Steve Baur
Former Editor, Modified Mustangs & Fords
October 1, 2008
Photos By: Jeff Lacina, Larry Ward, Gene Pavliscsak
Getting Ready to go out on the track requires you to pull up in the pit lane and wait for your instructor to join you. Chances are he just got out of another student's car or his own ride. Once the run group is ready to go out, the flag worker at the end of the pit lane will give you the green flag to go.

Month after month, we tell you about the latest in Pony performance parts and show you how to install them. But what if we told you there was a modification you could do-to the driver-that would make your car go faster? No, we're not talking about getting on Jenny Craig-we're talking about honing your driving skills at a high-performance driving school, as we did recently at the Camp Steeda/SVTOA Sebring Sensation.

The SVTOA, or Special Vehicle Team Owner's Association, hosts a number of high-performance driving events across the country, and each year its Florida event teams up with those crazy corner carvers at Steeda Autosports in Pompano Beach for two fun-filled days at Sebring International Raceway in Sebring, Honda.

Steeda and the SVTOA have put on this driving event for the past several years. Last year, we dropped by to take some photos and bring you all of the hot on-track action ("Spring Sebring Fling," MM&FF Sept. '07"). This year, we talked with SVTOA lead instructor and MM&FF contributor Jeff Lacina about covering the event from a student's perspective.

The Author poses with SVTOA lead driving instructor and MM&FF contributor Jeff Lacina (center) and instructor Will Franssen (right) at the pit exit.

Project Stolen Goods, our '93 Cobra, was built for this type of exercise, and since your author had never been to a performance driving school (watching F1 on SPEED doesn't count, apparently), this was the perfect fit.

Plans were made, and on May 23 we were in Ed Zerbe's registration line inside the Chateau Elan; we then unloaded Stolen Goods to run through David Hughes' tech inspection in the hotel parking lot. We highly recommend staying at Four Points by Sheraton at Sebring, otherwise known as the Chateau Elan, as it sits right on Turn 7 of the track, and you only have to go across the street to get in. Plus, most attendees hang out in the bar at the end of the day to shoot the breeze, and the dinner banquet is held there as well.

Saturday Morning started with the mandatory driver's meeting. Here, lead instructor Jeff Lacina goes over the flags and the signal for pitting in.

The tech inspection was quick, as the SVTOA gives you a checklist that you run though before getting to the track. It's up to you to make sure your ride is in good working order and won't fall apart on the track, but they do inspect each car so you won't be a blatant danger to yourself and others.

Saturday began with a driver's meeting at 8:00 a.m. We started our day a little earlier as we still had to finish wrapping Stolen Goods with the ISC Racer's Tape to protect its pristine paint from rock chips and debris on track. ISC produces a number of different adhesive tapes for various uses, and its latest offering, Surface Guard, is a clear protective tape that's available in 2- and 4-inch widths. It's fairly easy to apply, and our results would've looked much better if we'd spent more time on the task. From a distance it looked great, and the ISC Racer's tape did an excellent job in protecting the unblemished paint on our project car. Finally, it was time to get down to business.

Prior To the Sebring event, we experienced some clutch-adjustment issues at the dragstrip. To remedy this, we ordered a new stock-replacement Ford clutch cable from Ford Racing Performance Parts, as well as a UPR Products triple-hook aluminum quadrant and quick-click firewall adjuster. The triple-hook combined with the firewall adjuster allowed us to get the clutch engagement exactly where it needed to be.

The mandatory driver's meeting started off with a salute to our great country. It was Memorial Day weekend, and the Pledge of Allegiance, led by lead SVTOA instructor Jeff Lacina, was followed by a brief overview of the day's activities, introduction of the instructors, and an explanation of the flags that the track workers use to control the cars on the track. Knowing the flags and finding the course workers is part of the foundation of driving at speed on a road course.

The Group 1 Beginner class, of which your author was part, got out on track first. As we brought our cars to the pit grid, the instructors got behind the wheel for a few slow laps in our cars. This is to give the instructor a little bit of confidence in your ride-rather important as he or she will be trusting you with their lives at speeds in excess of 100 mph-and it also gives them some sort of idea of what your car can and can't do.

