When talking to the folks from Radford Racing School about their programs, they insisted that the best way to get an idea of what they offer is to attend a class, so I headed to Arizona for the two-day High Performance Driving (HPD) program. This program, with length options ranging from two to four days, is really the main attraction of the school. Pretty much every other program at Radford is built around the information learned during their HPD program and nearly all of the hands-on training (in every program) takes place in either a Dodge Challenger or a Dodge Charger. There are also some Durango SRT® 392 models that are used in select programs, along with some open-wheel racecars that don’t feature Dodge power, but most of my drive time took place in a Challenger – a beautiful B5 Blue SRT® Hellcat Redeye, to be exact.
The key difference with the Radford HPD program and many other “experience” driving programs is that at Radford, the goal is to teach the students all of the fine intricacies of car control, so while students learn in Dodge products – the information learned can be applied to driving any high-performance vehicle. With that point in mind, students should understand that they aren’t going to sign in, strap on their helmet and go 100+ on the big road course. As the instructors put it, students learn to crawl, then walk, then jog, then run out on the big track. All of that automotive crawling, walking and jogging takes place on a large, open expanse of pavement lined with cones rather than one of the facility’s many tracks and the speeds are relatively low – but students will quickly learn that those low speeds are necessary to work toward mastering the techniques being taught.
“When a driver is looking to improve their skills, this is the best starting point,” said Danny Bullock, Lead Instructor. “We see so many people come through who are looking to be better, safer drivers on the street, and the High Performance Driving Program is the perfect outlet for this.”
Radford High Performance Driving Day 1
When you first arrive at Radford Racing School for the High Performance Driving program, you check in at the front desk, where you get your name tag and fill out the required legal documents. The front desk area is surrounded by a pretty extensive collection of clothing and other Radford apparel, and most of the students (myself included) bought hats and shirts before heading into the classroom at the opposite end of the building.
My class had eight students, which is big for a Radford HPD class, and our classroom time started with everyone in the room introducing themselves. The instructors explained how long they had been with the school and in the case of every instructor I met while there, they had both been with the program for more than a decade. Really, that is true of most of the instructors, as everyone I met while there had also instructed under Bob Bondurant. After each of the students introduced themselves, the instructors quickly pointed out that their goal is to teach all of us better vision, which will make us better drivers. The whole group then headed outside for a tour of the garage and a close-up look at the vehicles that we would be driving.
While the vast majority of your time in a Radford HPD class is spent in a Dodge Challenger SRT Hellcat, the first day does have some classroom time which the instructors jokingly call the least fun aspect of the class. However, if you are serious about learning proper car control, the information shared in the classroom is both important and interesting. They begin with the five key points of the classroom – concentration, vision, attitude, car control and driving line – going into detail on each of those categories. They also talk about some aspects of driving that many people don’t consider, including seating position, pedal position, hand position and how your seat belt fits.
For example, many people drive with their left foot planted flat on the floor rather than on the “dead pedal” on the far left side of the footwell. When doing that, the driver has to either brace themselves against the steering wheel or with their right foot on the pedals, and both of those methods negatively impact your ability to control the vehicle. By keeping your left foot on that dead pedal, you can control the weight of your body while braking and cornering, freeing up your hands and right foot to control the vehicle.
Later on in the day, the classroom discussions become more advanced, focusing on aspects of car control such as contact patch, vehicle dynamics and weight transfer. The Radford instructors talk about how weight transfer under braking, cornering or accelerating impacts contact patch and with that, the level of traction available to each tire. They also explain how different methods of braking can improve how quickly you get in and out of a turn, and the quicker you get into a turn, the quicker you get out of that turn. The classroom sessions provide students with the understanding of how their actions inside of the car change how the car grips the surface, and that knowledge goes a long way in creating better drivers.
Hitting the Tarmac
As mentioned above, many of the instructional exercises take place on a large, open area of pavement that is covered with painted white lines, dots and cones, with a system of stoplights on one side. During the course of the day, the instructors change the pattern of cones to correspond with the exercise at hand. This is also where the Dodge Challengers used by the students are parked, so after the first morning classroom session, we headed out to meet our vehicle for the two-day session. There were a few SRT Hellcats in Go Mango with the manual transmission and a larger number of SRT Hellcat Redeyes in B5 Blue with the automatic transmission. A few manual owners in my group went for the manual cars, while I had a Redeye with the similar 8-speed to my own SRT Hellcat Challenger.
