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A half-day at the Lexus Performance Driving School

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Lexus invited yours truly and a handful of other automotive journalists and bloggers to attend the kickoff of the Lexus Performance Driving School at Palm Beach International Raceway in Jupiter (no, not the planet), Florida on Saturday 1 October 2016. This venue is centrally located (a 2 to 3-hour drive) from the Miami, Orlando and Tampa Bay metro areas.

Kicking off the festivities was…

IMG_1305A very special guest
The Welcome / Introduction / Safety Talk included the words and presence of Scott Pruett, certainly among the most prominent American motorsports drivers. Detailing all of the major highlights and accomplishments of his 48-year racing career would require a whole separate article (we’ll instead refer you to this web page), but chief among them is 60 wins in IMSA (International Motor Sports Association) racing, 8 American Road Racing Championships (both records) and an LMGTS Class win at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 2001.

Lexus cognoscenti, however, will probably best remember him for his 2004-2007 run with the Chip Ganassi Racing with Félix Sabatés Daytona Prototype racers. These were powered by a race-tuned derivative of Lexus’ 3UZ-FE 4.3-liter V8. Scott Pruett’s #01 Riley-chassis racer scored an overall win at the 2007 Rolex 24 at Daytona, and that era of Lexus racing was amply chronicled by this author in a series of articles for my.IS.

A photo of the Lexus RC F GT3 racer as part of the pre-drive presentation made me wonder what was happening with the long, drawn-out process of FIA homologation. I asked Scott Pruett, and, in his words,

The RC F GT3 was homologated last week, and the first car was delivered to the 3GT Racing shop 2 days ago, with testing set to begin in 2 weeks.

3GT Racing? It turns out that, concurrent with Friday 30 September’s Full-Day Lexus Performance Driving School at PBIR, word came that North America’s Lexus / Paul Gentilozzi motorsports partnership (with Scott Pruett and Sage Karam as drivers) formerly known as F Performance Racing has now been rechristened 3GT Racing.

We should note, however, that their 30 September news release states that

The newly-designed 2017 RC F GT3 is currently completing FIA homologation testing in Ladoux, France.

while that same day SportsCar365 reported that

…the…2017-spec Lexus RC F GT3 completed the FIA’s Balance of Performance test in Ladoux last week.

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Semantics aside, it’s encouraging to hear that the Lexus RC F’s long, convoluted road to full, official GT3 homologation is in the final stretch, if not already across the finish line. We’re certainly looking forward to the competition debut of the 3GT Racing Lexus RC F GT3 racer (sounds like a tongue-twister or a dyslexic’s nightmare of S-FR / F-RS proportions) at the Rolex 24 at Daytona on 28-29 January 2017.

Obviously, the GT3 racer wasn’t present at the Lexus Performance Driving School (though a concept prototype version was, as shown above), but car enthusiasts were able to sample a quartet of the marque’s more sporting models.

The cars
Lexus’ 3.5-liter 2GR-FSE V6 IS 350 F Sport sedan and RC 350 F Sport coupe were joined by the 5-liter 2UR-GSE V8-powered GS F sedan and RC F coupe. Given the event’s timing, all were 2016 models. Changes for 2017? The September 2016 print edition of Motor Trend magazine mentions Yamaha performance dampers for RWD RC 350s and adaptive variable suspension for RC F and GS F, while the Lexus Europe newsroom notes that the 2017 IS line receives

(Improved) driving dynamics…through key revisions to the front and rear suspension systems, and the steering.

The front double wishbone suspension benefits from a new lower arm assembly forged in aluminium, which offers a 49% increase in rigidity over the steel member it replaces and new No. 1 bush with a 29% increase in rigidity. In combination, these new elements offer a marked improvement in steering response at cruising speeds. The front suspension system further benefits from a new upper support bush, a change to the coil spring rate, new shock absorber components and a revised damper setting.

The rear multi-link suspension features a new upper arm No. 1 bush and a new stabiliser bar, new shock absorber components and a revised damper setting.

The ECU settings of the Electric Power Steering system (EPS) have also been revised.

As a result of the comprehensive measures, both standard and F SPORT IS models demonstrate an improvement in ride quality, body control, rear traction and straight line stability, as well as better steering response and feedback.

Would these changes have made noticeable seat-of-the-pants improvements to the battery of tests comprising the Lexus Performance Driving School? Hard to say for certain, but, for now, we have 2016 models and the first driving portion of the Half-Day Experience:

Slalom, Braking and Evasive Maneuvering
The 15-member Red Group which I was a part of (there were also Yellow and Blue Groups) started out with what would more accurately be described as a braking-then-slalom in IS 350 F Sport and RC 350 F Sport vehicles. The first of two runs to demonstrate the anti-lock braking system (ABS) involved a rapid straight-line run, then hitting the brakes at a designated point while maintaining a straight line. The second run was fundamentally the same, but with instructions to turn a bit rightward at the end. I inadvertently got ahead of myself and also veered right at the first run. Both runs then segued into a 5-cone slalom run.

Skid Pad
Yours truly has experienced skid pad tests where the course was doused in sudsy detergent just to make things really interesting, but here, just water sufficed. The test vehicles here were RC Fs equipped with the optional TVD torque-vectoring differential. Around each of 2 runs of the circular skidpad, we were to suddenly stomp on the gas and then steer and control the skid. During the first run, I had a self-preservation brain fart and hit the brakes instead. On the second I did much better and had a fun, easily controllable skid.

