Accelerated Learning

Can two days at the Ron Fellows Performance Driving School make you a more skillful Stingray driver? We dispatch our aptest pupil to find out

Photo: Accelerated Learning 1
December 18, 2014

The last thing I expect when I arrive for three days of C7 hot laps on Spring Mountain’s 2.2-mile, 10-turn racetrack is rain. This is Nevada, after all, about 60 miles west of Vegas, and the temperature’s supposed to clear 100 degrees (F) the whole time I’m here. Nonetheless, as I adjust the seat and mirrors, rotate the Driver Mode Selector to Track and toggle the five-step Performance Traction Management to its most permissive setting, it’s raining lightly and the track is damp.

As anyone who regularly races, or watches road racing, knows, damp sucks. If it’s raining, you go slow; if it’s dry, you go fast. But if it’s damp, you have to try to go fast despite the risk of slithering straight off the track. The Stingray’s torque-laden V-8 and wide tires won’t make quick times any easier, either.

Turns out I’m wrong on most counts. After a warm-up lap, the Stingray sticks to the tarmac like glue—so long as I’m judicious with the throttle. As you’d expect, big torque applied abruptly to damp surfaces leads to spinning rear wheels, and a wide back end that wants to swing rapidly out of line. Overall, though, the car’s astonishingly friendly in these conditions.

Then the drizzle stops and the Nevada heat quickly dries the tarmac. This is more like it. I pick up the pace until I reach the top of my comfort zone, then press on. The Stingray roars like a lion out of the turns and onto the straights, but from behind the wheel it’s a kitten. Driving fast is so easy it’s almost relaxing, but make no mistake: the C7 really moves.

Photo: Accelerated Learning 2

Coming into this test, having logged untold miles behind the wheels of different Stingray coupes and convertibles, I had no doubt the C7 would be an impressive track machine. How could it not be? Big engine, big brakes, stiff suspension, wide track, wide tires, relatively light weight…sounds perfect.

That said, automakers have long made promises that their cars, regardless of the spec sheet, couldn’t keep. And if my expectations for the Corvette weren’t high enough to start with, Chevrolet bills the Z51-equipped C7, the only kind you’ll find at the Ron Fellows Performance Driving School (see sidebar), as a true, track-ready car.

If all the Z51 package consisted of was the stiffer-bigger-firmer FE3 suspension hardware, it would make a big difference. But Chevy went a lot further, throwing in 19-inch front and 20-inch rear wheels (in place of the standard 18s and 19s), larger front brake rotors and some new aerodynamic components, the most noticeable of which is the full-width rear spoiler. Then the engineers got serious: cars ordered with Z51 also receive dry-sump engine oiling, a heavy-duty cooling system, revised gear ratios and an electronically controlled limited-slip differential. (Both car and option proved so popular that Chevy raised their prices mid-2014; C7s now cost $2,000 more, and Z51 climbed from $2,800 to $4,000. Don’t let that stop you from buying, though, as both are still bargains.)

That’s the car; now the track. Spring Mountain’s main loop offers a mix of fast and slow corners, four fast straights, and mostly hard-packed dirt and rocks substituting for run-off. Turns 1, 2 and 8 are long, fast right-hand sweepers that seem to go on forever. Thanks to its high entry speeds, elevated g-forces, abruptly ending pavement and tricky, off-balance exit into the nearly 90-degree Turn 9, Turn 8 is by far the hairiest part of the circuit.

Photo: Accelerated Learning 3

At the other end of the speed spectrum, but no less demanding, are Turns 4 and 5. The former is a downhill-then-uphill hairpin preceeded by a downhill jink. The latter is broken into two parts, a tight uphill right-hander over a blind crest, followed shortly thereafter by a 90-degree right.

Other challenges? The track surface is smooth, but dust, sand and rubber debris await offline; misplace a wheel, and you may well end even up even farther afield than expected. Then there’s the heat, which quickly decreases the tires’ grip, and, depending on your arrival date, the potential for summer storms that can wash the track clean, making it less sticky.

Sound fun? In the C7, it is.

If I had to sum up the Stingray track experience in one word, it would be torque. The C7’s 6.2-liter LT1 engine produces 460 lb-ft of the stump-pulling stuff (465 with the optional Dual Mode exhaust). Peak torque arrives at 4,600 rpm, but the engine pulls with real authority at just about any speed. The V-8 has so much grunt, in fact, that there’s little penalty for being lazy and leaving the car in Third gear, rather than shifting down to Second, into the Turn 4 hairpin. (Tip: You’ll need Second if you want to tempt fate and get sideways on exit.)

