By on June 11, 2015

Ford Fiesta ST Octane Academy Race Car

Many car manufacturers will sell you a hot hatch. Only Ford will teach you how to drive one after you’ve bought it.

Thanks in part to the success of their Boss Track Attack program (of which your author is a proud graduate), Ford made the decision to offer a one-day track experience to anybody smart enough to buy either a Focus or Fiesta ST.

Since I had such a great time at the Boss Track Attack two years ago, there was no way I was going to pass up this opportunity to head back to Miller Motorsports Park and burn the brakes out of wring out one of their STs at one of the finest motorsports facilities in the world, especially if the track is as doomed as some say it is.

After arriving in Salt Lake City and checking in at the sumptuous Hotel Monaco in the city’s beautiful downtown, I took my rental Toyota Yaris hatchback out to Ken Block’s Hoonigan headquarters in Park City, Utah, where a buffet dinner awaited the ST Octane Academy participants.

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I have a lot of things to say about Ken Block and DC Shoes, none of which are particularly nice, so I will just focus on the fact that I met some super cool guys at dinner. Seated at my table were three young men who worked as engineers for Ford in Livonia, MI, and another young man from NYC who had to take a eighty-five dollar taxi from the airport to Park City because he was only twenty years old and wasn’t allowed to rent a car.

When I visited MMP for Boss Track Attack two years ago, I was the second youngest participant at 35 years old. At 37, I was among the oldest of the nineteen STOA participants. This pleased me immensely to know there are still many, many so-called “millennials” that have a passion for not only owning such great cars, but also for learning how to drive them. That being said, none of the other participants had any track experience, and only a couple had even autocrossed before.

We were strongly advised by the lovely young lady who was in charge that we should save the partying for the next night, because we needed to be at MMP no later than 7:45 a.m. the next day. Also, for anybody who hasn’t spent much time at the altitude levels of Salt Lake City, dehydration is a serious concern. This was confirmed for me when I awakened the next morning at 6:30 to find that my nasal passages had completely dried out and filled with blood overnight, despite the fact that I had consumed two sixteen-ounce bottles of water right before going to bed.

No matter – I was going to get to drive at MMP that day! No blood-covered pillow could dampen my enthusiasm. I hopped out of bed and headed out for a thirty-five minute drive west to Tooele, the home city of Miller Motorsports Park.

DSCN1351

Okay, so maybe I was a bit overexcited. I was the first one to arrive at the classroom by a rather wide margin, so I decided to go speak to the young lady who was working in the souvenir store about the day’s schedule.

“Excuse me, miss, but do you know which course we’ll be running today for ST Octane?” I asked.

Miller Motorsports Park’s road course has several different configurations, including the ability to be split into two separate courses – East and West. I had driven the East course for Boss Track Attack, and I was hoping that maybe, just maybe, West would be used that day. Gotta add to that track count!

“Well, normally they use the East course, but there’s a Porsche Club HPDE today on East, so you guys will be on West,” she replied.

“YES!” I shouted, startling both of us a bit. “I mean – cool. I’ve never driven West before!”

“Well,” she said as she backed away slowly, “you will today!”

One by one, the other participants filed into the classroom. One of the instructors asked everybody to grab a pretty blue firesuit and white open-faced helmet from the racks.

“I brought my own,” I mumbled. Apparently, I was that guy. Here’s the class pic to verify my douchiness:

 

stoa class picture

Who is the douche with the full face helmet and triple-layer racing suit? Oh, wait, that’s me.

Before any track driving could happen, we had to receive a bit of classroom instruction on cornering theory. Our excellent classroom instruction was provided by Ronnie Swyers, a noted driving coach, karting champion and LeMons/ChumpCar driver.

