Ford has been doing it right lately — they are everywhere. Whether it’s a new car with ridiculous efficiency or pro drivers winning championships in their vehicles, Ford’s in it. Whoever’s in charge of their marketing division has been making solid decisions, because the end of the day, consumer involvement is everything. But these are just the boring facts, the real story here is Octane Academy, and whether it’s going to be a badass test of driving prowess or some lame advertising schtick.
Fortunately enough, 0-60 was invited to the media invitational. This event was meant for a handful of media personalities to get down and dirty with a taste of what the Octane Academy has to offer when it really gets going in the near future. Basically, there are four camps, revolving around the talents of each of Ford’s celebrity drivers: Ken Block, Vaughn Gittin Jr., Tanner Foust and Brian Deegan. The novelty here is that each camp is designed by the drivers, not some Ford safety inspector, making sure the ABS doesn’t fail or you don’t exceed 40mph. It’s the real deal.
We started our day at MPG (Michigan Proving Grounds). If you’ve never been here, you should try to break through the gates. The facility is endless and offers up terrain to test any situation you’d run into, ever. Also seems like a solid location for Block’s next Gymkhana video…just sayin’.
I started out with Deegan in the Ford F-150 Raptor. He took me for a hot lap while the course was still loose from the previous days rain. The best part about this ride-along was that Deegan was having a fucking blast. He was literally laughing and screaming to me that he didn’t know if he had it on some turns. We almost hit a skunk and got all four wheels off the ground three times. It’s nice to see these guys outside of competition, just doing what they love. Deegan is a kid living the dream.
It would have been nice if the competitive portion was to drive something remotely similar to what the hot lap was, but instead it was a challenge, using only the reverse camera to travel backward through a cone course on dirt. I gunned it and hit a cone and whoever the woman was in the passenger’s seat, I’m sorry about your neck.
Next up was the skid pad with Tanner Foust. Ford prepared a Focus for us with all the electronics disconnected, and on a surface meant to simulate ice, horsepower wasn’t something we needed. Foust instructed us to complete a full 360 and a reverse 180. It’s harder than it looks, but he’s patient enough to walk you through it. Still, I wasn’t really feeling the adrenaline I was expecting from the Octane Academy. No worries, though, there were still two more challenges.
Ah… Ken Block. Ken realized he wasn’t much of a teacher at the event, and for the better, he stuck to giving hot laps in an R2 Fiesta on a rally course set-up by Team O’Neil Rally School. Ken is an animal, even when he’s out of his comfort zone piloting a front wheel-drive hatch. We were given Fiestas set up with a mostly gutted interior and roll bars, along with some good gravel tires. Tim O’Neil did the instructing for us. Providing simple pointers for transitions through the slalom, braking points and counter-steering. It’s really no surprise he does this for a living. People who could barely drive stick were getting it down after two laps, and it wasn’t a walk in the park either. One journalist actually crashed, but luckily everyone was unharmed.
We were told to lap the course in around 2:20. This seemed unreasonably slow, but I drove within reason and landed a 2:07 without hitting any cones. It took me two laps to realized I have a soft spot for dirt, and that tarmac is overrated. I’ll be heading up to the Team O’Neil Rally School as soon as I can. Finally, my heart rate was up.
We headed over to Vaughn’s challenge, back on the dry side of the skid pad. If you’re an enthusiast, you love parking lots. And when I saw this enormous patch of concrete with absolutely no obstructions, I was happier than ever. It’s the simple things. First, Vaughn proved that the V6 Mustang was capable of 90mph drifts, which I’ll admit, was pretty impressive. For us journalists though, we head to initiate a drift in an automatic 2012 Mustang GT. Toss the selector into first gear, listen to Vaughn next to you, get the revs up to about 4000rpm, flick right then left, floor it to break the tires loose, ease up to gain control and counter-steer while pedaling back on the throttle to create a controlled drift around a giant circle of cones. Easy, right?
We had a few practice runs that didn’t count to get a feel for the car and how to get sideways and hold it there, instead of just flooring it and spinning out. I got around the circle twice in practice, which I found out was more than anyone had gotten all day. Now, I’m not tooting my own horn here. I’m just saying, most journalists kind of suck behind the wheel, but are really good at writing like they know how to drive at the limit.
For the one that counted, I botched my first attempt with not enough throttle, resulting in some understeer. Vaughn asked me if I wanted instruction and I just told him to yell at me if it was necessary. The pressure was on, this was my last chance to nail it. I lined back up, rolled out, stepped on it and kicked the ass out, held it and kept going. Vaughn was screaming, “Stay in it! Stay in it!” He was laughing and waving his hands around like a maniac. After the first four times around it kind of felt like the Mustang was just doing what it needed to for me. I never knew drifting was so fun, and these are just glorified donuts. After the seventh full loop I got out of it and had a grin so big it hurt to be confined in my helmet. This is the Octane Academy I was looking for, turned out I landed first place for the event, too. I swear I’m humble, but winning is as good or better than sex, or maybe I’m just too competitive.
All this in a day. It was a hit, and we only got a taste of what the selected competitors will get over four days in each camp. I have a feeling Ford is doing it right, and this is going to be bigger than they imagined. If only I was allowed to compete… I’d totally accept the invite though.
Check out www.octaneacademy.com for more info. And thanks to Ford, Monster Energy, Rockstar Energy, Vaughn, Ken, Brian and Tanner for putting on such a solid event.