Bark's Bites: Ford's ST Octane Academy Should Be Rated at 100

Mark "Bark M." Baruth
by Mark "Bark M." Baruth
barks bites fords st octane academy should be rated at 100

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 [s]burn the brakes out of[/s] 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.

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.

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:

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.

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:

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.

Comments
Join the conversation
2 of 39 comments
  • Higheriq Higheriq on Aug 21, 2015

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

  • Ray Ray on Dec 29, 2015

    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.

  • Zerofoo I learned a long time ago to never buy a heavily modified vehicle. Far too many people lack the necessary mechanical engineering skills to know when they've screwed something up.
  • Zerofoo I was part of this industry during my college years. We built many, many cars for "street pharmacists" that sounded like this.Excessive car audio systems are kind of like 800 HP engines. Completely unnecessary, but a hell of a lot of fun.
  • DedBull In it to win it!
  • Wolfwagen IIRC I remember reading somewhere that the Porsche Cayenne was supposed to have a small gasoline-powered block heater. There was a loop in the cooling system that ran to the heater and when the temperature got to a certain point (0°C)the vehicle's control unit would activate the heater. I dont know if this was a concept or if it ever made it into production.
  • Jeffro As I sit here this morning with my 2 day old TRD OFF ROAD 4RUNNER tucked safely away in the garage, my head spins with this weird desire to locate a 85 LTD equipped with the epic 😵‍💫2.3 and the FOUR ON THE FLOOR. THE HOLY GRAIL. Ying and yang baby!The search begins.
Next