Photo: Accelerated Learning 4

Speaking of shifting, the C7’s seven-speed manual gearbox gets noticeably smoother as the laps pile up and the car gets hotter; I’ve never encountered such effortless shifts on the street. Active Rev Match, which automatically blips the throttle on downshifts, works seamlessly, and it’s worth noting that the Stingray is also exceptionally amenable to old-fashioned heel-and-toe downshifting.

On the downside, the LT1 starts to lose urge well before its 6,600-rpm fuel cutoff, which forces me to shift at around 6,000 rpm to keep the engine in its powerband. The C6’s LS3 powerplant had a more sparkly top end and revved faster, but losing those attributes is a small price to pay for the C7’s overall thrust. Besides, the LT1 sounds the part. Although I keep the windows up, the V-8’s baritone bellow still nicely fills the cabin without being overwhelming.

The mighty engine may dominate the day, but the car’s cornering performance isn’t too far behind. Big grip has been a Corvette attribute since the C4, and the C7, with its 245/35ZR19 front and 285/30ZR20 rear rubber, carries on that tradition. Front-end stick into turns is excellent, and on the long sweepers where I reach, and breach, the car’s limits, the Stingray responds mostly with a gentle drift or very mild understeer. This benign behavior is especially reassuring when the tires start to overheat after a few laps, and the car begins to move around on its treads.

Body movement is well controlled with both the standard Z51 shock absorbers and the optional Magnetic Selective Ride Control (MSRC) shocks I raved about in the April issue’s cover story. MSRC remains the best choice on this smooth circuit, but, thanks to the firmness of the regular units, its advantage here is much smaller than it is on the street.

Photo: Accelerated Learning 5

The brakes are simply superb on the Spring Mountain course, and traction out of the corners is equally impressive. Credit here is due that big rear rubber, as well as the Z51’s electronic differential and sophisticated traction control. (Performance Traction Management comes as part of MSRC, but standard-suspended cars’ Competitive Driving Mode works just fine.) The back end wiggles around if I stand on the loud pedal with the steering wheel still turned, but the electronics do an excellent job of keeping the car in line and allowing the power to keep flowing. When provoked into power oversteer in tight turns, the Stingray is as amenable as a 460-hp car can hope to be, holding a tail-out attitude if I keep my foot in it, and easing back into line if I lift off.

Showboating aside, the C7 quickly proves to be a nimble, responsive machine. It reacts quickly to inputs large and small, dancing into and through the hairpin like a smaller, lighter car. The precise steering nicely aids and abets in such efforts, but I’m not enamored of the wheel’s heft, which firms up with the more aggressive driving modes and at times feels artificially heavy. I discover too late this may be my own fault: the steering weight can be set independently of the driving mode via the Driver Information Center.

The interior’s fundamentals, such as seating and pedal position, are strong, but not perfect. My biggest dislike in this regard is the size of the central tunnel, which is so big I have to raise my elbow over it to reach the shifter. The Fellows instructors all joke that their left knees bear a permanent pattern of a door-speaker grille, and it isn’t long before mine does, too, albeit temporarily. Oddly, the optional Competition Sport seats aren’t as impressive on track as they are on the street, or maybe it’s just that the stock seats perform so much better than I expect and prove to be much more comfortable after several sessions. All in all, though, the C7’s cockpit is an easy place to spend a track day.

This sentiment also applies to the Stingray as a whole. After three days on course in the C7, I was ready for another three days, and that certainly hasn’t been the case with every car I’ve encountered in this business. In addition, I came to believe Chevy’s claim that the Z51 Stingray is track-ready out of the box. No, it’s not prepped for wheel-to-wheel racing or time attacks, and yes, a stiffer suspension, stickier tires and/or engine upgrades would improve lap times, but the stock car delivers everything you’ll need for serious HPDE duty. In addition, all of the Stingrays I drove in the 100-degree desert handled all the hot laps I could throw at them without hiccough or complaint, an attribute that can’t be overstated.

In short, the Stingray is fast, forgiving and fun to drive. When it comes to track days, it doesn’t get much better than that—no matter what the weather is.

