I felt like such a rock star. On my second pass around the UrbanCross course (read: fancy autocross) at the Ford ST Octane Academy, I absolutely nailed the exit, sliding the bright-yellow Focus ST sideways into a box the size of a parking space, all four wheels in line.
The ST school is about more than just handbrake turns, hot laps, and sliding into parking spaces.
This was just one of many bits of hooliganism learned during my day at the Academy – a school offered to any Ford Focus ST or Fiesta ST owner (those who buy it new, anyway – sorry, used car shoppers), free of charge. This one-day course, with an optional second day, teaches not only the basics of on-track driving, but lets owners experience all of the hilariously fun bits of hot hatchery built into these little turbocharged wonders.
Did I mention it's free? All you have to do is get there, with "there" being Miller Motorsports Park in Tooele, UT.
As I would come to learn during my time in Tooele (that's "too-illuh"), the ST school is about more than just handbrake turns, hot laps and heroic slides into parking spaces. Mixed in with all of the antics was a crash course on understanding car control, along with simple tools that'll help you be a better driver in everyday situations. And man, was it fun.
If you've never been to Miller Motorsports Park, it really is a sight. Tooele is a flat piece of land nestled between the mountains in northwest Utah, so you can see for miles and miles, with only faded, snow-capped peaks off in the distance. The city sits about 5,000 feet above sea level, so our instructors' first directive upon arriving was to stay hydrated – water bottles were everywhere, lest my head grow hazy, dehydrated and deprived of sweet, sweet oxygen.
Racing School 101: Keep your eyes up, and always look where you want the car to go.
The party starts the night before track day, where I was invited to Ken Block's offices up in Park City for a welcome dinner and a chance to check out where the Gymkhana star works out the business end of his empire. Following that, an anxious sleep ensued, filled with dreams of hot hatches drifting against scenes of flat land and mountains. If you've been paying attention here at Autoblog, you know that I adore exactly these sorts of cars, so naturally, getting to play with the Fords out on a track was an exciting prospect.
Come morning, the ST Academy started in the classroom, where I sat through a brief overview of the day's activities and a couple of instructional sections detailing things like entry, exit and apex points for turns, as well as other tips that would be pertinent to the day's activities. (Driving School 101: Keep your eyes up, and always look where you want the car to go.)
After the basics were checked off, I donned a red single-layer racing suit (so flattering) and went out to the track, where we met the cars and the first few challenges. A couple of things to note about the cars: they were mostly stock, save for safety items like a roll cage and upgraded four-point seatbelts. The standard parking brakes had been removed in favor of rally-style pull-handles, and track-spec, super-grippy tires were installed at all four corners. Other than that, the cars I drove were the same as what's currently sitting at Ford dealerships, the Fiesta ST with its 197-horsepower, 1.6-liter EcoBoost inline-four, and the Focus ST with its turbocharged, 252-hp, 2.0-liter.
Don't go easy on the car, or it won't turn with the urgency needed to complete the exercise.
That Focus was my first car of the day, nose pointed toward a row of cones with wet pavement in the middle, where I was tasked with doing a 180-degree turn. Pointed straight ahead on the wet pavement, I was instructed to look directly to the left (there's that eyes-where-you-want-to-go thing again), let off the throttle, pull the handbrake and get the back to rotate while turning the wheel. As the car swung around, I would release the parking brake and get back on the throttle to exit the box. It took a couple of tries, and the key thing I had to keep in mind with this, and all the other exercises, was that steering and handbrake inputs needed to be immediate and direct – don't go easy on the car, or it won't turn with the urgency needed to complete the exercise.
The same was true when we switched to the Fiesta ST to complete the reverse J-turn maneuver. Here, we would travel at about 25 to 30 miles per hour in reverse, and after fully releasing the throttle and depressing the clutch, slam the steering wheel all the way to the left and pull hard on the handbrake, to get the little Fiesta to basically spin itself around. Once I was pointed 180 degrees in the opposite direction, I hit the brake pedal, and came to a stop. Without wanting to play favorites, this exercise was easily the most fun – scores high on the impress-your-friends quotient, too.
As does the parking box maneuver, which is the sort of cool thing you see in the movies. You know what I'm talking about – some hot-shot is driving a car, and slides it sideways perfectly into a parking space. It's basically the same as the 180-degree turn I practiced first – just don't turn the wheel as sharply, and instead of getting back on the throttle to exit, hit the brake pedal and pull the handbrake hard to stop all four wheels once the car has spun 90 degrees.
That full morning's worth of stunt-type driving would all come in handy later, on the UrbanCross course.
That full morning's worth of stunt-type driving would all come in handy later, on the UrbanCross course – essentially your typical sort of autocross setup, with 180-degree turns in the middle, and a parking box for a photo finish at the end. (Rock star moments, here.) We were given time to practice in Fiesta STs, but actually ran timed laps in the larger Focuses. Hit a cone, and time would be added. But nail that parking box, and style points could counteract any cones trampled along the way. Combined with the usual first- and second-gear maneuvers of a typical autocross, including figure-eights, slaloms and the like, the whole course took anywhere from 45 to 50 seconds to complete. While I normally champion my quickness, I'll admit I was the second-place finisher that day. My hat's off to the guy who took first, though do note, he only beat me by like, a second.
Following some lunch, I was given a brief walkaround of the east track at Miller Motorsports Park (good time to digest those sandwiches), where I focused less on the hilarious stuff and more on precision driving at higher speeds. An instructor rode shotgun while I hustled a Focus ST around the course, telling me to brake later, not as urgently, and to carry more speed through the turns. I was pushed harder and harder until the instructor had me pull into the pits to drop him off, letting me loose for 20 minutes of hot lapping, working through third and fourth gears all while kissing apexes and getting ever so slight amounts of tire chip while speeding through the corners.
I remembered how incredibly awesome the Focus ST is – such a darling performer.
In that moment, I remembered how incredibly awesome the Focus ST is – such a darling performer. While I still think I'd rather own a more daily-driver-friendly Volkswagen GTI for year-round hot hatch use, I reaffirmed my assessment that the Ford is still the best-performing vehicle in the segment. The Fiesta ST, though, is perhaps even more fun. That shorter wheelbase means it's handily the more tossable car, and even with less power from its 1.6-liter turbo-four, felt every bit as engaging on the Miller track.
Hot laps upon hot laps were amassed, and as the day came to a close, we headed back to the classroom for one last time, to debrief on the experience. Owners are given goodies like participation trophies and some cool ST swag, including a unique, black ST badge for their cars – something you can only get by participating in the Octane Academy.
So, is it worth it? Considering the cost, absolutely. Sure, airfare isn't always cheap, and you have to foot the bill for a cheap motel, but for enthusiastic ST owners looking to see all that their cars can do, it sounds like a pretty solid vacation, to me. The instructors, of course, absolutely know their stuff, and they really push the students – nothing you aren't capable of, but eking out a driver's full potential is the key here, while helping them understand the finer points of car control and generally having a great time.
Eking out a driver's full potential is the key here, while helping them understand the finer points of car control.
I'm pretty sure we all felt like rock stars after completing the ST school, the owners heading off in their personal STs (or rental cars) with newfound confidence. Even more experienced drivers like my journalist colleagues and myself learned a thing or two at Octane school – stuff that's always good to brush up on, and can be applied to general car control, not just Ford ST control. The fact that the cars used here are hilarious hot hatches really is just icing on the cake.