Training Day

Harnessing “thunder and lightning” at Spring Mountain’s ZR1 Owners School

Photo: Training Day 1
March 21, 2019

Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry character once famously advised that “A man’s got to know his limitations.” On the other hand, he also quipped, “Make my day.” Both expressions are apt in describing the Corvette ZR1 two-day driving school at the Spring Mountain Motor Resort and Country Club.

How so? Well, included in the $125,000 price of a new Corvette ZR1 are a couple of days of expert instruction at the Nevada facility. It’s designed to assist owners in not only getting familiar with the electronic intricacies of the car, but also in ripping around a road course. This latter aspect quickly exposes one’s limitations in driving ability, not excluding your author’s. But that’s all part of the learning curve, as participants readily admit.

Even so, they also come away thrilled by the experience, not just “making their day,” but likely their entire ownership of the car. Many report that, even though they had owned other Corvettes over the years, they had never taken one on the track or pushed it to the limit as at Spring Mountain.

Photo: Training Day 2

An aerial view of the facility. A planned expansion will yield the world’s longest road course.

That’s not exactly the case with your author, however, who’s attended a few other driving schools in different types of cars, and also driven previously on the Spring Mountain track in a base-model C7 Corvette. None of which prepared me for the ZR1, however, which required some “unlearning” of old, bad habits.

This is in part because of the LT5 engine’s prodigious thrust. The car’s 755-horsepower supercharged mill supplies an overabundance of throttle response, requiring calculated restraint to avoid lurid power slides. Also, the level of technology is far higher than the other makes that I’ve manhandled at driving schools in years past, making those cars seem positively medieval by comparison. Imagine going from an oxcart to the cockpit of an Apache attack copter, and you have a pretty good idea of the disparity.

Getting down to specifics, with an older muscle or “pony” car, you just turn the ignition key and punch it. In contrast, the latest Corvette requires a pre-flight checklist with several electronic adjustments. These include setting the driving mode (Track, in this case), along with the rev-matching function for the clutch—no need for double clutching and blipping the throttle between shifts, as in the old days. Also, don’t forget to plug in the SD card and activate the PDR (Performance Data Recorder) to document your efforts.

Photo: Training Day 3

The school’s classroom portion includes extensive use of videos and data gleaned from the PDR.

In addition, hustling, say, a Shelby Cobra or a Mustang GT around a road course requires a different technique. The traditional slip-and-slide method to set up corner exit is hardly in keeping with the top Corvette’s electronic limited-slip differential, magnetic ride-control suspension and extremely low-profile rubber, especially those Michelin Sport Cup 2 “street” tires. The ZR1’s sophisticated setup lets you carve through the corners with surgical precision, rather than mixing it up a greasy meatball drift.

Also, the carbon/ceramic brakes with ABS allow a much more aggressive entry. They really scrub off speed right now. The threshold braking technique is similar, just way more sudden, allowing breathtakingly deep dives into each bend.

So, all told, is there a radical difference in both the teaching and driving techniques? As Rick Malone, Spring Mountain’s chief driving instructor, points out, “It doesn’t change…too much, but you have to be aware of how electronic aids work in order to take full advantage of them.”

Photo: Training Day 4

For instance, when the computer kicks in to reduce throttle flutter for a cleaner launch, the driver needs to understand what’s happening and adjust accordingly. While it would take a book to cover all the instruction provided over the two days of orientation and feedback, we can hit a few of the highlights.

From the Classroom to the Track

After checking into Spring Mountain’s posh, Tuscan-style digs near Pahrump, about an hour west of Las Vegas, the class of a dozen or so ZR1 owners received a brief overview of the curriculum from instructor Justin “JJ” Johnson, along with some background on Spring Mountain itself. It turns out that a ZR1 class has been offered since 2009, in response to customers’ need for more familiarization with this ultra-high-performance model than what the typical dealer can supply.