Sidebar: Buy a Stingray, Get a Driving School for Free

No, not really—but Chevrolet will pick up 60 percent of the cost of a two-day stint at the Ron Fellows Performance Driving School. Thanks to Chevy’s largesse, it will cost new C7 buyers an even $1,000 to go drive someone else’s Stingray around the Spring Mountain track, instruction and lodging included.
Aside from the name above the door (Fellows, one of the greats of Corvette Racing, helped develop the curriculum and is a regular on site) and the dozens of brand-new Corvettes parked in the paddock, the Fellows school is a lot like the ones offered by other makers of sporty cars, such as BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Porsche and Ferrari. They all offer a mix of classroom discussion and on-track practice. They all offer a thorough review of the basics—seating position and hand placement, weight transfer and the racing line, keeping your eyes up and looking where you want the car to go—which is necessary when faced with a field of students ranging from novices to part-time racers. There are a standard set of driving exercises, including wet surfaces, braking and heel-and-toe. And let’s not forget lead-and-follow sessions, instructors talking to you via in-car radios (or sitting in the passenger seat) and the all-important hot lap or three with an instructor showing you the fast way around the circuit.
Such similarities aren’t a bad thing, however, because the fundamentals of driving are the same no matter what you’re driving.* I’ve attended several such programs over the years, and the Fellows school is comfortably on par with those offered by the European manufacturers. Its instructor-to-student ratio is excellent, at roughly 2:5, as are the instructors themselves. Track and/or Corvette novices need not be concerned about being embarrassed, as every staff member I met was friendly, patient, enthusiastic and informative.
What impressed me most about the Fellows school was the amount of time spent on track. Sure, some of the basic exercises weren’t the most exciting, but a 20- or 25-minute session of fast lapping was never far away. For the less experienced participants, this is the perfect way to practice the skills they just learned. For those with more track time under their belts, it’s the perfect opportunity to push themselves and their cars to their respective limits.
Then there’s the facility. In addition to the track (which totals six miles in length, divided into several loops) and the Fellows building, Spring Mountain Motor Resort and Country Club offers a clubhouse/restaurant, pool, racquetball court, indoor gun range, a showroom of Radical race cars and several buildings full of condominiums. Some of the condos are offered for sale, others are used by school attendees and all line the circuit; mine was on the outside of Turn 1. The condo itself was suitably luxurious and comfortable for a business with Country Club in its name.
So is the Fellows school a good deal? It’s better; it’s a no-brainer. I’d also highly recommend paying an additional $1,150 for an optional third day of more-intensive track time. But that’s just me, so I asked two C7 owners for their opinions.
Kathy Lake has owned a string of Corvettes (C3, C4, C5 and C6), but her C7 coupe is the first one she’s taken on track. “I’d always wanted to drive a Vette on the track, [because of] the speed it offers,” she says. “So when we got the offer in the mail, it just made sense.”
Did the two-day school live up to her expectations? “I didn’t have any idea what to expect, but it was amazing,” says Lake. “Learning the car’s braking and cornering [capabilities] was huge. That’s something I never knew, because I don’t drive that way. And I’d never used the Active Rev Match in my car because I didn’t like it. But now that I know how to use it, it’s going to be great. I didn’t know about the third day when I signed up, but based on this I would definitely have taken it.”
Lake noted that the experience had inspired her to take her own car on track. In contrast, Jan Nieman, a first-time Corvette owner but fellow track novice, discovered the Fellows school when he was looking for a circuit. “It’s a track-ready car,” he says, “and if you don’t get it on a racetrack, you’ll never know what it can do.”
 Neiman took the three-day course, thinking it was “a no-brainer to be brought up to speed and then get all the time I could.” Did it meet his expectations?
“The school started a bit slow, but it all made sense when we were done,” says Nieman. “And I never, ever thought I’d be able to drive the car that fast.  Before I got here, I had no idea what [it] could do. I really enjoyed the lateral feel, the handling through curves. And I was up all last night looking online at other track events!”

*To be fair, there are a few minor differences. For example, the Fellows school instructs students to push up on the steering wheel when turning—i.e., raise your right hand to turn left—while the Ferrari Driving Experience directs students pull down. Who’s right? I have no idea.

Also from Issue 95

  • LPE-Modded Z06 Carbon
  • Buyer's Guide: $8K
  • Racing: 2014 Season Recap
  • 1962 C1 Custom
  • 1994 C4 Convertible
  • L88 Retrospective
  • Tech: C7 Valet Mode
  • Open Road Racing Explained
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