Hooniverse goes to… the Ford ST Octane Academy

Being a recent Ford Focus ST owner, one of the perks of purchasing specialty vehicles is subsequent driving schools to showcase the capabilities of the performance of such vehicles. For Ford owners, this means a trek to Miller Motorsports Park in Tooele, Utah, which is the home to the Ford Racing School.

Be it the Mustang Boss 302 or the SVT Raptor, Ford has utilized the top-level facility at Miller Motorsports Park as its home for performance driving. Having some previous track experience, I was probably “over excited” to see the capabilities of my ST product as I’ve only had a few canyon runs out of my car. 

Needless to say I was very impressed with the Focus ST and Fiesta ST with its on track performance, rewarding driving dynamics, and ability to get 100% comfortable with the limits quickly. Also, I felt safe while doing so. Now it’s time to dive into the school though, and see just how much more I can get out of the car…

My first trip to Salt Lake City, Utah revealed a beautiful landscape of snow capped mountains and open plains. I was born and raised in Dallas, TX so I’m no stranger to hot and cold weather. Still, being spoiled thanks to living in Southern California for the past 10 years has led me to feel that anything below 50 degrees might as well be the arctic. With highs in the high 40’s and a pretty good wind speed I was frigid and slightly concerned with cold track driving. 

Quickly donning my jacket after landing in Utah, I headed on over to the local Hertz counter. I enjoy Hertz as a rental car company with their Prestige, Adrenaline, and Dream Car collections. They have a good taste of what people want to rent when the idea isn’t simply point A to B sameness.

I was highly tempted when the lovely lady at the counter offered up a 2014 Mercedes E63 AMG as my rental for 2 days, at a significant discount. Maybe it was my gleaming car enthusiasm or the Hooniverse t-shirt I was wearing, my inner hoon was saying, “do it!” But being somewhat practical at times in my mind, even though my wife would disagree, I had to turn down that offer and I ended up with a 2013 Mercedes C250 for the mid-size price.

My quick review of the C250: slow, but handles fairly well and it’s comfortable for a 6’2” driver. Seems well put together, with few squeaks and rattles at 12,000 rental miles. Would I buy one with my own money? No.

That evening I attended the Hoonigan reception at Ken Block’s compound; Hoonigan Racing Division. All had a great time and it was very interesting to see how a professional racing team runs the day-to-day business. A teaser video showed what we would be doing the next day and upon returning to my hotel I could not sleep, excited for what the next morning had in store.

The location is Toelle, Utah; a town located West of the Oquirrh Mountains and 35 minutes outside of Salt Lake City. This is home to several racing events ranging from the FIM: Superbike World Championship, Grand-Am: Rolex Sports Car Series, and a few American LeMans Series events at Miller Motorsports Park. Arriving a few minutes, early I wanted to get a brief look at the track through the fences to see what was being setup. 

Upon walking in I was greeted by the staff and of course signed my insurance policy a must if you are racing somebody else’s car on the track. After the meeting my 7 fellow Octane Academy students we were fitted for our racing suits and helmets. It was there I would meet my afternoon track instructor Ronnie Swyers. Ronnie an experienced chisel faced but youthful looking fellow wearing a flat brimmed ball cap, seeming very friendly. 

We then had our meet and greet with all instructors and Cindi Lux, the director of Miller Motorsports Park. The subsequent video from the night before was extended into what we would be doing all day. Ensuring we would have plenty of track time, the events were broken as follows along with the cars I used for each event:


  • Classroom Session
  • Reverse J-Turn (Fiesta ST)
  • Forward 180 Degree Handbrake (Focus ST)
  • Forward 90 Degree Handbrake “Parking Box” (Focus ST)
  • Track Orientation (Ford Econoline Van)
  • Outrigger Skid Car (Previous Generation Ford Fusion)
  • Lead Follow – On Track (Fiesta ST/Focus ST)
  • Urban-X Autocross Practice (Fiesta ST/Focus ST)
  • Urban-X Autocross Timed (Fiesta ST)
  • On Track w/ Instructor “Pick Your Poison” (Focus ST)
  • On Track Solo “Pick Your Poison” (Focus ST)

The morning started off slow and smooth in order to get everybody comfortable, some having no track experience at all. After observing a few demonstrations it was our turn to have a go. After being strapped into the factory Recaros with 4 point harnesses and a full cage, we began a few practice runs in the Fiesta ST. The Reverse J-Turn was performed on a wet track at 20 miles per hour through 2 pylons clutch in with a hard yank of the wheel with the left hand down and coming to a complete stop.

The Fiesta ST performed admirably and the short wheelbase greatly assisting with the maneuver. The Forward 180 Degree E-Brake seemed simple enough. Now using the massive handbrake made of one-piece billet aluminum was cut into the center console very much resembling Ken Block’s Hoonigan handbrake from all of his racecars.

Again performing on a wet surface I did not know how much that would come into play with the events later on that afternoon. Now in the Focus ST the higher torque rating helping with this maneuver. Heading into the coned off box we entered at 20 miles per hour, grabbing the massive handbrake and rolling into the gas with no use of the clutch and move out. The finesse is leaving the box being very careful not to bog out or induce wheel spin.

