Making the Mid-Engine Move – School is in Session with the C8 Corvette
For guests, a journey to the Ron Fellows Performance Driving School can be measured in distance. Located at the Spring Mountain Motor Resort in Pahrump, Nevada, it’s just over 50 miles to the west from the Las Vegas strip and McCarran Airport. The journey for the cars driven by school participants, however, is measured in years and decades.
In 2020, Corvette introduced the C8 and broke its prior front-engine mold by moving the V-8 engine behind the driver. The mid-engine move had been contemplated not long after the Corvette was originally launched in 1953.
If you’re a new Corvette owner or you just want to experience the mid-engine transformation, the best place to go is the Ron Fellows Performance Driving School. Due to its close relationship with General Motors, the school is stocked full of C8 hardware ready to be driven hard.
The Corvette owner school is designed and operated by long-time professional racer Ron Fellows. General Motors and Chevrolet could not have picked a more qualified ambassador. Fellows comes with years of experience, miles and miles of racing competition, and a trophy case of hardware.
He is one of Trans-Am’s winningest drivers, racking up victories in the late 1980s and early 1990s against stiff competition – much of it at the wheel of Chevrolet Camaros and Corvettes.
He did initial testing and development in 1998 for Corvette’s vaunted sportscar program. He raced the Corvette with distinction, racking up a pair of class wins at the 24 Hours of LeMans, as well as four class wins in the 12 Hours of Sebring and an overall win at the Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona (among other honors). The Canadian is acknowledged to be one of the best sportscar racers in North America but is appreciated for his demeanor and approach to life out of the car as well.
Fellows is a magnet for those seeking wisdom in the ways of driving a Corvette for good reason. His touch is obvious throughout the school and staff. Several different programs teach Corvette owners (and prospective owners) how to wield their new weapons without worrying about speeding ticket souvenirs. General Motors provides a substantial subsidy for new owners which reduces the cost and excuses available for not getting to Pahrump.
The Speed Journal sent Principal Jeff Francis to learn what the C8 was all about. The assignment was no coincidence. Francis attended in 2017 and spent two days at the wheel of the previous C7 Corvette Grand Sport. Between the Spring Mountain facility, track infrastructure, equipment and quality of instructors, it was a memorable visit and left an indelible impression.
Spring Mountain Motor Resort can be compared to a country club, but with cars and asphalt rather than golf carts and fairways. Where guests drive cars rather than golf balls. But Ron Fellows and his team are not the only tenant at the Resort. Other driving programs also use the facility and private owners occupy residences on the immaculately designed and maintained grounds.
Condos are available to stay on site, but the drive of less than an hour from Las Vegas makes day-trips viable. The resort also offers amenities beyond the motorized variety such as trap shooting, paddle boarding and a pool. These can be great if you’re driving on track and have a spouse, family or friend along for the weekend. And after a day under the Nevada sun, the pool can be just the ticket to relax and refresh in the evening.
Corvette owner school is not a quick visit for a photo-opportunity and some time in the sun. Expert instructors offer a two-day curriculum to small class sizes. They combine classroom time regarding driving technique and technical briefings on the car with a wide range of driving exercises. For those wishing to build on their skills, additional programs feature more track time, advanced techniques, and focused instruction.
Rick Malone, chief instructor, kicked off day one with the guests. He immediately put the group at ease, emphasizing the objectives of learning and having fun. Guests introduced themselves and the immersion began.
Malone began with the basics – seating position, hand orientation on the wheel and visual scanning to look ahead. He previewed skills for focus, such as extreme braking which is perfectly suited to a school environment. Drivers may need to both brake hard and steer to avoid an obstacle, so being able to do both is crucial. Advances in electronics help prevent lock-ups and losing control, but it is ideal to experience the sensations in a controlled environment before the need arises in an emergency.
The class discussed shifting basics and the differences between an automatic transmission and paddle shifting, particularly on a track environment. The automatic transmission may shift more quickly but the car doesn’t know where it is on the track. The paddle shift gives the driver the ability to select a better gear or hold the car in a gear that little bit longer in a turn.
