ATLANTA -- Maserati, that colorful, prototypically Italian name from the 1950s golden age of high-performance sports cars, has joined the list of upscale manufacturers -- Audi, BMW, Land Rover, Mazda, Panoz, Porsche and Saab -- that offer performance driving courses.

The Master Maserati driving school was established in May at the superb Road Atlanta road-racing course in Georgia and offers both one- and two-day sessions. Only 18 students per session are allowed, which means each of the school’s six instructors can concentrate on a maximum of three students.

The school’s instructors are all handpicked former and current race-car drivers, unlike the young, relatively inexperienced journeymen you’ll find at many of the commercial go-fast mills. Indeed, the prototype for the Road Atlanta Maserati course is the original Master Maserati school in Parma, Italy, which was established in 2000 under the direction of a highly regarded ex-Formula One driver, Andrea de Adamich.

The two Road Atlanta tutorials are serious and sophisticated, and the training cars are exotic 400-hp Maserati GranSport coupes and Quattroporte sedans, but the school is open to anyone willing to pay the $1,800 (one-day) or $3,400 (two-day) fee. Maserati owners and new clients are especially welcome, but so is the Malibu or Mustang driver who perhaps can’t yet pay for an $88,000-plus Maserati but can afford to dream. The two-day course is essentially the one-day session with larger, with more serious track time and greater emphasis on advanced driving skills.

The intent of the Master Maserati training is not to create competition drivers but to make ordinary motorists more skilled in everyday traffic. It was created to teach a few of the tricks for driving Maseratis most efficiently by using the paddle-shifted sequential-manual transmissions properly and “to let people drive a Maserati onto a racetrack and set it free,” said U. S. Maserati PR exec Jeffrey Ehoodin.

“Our primary purpose is to expose people to Maserati,” Ehoodin said. “The school is a marketing tool to increase sales as well as awareness of the marque. The targets are prospects, clients … and the media.”

“We’re not trying to turn people into racers, we want to make better drivers and show people the potential of these cars,” added driving-school instructor Chris Hall.

The price of entry includes everything but travel to and from the track and -- with one exception -- any necessary overnight accommodations. The exception is that the two-day course includes an overnight stay and dinner at the nearby luxury golf-and-spa resort, Chateau Elan. Use of the cars, the instructors, a crash helmet, a trackside laptop “business center” as well as breakfast and lunch at the track is all-inclusive. Considering that an eight-hour day of flight training in a 150-hp Cessna with a nondescript young flight instructor could cost around $1,200 -- no meals, business center, spa or other amenities -- the Maserati course is almost a bargain.

Training at Master Maserati, which I avidly experienced, starts with an informal post-breakfast session at which an instructor chalk-talks some of the concepts familiar to any racer but rarely examined even by street drivers who consider themselves skilled: tire contact patch, weight transfer and balance, controlling understeer and oversteer as well as understanding the “friction circle” -- a graphic way of plotting the limits of a car’s road-holding ability when turning, braking or accelerating.

“The eyes are the most important tool in the car,” explained one instructor. “Look where you want to go and the car will go there. When you’re in one corner, you should already be looking into the next one. And if you spin out, don’t look at the Port-a-Potty in the infield that you’re heading for, look where you want the car to end up.”

After the breakfast, it’s on to a variety of behind-the-wheel exercises, such as a quick-as-you-can slalom through a line of traffic cones; trips around an oiled, circular skid pad that will remind you of those days when you spun circles around the empty high-school parking lot after the first snowstorm of the season; an autocross, one car at a time, on a go-kart-size racetrack that puts a premium on smoothness rather than speed; and a surprisingly challenging accident-avoidance exercise in which you’ll accelerate hard toward three lanes delineated by traffic cones, with green lights glowing above each lane. At the last second, two lights turn red and you must steer aggressively but smoothly to veer through the remaining green lane.

“Are you having fun?” asked another instructor. “The main thing is to have fun. If you’re not, you’re doing something wrong.”

The core of the course is several extended on-track sessions using the entire Road Atlanta course -- a world-renowned, 2.54-mile racetrack with substantial up- and downhill stretches; a long, weaving straightaway that racers negotiate at near-200-mph speeds; and several blind corners including one leading onto a ski-jump of a hill that curves down onto the front straight. It’ll make you recall the waiver you signed at the beginning of the course -- the one that pointed out that “all motorsports are inherently dangerous and can lead to injury or even death.”

These sprints are done as ducks-in-a-row exercises, with small groups of student-driven cars following an instructor and imitating his “line” around the course. If you’re leery of extreme speed, the instructor will see it and keep his pace down. If you’re up for tire-squealing drifts through the corners and 125 mph down the back straight, stay glued to his bumper and he’ll pick up the pace.

But no matter how fast you think you can drive, you’ll be stunned by the school’s finale: a thundering, three-lap ride in an unmuffled, hard-core, slick-tired Maserati Trofeo (Trophy) race car driven by your teacher.

“Good thing Chris is finally off his medications,” they laughed as I was trussed in beside driver Chris Hall, a former contender in the Formula Ford World Championship. “He’s been seeing double in the corners.”

Too late. I’d signed the waiver.



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