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Golf Life: The Porsche Academy

Three wild turkeys peck in the grass on a rolling hill in Alabama. It's a quiet, even serene panorama. Suddenly, the gobblers' heads pop up in alarm. A predatory growl rips the stillness, growing louder. Seconds later it screams down the nearby asphalt road—a silver Porsche 911 Carrera. The turkeys' wings beat in panic; the Porsche, doing well over 100 m.p.h., brakes hard into a nasty turn. Tires shriek, and the car disappears around a corner. The birds settle back down.

It's a scene reenacted here hundreds of times a day.

This is Barber Motorsports Park in Birmingham, a world-class road course that opened last spring. It isn't your average greasy, chewin'-tobacca type of track. For a racecourse, it's got a distinct panache. A premier motorsports museum looms over Turn Four. Inspired by the Guggenheim museum in New York, it houses one of the world's largest collections of vintage motorcycles. The pristine grounds are dotted with playful sculptures, including giant ants with motorcycles and riders in their maws. But it's the road course itself—2.3 miles of sinuous curves, short straightaways, sharp drops and blind corners—that gets speed worshipers salivating.

Today I'm out with more than a dozen other novices, all students of the Porsche Driving Experience, taking a two-day course to hone my driving chops. Our disparate group includes a pro hockey player, a spine surgeon and an airplane designer. We all drive sports cars (more than half the group own $115,000-plus Porsche Turbos), but few of us know how to master the cockpit in order to get the best out of them.

To gain this wisdom, each student gets his own 911 Carrera and dozens of laps following behind such first-rate instructors as racing legend Hurley Haywood and current circuit-contender David Murry. The park itself is the vision of local multimillionaire George Barber, who's spent more than $54 million (so far) of his own money on the project. "I wanted to bring glory to Birmingham," the genial sixty-three-year-old told me earlier. "I want this to be the Augusta of tracks." (Yes, he's also the owner of the museum's astounding 850-plus rare motorcycles.)

That's all well and good, but right now I'm concentrating on not killing myself while following instructor Rich Hull's car into Turn Two, a severe 381-foot-radius turn that drops forty feet in elevation. It's an intestine-twisting, tire-screeching thing. The g-forces push on my chest as I try to follow Hull's impossibly tight line along the curve. At its end, I straighten the wheel and let the car's momentum push it into the far left lane. I'm already up to 85 m.p.h., and the engine is thrumming sweetly. A short, steep hill follows. I shoot over it and, briefly, my hood is aimed at the sky—a blind drop. My stomach does a loopty-loop. The wheels settle as the ribbon of asphalt levels out and uncurls into a straightaway. Hull urges on the radio, "Closer, closer—get right on my bumper."

It's exhilarating and exhausting. A lapse of attention in the rear-wheel-drive 320-horsepower machine can quickly get you in trouble. Paying strict attention to your "lines"—the quickest and most efficient way around the track—keeps you in check.

The two-day course is designed to lend real-world driving skills to your daily commute—what to do in case of a slide, for instance—as well as to unleash your inner speed demon without putting Smokey on your tail. Most of the students are curious to test their limits on a track, but nobody expects to become the next Andretti.

The days are broken into short classroom periods—where the nuts and bolts of speed physics and car handling are explained—and hands-on workshops where that info is put to use on mini road courses. Everyone benefits from time on the "skid pad," a water-slicked parking lot where the art of correcting a slide is practiced. By the afternoon of the first day, students graduate to the actual course, where three or four cars at a time follow an instructor's lead. Speeds gradually increase until, on the afternoon of the second day, you're screaming through corners faster than you imagined possible.

Bad news: The sky has darkened, and it begins to downpour. "Now's when it gets interesting," says Hull. Small rivers course along the track. As I sluice through standing water at high speed, I hear the electronic beep indicating that the car's phenomenal stability system—which can brake a single tire at a time when it senses slippage—has kicked in. I grit my teeth. The tires regain traction. "You almost had a moment there," comes Hull's voice. I get back on the accelerator and slice through a curve. It is glorious and beautiful, more fun than any one person should have. Hull instructs us to come inside and wait for the rain to subside.

We sit down to an all-too-civilized catered lunch and watch the weather. My expression and demeanor must be that of a disappointed six-year-old, because Hull shakes his head with a smile. "Don't worry, we'll get a lot more laps in today," he says. "Besides, you'll be back. You've got the bug. And the ones with the bug always come back."

Race Courses

Get schooled at speed at one of these performance-driving programs:

PORSCHE DRIVING EXPERIENCE porschedriving.com, 888-204-7474. Two-day courses at Birmingham, Alabama's Barber Motorsports Park (barbermotorsports.com). Basic course: $2,695; advanced: $2,995.

PANOZ RACING SCHOOL panozracingschool.com, 888-282-4872. You can get your Sports Car Club of America racing license here aboard genuine GT racecars. Three tracks, including Atlanta and Sebring, Florida. One day: $875; three days: $2,750.

BMW M SCHOOL bmwusa.com, 888-345-4269. See what your M3 can really do while driving somebody else's M3 or M5 in Spartanburg, South Carolina. Two and a half days: $3,650.

SKIP BARBER RACING SCHOOL skipbarber.com, 800-221-1131. Good teachers, venerable and, with more than twenty locations, readily available. Features open-wheel racers (think Formula One). One day: $595-$695; three days: $2,995-$3,495.


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