The Ford Performance Octane Academy - Racing Ford's Retired Hot Hatches
When you purchase a select brand-new Ford ST-line vehicle, you receive not only a new car - but a voucher for the Ford Performance Octane Academy. Formerly located in Tooele, Utah, Ford assembled a fleet of tastefully modified Focus and Fiesta STs that are meant to be pushed to their limits in the midst of mountain ranges and sweeping country. The cars aren't all that are included - highly qualified driving instructors are there to encourage and yell every step of the way. In a fast-paced one day class, the lucky attendee drives both Fiesta and Focus STs on the Utah Motorsports Campus track and experiences a custom autocross course with a variety of obstacles. Unfortunately, the Fiesta and Focus ST were axed by Ford in 2018 - making my class one of the last to attend on Ford's dime.
The majesty and beauty of the surrounding area at the UMC is not to be understated. Located 30 miles west of Salt Lake City and a stone's throw from the Bonneville Salt Flats, mountain ranges rise above the motorsports park in every direction and inspire incredulity and awe for those who visit. The campus itself lends its own kind of attractiveness - the longest race track in North America resides here at 4.5 miles; challenging every driver from novice to former Le Mans racers. This, coupled with ample space for autocross adjacent to the track, perfects the scene to conduct the world-class Ford Performance Racing school.
The Octane Academy starts at 7:45AM sharp - with no room for latecomers. Fitted in your own driving suit, it's recommended you wear shorts to battle the Utah heat and keep comfortable in the car - which lack AC, appropriately enough. A safety course at 8AM details what to do and what not to do; including how to buckle in to a racing harness and work around the roll cages in the vehicles. Vehicle modifications are explained: including a Ford Performance catback exhaust, a front-mount intercooler, stainless steel brake lines, upgraded brake pads, and Michelin Supersport tires. No true horsepower modifications included - the engine boasted no upgraded internals. The briefing ends with a mantra that echoes throughout the day: "This is not your car, your tires, your brakes, or your gas. Drive like you're not paying for it, and drive hard."
At 9AM, a quick commute to the track from the classroom in a Ford Performance labelled Transit van commences. Happening upon the course, a row of brightly painted yellow and red Focus and Fiesta STs are displayed in the pit - neatly lined up in rows, already reaching operating temperatures and waiting for their drivers. Instructors take a lazy lap around the track in the vans as drivers peer out the windows, listening to detailed explanations on the technical aspects of each corner and taking note of the apexes in order to reach top speeds. Unceremoniously dumped in front of the cars, instructors then direct drivers into their vehicles.
Inside the STs, it is obvious Ford Performance has touched them - and in some aspects, completely grabbed hold. A full custom roll cage has been fitted in each vehicle, hacksawed through the dashboards and bolted in. Ford thankfully kept the bolstered Recaro seats, but removed any hint of ventilation or AC. A large handbrake sits just inches from the steering wheel, hinting at the autocross maneuvers to come. Strapping the helmet on and clicking the racing harness into place, it was finally time to drive.
A Mustang GT with a burbling exhaust led the line of nervous drivers as we set off onto the track - slowly, at first, and increasing speed over the course of 5 laps. Once the instruction vehicle is confident in driver abilities, we are left to drive at our own discretion. Over the course of 15 to 20 laps, drivers hammer down the throttle and explore the limits of the vehicle weight, tires, and steering. 120 mile per hour speeds are seen on the straights after a hard 40 mile per hour turn; an impressive feat for the four cylinders. Unfortunately, no passing is allowed - but slower vehicles are flagged into the pit to let those with more confidence by. Once instructors feel that the drivers have had enough on their own, they too hop into the cars - in the passengers seat. Taking another 3 laps around the UMC track, instructors point out driving mistakes, offer encouragement, and give tips and tricks for particular corners you may struggle with.
A quick lunch to unwind after the track is catered, and drivers are given an hour to mingle and discuss their excitement, questions, and findings with their peers and instructors. At 1PM, autocross practice begins.
Parking boxes, handbrake turns, and figure eights are all carefully explained and demonstrated by instructors over the course of 2 hours. One at a time, drivers attempt the maneuvers - fail, then attempt again. I found myself struggling the most with the parking box; pulling the handbrake too soon in fear of hitting the cones. I was given an especially handy tip for the parking box maneuver by an instructor: "When you want to pull the handbrake - say hippopotamus. Only then, pull." The next time around, I found myself with all 4 wheels in the box. Practice makes perfect.
A driver completing the parking box turn at the autocross practice. Video: Brenna Porterfield
To end the day, the autocross exercises are connected into one large course. The course starts with a 180 degree skidpad turn into two hard right corners; then, barriers are used as slaloms to gate the entrance to the figure eight. Slaloming through even more cones, the driver finishes by screaming into the parking box - extra points for all 4 wheels within the cones.
20 drivers competed against each other for the best time - with 1st place going to a friendly Canadian at 51.2 seconds. I came in shy at 54 seconds even, but found that I'd not suffered a loss of enjoyment because of it. Making our way back to the parking lot after an exhausting day of cramming knowledge and practice into ourselves, we reflected upon what we'd learned.
The Ford Performance Racing School was founded to instill wonder and excellent driving skills in those who love horsepower and handling - both on and off of the track. Learning, living, and breathing the Focus and Fiesta STs at the Octane Academy gave us drivers the chance to experience what we couldn't do on the road - and take home skills that we could use during our daily commutes, or spirited backroad drives. Above all, we could certainly agree that the Focus and Fiesta STs had no business being discontinued in the US - as there are no other cars in the segment quite full of character or with such enthusiastic manufacturer support.
I got on a plane home, and went for a long and spirited and wonderful drive as soon as I could get in the driver's seat.