own identity. On August 1, 1989, staff from eager Lexus dealers converged on the Monterey Peninsula in California to get their first exposure to the new brand. Laguna Seca was the track chosen as the venue to first get dealers behind the wheel and see what the Toyota engineers had created.
Fast forward to 2006. Lexus had established itself as a viable global brand with its own identity. The time was right to give the brand a performance edge to go with its luxury road car manners. Toyota engineers used the Fuji Speedway in Japan as their testing ground. The Lexus “F” series began with the IS F four-door sedan. In 2009, the mighty LF-A coupe followed as a limited production Lexus halo car in production form after a development program that included competing in race trim at Nürburgring 24 hours for several years.
These days, Lexus is still a luxury brand but those that know to look for the “F” badge on select models know about the performance edge. The stylized F badge hints at the potential of eight-cylinder horsepower and clever engineering waiting beneath the skin. The good news is that Lexus doesn’t want to keep the secret.
The Speed Journal and resident driver Jeff Francis recently decided to check out the Lexus Performance Driving School at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca. Laguna Seca is a favorite haunt for The Speed Journal and the chance to spend a day flogging a trio of Lexus performance models through a driving school was irresistible. Francis packed his helmet and headed to the California coast.
On a typically foggy Monterey morning, over 40 drivers met in the suites above the garages for breakfast and informal meeting and greeting. While many were Lexus owners, a good number were new to the brand and curious to get a taste at the iconic Laguna Seca venue. The Driving School is open to the full range of experience and skill levels.
Host David Morinelli fired up the crowd, welcomed them to the event and previewed the agenda. The goals for the day were simple – experience Lexus, elevate driving skill and have fun! He then introduced Scott Pruett, a very familiar personality to racing fans with his years of professional racing competition in IMSA, Trans-Am, CART, and NASCAR racing. Beyond his racing resume, Pruett has been integrally involved in the development of Lexus road cars for many years. Most relevant, Pruett has been involved with “F” model development from its inception. Pruett remained deeply engaged with the guests throughout the day, taking on roles of lead instructor, brand ambassador, host, and driver.
Rather than taking photos and signing autographs, it was refreshing to see Pruett rolling up his sleeves and getting involved in the details to ensure the day exceeded guests’ expectations. Pruett is known for more than just motorsports – he and his wife also own and operate a California winery that produces high quality small-lot red wines. The contrast between fast-paced racing and slow and steady cultivation of delicate grapes may be stark, but the attention to detail required to get the best result out of the available resources lines up perfectly.
Pruett and a group of instructors emphasized five principles – vision, vehicle control, driving confidence, driving line, and ultra-performance. They encouraged guests to challenge their limits in order to learn skills transferrable to the street. Rather than assuming that owners come equipped with a certain skill level, Lexus strives to amplify and develop the driver skills that exist. The Lexus Performance Driving School is just part of that overall philosophy.
The large group broke into four smaller groups to get the program underway. Francis and his group headed for a chalk talk that emphasized braking techniques and lines through corners. Michelin supplies the tires for all of the Lexus driving school cars and representatives were on hand throughout the day. The Lexus instructors explained how weight transfer and turning the car can increase or decrease the tire surface area that is in contact with the road. The relationship between manufacturer and tire supplier runs deep, and both Michelin and Lexus are clearly proud of their 25+ years relationship.
Pruett shared his insights with the smaller group based on his years of experience with both racing and road cars. He made the guests feel welcome and comfortable during the discussion of his experience with Indycars in the 1990s, safety developments, and the march of technology as manufacturers are using electric power to develop hybrids, electric cars and even potentially autonomous vehicles. It was a fascinating chance to look back across a few decades of very interesting history and to also glimpse forward into the future a bit.
The time for talking was done and the group moved to an autocross track set up with cones across the paved paddock. The tool for the tight and twisty autocross course was the most powerful sedan ever made by Lexus, the GS F. The four-door sedan had a split personality with refinement sufficient to qualify as a luxury car but robust performance waiting to spring into action. The normally aspirated V-8 engine produces 467 horsepower and is capable of a 168mph top speed but the autocross course made more use of torque and grip than terminal velocity.
