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Speed School at Spring Mountain: The Ron Fellows Performance Corvette Driving School

Suppose you’ve just plundered your piggy bank and bought a brand-new Chevrolet Corvette Stingray, Grand Sport or Z06. With hundreds of horsepower at the disposal of your right foot and performance that rivals almost anything else on the road, what’s th …

By: Kevin Ehrlich | Photos Courtesy of: Spring Mountain Motor Resort & James Tantillo

Suppose you’ve just plundered your piggy bank and bought a brand-new Chevrolet Corvette Stingray, Grand Sport or Z06. With hundreds of horsepower at the disposal of your right foot and performance that rivals almost anything else on the road, what’s the first thing you do?

If you said “sign up for the Ron Fellows Performance Corvette Driving School” at Spring Mountain Motor Resort near Pahrump, Nevada, you’re correct!

In fact, General Motors agrees and arranges for discounted tuition for any new owner who signs up in their first year of ownership. The cost is only $1,000 which reflects a substantial $1,500 subsidy. That’s a strong endorsement of the importance of driving school in general and the Ron Fellows Corvette program in particular. Of course, General Motors is also betting that new owners will only fall more in love with their cars and develop deeper brand loyalty – and they’re likely right. For only $1,000, the chance to flog someone else’s car around a playground for a weekend and get expert training and guidance should be mandatory for new Corvette owners.

While the Ron Fellows Performance School has a variety of programs, The Speed Journal’s Team Principal Jeff Francis recently participated in the two-day program designed specifically for, but not limited to, Corvette owners. The program focuses on developing fundamental driving skills and then applying them while running laps at speed on a track. And while the setting was at a race track, this was not a racing school so it works well even for those without dreams of racing competition.

Francis recognized and was enthusiastic about the support provided by General Motors. After two days, he emerged with a greater appreciation of the engineering, features, and thoughtfulness that went into making the Corvette – and other students in his program echoed his feelings and experience. Francis, a 2017 Grand Sport owner, enjoyed the chance to learn more about his personal car and drive one of the school’s Grand Sports through the weekend exercises.

The course is more comprehensive than just navigating corners at speed. A key point is teaching students much more about the car itself than a dealer provides on the way out the showroom doors. The instructors give a detailed guided tour of the car – even including where to add fluids, how to access a battery tender port, and what to do in case of a dead battery.

The name on the front door of the school is Ron Fellows. If you know that name, you’re already aware that any school he organizes, particularly as an official performance school of Corvette, will be good.

If you’re not familiar with retired racing driver Ron Fellows, all you need to know is that he has won almost every road racing race and championship there is to win for the last thirty years – many behind the wheel of a Corvette. He’s been a frequent visitor to victory lane at places like Daytona, Sebring, LeMans, and more. He’s won in Trans-Am, IMSA, and NASCAR. He not only has won at Mosport near Toronto, but bought and operates the track itself.

Fellows has built his team with a group of instructors that have deep racing experience as well. They don’t advertise their experience, so you might not know people like Richie Hearn (with seven Indy 500 starts to his credit) or Tommy Joe Martins (currently racing on the NASCAR trucks circuit) are giving you pointers. That level of humility and a real desire to see students maximize their own experience comes through in very personalized guidance and the small class size of only a dozen students.

The assignment of your car for the weekend is an example of the extra touch and the unique nature of the Ron Fellows Performance Corvette Driving School. If you’re a Corvette owner, your school car for the weekend is a match of the car you bought at the dealership. You are paired both with the same model of your Corvette (Stingray, Grand Sport or Z06) and the same transmission as your personal car, so you can learn in the same car you have at home just like Francis had with his 8-speed automatic Grand Sport. Want to try a different model Corvette for giggles or even a potential purchase? The school will do their best to find a car to meet your wishes.

After an excellent breakfast in the clubhouse, the first day starts with classroom time. Students provided a little bit of their backgrounds. Some had modest track day experience but most had no prior track or performance driving course experience. Instructors provided an overview of the next two days and started building fundamentals, even establishing basics like proper driving position and mirror settings.

Once radio communications were confirmed for instructors to speak to students via the car speakers, it was time to get moving. Over time, Francis came to appreciate the radio communications rather than always having an instructor alongside. While instructors rode along for some of the exercises early in the weekend, they mostly observed from trackside. It eased a little bit of the pressure of having an instructor sitting in a passenger seat, but the voices coming through the Corvette’s audio system gave constant proof that eyeballs were on students at all times.

A mix of different exercises awaited the class. In some cases, the full class participated and in other cases the class was split into groups to rotate through different modules. For Francis, a serpentine pylon exercise started the driving festivities. Smoothness was rewarded as the car pitched to the left and right and students were taught to look ahead through the side windows to pick out apexes ahead.

