After buying an Audi A4 sedan, Alex Schenkar was eager to learn the proper driving techniques for his sporty new car. So he enrolled in a performance-driving class at ProFormance Racing School in Kent.
"I wanted to see the car perform at its highest level, and this seemed like the right venue with the right supervision," says the 36-year-old Seattle homebuilder.
The course is designed to teach "street survival" and advanced car control while exposing students to the excitement of high-performance driving.
Schenkar was wearing a huge grin after an intensive day of classroom sessions and exhilarating hands-on driving instruction from owner Don Kitch Jr., a race-car driver and veteran of LeMans, and his affable crew of professional instructors.
"Cars like this are phenomenal pieces of machinery made to be driven," Schenkar says. "But what they're also teaching you [in class] is defensive-driving techniques applicable to everyday situations."
The Northwest has a variety of schools or clubs that offer performance-driving instruction. Note that most car clubs require membership to participate in events.
Audi Club Northwest
BMW Car Club of America Puget Sound Region
Defensive Driving School
DirtFish Rally School
Evergreen Driving School
Northwest Alfa Romeo Club
Porsche Club of America Pacific NW Region
ProFormance Racing School
Pro Drive Driving School (Oregon)
ProFormance Racing School offers a basic performance-driving class in addition to racing instruction. Other local schools include Bellevue's Defensive Driving School, which offers skid and collision avoidance for teens and adults, and Kirkland's Evergreen Driving School, offering teen driver-safety courses and state licensing testing.
Fourteen first-time, mostly male students, ranging in age from their 20s to 60s, joined Schenkar for the recent ProFormance class at Pacific Raceways, which features a 2.25-mile race track with long straightaways and tight turns.
Most drove their own cars, from older Hondas to new or late-model Audis, BMWs and Cadillacs. For students without cars, ProFormance provided a Chevrolet Cobalt SS and a Porsche Cayman S at extra cost (other cars, including a Lotus Elise, are also available). Prices for the class start at $555.
Michael Johnson, an electronics technician, got behind the wheel of the school's bright-yellow Cayman S. He received the class as an anniversary gift from his wife, Susie Lee Johnson, who also participated.
"Basic skills like accident avoidance, braking on a turn — that's the kind of stuff that's useful in everyday driving," says Johnson, 53.
Kitch and his wife, Donna Porada-Kitch, founded the school in 1987. The high point in Don Kitch's racing career came in 2009, when he and teammates Patrick Dempsey (of TV's "Grey's Anatomy") and Joe Foster raced a Ferrari F430 GT2 at LeMans. His passion for motorsports and driving safety is evident in the classroom and on the track.
"We transition students from operating a motor vehicle to truly driving a car," he says. "You have to understand what it does, what it doesn't do, and what to do when things go wrong.
"The biggest skill that we're developing out there is situational awareness — what I refer to as big eyes, high eyes. Get 'em big, get 'em moving, get 'em way out ahead of the car."
Kitch emphasizes the 9-and-3 steering position, which maximizes driver control and reduces the likelihood of injury if an air bag deploys. Drivers also learn the operation of anti-lock braking systems (ABS).
"Technology has gotten ahead of the buyers," he says. "People don't understand stability-control systems, traction-control systems and ABS."
Out on the track, students learn how ABS works during a panic stop. They also practice braking into a turn; negotiating a slalom course; and shifting, braking and accelerating through the twists and turns of the track.
Clubs catering to enthusiasts of BMW, Porsche, Alfa Romeo, Audi and other performance makes also provide instruction, in addition to promoting camaraderie, sportsmanship and safety.
Lance Richert is an instructor with the BMW Car Club of America's Puget Sound Region. He caught the bug for performance driving in college. Members can advance through four skill levels, but everyone starts with the basics of car control.
"You need to do that before you drive on the big track," Richert says.
Forrest Iandola, 24, recently attended his second driving session as a club member.
"It's extremely fun," he says. "I also think it's making me a better driver. You don't have to be driving fast to see the benefits of what you learn here."