Each student pushed their GS F through the course in three timed runs through the twisty course with a cone box set up at the end for a finish. The course employed skills described in the classroom but releasing the full might of a performance car to demonstrate the concepts proved to be the best way to learn. The four-door sedan ran like a sport coupe, yet stopped on a dime at the end with phenomenal Brembo brakes and grippy Michelin tires.
Instructors next ushered the group to a fleet of LC 500 coupes for work on braking and the technique of cornering with the ideal line. There were 3-4 cars per instructor, so each student received sufficient attention. The LC 500 coupe (LC for “Lexus Coupe”) does not carry an “F” badge, but benefits from Lexus performance knowledge and pedigree. Whispers suggested that an LC 500 “F” model might be coming in the future equipped with 650 horsepower, a material jump over the “base” LC 500 model with its 471 horsepower.
Stefan Wilson was the driving instructor for Francis and his small group. Wilson’s coaching benefits from years of open-wheel experience, both in England and the US, as well as two appearances at the Indy 500 – putting him in elite company. As with other instructors, he was charming, engaging and effective.
The exercises for the LC 500 focused on heavy braking into Laguna Seca turns 2 and 11. Students lined up a distance from each turn, floored the throttle and hurtled towards the braking zone. Upon arriving at cones set up trackside, they mashed the brake pedal – triggering the anti-lock brakes and controlling the car until at a full stop. The anti-lock brakes kept the Michelins from fully locking up and sliding across the pavement under braking, something many students had never really experienced. So, the track exercise prepared them should the moment arise driving on the street.
With some braking knowledge to their credit, Instructor Wilson next led the group around the track for lead and follow laps. The group followed in a line and after each lap the first car would peel off and fall to the end, allowing each student to shadow the instructor car directly. Not only did the laps provide students the experience of driving around the track, they also demonstrated the proper line in, through and out of each corner. These laps were at marginal speeds but the goal was to establish fundamentals before afternoon laps at higher speeds.
A mid-day break for catered lunch on top of the pit suites gave a chance to refresh while watching other students continue to circulate around the track. The setting provided a fantastic view of the cars navigating turn 11 and then launching down the long front straight forwards the Andretti hairpin at the other end. Some guests took the opportunity for simulator laps while others took the break for a closer look at the Lexus cars on hand. Lexus staff seemed genuinely proud to be on-site at Laguna Seca. In 2018, Lexus took an official partner and sponsor role with the track. Laguna Seca became the home for the Lexus Driving School programs. Prominent Lexus signage around the track and Lexus cars serving as pace cars for professional racing events are other tangible signs of the partnership.
Fully fed and ready for more, Instructor Wilson led the group back to the track for more laps in the LC 500. Speeds picked up and laps became more aggressive. The coupe’s comfort and luxury made for a very comfortable way to practice correct racing lines. The coupe’s performance matched its handsome styling. Wilson progressively increased the pace as the group became more proficient. The event was performance driving as opposed to racing, so nobody worried about making passes or challenging the stopwatch.
The LC 500 handled corners such as the enormous corkscrew with ease. Performance cars can often sacrifice comfort, wind noise, or a smooth ride but the LC 500 spared the driver of those compromises. The Michelin tires hugged corners and responded with confidence when pushed. The coupe’s exhaust note was just enough to signal the performance credentials while maintaining a refined grand touring car experience. Pushing a LC 500 performance car around the 2.238-mile track at speed with its significant elevation changes was a thrill, particularly for those encountering Laguna Seca for the first time.
The party next moved to the skid pad and a chance to drive the RC F, the baby brother to the LC 500. Two large circles were laid out on the paddock pavement for two cars to run at the same time. Water sprayed on the pavement helped reduce friction. Students circled slowly around cones in the center and then mashed the gas to break the rear tires loose, kick out the rear end of the car and steer into a slide.