 

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Here, Ronnie shows everybody how I will be overcooking the entry to corners

He explained the Focuses and Fiestas we’d be driving had some mild performance upgrades – improved brake pads, brake fluid, rollcages, handbrakes – but they were otherwise very much like the cars  we had in our respective garages (fortunately, they also had different tires). After our classroom session, we were split into two groups – one group would be doing a handbrake turn exercise that we’d be using on the UrbanCross X course later in the day, as well as a apex exercise, while the other group was sent off to drive the skid car and take a couple of laps on the West course as passengers in a van. I was in the handbrake turn group. Take a look below at my effort at making a 180 handbrake turn in the Focus ST:

Next up was my attempt at driving the skid car. What’s a skid car, you may ask? Well, it’s a car that is suspended on casters that can be raised and lowered on hydraulics to simulate oversteer at very low speeds. I remembered my complete and utter failure at driving it the last time I tried. “Prepare for a humbling experience,” I told my fellow classmates. Sure enough, after giving us a few seconds to become acclimated to the car, instructor Charlie Putnam dialed up the hydraulics and made it nearly impossible to drive the Ford Fusion skid car in a straight line. Each of us got a chance to practice shuffle steering and applying the throttle under oversteer conditions.

Finally, they piled all of us into the van for a ride around the track with Ronnie, who explained the proper entrance and exit of each corner on the West course. The apexes were clearly identified with cones. “We’ve made it point-to-point for you guys,” Ronnie explained. We took two complete laps of the course then headed back to the classroom for lunch. My major complaint about Boss Track Attack was the poor quality of the lunch [You should be an automotive journalist! -Mark]. Luckily, this has been remedied.

After lunch, it was time to take the Focuses (Foci?) and Fiestas out on track. We did two lead/follow sessions – one in the Fiesta and one in the Focus – then we were allowed to pick our own poison for the following instructor ride-along laps. Since I’ve already tracked my Fiesta, I decided to pick the Focus. My instructor, Donny, rode with me for one full lap, advised me to stop using the brakes like an On/Off switch, and to track out more on corner exit. He then hopped out and let me fly solo. Here’s the resulting three-lap session:

Why only three laps, you may ask? Well, I had caught the driver ahead of me and no passing was allowed, so I decided to roll through the pits. When I came back down pit lane, the brakes were, um, on fire. So they didn’t let me go back out. Can’t say I blame them.

After driving both cars on track, I felt incredibly glad that I bought the Fiesta and not the Focus. The Focus felt slow and plodding in comparison to the Fiesta. It understeered nearly everywhere. I felt as though I was constantly battling the car to get the nose pointed the right way. The Fiesta, on the other hand, was nimble and agile on course. Later in the day, the instructors each chose the Fiesta for their Hot Lap student ride-alongs. When I talked to Focus owners who drove the Fiesta, more than a couple of them said the experience made them wish they owned a Fiesta, not a Focus.

Fortunately, the only choice for the UrbanCross X course was the Fiesta. The UrbanCross was essentially a short autocross course that was slightly complicated by a forward 180 turn at the beginning and a 90 degree box turn at the end. If you didn’t get all four wheels inside the box, you got a four second penalty. This was the only timed event of the day, so there was a “fabulous prize” offered up to the winner of the event. We had four practice laps then one final run that would be the only one that counted for all the marbles. I had heard the best time of the first group was around a 53.0, so I was pretty pleased when my first lap was a 51.3. I got down to about a 50 flat, but I crunched a couple of cones. For my final lap, I decided to play it a little safe and stay off of the cones. Here it is:

It ended up a little slower than my best, but still fast enough to win by about three seconds over the second-place finisher. For my efforts, I won the following:

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As you can see, it’s a baby traffic cone and a disturbingly large sex toy. I think.

We finished up with a round of karting action, which was a fun way to put a bow on an outstanding day. So, to summarize:

Pros:

  • Great instruction
  • Plenty of time behind the wheel
  • World-class facility
  • It’s FREE*

Cons:

  • Not enough track time (Boss Track had two twenty-minute sessions, STOA had one 15-minute session and the UrbanCross)
  • Ummm…I can’t think of anything else

Listen, y’all – as we’ve reported here previously, Miller Motorsports Park is at risk of closing. FOR GOOD. If you have a Focus or Fiesta ST, you simply must find a way to take advantage of this opportunity to receive professional instruction on one of the most exciting (and equally important, safest) tracks you can drive before the end of the program on October 31st.

