ST Octane Academy, aka How I Got to Pretend to Be Ken Block for a Day

So, as a (infinitesimally) few of you may know, during my intern days at Ford I was involved with the Focus ST launch. It was apparent to us even before the first car rolled off the assembly line at MAP that this vehicle would spawn its own dedicated community, both online and in the scary place they call "the real world" and the first two years did not disappoint - I count no fewer than four major online forums dedicated to the now-two-member ST family on my "Favorites" toolbar. The company that prints and signs my paychecks was also gracious enough to come up with a way for all of us to come together in one place for a day of flogging the everloving crap out of our favorite hot hatches - something our own insurance companies would not have looked too kindly upon were it not for the fact that Ford provided the cars and although we had to come up with our own travel budgets, I can safely say that it was all worth it.

A few things in my life changed since I first heard about the program and picked a Wednesday date in July - so much so that for a while I was considering either changing the dates (at a reasonable, but still undesirable, given the "free" nature of the promotion, cost of $150) or not going at all. For starters, the Performance Blue ST2 that I was fortunate to call my own through two Michigan winters (on oh-so-stylish 16" steelies, see below), stayed in Michigan with its new owner while I moved to Pittsburgh and switched to a work-provided Flex Limited. While the move is temporary (I'm part of a rotational program that should hopefully see me return to the mitten by the end of next year), it just didn't make sense to keep making payments on a car I would be driving on weekends (at best) and didn't have a place to store. (It should be noted that the ST does hold its value rather well (when financed through PenFed at 0.99%) - I came out of the sale the right side up, which, I'm given to understand, is not all that common after a year and a half of ownership.) To boot, given the aforementioned new assignment, I would have been fewer than four months into it and taking a vacation while still learning the ropes might be a bit on the nose (as one of my clients already pointed out). Also, my girlfriend of four years finally found a way to take a few thousand miles from the "long-distance" prefix of our relationship by being accepted into a Ph.D. program at Michigan State and moved here from St. Petersburg, Russia. Her move coincided with the trip so closely that she was on a plane again just 24 hours after her trek across the Atlantic. She's a keeper, this one. All that said (pardon another cliche as a punchline), when there's a will, there most certainly is a way, so on the Friday of the previous week we set off westwards.

ST Octane Academy, aka How I Got to Pretend to Be Ken Block for a Day

Yep...this happened.

Since I had called California home for over fourteen years, the first stop was at the parents' place outside Los Angeles for an extended weekend, complete with an Audi A4 (8-speed Quattro, no less) from a new rental startup called Silvercar. Then, on Tuesday morning, we hopped on a short flight to Salt Lake City for our first ever visit to Utah. After a rather windy and bumpy landing, we began contemplating whether or not to attend the evening reception in Park City, considering we landed after 4 p.m. and wouldn't have time to drop by the hotel and change (Tooele, where the track is, and Park City are separated by about an hour's worth of driving), but the idea of seeing the office of Ken Block and a "free" dinner won out. Budget Rental Car of SLC deserves a special mention: when I was booking the trip, the cheapest class was the one that included the Mustang GT (for a not-unreasonable $110 for two days which included all taxes and fees), but the real cherry on top was that it came in a manual. Apparently they also had an ST1, but I wasn't quite so fortunate on this particular day. All in all, given their proximity to the Ford Racing School, it makes sense, but it was a pleasant surprise nonetheless, considering I'd never rented a manual car in the States.

Having made our way to the Hoonigan Headquarters, we (a group of about twenty ST owners) were treated to a tour of the facilities which were largely composed of brightly-colored shipping containers, as well as fed curried chicken with rice and carrots and chocolate cheesecake for dessert. If I'm being honest, I could have wished for a little bit more variety, but I wasn't there for the food and what was provided was rather good. We also didn't get to see any of Ken's racing cars since we arrived in the middle of the racing season, so the only things in the shop were a Fiesta and his insane RaptorTRAX. We were asked not to take photos in the shop, so you'll have to do with this image of yours truly next to the Block STyle Focus in the welcome area.

ST Octane Academy, aka How I Got to Pretend to Be Ken Block for a Day

ST Octane Academy, aka How I Got to Pretend to Be Ken Block for a Day

ST Octane Academy, aka How I Got to Pretend to Be Ken Block for a Day

ST Octane Academy, aka How I Got to Pretend to Be Ken Block for a Day

ST Octane Academy, aka How I Got to Pretend to Be Ken Block for a Day

We were also the first group to receive these special-edition Hoonigan t-shirts, which was a nice touch.

We then set off for Tooele, enjoying some beautiful scenery along the way. It should be noted that the Salt Lake City area is oppressively hot in the summer, so I ended up going through what felt like at least a couple of gallons of water in fewer than two days, although the evenings were rather pleasant. We stayed at the Holiday Inn Express Tooele, which was a convenient ten-minute ride away from the track, although the town itself presented a dearth of entertainment options.