Before We got on track, we wanted to protect project Stolen Goods, as the paint on our 4,500-mile car is pretty nice. To accomplish that, we contacted ISC Racer's Tape in Fairless Hills, Pennsylvania, and ordered up a 4-inch roll of its Surface Guard Tape (PN HT4128). Surface Guard is a clear urethane paint protection tape that is so tough, a dull razor blade won't even penetrate it. If you plan to do more than just the front of the car, you may want to order another roll.

Then it was our turn to get behind the wheel and drive the track at a leisurely speed. This is to get you briefly acquainted with the track and its various turns. The instructor will point out braking areas, apex points, and the general "racing line" to follow. Driving the track at a relaxed clip allows you to talk with your instructor more easily and learn the track without being a giant bundle of nerves. Driving your first lap "balls out" will just slow down your progress, as there's a lot to take in, and you won't be able to absorb that information if you're flying around a track that you've never driven on.

Will Franssen was appointed as our instructor, and where most tutor two students-one in the beginner and one in the novice class-we were lucky to have Will dedicated just to us. It gave him more track time in his own '97 Rio Red Cobra as well. Will was one of many instructors who traveled a great distance for the event, as he calls Montrose, Pennsylvania home. There were instructors from California and Canada as well.

After our get-acquainted laps, we headed back to the pits and into the classroom where Jeff Lacina waited to share his knowledge. Our first class session included a brief explanation of the driving line, and such things as approach, braking, turn-in, apex, and track out. Lacina also explained car balance, how the weight of the vehicle is dynamic, and how it shifts around during driving. While we were in class being sponges, the instructors and solo run groups ran, but soon it was our turn to get behind the wheel once more.

Your author already had a good understanding of the concepts up to this point, so most of the on-track time was spent getting to know what Stolen Goods would do at the limit, how hard we could push it, and learning the track and the driving line. Each session lasts about 20 minutes, and driving at speed for that long will expose any weakness your ride might have, not to mention wear you down mentally and physically. At the conclusion of our session, we parked Stolen Goods in the pits and left the key on to circulate the coolant and keep the electric fan running to cool down the car. We'd detected a bit of tire rubbing on the inner fenderwells, so we went to the back of the car to check out the rear tires' inner sidewalls.

What we found was actually a pretty big fuel leak, one that could have become a fiery situation had we not noticed it. The plastic line from the fuel filter to the tank somehow came in contact with the exhaust pipe and melted through the foam padding. We're not sure how this happened, as the line wasn't touching the pipe when we saw it, and we had previously tie-wrapped the lines before. Seeing the gas drip down on the hot tailpipe was disheartening, but we didn't give up that easily. A trip to the Steeda trailer netted just enough high-pressure fuel line and some clamps to replace the burned one, and we enlisted Stephen Leu and Mike Pogue from the nearby Nitto Tire trailer to help lower the full gas tank.

We ended up missing the last two sessions and classes on Saturday, but we were ready for Sunday morning, which once again started with an 8:00 a.m. mandatory driver's meeting followed by the first class of the day. We learned about the brain-eyes-hand-foot connections and how they affect driving on the track. Having had some time on the track, many of the students also had questions, which Lacina fielded. He also reiterated the concepts of car balance from the day before. This is essential for students, as repetition helps them remember the concepts amid the barrage of information they receive from the instructors, their cars, and the track itself.

Classroom Education is provided with each session. Jeff Lacina handled our class time, which included both Group 1 Beginner (us) and Group 2 Novice drivers.

Our first session on Sunday went off without a hitch. We got into the groove as instructor Franssen offered up pointers and constructive criticism of our line and driving style. He uses an in-car communication system with his students, which makes communicating with each other enormously easier, especially when you're both wearing full-face helmets.

Going out for the Second session, we noticed that the car was running hot in the pit lane. We popped the hood and saw that the electric fan had not turned on. We tried to get out on track to see if the moving air would do the trick for the time being, but the coolant temperature went through the roof and we turned off track at Turn 3. A faulty relay prevented the electric fan and water pump from working, so the coolant in the engine was just sitting in there, boiling. We wired the relay wires directly and just pulled the fuse every time we shut down the car.

Parking Next to the Nitto Tire trailer proved helpful, as we recruited Stephen Leu and Mike Pogue from Nitto to assist us in removing the gas tank from Stolen Goods so we could repair the burned up fuel line. Thanks, guys.

