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Old 10-16-2003, 12:25   #1 (permalink)
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Mazda’s summer-long driving school/competition claimed to teach performance skills

Rev It Up!

By PETE LYONS/Auto Week
(Photo by Pete Lyons)

NEXT TO ME IN ONE LINE was a young man, enthusiastic about his Honda Civic, who said he had never driven it hard and thought it was time to learn how. At another station, I met a father and son whose togetherness project was restoring a first-generation Mazda RX-7. Dad had raced, but today’s autocross would be his 18-year-old’s first on-track experience. Nearby, a husband-and-wife team with a lot of Solo under their belts said they were going for the prize—a brand-new Mazda6.

First impression: Mazda’s pay-to-play Rev It Up program was pulling in exactly the people it was supposed to attract.

Billed as “the world’s largest national driving school and competition,” this year’s Rev It Up consisted of 15 weekend autocross events held from March through August around the United States. In all, some 22,000 people competed. Winners at each city plus five wild cards qualified for a runoff at (yup) Mazda Raceway at Laguna Seca.

There Mark Daddio, a 37-year-old auto parts store owner from Connecticut who holds 14 SCCA autocrossing championships and is nicknamed “The Alien” for his ferocious focus, won the prize car. (Full event details are posted at mazdarevitup.com.)

Mazda officials, who have already announced Rev It Up will return in 2004, say those who don’t post top times still win by gaining knowledge and skill.

That’s the “school” part of the competition. For a $39 entry fee, participants spend a day soaking up know-how from professional instructors, and practicing—at least some of it in Mazda6s.

But to get the most from your day, you have to work at it. That was my second impression when I participated (as an ordinary, paying customer, not as “invited media”) at Mazda’s Los Angeles stop. With a daily maximum of 650 participants, crowds are large and lines are long. The L.A. venue, the Hollywood Park horse track’s parking lot, is vast, but Mazda’s road show filled it to the brim. Numerous tents housed corporate product, including the then-new RX-8 and several race cars, plus displays by affiliated sponsors and a local Miata club, as well as four separate classrooms. Beyond the tents stretched an ocean of orange cones plied by a flotilla of bobbing and weaving cars.

First came a mandatory introductory “chalk talk.” Then, before moving to the competition course, we were urged to take advantage of three clinics. These offered instruction and exercises in braking-and-turning, slaloming through cones and finding racing lines. The instructor staff for these clinics included recognized racers John Rutherford IV, Adam Andretti, Randy Tolsma and Ted Prappas.

I found the brake/turn exercise a meaningless waste of time, and wished later that I had spent that time waiting to go through the cone slalom again. The third exercise, about racing lines, was most educational of all, but we were allowed only two laps.

When you felt ready to compete on the course that counted, you also got just two timed runs. Entrants were split into four groups based on declared prior experience. Times were converted into points, and those scores were compared with a 1000-point performance established by a professional driver. To equalize competition between cities, it was always the same driver, Jason Hart, who also periodically reset the bogey time as track conditions changed during the day.

Of the 22,000 competitors, just one, Karter Bollmann of Texas, beat Hart’s index time.

The 220-hp Mazda 6s all had automatic transmissions, to prevent driver abuse, and the dozen cars dedicated to the competition course wore sticky Falken tires, short Eibach springs and throaty Bosal exhausts. They handled well, pushing less than I expected. In fact, I found that really charging a corner helped bring the tail around. Transmission tip: Start in low gear and be sure to slam it in again for the hairpins.

Final impressions? The premise that Rev It Up will impart skills we all agree every driver should be taught is unrealistic. Actual seat time is short, and the pacing required to cycle so many people through the event precluded much feedback from the instructors. While waiting in line for the clinics, you got both a lecture and a video, but these weren’t keyed to beginners. It’s hard to talk weight transfer and exit speed to someone who has never howled a tire.

On the other hand, any seat time is good time, and who knows? Maybe some first-timers got the taste to come back for more—though I was surprised not to see anyone from NASA or SCCA on hand to snap up recruits.

For those already hooked, as with any educational experience, the more you bring the more you’ll take away. Good information was available and I saw people absorbing it; Prappas told me something that helped me handle the slalom.

So, though I didn’t win, I did.
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