I learned a ton and had a blast at my Driver's Academy class on Saturday. There were 24 students, about 16 of the 24 were teens and young-twenty-somethings and the other 8 of us were older drivers. For the 24 of us they had 6 cars and 6 instructors, so we were four to a car plus an instructor.
The day was almost entirely cone drills and was all about car control. While car control is obviously important to the enthusiast, I really do think this is a class that anyone could benefit from. Knowing how to handle your vehicle in an emergency like a sudden lane change, slide, or emergency braking situation is something all drivers should know. Getting to learn these skills on a closed course in a safe environment rather than doing it for the first time out on the public roads under duress is tremendously valuable. I think auto insurance companies should offer discounts or subsidies towards paying for one of these types of classes. They really are that beneficial.
As an experienced driver I found that while I intellectually know what a lot of car control theory is, there is a difference between knowing it and being able to execute it while under stress. There is also a "feel" component to things that a video game or simulator just can't replace. A lot of driving at the limit is being able to feel what the rear tires are doing through the seat.
It was great to be able to ride along as a passenger while the other students were getting instruction. Not only could you soak in what the instructor was telling them, you could feel through the seat what the car was doing. The difference in feel between doing something the right way and the wrong way is really something you have to experience in person.
Most of the drills were done in normal cars. Camry, Altima, Malibu, CLA250. Tires were shitty all seasons. All drills were done with traction and stability fully off. I think the idea behind this was you can find the limit at much lower speeds than you could in some of the race cars they had. It worked great. Driving a slow car fast is a heck of a lot of fun, as always.
We cycled between three drills in a morning and an afternoon session. In the morning the drills were:
Skidpad (my favorite!) - Go around until the car understeered, learned how to handle understeer. Then oversteer. Get a feel for how to catch it, what it is like to not catch it and spin. I was good about counter steering but I needed to learn to wait until the rear end hooked back up before correcting my steering input.
ABS emergency brake + maneuver - Do a full ABS slow down and then maneuver to avoid hitting a "wall" of cones. I was familiar with doing ABS stops but adding the maneuver element to end was a new twist. Under full ABS all the available traction is going to braking so if you don't lift a little on the brake you are just going to understeer and plow in to the cone wall.
Proper cornering - they had a hairpin turn set up with cones. Drill was to trail brake in, hit the apex, power out as you unwound the wheel. Hairpins are hard because everyone's natural tendency is to turn in early. The apex on a hairpin is well past the geometric center of the curve, so this drill was all about eye training and visualizing your line. It is amazing how much speed you can carry when you get the line right.
Afternoon drills were:
Introduction to autocross - They took the hairpin in the morning session and added a bunch more corners to make an autocross course. I loved this. Taking it slow at first and then building up speed on consecutive laps felt great.
Emergency Lane Change - Speed towards a cone wall with a lane to the left and right of it. A second before you get to the wall the instructor shouts "left" or "right" and you have to make an emergency change to that lane, then slow the car. Scariest drill of the day, as you feel like you could roll the car. Doing this kind of emergency lane change at 45mph felt extremely FAST, but we built up to it.
Driving a Manual Transmission Car - I basically have never driven stick before ever, but I know how things are supposed to work. We did this one in the Mustang race cars they had, which was fun. After stalling once I got a feel for how heavy a race clutch is. After that it was pretty simple. I don't think I need to go out and buy a car with a stick, but I get the appeal.
On the whole, an awesome day. I feel like I learned a lot and it was the kind of learning that I only get by actually doing the thing.
As I said before, I'd recommend this kind of Driving Academy or defensive driving class to anyone. It was pricey, but worth it. Instructors were great and we got plenty of seat time.