The Ferrari Experience in Austin
A good friend emailed me last week and asked if I’d like to take his pass to the Ferrari Experience. A quick “yes” and I was all set to race Ferrari’s on Austin’s Formula 1 track fulfilling a dream I’ve had since I was a little kid.
The Ferrari Experience is a driving school like no other that pairs wealthy sports car aficionados with professional race car drivers on Formula 1 circuits for two days of amazing racing. It isn’t cheap however costing almost $14,000 per person with included boarding at the Four Seasons hotel.
The night before the first track session I checked into the Four Seasons hotel for a champaign toast and registration. I proceeded to mingle with the other 15 drivers that would be part of the program. After a few minutes the host arrived and began to introduce us to the professional drivers who would become our teachers for the next two days. As they were introduced it was clear that these weren’t ordinary race car driver instructors, (not that there is such a thing) these were folks who’ve raced professionally with championships under their belt.
The next morning we ate breakfast and were ferried via a bus from the hotel to the Circuit of the Americas formula 1 track. The track is about 30 minutes away from the hotel and it is huge. That was my first impression, the track is just massive. At over 3.4 miles long it has been a favorite for drivers with its natural hills, high speed turns and gorgeous straightaways. I’ve seen the track when Formula 1 raced here last year but I’ve never been on the track.
As we drive across the track to pit area I start to get a nervous feeling. What have I gotten myself into? The track just screams speed and as we pull up to a long row of Ferrari’s it becomes very real. I’m going to be racing a super car on a real race track.
They didn’t get us into the cars right away, nope we went straight to the class room for about an hour of lessons on how to take turns, following the right racing line, breaking into turns and much more. It was a lot to remember and when we were done we split into three groups to practice the different skills at different parts of the track.
My first skill was a slalom course and the breaking skid pad. I was supposed to navigate around cones just like a skiier would navigate around ski poles and then speed up to 70mph and then break really hard within a set of additional cones. Coming out of the classroom trying to remember everything was hard enough so it was a challenge trying to remember these additional instructions and keep everything prioritized in my head.
Very quickly I found myself seated in a Ferrari 458 with the engine already running. I was the first the first car to go and there were five more lined up behind me. The instructor gave me the signal to go. I put the car into first gear and sped off to the first cones. The car leaped into action and quickly turned through the first set of obstacles. It handled beautifully through the slalom and with a little throttled quickly reached 70mph. When I reached the breaking zone I applied a little pressure to the breaks and without even breaking a sweat the car stopped.
I did it! I completed the first event. I found my heart racing and my arms and legs a little bit shakey. I had adrenaline coursing through my system and the rush felt great.
I would go on to other events that tested my various skills and eventually learn my way around the race track. There would be classroom sessions interspersed through out the day to break things up and on the 2nd day I would start lapping the full track.
Lapping the full track is no easy thing to do. At 3.4 miles there is a lot of the track that you have to learn. Taking a turn requires a careful dance of breaking, throttle, sticking to the line and if you execute it all correctly, you’ll be ready for the next turn. If you execute a few of the turns right you’ll be flying around the track very quickly. It is very hard to do.
Rather than leave us to try to figure out the track, the instructors take us around the track with them driving first to show us and then ride shotgun with us. So they tell us to brake, to turn in sooner, they point out all of the mistakes we make and things need to improve as we drive around the track. Its like having your mom sit next to you while you drive. Except she wants you to go faster and brake harder. Eventually I graduate to driving by myself. The instructors will drive a car in front of me and I will follow them around the track.
The 2nd half of the 2nd day I found myself racing around the Formula 1 track behind a professional driver and pushing the Ferrari 458 to its limits. The cars tires screeched as I push it around corners and the engine roared as I floored the gas gracefully combined turns. I was a ballet dancer working a masterpiece, dancing through the turns in this red beauty and it felt fantastic.
By the end of the experience I was lapping the track with speed that I didn’t think I had in me. I started to intuitively remember each turn, where to put the car and how fast to go. I sort of slipped into this zone where things were clicking perfectly. Luckily Ferrari has onboard cameras in the cars which not only recorded my laps, but also cover the dashboard and the view outside of the car with matching telemetry showing how well I navigated the track. I’ll be able to watch it again and again reliving those perfect laps.
The professional drivers who taught me to drive were almost as excited to be there as I was. They all knew each other really well and had a ton of respect for each other. The Ferrari Experience for them was a getting together, a celebration of great cars and great tracks. They fed off the enthusiasm of our group and made the experience so much more than the sum of its parts.
I would absolutely recommend doing the Ferrari Experience if you can afford it. It was tailored to my skills making it very approachable even for a person without racing experience. The cars are just spectacular and the track is as good as you can get. Combine that with folks that know what they are doing and just as excited as you are to push you to your limits and you’ve got quite a ride. It was an experience I’ll never forget.