Malone proceeded to explain the C8 machines. Each is a Corvette Stingray road car with the Z51 performance option package, which includes electronically controlled limited-slip differential, closer gear ratios, wider radiators and an additional heat exchanger, differential and gearbox cooler, aerodynamic pieces and larger wheels and tires. The school C8s are equipped with Michelin Pilot Sport 4S tires and Brembo brakes. Power comes from the 6.2-liter V-8 engine that produces 495 horsepower making the C8 the most powerful base Corvette Stingray model in history. An 8-speed dual-clutch gearbox puts the power to the ground.
Very few changes are required to make the C8 vehicles track-ready. General Motors recommends track-oriented alignment settings in the owner’s manual for more aggressive caster, camber and toe wheel settings. General Motors further suggests upgraded brake fluid to handle higher temperatures, along with brake burnishing procedures that condition new brake pads and rotors. The cars are also outfitted with radios for school duty.
Given the move to mid-engine, Malone compared the weight distribution of this car to the prior front-engine Corvette models. While the C8 body styling may have been a striking visual departure from prior Corvette models, the new packaging and weight distribution under the skin are the biggest changes. Moving more of the car’s mass rearward improves handling, braking and traction.
Chalk-talk complete, the group grabbed their helmets and found their mounts. Francis was assigned a C8 worthy of Darth Vader – a metallic Shadow Gray exterior paired with a Sky Cool Gray interior with black competition seats and Spectra Gray Trident wheels. Adding to the visual drama, the C8’s powerplant was visible through the clear rear hatch window.
The first exercise called upon the C8’s Brembo brakes, anti-lock braking system and Michelin rubber. From a standing start, students accelerated to 35 mph and continued in a straight line before slamming on the binders to a complete stop. The next exercise added an instructor who waved a flag at the last moment, directing each driver to steer left or right at the point of braking to combine hard braking, looking ahead for visual cues, and sharp turning. Speeds gradually increased from 35mph to 40mph, and then 45mph, increasing the level of difficulty. As previewed in the classroom, these exercises were designed to improve car control and build confidence for emergency situations. The exercise was, in part, to have the students familiarize themselves with the unfamiliar characteristic and sensations of ABS under panic braking conditions.
The following drill focused on visual scanning. Emphasizing looking to the side to pick out cornering cues, instructors covered the windshield – leaving the side windows as the only sight lines. Students drove the cars in a serpentine, looking out the side glass to select the next apex. As with other exercises, the class started slow then gradually increased acceleration and braking. Instructors challenged the drivers to clip the base of an apex cone with the rear tire to demonstrate their driving precision. Lessons learned were important and would be utilized later in the day on the track.
The last morning exercise provided students their first taste of the 1.6-mile east loop race track. Rather than pushing for speed, the lead-follow exercise better acclimated students to their C8 mounts. Instructors encouraged students to learn the track, look through the corner to find the apex, avoid turning too late or too early, and be thoughtful about carving a smooth line through the corner. They also prioritized the importance of maintaining separate hand movements on the wheel, and eye focus down the road.
After refueling over lunch and reliving the morning, the group readied for the afternoon where car control exercises awaited them. With all electronic controls de-activated, a wet figure eight pushed the students to control a slide while turning around a cone apex. It was easy to spin the car, so drivers focused on finding just the right amount of throttle and steering input. As a contrast, the group tried Weather mode to feel the difference made by the electronic assists designed to find traction and maintain control. The next exercise featured circulating around a tight oval on dry pavement – dive into the corner on the brakes, hit the apex marked with cones, accelerate out and repeat.
Instructor Richie Hearn (yes, former Indy 500 racer) prepared the class for the remainder of day one, which comprised lead-follow laps with Track mode engaged. Speeds gradually increased as students proved their competence and comfort. Careful not to overdrive their skill level, the field soon saw speeds of 120mph on their heads-up windshield display as they barreled down the front straight. Given enough space, the C8 can hit a top speed of 194 mph but the twisty road course at Spring Mountain isn’t designed for terminal velocity runs.
The day ended with hot lap rides courtesy of the instructors. While demonstrating proper technique and lines, the laps at pace were raw fun and demonstrated what the C8 was capable of in skilled hands. A happy hour allowed everyone to wind down and compare notes.
