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I took advanced driving lessons and here’s why you should, too

CNBC took advanced drivers education classes.
We learned how to hone our driving skills with the help of professionals, including Formula One racing drivers.
Everyone can benefit from advanced drivers education classes, which includes defensive and performance driving lessons. If you ever get involved on a traffic accident make sure to find pretrial diversion programs.

I’m a third of the way through the right-handed sweeper when I start to feel the back of the car grow light. I dial back the throttle, but I’ve brought too much speed into this corner and the time for correction has passed. The back slides around, the taillights and headlights quickly changing roles. I’m backwards on the course, ego bruised after overcooking it on another corner.

“How fast was I going?” I ask Tommy Byrne, former Formula One racing driver and current instructor at the Mid-Ohio School.

“About 17,” he replies

“Right. Slower next time,” I say.

Most cars wouldn’t be so unstable at school-zone speeds, but the specially modified Honda Civic is hoisted up on hydraulic supports. The rig keeps only a tiny portion of the tires in contact with the road, making the car easier to slide and better for teaching.

I’m driving it as part of my advanced driver’s education at the Mid-Ohio School. Over two days and two separate curriculum, I honed my driving skills with the help of racing professionals.

Here’s why I think you should, too.

The Courses

The Mid-Ohio School, named for the famed Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course where it resides, offers a variety of advanced drivers education programs. It’s where I completed my driver training, but the basic course structures at most high-performance driving schools are substantially similar.

Typically, schools that offer driver training beyond what is legally required for licensing divide courses into three categories: defensive driving, performance driving and racing. Racing school is an entirely separate subject, best reserved for those that bleed 93 octane and plan to make driving into more than a hobby.

For the rest of us, there’s defensive and performance driving. I sampled Mid-Ohio’s Teen Defensive Driving course and its Acura High Performance course to find out if it’s worth spending up for more driver’s ed.

The Cost

The price will vary depending on where you live. Classes taken with professionals at major racing circuits aren’t cheap. For the one-day defensive driving course, Mid-Ohio charges $375.

Performance driving school requires a heftier outlay, costing $650 if you use your own street-legal car or $800 if you want to use one of the school’s race-prepped, cage-equipped Acura ILX’s.

I highly recommend using a school-supplied vehicle regardless of where you complete your program. With your own car, the abuse of on-track driving may boil your brake fluid, rip your tires apart or overheat your engine.

Even more importantly, the instructors are most used to the cars that the school uses, and a faster car in lead-follow exercises will just mean you don’t get as close to the car’s limits. That means less fun and less learning, so pay up for the real deal.

Finally, prepare for the possibility of damage. If you bring your car, most insurance companies won’t cover on-track damage. You’re also likely liable for damages to a school’s vehicle, at least up to a certain point. In my case, the school reserved the right to bill me up to $3,500 in case of damage to the car or track.

Defensive Driving

Learning defensive driving techniques
Mack Hogan | CNBC

The problem with a traditional driver’s ed class is that it hardly prepares you for black ice, skids or quick decision making on the road. That’s exactly what defensive driving school aims to remedy.

In my program, we spent time in a special skid car learning to correct a sliding vehicle in a safe and controlled way. We practiced wet braking and steering on a sealed skidpad where we learned what it feels like to have the anti-lock brakes kick in and how to mange steering and braking simultaneously.

We floored it down three lanes of traffic cones. An operator controlled a set of traffic lights and would make different combos of lanes go green or red. The goal was to get into a green lane as fast as possible and then stop the car. If all lights went red, we slammed on the brakes.

We learned to better control our vehicles in uncomfortable, scary situations. The goal is to teach young drivers to deal with these situations in a safe place, so when they start to slide in the snow or have to dodge a crash, they’ll know what to do.

Performance Driving

The Mid-Ohio driving school track
Mack Hogan | CNBC

The performance driving course covers a lot of the basic material of defensive driving, from seating positions to keeping one’s eyes far ahead of the car, but adds classroom time on over-steer, apexes and track etiquette.

Outside, the staff set up a miniature race course out of traffic cones — autocross, if you know the term — and had each driver set a baseline lap time on the short circuit.

Next, we moved through three different stations to hone our driving skills. The skid car made another appearance, this time with a racing driver in the right seat providing dozens of laps worth of feedback on one’s car control.

The second station was a cornering exercise, with a fast right turn laid out in cones. Professional driving teachers were spread out across the course offering feedback on each driver’s lap, helping students improve times around the circuit. The exercise is meant to improve your car control, forcing you to place the vehicle directly where it needs to be and learn how it behaves at the limit of grip.

In a third class, we drove “lead-follow” exercises where a group drives in a convoy as fast as possible while also transitioning between positions, from leader of the pack to a follower.

Lead-follow exercises allow you to get on track and push the limits of the car, but an instructor always stays within a few cars of you. This means you’re always getting feedback from and watching a driving expert, allowing you to build more confidence in your driving and sharpen your skill. Once you’ve hit 115 mph in the rain on a slick racing circuit, most of the situations you’ll encounter on the road seem much more docile.

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