Another interesting fact is that, although most of the participating C7 ZR1 owners have manual-transmission cars, those with automatics can join the fun as well. Either car can hit 140 mph on the back straightaway, but there’s never been any car-to-car contact at Spring Mountain, thanks to the school’s conscientious monitoring and organization, with constant radio communication between instructors and students. Contrast that with all the horror stories we’ve heard of newbie performance-car owners cracking up their expensive rides within just a few miles after pulling out of a dealership.

Photo: Training Day 5

Instructor Cole Loftsgard leads the way while coaching students via two-way radio.

So clearly this class offers something of real-life value, along with helping to build loyalty to the GM brand. Of course, completing the course can’t prevent someone from having an accident on the street. But, as another one of Eastwood’s characters once quipped, “If you want a guarantee, buy a toaster.” The ZR1 sure isn’t some sort of everyday appliance; it can really burn you in an instant. Only a moment’s inattention or lack of focus can result in an embarrassing off-road excursion. (Your author came close a couple times, but rescued the slide before heading into the dirt.)

Instructor JJ downplayed the seriousness of it all, though, noting that the class is designed to be “fun and informative” so that ZR1 owners “…can be more confident on the street, more alert.” He acknowledges that “Some drivers are fierce” and “just want to ‘send it.’” But “turtle speed” is okay, too, he adds. As always, it’s best to find yourself somewhere in between those two extremes, gradually adding velocity as your comfort level increases.

Visual scanning, along with deft car control, are paramount. The temptation is to simply punch it, relishing the LT5’s Herculean delivery of supercharged torque. But the fastest way around the road course involves going slower and smoother. With that in mind, the day started out with some basics on safe vehicle operation, such as tips on driving position and shifting with the C7’s Active Rev Match feature. Then, we moved onto some exercises on braking, to get the feel of just how sudden the stopping can be, along with the pulsations of the ABS.

Photo: Training Day 6

Spring Mountain offers a variety of racing schools and programs, including an open-wheel series.

During a lunch break with other students, all of them new ZR1 owners, the conversation inevitably led to topics such as how many Corvettes they’ve owned (one had 14 over the years), and colorful tales about getting speeding tickets. Whatever their background, all agreed that “Every high-performance-car owner should take a class.”

The morning’s exercises then led to a handling oval in the afternoon, integrating various elements of driving technique, but with special emphasis on braking as the key to speed, along with driving smoothly and safely. While this focus might sound counterintuitive, it proved to be a telling lesson, as driving well in a circle is harder than it looks. Mastering the rudiments revealed some clumsy maneuvering, preparing students for the main event on the road course.

We then played follow-the-leader, taking turns trying to keep up with the instructor while he coached us on driving technique over the radio. Later on, riding next to an instructor was invaluable as he demonstrated what to do and when. On the other hand, having one in the passenger seat could feel a bit unnerving at times, as he quickly pointed out areas that needed more attention and precision.

Photo: Training Day 7

Though auto writers are not necessarily skilled drivers, your author did manage a podium finish in the timed autocross portion of the program.

Autocrossing was another element to tackle, which requires anticipating tight turns with side scanning and trying to avoid running over cones. It helps to pick the optimal point where you can get on the gas when coming out of a curve, and without spinning out. After all, the ZR1’s sophisticated electronic differential can only do so much to keep you out of trouble. “The throttle is what messes up drivers the most,” JJ pointed out.

As the course concluded after numerous hot laps on the road course, I was sorry to see it end. I came away realizing just how challenging a ZR1 is to drive on a road course, even with some expert assistance. Get it right, however, and the payoff is exhilarating. To quote Eastwood one final time, “They say marriages are made in heaven. But so is thunder and lightning.”

Photo: Training Day 8

Also from Issue 129

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  • Buyer's Guide: "Z" Cars
  • Rare-Option '65 Convertible
  • Unrestored '59 Driver
  • Racing: BoP Explained
  • Driving a '63 Z06 "Tanker"
  • McLellan, Hill and Wallace on the C8
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