The Class of Z06

Corvette’s latest star pupil proves a road-course scholar

Photo: The Class of Z06 1
November 9, 2023

Scorching. Searing. Ghost-pepper hot. And the weather was pretty toasty, too. We’re describing both the Z06 driving experience at the Ron Fellows Performance Driving School in Pahrump, Nevada, and the sweltering heat dome that hovered over much of the country in mid-July, driving temps as high as 114 degrees in the Mojave Desert. Fortunately the car’s air conditioning and ventilated seats never failed us, and the latest Z06 demonstrated its newfound resilience in a punishing environment, running at triple-digit speeds for hours in triple-digit temps. 

In addition to our firsthand driving impressions on the new Z06, a group of GM execs attended the week after us, including Josh Holder, Chief Engineer for Corvette, and Tadge Juechter, Corvette’s Executive Chief Engineer. So we not only enjoyed a refresher class on the track, but also gathered some in-depth technical input on how the Z06 differs from the Stingray.

Holder had completed the Fellows program previously in a base C8, and his enthusiasm for the unique curriculum was apparent. “I was blown away the first time,” he said of the school, located at Spring Mountain Motor Resort and Country Club in Pahrump, 55 miles west of Las Vegas. “But it gets even better—[it’s] hard not to have a smile while attending.”

Along with the blistering performance on the track, the strongest sensory feedback comes from the ferocious wail of the new flat-plane, DOHC, 5.5-liter LT6 V-8 that delivers 670 horsepower. The bellicose exhaust can be mollified by controls in the cockpit, but why would you? After all, it sets the stage for a significant upgrade in the driving experience. (The Ron Fellows instructors admit that the higher decibel level does make giving directions via two-way radio more difficult.)

Photo: The Class of Z06 2

“Obviously you’ll hear the difference [between the Z06 and Stingray], as we spent a lot of time on the exhaust note, and working to get that sound back into the cockpit,” Holder told us. “But you’ll also feel it, with intentionally higher rate mounts and chassis tuning.” No surprise, then, that virtually all of the school’s instructors agreed that the Z06 is easy to drive fast right from the get-go, at “11/10ths.”

Holder confirmed this design intent in comparing the car with previous Z06s. “It’s more different than any previous Z06 version,” he said, “with a much broader capability. The acceleration is faster, and the braking is harder.” 

While we’ve covered the driving instruction at the Ron Fellows school in previous issues, what stood out this time was how markedly elevated the Z06 is in comparison with the standard (albeit still highly capable) C8 Stingray. The redlines of their respective engines are telling numbers: 8,500 versus 6,600 rpm. Which means that, on a road course, the Z06 demands some judicious restraint before upshifting.

“This biggest difference a customer will notice and need to plan for on track is due to the very different torque curve on the LT6 compared to the LT2,” Holder explained. “Of course the LT6 has a much higher redline, so the peak performance range is similar for [the] Stingray and Z06. But you’ll generally want to be in a lower gear more often to keep the engine speed up, and it all works to create a very different experience for those used to a traditional small-block.”

Photo: The Class of Z06 3

In other words, when exiting a turn onto a straightaway, it’s better to pause slightly before tapping the paddle shifter up a gear, in order to let the LT6 wind up a couple thousand more revs. If you don’t, you’ll quickly fall behind a hot-shoe instructor on a lead-follow exercise. The latter is actually one of Holder’s (and our) favorite features of the class, as it helps you learn, and maintain, the ideal line while also optimizing your braking points. Just keep track of the lead car’s rear lights. 

It’s worth noting that those powerful carbon-ceramic brakes can actually be more important than the LT6 when hustling around the Ron Fellows road course. This teaching point was made even clearer during a ride-along with an instructor who, thanks to his advanced skills and familiarity with the track’s dynamics, was able to probe the upper limits of the latest Corvette supercar.

The instructors employ a much more aggressive stab of the stoppers to shift extra weight onto the front tires for more grip and a crisper turn-in. Even with a somewhat lighter braking application, though, the meatier Michelins on the Z06 have a tenacious—even maniacal—grip. Tapping a quick downshift and squealing the tires in a turn makes for a thrilling ride.

By comparison the slightly lighter Stingray feels a little more tossable under lateral loads, almost a tad skittish. When exiting a turn, the Z06 isn’t as torquey as a supercharged, 755-hp C7 ZR1, but feels nimbler and utterly surefooted. The Z06 is so capable, in fact, that you can basically let the car do its thing and it’ll keep you on track, even with a less assertive braking technique.