If you don’t own a Focus or Fiesta ST…well, why the hell not? If anything, this program proves these cars are nearly track-ready right out of the box, particularly the Fiesta. There’s no more fun to be had per dollar.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m making plans to get back out on track with mine.

* Ford Focus ST or Fiesta ST lease or purchase required.

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39 Comments on “Bark’s Bites: Ford’s ST Octane Academy Should Be Rated at 100...”


  • avatar
    energetik9

    “Many car manufacturers will sell you a hot hatch. Only Ford will teach you how to drive one after you’ve bought it.”

    I know my BMW wasn’t a “hot hatch”, but just for the record, BMW offered me a 1 day school down in SC when I bought mine. Included an overnight stay. My cost….$0. This was above and beyond the basic 1/2 day orientation course that all new buyers can take advantage of for free. In total, almost two full days on the track paid for by BMW.

    • 0 avatar
      energetik9

      And for the record, since I can’t edit for some reason. Still very impressed thar Ford even does this. I am a firm believer that the majority of people out there have minimal understanding of what the car they are driving is capable of. Or not…

  • avatar
    SV

    Interesting comments on the Focus vs the Fiesta. I’ve read elsewhere that the Fiesta is more fun, which makes me wonder whether I should have considered it more carefully before getting the Focus. Then again, I was looking for a sporty daily driver, not a track car. As a DD the Focus’s ride is just about as firm as I can tolerate, while the larger cargo area and rear seat are a big plus. I think for me the Fiesta would be a bit too compromised.

    I still would like to do the Octane Academy at some point, just need to find the time…

  • avatar
    LeMansteve

    15 minutes on track and a few autocross laps? Doesn’t seem worth the flight out to UT.

  • avatar
    dude500

    This should be next on your list: teamoneil.com

    The rally course will show you what the Fiesta chassis is really capable of.

  • avatar
    Amanofdragons

    I was seriously considering a fiesta st as my first car. I liked everything about it. Sporty, fast, not bad looking. And fwd for the Washington winters with snow tires. Also fairly practical. All my love for that car ended as soon as I sat in one at a dealership. Even without the Recaros, I simply couldn’t comfortably get in and out of the car. Seat all the way back, wheel up, I had to shoehorn myself in. I’m only 6’1″. Now I’m considering a brz. Having sat in one, it seems a lot more comfortable. Only it doesn’t check all the boxes. Any advice for a sporty somewhat practical daily driveable car that I can drive year round for around 20k? Probably used. Also insurance is a big consideration too.

    • 0 avatar

      Year round? Hmm. Seems like you have a preference for FWD, even though you mentioned the BRZ?

      You might have better luck with a Focus ST without Recaros, or a GTI. Dealerships aren’t that likely to deal on a FiST yet, but they seem to have no problem deeply discounting the FoST. My insurance on the FiST is negligible—something like $34 a month. I would imagine that the FoST would be similar.

  • avatar

    That is a very cool perk of ST ownership that I had no idea existed. I believe we chatted about Track Night on Twitter at one point but I wanted to ask you are there other non-ST Octane beginner racing days like this that are somewhat inexpensive?

    • 0 avatar

      Nothing that really provides driver instruction. Lots of tracks have something that’s equivalent to Miller’s “Wide Open Wednesdays,” however—just you and your car and a track.

      • 0 avatar

        The Wide Open deal at Miller seems really great. Kind of like Test and Tune nights at the drag strip that I am used to. I live about 50 minutes away from VIR but I have not been able to find anything like that over there and the closest Track Night is around 5 hours away.