Timed Autocross
We then moved on to Palm Beach International Raceway’s 0.8-mile go-kart track, where I had autocrossed a good number of times back when the track went by its former Moroso Motorsports Park moniker. This is actually more of a mini-road course, with only a couple of short straights allowing for a 3-cone slalom on each one. This was hardly the best place to show off the handling abilities of a just-over-2-ton medium-large sedan like the GS F, no matter how sporty. Yet, during 2 practice and 1 timed run, it acquitted itself quite well, and, in spite of my getting a bit sloppy about three-quarters of the way into the course, I managed the fastest time (57.458 seconds) among the 15 Red Group drivers. When the overall times for all the groups were tallied, however, I didn’t even make Top 3 (those were in the 55-56 second range), and Scott Pruett obliterated us all with a 53.795-second time.

Lead/Follow
Certainly one of the highlights of the event was the Lead/Follow on the full 2-mile road course in RC Fs and GS Fs. We were paired off in each car and drove in “trains” of 4 or 5 cars with a lead car driven by one of the professional drivers on hand. At track driving event lead/follows, yours truly is one of those that clamors and rushes to be right behind the lead car. To be fair to everyone, though, a clever rotation was set up for the first time in my recollection: Whenever the lead car flashed its left turn signal (usually in a straightaway), the car immediately following would move to the left, the rest of the cars would race closer to the lead car (thus, the third car would become the second, right behind the leader) and the former second car would move to the back of the line.

Thus, during the first 3-lap stint, all the follower cars got a chance to be right behind the leader. Then, we stopped to rotate driver/passenger in each car, and the new driver did his own 3-lap stint. This was followed by a return to the start line, the original driver went back behind the wheel for an additional 2-lap session, finalizing with the second driver doing his own 2 laps.

And how did 5 total laps in a Lexus RC F or GS F feel? Mine in the latter were certainly a fun and memorable experience, and the car’s tenacious handling and lack of serious body roll or drama certainly belied its bulk. The cars were, naturally, placed in Sport+ mode (as they were for all the previous tests). We also followed Lexus’ advice to just leave the transmission in Drive and let the AA80E 8-speed automatic transmission do its thing. A wise decision, as its programming (which includes a lockup torque converter in all but 1st gear) was seamless, with throttle blips at just the right times.

Our lead car minders kept us to a 114 mph speed on the track’s longest straight, but the GS F certainly seemed capable of more…

Hot Laps
The other major highlight came when a number of us were allowed to ride along on hot laps driven by Scott Pruett. I was among those selected for this, and riding shotgun as Mr. Pruett drove a Lexus F sedan all-out on a racetrack brought back fond memories of Laguna Seca and the IS F press preview, not to mention Homestead-Miami Speedway and the LFA.

Unlike us mere mortals, he drove it in manual mode using the shift paddles, but there wasn’t any undue jerkiness or lurching. And on that long straightaway? Mr. Pruett was hitting 136 mph, and probably could’ve gone even faster had he not had to haul 3 extra passengers around…

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A final highlight was when the Caviar LC 500 coupe on display was rolled out onto the track’s edge, Scott Pruett climbed in and gave 3 lucky event participants (one from each color group, chosen by random drawing) a hot lap in Lexus’ newest GT coupe. No, I wasn’t chosen for that, but the event itself was such an overall winner that I didn’t mind too much. Better to spread the good stuff around…

When a half day isn’t enough…
For the greedy ones among us who want more, more, more, Lexus offers a 9-hour long Performance Driving School Full-Day Experience that adds Advanced Driving Theory (A classroom session taking an in-depth look at vehicle dynamics and advanced driving techniques) and Line Technique (An on-track exercise teaching the proper racing line to safely help maximize speed) sessions and, presumably, more on-track seat time.

The cost for this is $895, as opposed to the 5-hour Half-Day Experience’s $495 admission fee.

When an hour-and-a-half suffices…
For those with time and/or money constraints, the Lexus Performance Driving School also offers a complimentary 90-minute Express Experience consisting of Chalk Talk (Welcome / Introduction / Safety Talk), Autocross and on-track Lead/Follow sessions.

In general terms, the events are held over a 3-day period near or on a weekend, with the Full-Day Experience held on the first day, the two Half-Day Experience options (Morning or Afternoon) are on the second day, and the third day offering a dozen Express Experience starting time options, which vary according to locale. And that leads us to ponder…

Where to next?
After the initial visit to Florida’s Palm Beach International Raceway, the next 3 stops on the Lexus Performance Driving School tour are:

CHICAGO, ILLINOIS Area:
Autobahn Country Club in Joliet
Friday 7 October 2016: Full-Day Experience
Saturday 8 October 2016: Half-Day Experience (Morning or Afternoon sessions)
Sunday 9 October 2016: 12 Express Experience sessions with starting times between 7:10 AM and 2:30 PM

NEW YORK / NEW JERSEY Area:
New Jersey Motorsports Park in Millville, NJ
Thursday 27 October 2016: Full-Day Experience
Friday 28 October 2016: Half-Day Experience (Morning or Afternoon sessions)
Saturday 29 October 2016: 12 Express Experience sessions with starting times between 7:40 AM and 3:00 PM

SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA:
Auto Club Speedway in Fontana
Friday 10 February 2017: Full-Day Experience
Saturday 11 February 2017: Half-Day Experience (Morning or Afternoon sessions)
Sunday 12 February 2017: 12 Express Experience sessions with starting times between 7:40 AM and 3:00 PM

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