The program then moved to braking. First, students were introduced to threshold braking, where the driver seeks to brake just before the anti-lock brakes kick in. This important skill seeks to maximize the braking capability of the car by taking it up to the point where the wheels start to slip and lose grip. A car with anti-lock brakes senses a skid reactively and adjusts, but by that time, the ideal braking point has been missed. To compare, students also did exercises with the full ABS engaged. Both were done on a wet track to help facilitate the loss of grip. Accident avoidance exercises encouraged students to brake harder and harder to get a feel of the braking capabilities and work on quick changes of direction.

The wet pavement driving continued with a figure eight exercise to feel the car as it struggled for grip at the limit. The figure eight also gave students a chance to experience some of the Corvette’s electronic helpers in different weather modes to address reduced grip. Students then circulated around a tri-oval course, working on turn-in points and learning to spot and hit corner apexes.

These exercises are good examples of the value of a driving school. Being able to feel how a car behaves as it understeers or oversteers through a corner in an environment where the consequences are minimal is key. If (when) you spin the car, there is plenty of room and nothing to hit. The exercise minimizes the chances that you’ll be caught by surprise in your road car when grip starts to disappear.

An excellent and welcomed lunch in the Spring Mountain clubhouse allowed students to catch their breath and connect with each other. The afternoon was dedicated to lead-follow exercises in smaller groups where instructors showed proper lines through corners and provided direct feedback through the radios. Each corner was broken down into segments including the visual scan, brake, downshift, turn-in, balance, clip the apex, unwind the wheel and accelerate. Learning (or re-learning in some cases) the fundamentals and watching proper technique demonstrated in real-time quickly builds confidence as cornering becomes more natural and instinctive.

The second day the class returned to the 1.5-mile west track for more lead-follow time to refine skills learned the prior day. Instructors kept a watchful eye on their charges and add more speed as students became more comfortable and competent. Before long – even without realizing it – even first-timers are driving far faster and smoother than they might have thought possible the day before.

Appropriate for the track environment, the cars were set in Track Mode via the console dial which turns off the traction control. Once in Track Mode, the Corvette offers five options – wet, dry, Sport 1, Sport 2 and race. To experience the cars with a little sharper throttle response and less electronic management, Sport 1 in Track Mode was the order of the day. It was just aggressive enough, but still with some stability control settings for a margin of error. Sport 2 removes the active handling features and race mode removes all barriers between your right foot and the physical limitations of the tires.

Instructors also drove each student around the track for a few laps at speed. The demo laps were a display of real skill and experience and a stark reminder to everyone that while they learned much, there was still much to learn. From the passenger seat, hot laps can be a thrill ride or an unsettling experience. Jeff Francis appreciated the hot laps and the skill required, but found that he preferred to be behind the wheel when speed was involved!

The Corvette comes with a launch control feature, so what better place to learn how to make use of it? The base Corvette Stingray requires only 3.7 seconds to hit 60mph from a standstill. The Z06 does the same thing in 2.9 seconds. Once again, the experience commands great respect for the Corvette’s capabilities.

At the conclusion of the two days, the instructors and students gather to talk about their experiences. Clearly, the weekend has something to offer for all ranges of students. Even those with more Corvette or track experience found value in the course, so it offered something for everybody. The feedback session showed that the school has been a revelation for some as the instructors provided encouragement and praise to recognize the progress. A graduation certificate for each student is the proof of completion.

The students were also provided with the output from the Performance Data Recorder (“PDR”), an online video and data logging system standard on all 2017 Corvettes. The video footage was overlaid with data metrics like speed, RPM, gear, steering angle and g-force along with the instructor audio. The PDR output not only lets students re-live their weekend after they’ve had a chance to digest, it lets them share with other friends to see what the school was all about.

Most students in this particular class were not only Corvette owners, but enthusiasts. Aside from questions about their cars and navigating the track, the most common question was asking about the prospect of a mid-engine Corvette. No secrets were divulged, but the school may be tweaking its fleet of school cars in a few years.

Completion of the course comes with an invitation at a discount to return for the more robust Corvette 1 & 2 driving program with more intense skill development, instruction and track time.

The setting at Spring Mountain Motor Resort & Country Club is stunning. Condos are available for those who wish to stay on site, but 55 miles to Las Vegas is close enough for those that wish to commute from Sin City. The resort also offers other amenities such as trap shooting, paddle boarding and a pool if you’re driving but have a friend or spouse along for the weekend. Find out more at The Speed Journal’s overview of the Spring Mountain Resort.

The Ron Fellows Performance Driving School proves that there is a material difference between operating a motor vehicle and really knowing how to drive. The course works for those with experience and those who are newer to high performance driving. The course works for Corvette owners and those that want to try one out for a couple days. Attend and you might just learn something about driving and about the Corvette itself – and have a lot of fun in the process.

Drivers Series

The Driver’s Series scours the world to find and explore compelling driving experiences for anyone with a driver’s license and passion for speed. We send our resident driver Jeff Francis to get behind the wheel and report back to Speed Journal readers to ride along virtually or become inspired to take on the driving experiences themselves. Are you involved with a driving experience that should be featured on The Speed Journal? Do you have a driving experience suggestion for The Speed Journal to investigate? Please contact us.

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