Write about cars long enough and it is ineluctable that you will partake in some manner of driving exercise accompanied by a "professional driving instructor." This is often not nearly as enjoyable as it sounds; instead of increasing your speed around a track guided by a kind, Kung Fu-like master, you end up trying to obey staccato commands issued by someone with all the charm of Vulture Eye. It was with this in mind that we trudged to the El Toro airfield in Orange County, California to get seat time at the 360 Performance Driving Academy taught by Mr. Drifter, Mr. Lamborghini Commercials, Mr. Fast & Furious Stunt Driver himself, Sam Hubinette. And we are thrilled to report that this is an awesome – yes, awesome – driving school.
Photos copyright ©2009 Drew Phillips / Weblogs, Inc.
Before we begin, we will admit that there's a reason a fair number of driving school instructors skew toward frightened commandant: they do triple digit speeds every day with people who are more interested in how fast the car can go than how fast they should be going. We must also admit that a fair number of those people are professional automotive industry writers who should know better. As one of the 360PDA instructors commented, "Some of you guys are axe murderers out there." That doesn't excuse anything. It just explains things.
Nevertheless, there was none of that at 360PDA.
You have the military to thank for the creation of this school. Said Hubinette, 360PDA co-owner "Matthew Smith got a request from the U.S. military to teach them car control, so he hit me up." Smith was an instructor at another school, and because the military's request was "to be able to drift, to control the car while going sideways, we got together and did five intense days of car control school." The military's training – Hubinette isn't at liberty to specify the particular military folks in question other than saying "one of this country's elite units" – involved everything from drifting to strategic driving like pit maneuvers and crashing into other cars.
When that was done, Hubinette said, "We figured we'd give the public a taste of what we teach the military guys."
Voila: 360PDA. We couldn't help imagining an H1 drifting its way through a street battle while the roof gunner sprays targets with .50-caliber machine gun fire, but sadly, that wasn't on the private customer menu.
The day began with the obligatory "classroom" time, which was outdoors, replete with drinks and treats, and taught by former NASCAR-series racer Bryan Germone. He laid out the standard driving tutorial, and refreshingly did so without talking down to or boring us even though most of the folks there had plenty of previous track day wheel time.
We were divided into three groups and the day was broken in two: a morning session with a slalom, skidpad, and autocross, and an afternoon session with a figure eight, a smaller autocross, and a freestyle drifting-in-a-circle exercise.
Our day began in a group with three other people at the slalom, eventually seated in a yellow Corvette next to Hubinette. The first thing he did was talk us through the philosophy of doing the slalom, going over throttle control and steering. When it was our turn to drive, he drove through first, slowly, talking through it, then did the return trip in anger. Everything was going swimmingly. And then we swapped seats. And that's when things got really good.
In the words of Hubinette himself, this is where 360PDA separates itself from the horde of driving schools already out there: "What we've seen is there are a lot of limitations at other schools because of the way their curriculums are set up, and they're very strict about following those guidelines. That's what the military guys felt too – that there wasn't enough flexibility for each individual to learn. We really wanted to cater to each person's needs and skills."
And it showed from the moment we turned the wheel. A Corvette cabin is a close place for two people; if one of those people is nervous, both people know it immediately and the cabin reeks of bad juju. If that nervous person is the instructor, then you're just waiting for the hammer to drop.
None of that came to pass. Hubinette guided us through it, and then let us learn at our own pace and only giving tips that would make us go faster. If we asked what we did wrong or if he saw us doing something wrong repeatedly he would tell us, but he didn't pipe up every time we clipped a cone. True, the location does help – El Toro Air Base has plenty of flat, hard-to-hurt-yourself runoff that allows drivers to push a little further than they might otherwise and feel safe.
When we did our final run at 95 mph, Hubinette said "That was fast." His tone actually said "That was faster than I was expecting to go," which we didn't realize because he stayed quiet until the end. As a learning environment, you can't beat that.
The skidpad was next, but we weren't out to test roadholding – we were there to learn to drift, with a water truck keeping things nicely slick. Germone and fellow instructor Nick Kunewalder went through the same routine, talking us through it, driving us through it, and then handing over the keys. You can debate whether drifting is a sport or exciting or worthwhile, but we can tell you incontrovertibly that it is a skill. And the upper reaches of that skill, same as with golf and ping pong and Galaga, take serious time and focus to reach.
It's easy to get a car to drift. It is not easy to get a Corvette to drift all the way around a circle even on a wet track and be in control of it all the way around if you've never done it before. You go too fast and understeer away from the course before the back end comes around. Or the back end slides out too far. Or the whole car slides out too far. Or the whole car goes round.
Yet again, your instructor, he just tries to help you out. It's all friendly and familiar, and with such small groups and lots of time together the instructors get a feel for the kind of instruction you need. Which means if they don't think you need it, there are no nonsense questions after you cock it up like "Do you know what you did just there?" No Jack Handy-esque redundant assessments like "If you go too fast, you'll spin." No banal and useless advice after you end up in the dirt like "You'll want to watch your speed."
The quality of instruction is no accident: all of the instructors have been professional racers – and, even better, winners – and Hubinette and Smith have worked with all of them for years. Said Hubinette, "We have several guys with different championships, and all of the instructors can keep the car under control. We know these guys, we love working together, and with their experience they can anticipate something that's about to happen and pull you back before you do something that's really out of control. And they love what they do and they love to share their skill set with people."
The next exercise was the autocross where we focused on trail braking and pushing the limits of adhesion through an entire turn (to prepare us for the sessions after lunch when we'd be trying to drift through an entire turn). It was more of the same: driving fun and great learning. And burning through set after set of tires. Drifting is, naturally, horrific on the rubber stuff, so the school stocked a day's supply BF Goodrich KDWs. Grippy little numbers, we have to admit that it's a lot of fun destroying $300 tires when you don't have to pay for them.
You get the picture. And in fact, the pictures in the high-res gallery tell the rest of the day's story better than more words: flicking a Corvette around and through cones all day long with great instructors. And actually learning things.
Our only tiny, tiny issue was that after (the catered) lunch we were broken into just two groups and it was a bit more freeform. It's not a complaint – we still got plenty of driving time and even bigger challenges to overcome that built on the morning session. But we enjoyed the smaller group learning in the morning and wanted more of it. We are, however, talking about a step down from "@#*! awesome" to "Holy cow this is still awesome."
We realize this reads like a paean to Hubinette and his school. And, frankly, it is. Driving instruction and schools are a regular occurrence in this business, but almost all of them are barely memorable or, at worst, positively neutering. Which makes it that grand when you can go to a driving school and really learn to drive.
So. Why would you pay money to go to 360PDA? Because if you want to learn drifting and outer limit car control, you apprentice in a few of the coolest driving techniques at one of the coolest schools taught by one of the best, if not the best, drifter there is. And since Hubinette owns the school, "we're in control and we can choose the clientele and group settings, and be very adaptive with different groups of people."
If we had our choice of attending a number of other schools for free or paying for 360PDA, the first thing we'd want to know is "Do you take Visa?" And then we'd ask if they could teach us to slide H1s next time. We'll bring the ammo.
Photos copyright ©2009 Drew Phillips / Weblogs, Inc.