Photo: The Class of Z06 4

Do we have any objections to the Z06’s execution? Hardly, but some automotive wags find the squared-off wheel less than ideal. Granted, it’s a little different, but it doesn’t feel uncomfortable or unwieldy, and it becomes familiar after manning it for a few minutes.

Other critics have commented on the complicated cockpit controls. But while there’s admittedly an abundance of buttons, switches, and submenus to deal with, a review of the owner’s manual and several hours’ worth of seat time are sure to clear up any confusion. (Helpfully, the classes at the school also include a complete vehicle orientation.)

A Class Act

The Ron Fellows Driving School has become quite popular with Corvette owners since its inception in 2008, with about 7,000 students attending each year in four different schools—two for Corvettes, one for Cadillac, and one for the open-cockpit Radical Sportscar. In acknowledgment of the modern Corvette’s supreme capabilities, Chevrolet subsidizes a substantial portion of the school’s tuition for all new-C8 buyers. The reduced price is $1,000 for the two-day program (down from the usual $3,695 charge), which includes a one-night stay at the comfortable track facilities, with breakfast and lunch included.

The school cars don’t have any special equipment to handle the extreme heat and wear that comes from road-course duty; rather, track personnel simply follow GM’s recommendations. These consist of adding two extra liters of transmission fluid, using a high-temp brake fluid, and adjusting to a track-spec tire alignment. In addition, Z51 Stingrays run on Michelin Pilot Sport 4S tires (instead of all-season rubber), and additional rear brake ducts are installed.

Photo: The Class of Z06 5

Speaking of brakes, one of the initial exercises consists of hands-on experience with the Corvette’s ABS system. This feature is not normally apparent when tracking the car (ideally, anyway), but it can help with accident-avoidance maneuvers in the real world. 

The Drive Mode Selector provides a choice of suspension-firmness settings (Touring, Sport, and Track), along with Valet and even a semi-secret “teen mode” for limiting both acceleration and top speed. There’s also a Weather mode, which we experienced firsthand on a wet skidpad. First, you get to practice counter-steering while sliding around a figure-eight with no traction control. Then, with the Weather mode engaged, you experience an aggressive computer override of braking and acceleration to ensure safety and stability.

Another exercise is the slow-speed serpentine course, with emphasis on side-scanning and situational awareness. At one point, the windshield is masked with a sun shade, forcing the driver to be aware of the corner cones and know when to swing wide. Some of these exercises can be a little tricky to master, but they help teach you to keep your eyes moving when at speed on the track, so you’re thinking ahead rather than simply reacting to what’s right in front of you.

In addition, videos gleaned from the car’s Performance Data Recorder (PDR) and loaded onto a laptop provide feedback on your performance, and highlight areas that may need further attention. The speedometer and g-force numbers simply don’t lie. A launch-control exercise shows just how quick and consistent the Z06 can be off the line: a bit slower in this case than the official 2.6-second 0-60 number, due to the track’s high-desert elevation.

Photo: The Class of Z06 6

Throughout all of these teaching techniques, safety is paramount, and the Ron Fellows instructors are patient and hospitable—unless you don’t follow their instructions on track, especially on the lead/follow groupings of cars. (One attendee had to be chided for not paying attention to allow others to pass.)

Other basic coaching tips include eating light, hydrating, and abstaining from cell-phone use, as the instructors expect 100 percent concentration, 100 percent of the time. They want to help you reach a comfort zone, not push beyond it. They advise students, “Don’t give up on yourself—it takes time to achieve your potential.”

Having been through the Ron Fellows school a few times gave me a slight advantage when it came time at the end for the timed runs on the autocross course. Not patting myself on the back, but my time was the quickest of 18 students by a mere hundredth of a second, which proves the value of attending the school multiple times. (My previous class attempts yielded Second and Third Places.)

A few final words about the class of Z06. Its wider, more menacing shape, with a bigger grille and front splitter, and side intakes shaped like battle axes, isn’t just cosmetic. All those vents are fully functional, as evidenced by our drama-free session under conditions that would have taxed many a nominal supercar. In every measure that matters, then, the new Z06 graduates with high honors.

Also from Issue 166

  • One-of-One ’83 C4
  • Theft-Recovery ’63
  • Zora's LS4 Coupe
  • Top Flight ’58 Fuelie
  • Market Report: $15K
  • Tech: Carbon Fiber
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