Lexus Performance Driving School is an accessible, trackside performance buffet
Unless you live in Germany, opportunities to wring out a performance vehicle—even in a straight line—during a test drive are few. Texas, perhaps. Most grand tourer and performance sedan customers won’t track their vehicles on any kind of regular basis—but we can all agree that, when splurging, you’d like to have some sense of the car’s capabilities. If you’re eying a Lexus, you could do far worse than adding $995—barely equivalent to the “destination charge” tacked on most window stickers—to attend a one-day Performance Driving School. You’ll sample three different models on a renowned race track, all with professional driving advice, Lexus-provided safety gear, and catered meals. You don’t even pay for the Michelin tires you destroy doing donuts on the skidpad … but we’ll get to that in a moment.
When I arrived bright and early at Weathertech Raceway Laguna Seca, Lexus had assembled a smorgasbord of sedans and coupes plucked from its performance lineup. A row of IS 350 F Sports stood at attention before an autocross course laid out on the infield paddock, with a similar cadre of RC Fs assembled at the far end by the skidpad. On pit row sat a flock of LC 500s (Lexus’ slinky, V-8-powered, $95K grand-touring coupe), which were grouped into trios, each led by a GS F (sedan, also V-8, now discontinued, and the instructors’ model of choice). Blessedly, the RX 450h and its incongruous F Sport package was nowhere to be seen.
After breakfast, we met the staff and broke into groups of 10 or so to watch a brief presentation on the basics of track driving: braking zones (and how they were marked on track), apex points (ditto), basic vehicle physics.
Then, with proper helmet sizes ascertained, we headed straight into the LC 500s and onto Laguna Seca for a slow (30–40 mph) lead-follow reconnaissance lap. With radios in each car, and the A/C running, we were well-prepared to absorb the instructor’s turn-by-turn instructions on turn-in, apex, and track-out, plus various landmarks—telephone poles, trees, letters on signs—for the several blind corners.
Initial on-track nerves eased, we returned to pit lane for a presentation on braking, designed to mentally and physically prepare newcomers for the intensity of on-track experience. Back out in our lead-follow groups, we practiced putting foot to the floor: Maximum throttle on radioed command, maximum braking at the cone. Then it was back to pit lane, out of the LC 500s, and through the garages to the autocross course. We discussed racing lines and, in between autocross lapping sessions, took turns on a Batak machine, a device designed to hone your reaction times to peripheral stimuli. (Think professional athlete–grade Bop It.) The autocross times we posted in the morning didn’t count; we’d be ranked in our groups according to three later runs that afternoon. Before lunch, however, each group got a chance to chat with Lexus brand ambassador and accomplished racing driver Scott Pruett.
That afternoon, our instructors ramped up the intensity each time we went out on the “big track,” encouraging us to carry more speed through the corners, critiquing us more closely on our racing lines. Lap times didn’t enter into the equation, helping keep our focus on learning rather than outright competition. We channeled that spirit into the autocross course, a lower-speed arena that nevertheless produced lots of grins.
The third and final exercise was the exact opposite of the on-track and autocross sessions: Each of us got a turn on the skidpad to perform our best donut. Your author’s lack of teenage hooliganism proved counterproductive here; but learning to provoke and maintain a slide taught me far more than I expected. As the on-hand instructor put it, the skidpad was a opportunity to build confidence behind the wheel: skid = bad is a good mindset for street driving, but, in more aggressive contexts, it will prevent you from learning how to control a vehicle at the edge of traction.
You might find yourself at a Lexus Performance Driving School for any number of reasons: a birthday or anniversary present, a father-son (or any other familial pairing) bonding trip, or simply curiosity. Whatever your reasons or experience, you’ll enjoy a professionally curated event with opportunities to learn from racing pros and spend real time behind the wheel of some fast cars. (The 2021 calendar includes events at Laguna Seca and Circuit of the Americas.) Those who crave a fully roll-caged, intensive racing primer should save their pennies and check out Skip Barber Racing School; but for those wanting a friendly entry point to on-track driving, Lexus’ PDS calendar is a great place to start.