For the third driving session, we were handed a Q500. Steeda's Glen Vitale rode shotgun while we sampled the red Q500, which had been recently upgraded with Steeda's new adjustable Watt's link rear suspension. During our time in the Q500, we caught up to an S197 Roush. We tailed the yellow machine for a good half-lap, until he spun out in front of us in Turn 15 and hit the tire barrier pretty hard-ouch! As Lacina had instructed us during our classroom time, we proceeded past the accident and pitted since we figured the session would be red-flagged, which was the case.

We're not sure exactly what happened, but it reinforced the fact that driving at speed is dangerous and best left to dedicated racetracks like Sebring and not the street. Public roads don't have tire barriers to save your butt, nor do they have track workers and emergency services that can roll to you in a matter of seconds. Thankfully, the driver and instructor were OK, but the Roush was roughed up.

The session following, we caught a ride with Steeda's Glen Vitale, who offered to drive a few laps in the Q500. Given that he races regularly in SCCA competition, we figured it would be a fun ride. Riding with others is a great way to see how each person takes different lines around the track. Now being driven at its limit, and sometimes past it, the Q500 showed that it was a capable and fast performer with just a brake-pad change. The suspension was extremely soft and compliant compared to our Fox-body-no doubt a result of the technological advances made with the S197 chassis.

Foam And plastic are no match for a hot metal exhaust pipe that has seen 5,800 rpm for an extended period of time. This could've turned out a lot worse if we hadn't caught it. Needless to say, it's a good idea to give your car the once-over between sessions.

The Beginners Group 1, which we were in, was the last group of the day to go on track, so it was back in the cushy leather seats of Stolen Goods. Your author got about one good lap in before he realized that he was physically and mentally tapped out. Flying through the double apex that is Bishop's Bend at about 70 mph alerted us to the fact that we had lost concentration momentarily. We took it easy the rest of the session, focusing on the driving line more than driving at the edge. You wouldn't think that driving 20 minutes at a time would be tough, but it's an adrenalin roller coaster the whole time. You just don't realize it.

With the conclusion of our fourth session, the Camp Steeda/SVTOA Sebring Sensation came to a close, and we loaded Stolen Goods up for its ride home. We thought we'd given SG a pretty good shakedown at the autocross that we attended a month earlier, along with the 3,000 or so miles we clocked on the Cobra since its completion, but Sebring International Raceway showed us that we had a few more bugs to work out.

We'll need to reconsider the wheel and tire sizes that we chose. While the 18x10s out back work just fine in regular street driving and at the dragstrip, we found the inside edge of the tire rubbing a bit on the inner fenderwell when the body rolled. We'd done some minor massaging prior to the event, but it wasn't enough. With the way the 275mm tire is stretched over the 10-inch wheel, we don't think we can go with a smaller tire.

Prior to our torque-arm installation, we did notice that the 265mm tires up front rubbed a bit at the top of the outer fender under braking and heavy cornering. This was all but eliminated after the torque arm, as it's antidive characteristics kept the car more level under these conditions. Still, a 255mm-wide tire might not be a bad idea, but the 265s work well enough to hold onto them for now.

Speaking of tires, the Falken RT-615s held up very well over the course of our weekend at Sebring. They offered great traction and an easy, gradual breakaway point that made it easy to steer with the throttle when necessary.

A performance driving school should be considered mandatory for anyone with a motor vehicle license. The track is the best place to learn car control, as you can actually experience it and learn how to control it. Having your high-school teacher tell you to turn into the skid isn't nearly as informative, and if everyone had experience driving at the limit, they would react more appropriately in emergency situations.

Key people in making the Sebring event happen without a hitch are lead driving instructor Jeff Lacina, Gene Pavliscsak, Dell Hughes, Ed Zerbe, David Hughes, Linda Webb, Mike Buono, Mike Marks, and all of the instructors who donate their time and expertise.

Sponsors throw in the big bucks and offer support to attendees. The Steeda Autosports crew offered tech help, a look at some of Steeda's hot rides, and even some premounted Nitto NT-01 road race tires to try out. Nitto Tire also attended, as did Total Mustang Supply, the folks at Disc Brake Australia, Track Guys, and Mustang Generations, who sponsored the banquet. SVTOA, in association with Track Guys, hold several of these high-performance driving events every year and all over the country. They're worth traveling to, and if you catch the bug like most, you'll find yourself traveling far and wide to get some track time.