Imagine the thrill of piloting a brand new, $50,000 ($68,000 in Canada) truck at highway speeds across a vast desert landscape.
The all-terrain tires below you are simultaneously clawing at – and hurling – rocks, sagebrush and probably more than a few small lizards as the suspension plunges up and down furiously, trying its damnedest to keep 5,700 pounds of truck in contact with the earth.
Now imagine doing it blindfolded.
With the amount of dust the Ford F-150 Raptor ahead of me is kicking up, that’s essentially what I’m doing, driving blind. My heart is pounding and my white knuckles are sawing back and forth in front of my face while I try not to death-grip the wheel. If I get too close to the truck in front of me in the hope of maintaining visual contact, there’s a serious chance of a crash since traction is often limited and the path changes directions without much warning causing the equally inexperienced driver ahead to brake hard frequently.
If I back off the throttle, I risk losing the pack and getting lost off the trail, surely resulting in the truck being high-centered on a rock and my city-kid body becoming a casual lunch for rattlesnakes and coyotes in this inhospitable desert.
Sound thrilling? Definitely. And a little scary too.
But it doesn’t have to be.
As one of the fortunate few invited to sample Ford Performance Racing School’s brand new Raptor Assault program, I had been reminded a few times earlier in the day that we’re to drive at our own pace and comfort level in this and all of Ford’s excellent advanced driver training programs. With the giant plumes of dust following the trucks ahead of me, the likelihood of me actually getting lost was slim to none, but where’s the thrill in going slowly?
This portion of the day-long curriculum comes after participants are given plenty of time to familiarize themselves with the Raptor’s considerable competencies off-road. We’ve driven at a perilous 30-degree lean angle, only to come to a stop and have one of the instructors climb onto the lower side of the truck, highlighting its unwillingness to rollover and crush said instructor.
Then, after practicing some left-foot, uphill braking (designed to maintain a controlled and bounce-free pace on steep climbs), we sample the Raptor’s hill descent control with a look ma, no-feet, downward crawl. These first two exercises – along with some engaging in-class instruction – are all conducted at the awesome Utah Motorsports Campus (formerly known as Miller Motorsports Park).
But it’s once we leave the compound that the real fun begins. With a slow-paced trail driving start, the first-time off-roaders get a feel for what’s to come, and soon the speed builds to give each driver and truck a good workout. The group of Ford Raptors seem oblivious to the pounding they’re receiving from being driven with the sort of ruthless disregard normally reserved for unloved rental cars.
With the odometers reading only a few hundred miles, it’s a heck of a break-in period for what’s bound to be a very tough life for these trucks, and yet nothing we throw at the rigs seems to be anything other than a stroll in the park for the Raptors. I may have occasionally deviated from the leader’s path and sought out the deepest mud puddles to splash through with little consideration for the poor souls required to clean the trucks later, yet nobody complained or scolded me. Oh, what childish fun!
The Raptor Assault program is the latest offering in a growing lineup of Ford Performance programs. Following the success of the Boss 302, GT350 and ST Octane Academy programs, the school has added the Raptor Assault program and RS Adrenaline Academy (with a Ford GT supercar program coming in the future). These programs are available exclusively to buyers of Ford’s respective performance models in the interest of showing new owners just what their machines are capable of. Plus, since the school utilizes its own fleet of well-maintained machinery, drivers are free to shred up tires and cook brakes without worry of punishing their own vehicles.
ALSO SEE: 2017 Ford F-150 Raptor Review
While at the facility, I had the pleasure of sampling the RS Adrenaline Academy as well, summoning my inner Ken Block to work through wildly fun drift and “Urban-X” (autocross-style) exercises. On a watered-down skidpad, we were given instruction to circle at a slow, constant rate, then, turn in quickly, mash the accelerator to the floor and see what the Focus RS’s “Drift Mode” would allow. While the car did its part, I must admit that the fine balance of steering input and throttle modulation eluded me to sufficiently hold a drift for a complete revolution of the circle – understandable, perhaps given how hard I was laughing.
The highlight, however, was taking advantage of the facility’s world-class, 4.5-mile road course. Set up in a 2.2-mile long configuration, the track contained everything from high-speed bends to tight, technical corners and some elevation change. With plenty of run-off space, it’s the ideal venue to give drivers the confidence to push harder and improve their skills. What’s more, the instructors are as enthusiastic as any of the participants, encouraging everyone to progress while wearing a giant smile. And appreciating that participants in the program can range from first-timers through to folks who have logged considerable track time, we’re given the opportunity to improve at our own pace.
ALSO SEE: 2017 Ford Focus RS Review
After a dozen or so laps – some with and some without an instructor riding shotgun – I was feeling pretty confident pushing the Focus RS to ever quicker laps. I had caught a few of my peers, and had only been caught once when stuck behind a slower car (passing is forbidden in the interest of safety) and was feeling pretty good about my performance. Surely someone from Ford would notice my performance and I’d soon be offered a seat in the Ford GT at this year’s LeMans…
After a couple of hot laps as a passenger to my instructor, it became clear that not only do the teachers have plenty of real race experience, they’ve also had ample time to learn both the car’s and the track’s nuances, ripping off lap times significantly quicker than my own.
The RS Academy is not going to sufficiently prepare drivers to trade paint in a race series, nor will it net participants a race license. What it will do is instill a greater appreciation for the impressive capabilities Ford’s engineers have baked into their performance machines straight from the factory. It’s also likely to make nervous first-timers into enthusiastic track junkies, seeking out local autocross and track-day sessions. Likewise, the Raptor Assault program isn’t going to get drivers ready to tackle the Baja 1000, but it should give owners the confidence to try some moderate off-roading with their own trucks, assured in its ruggedness.
Drivers keen to move beyond these one-day courses and take their performance driving education further can do so, even earning a proper race license after a four-day session with race-prepped Mustang GTs and Boss 302s.
Those advanced programs don’t come cheap, but the RS Adrenaline Academy and Raptor Assault programs are free (and exclusive) to buyers of new Focus RSs and Raptors, making them an absolute no-brainer to sign up. Given the caliber of instructors and the sensational facility (not to mention the spectacular mountainous scenery), it’s no wonder all slots for the RS Octane program this year filled up within a few days (leaving the organizers scrambling to free up more spaces). It is expected the Raptor program will be equally popular.
Being able to push a high-performance machine – and your own skill level – to the limit is thrilling. To do it in someone else’s machine without worrying for tires or brakes is even more fun. But to have blindfolded thrills for free is almost too good to be true.
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