With judicious steering and throttle inputs, the RC F maintained a graceful and steady slide around the circle. Of course, describing the theory and putting it into practice are two entirely different things. The 472-horsepower rear wheel drive RC F eagerly welcomed the effort, but it was very easy to use too much throttle and spin the car, or too little and fail to initiate a drift at all. The good news is that it was easy to gather up the car and try again.
With a little practice, some quickly got the hang of the technique. Turning off the electronic nannies usually dedicated to maintaining friction and grip in the RC F effectively converted the two-door coupe into a well-balanced drifting machine. Great fun but also a lesson in car control.
The final session of the day had the groups return to the autocross course for a competition using the GS F sedan. Each student did three laps to log their best time. It was rewarding to watch lap times drop as students applied their skills and confidence to the course they started out on much earlier in the day.
Once all the student laps were completed, Scott Pruett loaded the GS F with students in the front and rear seat and showed how the autocross course could be done. Even knowing that Pruett would blow away the best student lap times, it was remarkable to watch his speed, precise lines and consistent lap times. The weight penalty of three extra bodies on board seemed to have no effect. After Pruett rocketed the GS F through the narrow pylon autocross course, his thrilled passengers emerged with big smiles, giggles, and high fives.
As if the autocross laps weren’t enough, the instructors lined up a trio of GS F cars along the pit wall and took the students on hotlaps of the full Laguna Seca course. The three cars rocketed around the track together in tight formation. Smoke from the Michelins poured off the rear wheels as the sedans drifted together through the corners. Considering that most students had never been on a race track prior to the day nor been in a car at such speeds, the laps were a special experience. Doing it together in clusters of three Lexus sedans running only feet from each other was an unforgettable roller coaster ride around the Laguna Seca track.
While this was the highlight for most, a few students earned a Michelin token, passed out by instructors during the day to recognize them for something positive. The token was redeemable for a full course hot lap driven by Scott Pruett in a RC F Track Edition. The RC F Track Edition takes a “regular” RC F and sprinkles it with race car flavor by saving weight. Carbon fiber body panels, lighter wheels, titanium exhaust, and aerodynamic treatments all contribute to the cause. What a privilege to see Pruett up close at work in a machine designed to make use of his racing skills.
Pruett ran the car hard, picking out precise lines and keeping the Lexus on a knife’s edge. Despite the speeds and cornering forces, he provided his own commentary through the lap, noting gear changes, speed numbers, and nuances of the track. His calm demeanor was just as if he was telling a friend about the latest vintage of cabernet or syrah from his vineyard.
One real benefit of the close view was watching Pruett’s hands and feet work together in a symphony of smooth movement. Clearly comfortable in his environment, Pruett effortlessly demonstrated the skills described during the day such as left foot braking, smooth steering inputs, quick paddle shifts and continually looking down the track and through corners. Watching a master work his craft was a treat to watch and worth the price of admission alone.
To top it off, Pruett asked each passenger for an extra moment at the end of the lap before exiting. The passenger enters their mobile phone number into the small camera attached to the windshield and a specially designed Lexus video arrives by text in a short while. The video combines clips from the passenger’s personal hotlap together with an energetic Lexus promotional video. The result is a keepsake that gives the sense of a personal test day with Scott Pruett and the RC F Track Edition at Laguna Seca. The video is a special touch and a wonderful parting gift.
All good things must eventually come to an end, and this day did as well. The final debriefing took place with the entire group, during which Pruett handed out a few performance awards for high achievers. The Lexus Performance Driving Experience, however, isn’t just about awards or trophies as the smiles and memories of a great day at the track will be their own rewards. The access to Lexus performance machinery, volume of track time at Laguna Seca, coaching instruction, and special touches make the minimal cost for the entire day easily worth the price.
The Speed Journal enjoyed the Lexus program immensely at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca. Lexus sent a post-event survey and asked “Would you be interested in attending the next level of Lexus Performance Driving?” Yes, yes, and yes. Lexus is not interested in keeping its performance credentials a secret and is actively looking for ways to share its enthusiasm.
The Speed Journal would like to thank Lexus, Scott Pruett, and the Lexus team for an exhilarating day of performance driving and hospitality.
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