With the benefit of a day running the C8 around the Spring Mountain track, the group imagined what driving the full-bore C8 race car must be like. Chevrolet campaigns a racing version known as the C8R in top-tier sportscar racing competition. The racing version of the C8 was developed alongside the road car and made its maiden appearance in January 2020 at the Rolex 24 at Daytona. Corvette racing has been a crowd favorite and gone head-to-head with factory entries from Porsche, Ford, Ferrari, BMW, Aston Martin and others for years. While the front-engine Corvettes enjoyed success since their debut in 1999, the racing gurus eagerly anticipated racing a mid-engine Corvette someday. The homework has paid off with trophies – including a first and second place class finish at the 2021 Rolex 24 at Daytona. If the past is any indication, more racing success lies ahead.
Day two started by learning about the different driving modes – Weather, Tour, Sport, and Track. As their names imply, they meet different needs by adjusting settings in the electronic assists. The C8 is stuffed with sensors to detect vehicle dynamics and then quickly respond. For example, sensors detect a loss of traction when the car is sliding sideways. The quantity of grip available is immense as the C8 works together with its Michelins. The C8 will sustain 1.2-1.4 Gs on a flat surface. With the aid of a little banking such as found in turn 5 of the Spring Mountain road course known as “The Bowl,” the C8 could see 1.5 Gs.
Knowing that some Corvette owners like drag strip style acceleration, the C8 comes equipped with electronic launch control. Students tried it out with the fully automatic transmission, hitting best times of just over 3 seconds from a standstill to 60mph. (Corvette publishes a 0-60 time of 2.9 seconds which shows how accessible the car’s performance envelope is for relative newcomers.)
The quintet of drivers divided in groups of two and three by comparable skill sets for several lapping sessions. Being around others at a similar stage of learning helped each driver to focus on their driving, not worrying about holding up a quicker driver or coming up on a slower driver. As before, instructors used two-way radios rather than sitting alongside in the car to minimize distractions.
Drivers viewed their laps on video on laptops between sessions, courtesy of the C8’s Performance Data Recorders. The iterative cycle of feedback yielded improvement with every session.
A technical briefing and walk around the car provided a mid-afternoon break. The class heard more about the technical features and what the school does to prepare the cars for use. Instructors emphasized that no modifications were beyond adjustments contemplated in the C8 owners’ manual, making the C8 more accessible for those wishing to track their own cars at home.
The cone-lined autocross course then beckoned. Each driver made several attempts against the clock through the tight and twisty course on flat dry pavement. Instructors kept time but held results until the end of the day.
One more lapping session awaited the students as the finale to bring everything together. By this point, students had the basics and were just practicing to refine their new skills. Numerous track sessions with generous time on track was the highlight of the program. The instructors gave wise guidance when necessary.
At the end of the two-day school, two things were immediately apparent. First, even though they came equipped with different levels of prior experience, at the end the drivers felt better armed with more skills and confidence. Second, the Corvette C8 is a commercial contender. The participants in Francis’ group included some younger than the usual historical Corvette age range. When chatting together, the group agreed that the C8 performance and aesthetics easily put it alongside other much more expensive offerings. The move to mid-engine may have been the key to unlock a new demographic of buyers while also keeping existing Corvette enthusiasts in the fold.
After years of anticipation, the C8 is an astonishing product. General Motors and Chevrolet have an amazing product and engaging experiences such as the Ron Fellows Driving School to show it off. New owners likely didn’t get such an extensive tour from their dealer when they took delivery, so the additional education and time behind the wheel can only build the bond. Prospective buyers aren’t left out – they’re welcome to join and sample the C8 and envision one in their garage someday.
Ron Fellows and his deep team of race-bred instructors are the perfect ambassadors to build brand loyalty and enthusiasm for the new C8. The cars didn’t miss a beat over the two-days despite the constant abuse and elevated temperatures. The Spring Mountain Motor Resort is the ideal venue and even breakfast and lunch are handled with care. This was Francis’ second visit to Corvette school and likely won’t be his last call to Pahrump.
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