        I may have to see if I can join up with a club that rents time at VIR. They were supposed to build another track about 20 minutes away that was supposed to be less expensive than VIR but of course all kinds of corruption happened and the project was shut down.

  • avatar
    Cerbera LM

    Can’t go that far from home and not bring the wife. $450 for the ‘Guest Experience’ is too much for a t-shirt and couple meals. Did check if the Driving Safety and the ST classes were on the same day.

    FWIW: Ordered my a FiST 8 days after you drove yours home.

    • 0 avatar

      I agree about the guest experience being a bit of a ripoff. I’m guessing that they charge so much in order to actually keep guests OUT.

      • 0 avatar
        ElAntonius

        I can put some perspective here. When I did the Boss Track Attack (HI BARK), my wife did the “guest” experience. For $100 she got the meals, the classroom, and the hot lap, but was otherwise not allowed on the track.

        So when we did this for our FoST, we swapped and she took the driver seat while I took the guest spot (yes, expensive). However, the difference between the ST and the Boss programs is that they allowed me in the car pretty much all the time at the ST program. I was allowed to ride shotgun with her for every event save for the open lapping on track (they said that they found that spouses in the car tend to get too freaked out and it’s a distraction to the driver).

        So for $450…yeah it’s still kind of a ripoff, but considering I wasn’t just standing around watching like she did at the Boss Track Attack it’s not as bad as it looks.

        Also, the Boss allowed you to bring a guest driver (at $1000 or something) that would be given a 4.6L Mustang in racish trim to drive in. The ST Octane Academy had ZERO provisions for guest driver.

  • avatar
    Robert

    Bark – is torque steer much of an issue with either car on the track?

  • avatar
    30-mile fetch

    I live an hour from that track and finally brought myself down to their monthly hoon-your-daily-driver event just last night. You line up single file and blow through the 2 mile East or West track, no instructor, no one else on track with you, and get back in line until the sun sets or you’ve cooked the tires on your Sportwagen.

    My cheapo daily driver was hopelessly outgunned by Porsche after Porsche after fishtailing Corvette, but it didn’t matter because it was a hoot. You weren’t competing against anyone, getting in anyone’s way, and I learned some things out there, namely that it is hard to keep track of all the tasks and stimuli at once and I need instruction and a car without 3200 pounds trying to steer, brake, and plod through the front wheels.

    Miller is a huge facility in a gorgeous setting and I really hope someone can keep it viable.

  • avatar
    MrGreenMan

    Brake fire may be one of the truest indicators of a good time.

  • avatar
    Maverick74

    Didn’t Fiat offer something similar to this for the Abarth a couple years ago?
    Either way, it sounds like a blast!

  • avatar
    Power6

    Every time you do one of these articles I want a Fiesta ST a little more. Can’t quite justify a company car lease yet but this would be the one to get!

  • avatar
    sastexan

    I did Bondurant back when I turned 21 (and Ford was still a sponsor). In fact, back then, Ford had a deal if you bought an SVT then you got a 20% discount at Bondurant. My class had Ford engineers (one transmission guy had a Ranger with something secret on the trans he couldn’t tell me about – the cabin was all wires and laptops) and was headed to Lake Havisu after Phoenix. It was August; class started at 6am and was over by 2pm as the car cooling systems could not keep up (much less the occupants – no AC was allowed).

    The cars with caster wheels on a hydraulic frame was fantastic – it should be standard drivers training. Bondurant got preproduction Contour SVTs when I was there to evaluate for replacing their Taurus SHO instructor cars (they did have a few but ended up being too small with the roll cage for dudes in helmets in the back seat). That was what sold me on my Contour SVT at that time.

    I agree with Bark – if you have an opportunity to do a class such as this one, no question you should take advantage of it.

  • avatar
    AK

    How exactly does the admission work?

    I bought a 2015 ST in March and the octane academy never came up in discussion or any of the paperwork.