Our first exercise behind the wheel was the slalom, which gave us a feel for how car control and weight transfer varied at increasing speeds. We started off weaving through the cones at 25 mph twice, followed by doing the same thing at 30, 35 and 38. While some people who have never attempted to slalom through a series of cones with a 4,500-pound car might question those seemingly low speeds, I promise that doing so cleanly is much more difficult than it sounds – particularly at the higher speeds. After going through the cones twice at 38, we went back down to 25 and built back up to 40, which seemed a bit easier the second time around. After each run, an instructor at the end of the track spoke to you briefly, explaining what could have been done better and once you got back to the starting line, the instructor at that end provided input on what to do better on your next run.
Our next driving exercise was “accident avoidance”, and it used a series of cones that created three lanes, each with a red-green stoplight above them. Each student started at one end of the parking and accelerated to a set speed, entering a single lane of cones that expanded into the three lanes. As each driver entered that first area of cones, two of the stoplights above the three lanes switched from green to red, at which point you had to quickly make the move into the lane with the green light overhead without hitting any cones. Once again, after each run, an instructor at each end of the exercise area provided input on what you could have done better and how to do better on the next run. This exercise started at 25 mph, but increased by 5-mph increments up to 45. At first, it was pretty easy, but at the higher speed, you have so little time to react to the light change that you have to make a very aggressive move into the proper lane, leading to quite a few cone strikes by the students.
The second portion of accident avoidance was on the same course, but this time, we drove into the lanes of cones at 45 mph and when all of the lights turned red, we had to stop as quickly as possible. Those showed us just how far it took us to recognize the signal to stop and to get the Dodge Challenger completely stopped. At first, we would just stop straight ahead into the middle lane of cones, but later on in the exercise, we switched to stopping in the left lane. This required us to steer the car with the brake pedal jammed to the floor and the antilock braking system in action.
Finally, accident avoidance ended with a “dealer’s choice” portion where we drove towards the cones at 45 mph and we had to react to whatever happened on the stoplights. If one stayed green, we shot to that lane. If two stayed green, we could pick which lane to drive down and if they all turned red, we had to stop immediately. This entire exercise provided a great feel for the capacity of the massive Brembo brakes of the SRT Hellcat Challenger, along with teaching us how to quickly react and handle the car during an evasive maneuver.
The Charger Skid Car
My first day in the Radford Racing School HPD class ended with another round of runs through the slalom exercise in the Challenger Redeye, but that came after a bit of seat time with a very unique Dodge Charger Scat Pack. The “skid cars” at Radford feature a unique design in which a secondary hydraulic suspension system and an extra set of wheels allow the instructor to force extreme understeer or oversteer conditions with the push of a button in the cabin. Each student drives the car around a large, oval-shaped section of the tarmac while the instructor lifts either the front or rear end of the car. When the front lifts, less contact patch with the front tires leads to an extreme understeer condition while the rear end lift leads to extreme oversteer.
The oversteer, also known today as drifting, can be fun, but the understeer is never any fun, so we started off in the Charger Scat Pack working to control the car during extreme understeer conditions. Once we had a firm grasp of how to control a car that doesn’t want to turn, we transitioned to a car that doesn’t want to stop turning. I spend quite a bit of time with my own SRT Hellcat Challenger in extreme oversteer conditions and I have actually been trained in the Radford Charger skid cars back when I attended the school under the Bondurant name, so I was very comfortable drifting around the oval. However, the instructor did point out some bad habits that I had while enjoying the oversteer, explaining why those habits are bad and how to fix them. I “throw the wheel” when countersteering against oversteer, which gives me less precise control than when keeping control and constant contact with the steering wheel.
In addition to being lots of fun, the Dodge Charger Scat Pack skid cars teach the students how to handle and control a car that is experiencing extreme understeer or oversteer in a big, open area where it is safe to spin out. Being able to control a car in these conditions is crucial on the big road course, as out there, a big spin or nosing outwards at speed can put the car into a tire wall. With that in mind, the instructors spend the necessary amount of time with every student in the skid cars to make sure that they can control the cars ahead of making laps on any of the tracks. The students who struggle with this will spend more time in the skid cars, while the students who quickly get the car under control will spend more time in these unique Chargers.
My first day of the Radford Racing School High Performance Driving program was educational and a ton of fun, but day two was where I really started pushing the Dodge Challenger SRT Hellcat Redeye hard – including time on the Maricopa Oval track and the big Radford road course.