Thrill Ride

It's about performance, "like trying to find that fine line of pushing the envelope and taking calculated risks, but knowing your limitations so you keep from spinning out of control," says Marie Muller, a meeting planner for Meritage Home Builders, following a recent program for agents at the Bondurant School of High Performance Driving in Phoenix. Bob Bondurant, who won the 24 Hours of Le Mans with Dan Gurney in 1964, has taught race drivers such as Al Unser Jr. and Dale Earnhardt. The school features such top General Motors sports cars as the Corvette Z06 and a souped-up Pontiac Solstice. Programs are at the Firebird International Raceway, purpose-built for driver training.

Corporate programs include a timed autocross-a mini-track of multiple tight turns, and a Le Mans-style "endurance" program in which teams choose their drivers and pit crew and devise the strategy for the most laps. The on-site auto museum is a popular venue for an opening cocktail party or closing banquet. And, yes, Bondurant will stop by to say hello. "All you have to do is ask," says Matt Williams, director of corporate sales.

Performance driving schools, some operated by luxury brands and others by former professional race drivers, offer programs that begins with classroom time to review the latest automotive technology and how to use it. Sitdown sessions drift into vehicle dynamics and the most efficient "line" through a tight turn as well as how to anticipate emergencies—valuable for everyday driving experiences and the rest of the program schedule.

The mantra of the Land Rover Experience is, "as slow as possible, as fast as necessary." There are three programs in North America. One is in a forested corner of the 8,000-acre Biltmore Estate in Asheville, NC, near George Vanderbilt's fabulously ornate 250-room mansion. The experience at the 850-acre Quail Lodge Resort, in California's Carmel Valley, includes more sand tracks; the Fairmont Le Chateau Montebello, one hour north of Montreal, features snow and ice driving in winter and deeply forested trails other seasons.

Drivers learn to negotiate narrow log bridges-driving over two parallel logs, nothing in between-over rocks, through mud, down steep slopes that would give an Olympic skier pause. One teambuilding exercise is to literally drive blind-the driver must depend on the instructions of a team member outside the car to negotiate an obstacle. The exercise builds trust, concentration, and communication and listening skills, says pro instructor Josh Williams. So does learning to trust Land Rover's "hill descent control" system: by keeping your foot off both gas and brake and letting the SUV's computer decide how slowly to crawl downhill, you learn to focus on steering and responding to almost imperceptible cues from the terrain.

The Porsche Winter Driving School in Vail, CO, is the snow and ice version of the year-round program at Barber Motorsports Park in Birmingham, AL. The winter session, from early January to mid-March, is on the 18th hole fairway of the Summit Course at The Lodge & Spa at Cordillera, where participants stay. The program is 20-percent instruction, 80-percent driving, including learning to skid in control on an iced circular pad; awards are given for the first driver who pilots a $100,000 Carerra 911 into a snowbank, and who skids off the track most often. Participants also get the chance to drive 911s off the track, on winding mountain roads.

"It's a lot of fun," says driving school director Bill Buckley, who can tailor a corporate program that features branding on the vehicles. Most programs are one or two days, and can be split with mornings on the track and afternoons on the slopes of Vail or Beaver Creek. The Birmingham program includes timed laps on the Grand Prix circuit. Both programs incorporate teambuilding autocross challenges, although, Buckley says, it's more about driving than teambuilding.

The BMW Performance Center in Spartanburg, SC, has hosted incentive groups from Intel, Morgan Stanley, and Continental Tire, with customized programs that can focus on team-style relay racing or pure driving safety and performance instruction, the latter using a specially constructed 300-foot "skid pad" of polished concrete. Participants experience all of BMW's different models, including the X series SUV, 3, 5, and 7 Series vehicles, and finishing the program in the super-car M Series.

What attendees learn can be more than career optimizing, it can actually be lifesaving. The skills required of a good driver operating in a challenging environment, whether that is at high speed on a racetrack or slowly on an off-road course punctuated by obstacles, are remarkably similar to those required when operating any successful enterprise-balancing risk with return, being decisive, finding concentration and commitment, learning new ways to approach familiar tasks, and knowing when to relax. And your group can do it all in expensive, current-model vehicles. Vroom!

Meeting Essentials
Land Rover Experience, (800) 624-1575,

Bondurant Performance Driving School, (520) 796-1111,

Porsche Winter Driving and Sport Driving School, (888) 204-7474,

BMW Performance Center, (888) 345-4269,

Originally published February 01, 2008

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