  • avatar
    eRiic

    owns a Fiesta ST and attended STOA in May 2014. It was totally worth it. I left my driving suit and helmet at home because I didn’t want to be “that guy” ;) Also I had the best time on the urbanX course and won our kart race. ST owners register at stoctaneacademy.com

  • avatar
    05lgt

    Now you went and caused me to check local prices on a FiST. That’s far too tempting for a hot hatch… I won’t actually do it, but this is almost as frustrating as when some young thing makes her availability too clear. I’ll find myself musing at some inappropriate time; what would I actually have to give up to get a new FiST… Grumble.

  • avatar
    rpn453

    “If anything, this program proves these cars are nearly track-ready right out of the box . . .”

    All the Focus ST needs is new upgraded brakes every three laps! Or maybe just a real LSD? Did they give you an explanation for that incident?

    • 0 avatar

      I think my braking technique was to blame, in all honesty. My instructor was right in that I am still learning how to brake in FWD cars.

      • 0 avatar
        rpn453

        What sort of details are you working on? All I can come up with is maybe loading the front tires too much during trail braking? Understeery cars certainly do require a light touch. I imagine the FiST is much better in that regard.

        You’re very humble! Unless you’re overlapping the brake and throttle – which I didn’t notice in the video – if the issue is down to braking I’m inclined to blame the FoST for being underbraked in the hands of someone who can really push it more than your braking technique. Not that technique doesn’t contribute, just that I think a performance car should be able to handle what you threw at it. Everything looked pretty tidy and I just figured those front brakes would have to work furiously to keep the inside wheel in check with such a torquey engine. It doesn’t appear that the FoST suspension tries as hard in the corners to keep its weight on the front wheels at the expense of the back wheels compared to the FiST.

        Thanks for the article. Sounds like a good time.

    • 0 avatar
      bball40dtw

      Quaife has the product you seek. It’s $1000 though.

      • 0 avatar
        rpn453

        I’d check that option on absolutely any new vehicle that doesn’t already have it for $1000! I wouldn’t be nearly as inclined to rip apart a transmission on a fully warrantied new vehicle to have it though.

  • avatar
    bball40dtw

    Bark, would you say that the Focus ST needs a power bump? I’d like to see the HP number closer to 300. I would think the updated 2.0T in the Edge could be bumped easily.

  • avatar
    5thbeatle

    Bark- thank you for this first hand account of your track experience. The UrbanCross X Course looks especially fun. And congrats on your sex toy trophy. Do you have a spot picked out for it on the mantle?

  • avatar
    VolandoBajo

    Great article.

    Just a couple of minor corrections/suggestions.

    I believe it might be Foci/Fiestae, but my Latin is rusty.

    I think you should have place “brakes caught on fire” under both Pros and Cons sections. :-)

    And I think you may have misevaluated your prizes. To me it looked like a giant silver teething ring for babies, and a sex toy with a frightening angle of attack.

    But that could just be me. I always tend to have more knowledge than experience, and that looks like an area where I’d prefer to run true to form.

    On swap night, do you get to try out the car also? If so, I suspect you have been guilty of going for the best driving vehicle, not that I blame you. Though that would be a novel kind of auto-eroticism. Just don’t let anything catch fire, you might not get to complete all your laps.

    All jesting aside, a great explanation of what buying an F[oi]ST nets you. Wish they had something like that for my 88 Thunderbird SuperCoupe, and still wish they had something like that for my Panther, a ’97 Grand Marquis.

    They all might not drive equally well, but they all can be safely driven closer to the edge than most people know how, even with study, caution and daring. And Ford seems to consistently produce cars that are fun to drive, for different reasons, but all fun.

  • avatar
    Higheriq

    Since Miller Motorsports Park is officially closing, is there a replacement venue for the courses?

  • avatar
    Ray

    I just bought a Focus ST in Oct 2015 and didn’t even know about ST Academy until a few days ago. I really hope they keep the program running at another location.


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