Thirty minutes of practice later we moved on to our next event. I have done the skid car before and it’s still a very humbling experience. Never easy and the prime teaching technique on how weight transfer can affect traction. Needless to say I learned the hard way.

30 minutes of practice later we moved on to our next event. I have done the skid car before and it’s still a very humbling experience. Never easy and the prime teaching technique on how weight transfer can affect traction. Needless to say I learned the hard way.

The afternoon session is where the real fun began for us with our first on track session of Miller Motorsport Park’s East Course. With a chance to feel the basics of proper vision, line and braking techniques we all followed the instructors in a track modified previous generation Mustang GT. Feeling both the Focus ST and Fiesta ST on track was just what you imagined it would be, awesome. Even when the track started to become quite slick because of the weather the cars just stuck in there. 

The Urban X-Cross is a tamed down gymkhana but more fun than your standard autocross. From the start box you quickly move into a 180 degree handbrake turn utilizing the skills learned from the previous sessions earlier in the day. The sharp right following is where careful throttle modulation in first gear not to overcook the tires in such slick conditions will lead you to better lap times.

Entering into the slalom at around 50 miles per hour will give you a taste of the notorious lift off over steer and how both cars just dance through the slalom. Moving into the figure 8′s you will be able to try full throttle second gear and either use a bit of understeer or try and use lift off oversteer to get around the sections. I decided slow and smooth and tried to cut as close as possible in order to get on the throttle sooner. On to the final slalom finishing the event and on to the “bonus point” round. After the finish there is a parking box where you use your handbrake skills once again for style points into the box. Get all 4 wheels in and a 90 degree angle gets you 4 seconds off your lap time. 3 wheels in and you get 3 seconds off, simple enough. 

Once the stopwatches come out, everything gets a bit crazy on the track. The only time they will give us bragging rights for the day. And of course the worst track conditions of the day surrounded the track. Heavy rain turning into snow was something to behold. Even “your humble narrator” overcooked the first handbrake slide losing a second and a half overall. Needing concentration and dedication the next time around was not quite the same, smooth and concise I was able to score a 57.04 second with the 4 second bonus for nailing the parking box was good enough for 1st place which we found out the results at the end of the day, I was quite pleased. 

Finally, onto the east course open track to experience what these cars are capable of. From this point on you will not be able to drive both cars you have to “Pick Your Poison.” As much fun as the Fiesta ST is and how capable the handling is, I bought a Focus ST and will be taking it to track days in the future so my poison will always have to be the Focus. Instructor Ronnie Swyers once again making an appearance rode with me to verify that what we had learned about earlier. Re-emphasizing proper vision and keeping the left side cones on the driver and right side cones on the passenger it was in those laps I was given the green light to head out on the track alone. 

It has come down to this, an open east course with the culmination of all we had taken in for the day. There has been one major rule, “do not pass” which I will discuss here shortly. The weather lightened up for us so it was no longer raining but the track was slick. Upon entering the track and giving a quick brake test to make sure things properly functioning. Because of the relatively slick track I entered the first few corners at about 8/10th’s pace feeling the limits of adhesion in the racing line. Once comfortable I moved that up to 9/10th’s and remained so until my first obstacle.

I gave a fellow student in a Fiesta ST about a half track lead before I entered and by the start finish when we got the green flag I was already on their bumper. Frustration ensued for the next 3/4′s of the track when I decided to pass which was not a smart move in the terms of the rules but I did so in a safe non pressure manner for the nervous driver. After passing I was able to explore the limits of my ability and for what I felt was the limits of the Michelin Pilot Super Sports. The next 2 laps are what I enjoyed the most out of the day, being able to flog an try and get every inch of performance I could out of the Focus ST made me realize what an outstanding job Ford has done with this car.

Feeling the rotation of the rear end, seeing how well it grips even in the rain and I didn’t feel the torque steer as much as I have on the street, maybe it’s the closed off and safe environment or the wide track but I enjoyed every minute I was out there. But for those who attend in the future, go out on the track with people of your same skill level and you wont break the rules like I did.

Overall it was an experience all ST Owners should be able to experience. I felt fulfilled with the training curriculum as well as the high amounts of seat time. We received our consolation prizes which included a Certificate of Completion, ST Octane Academy t-shirt, and a handbrake trophy. But the best prize of all, a Black with Red stripe ST badge specially made for attendees to place on their own cars and will not be for sale to the public.  Now it’s time to find my local track days at Chuckwalla, Auto Club Speedway, and local autocross because the bug has been bitten in me, and quite hard. 

*Bonus Content *

We also had a chance to visit the museum at Miller Motorsports Park. Most impressive was a 1966 Ford GT40 which won LeMans and was driven by Steve McQueen and worth $11 Million Dollars. Other vehicles included a  Cobra Daytona Coupe, Shelby Mustang GT350R and a really cool drag racing Cobra.

(Special thanks to Ford, Miller Motorsports Park, and Instructor Ronnie Swyers for an excellent day)

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