ST Octane Academy, aka How I Got to Pretend to Be Ken Block for a Day

The next morning, bright and early, I set off for the track. The activities began at 8:00 sharp, starting with about a half-hour's worth of classroom instruction by Ford's professional drivers and watching a few videos provided by Ford (which - awesome - featured some of my colleagues). Among the participants I recognized one of the most active posters from ST Nation whom I met last year at the Carlisle Ford Nationals. Most of the other participants were also on one ST forum or another - or if they hadn't been, they certainly joined up later that evening.

I had missed breakfast (fruit, pastries, muffins), as well as a trip to the Larry H. Miller museum, but I was able to make up for both by grabbing a bite during the instruction and checking out the museum on the lunch break. Clad in red racing suits (the organizers wisely warned us about wearing the most basic garb underneath because of the heat, so my shorts and a requisite ST tee were a perfect choice) we were whisked away to the actual cars and the first batch of activities.

Forward 90-degree turn

The first exercise was a handbrake slide into a rather generously-sized parking box. The concept is simple: leave the car in first gear, accelerate to 15-20 mph, push the clutch in, pull the specially-installed oversized handbrake and tug the steering wheel to the left. I eventually managed to get the hang of it, but the first few tries were punctuated by the mantra of the morning: "Go faster!" Don't think I've ever heard that one before...

ST Octane Academy, aka How I Got to Pretend to Be Ken Block for a Day

I should note that the drivers in these videos are (and I cannot stress this enough) NOT me. These guys actually knew what they were doing.


Forward 180-degree turn

The rally driver in me died when I came to the realization that I had neither the financing nor the talent required to make it in the world of WRC, but that hasn't stopped me liking rally-inspired cars or dreaming of at least trying some of the moves they are capable of. Powerslides were right at the top of my list and this was the day for me to transfer my PS3 skills to the actual track. As it happens, it's MUCH easier to execute a handbrake-induced 180 on the console - who'd have thunk it ... This time no clutch, leave it in first, slam the handbrake, turn the wheel more, then try to keep it pointing forward while not stalling all at once...whew, easy for me to say. I was, once again, the subject of a "you're still not going fast enough!", but liked this exercise a considerable deal more. Also, the fact that I was now getting more comfortable with the rather tough handbrake didn't hurt.


Reverse 180-degree turn

This. Was. A disaster. Try pointing the car in the direction opposite to the one you are used to driving. Now, try to do that while maintaining a rather unsafe rate of speed. Got it? Now slam the clutch, wrench the steering wheel 180 degrees to the left really hard, try to keep your face from trading places with the base of your skull, point the car forward, dump it into second gear and accelerate away. How's that for about three seconds' worth of activity? Needless to say, I am not cut out for stunt driving. I know. I'm just as shocked as you are.

ST Octane Academy, aka How I Got to Pretend to Be Ken Block for a Day


Skid car

Take a last-gen Ford Fusion (always a blue Sport with blue interior trim - this is important!). Put it up on a hydraulic dolly. Add various degrees of pressure. Take it up to 20-30 mph. Turn. Turn. Turn. Turn the opposite direction. Too late, you've spun it. Turn right. Skip this set of cones. Resist the urge to induce opposite lock in a very mild corner, even though the tires are squealing. Turn. Look apologetically at your instructor because you've spun again. Turn. Turn. Turn. Go slower so as to keep it pointed in the right direction, but miss out on all the sideways fun. Stop. Hand over the ride to the next victim. Look around for porta-potty because you're on your fifth Dasani bottle. Wait for the next guy to finish, then ask the instructor to point you towards the facilities. Arrive at such to find them locked for the winter. Exchange glances with the other guy who is in a similar situation as you. Unilaterally decide the sparse vegetation behind the building could use a little irrigation. Return, relieved. No pun intended.


Track instruction

About seven of us piled into an Econoline and were taken to the actual portion of the track we would later take hot laps on. I stayed awake only enough to hear: "This is important!" as applied to the location of the pit entry. The rest was a blur, induced by 100-degree heat and the six or so hours of sleep I was going on.

This took us to lunchtime (beans, rice, cheese burrchiladas - too fat for an enchilada, too smothered in enchilada sauce for a burrito - and cookies). Again, the fare rather underwhelmed but served its purpose nicely as anything more elaborate and, by proxy, gluttonous, would likely have induced an onset of further sleepiness and I certainly wasn't in the mood for that. I also managed a quick lap around the museum.

ST Octane Academy, aka How I Got to Pretend to Be Ken Block for a Day

ST Octane Academy, aka How I Got to Pretend to Be Ken Block for a Day

ST Octane Academy, aka How I Got to Pretend to Be Ken Block for a Day

ST Octane Academy, aka How I Got to Pretend to Be Ken Block for a Day

ST Octane Academy, aka How I Got to Pretend to Be Ken Block for a Day

ST Octane Academy, aka How I Got to Pretend to Be Ken Block for a Day

ST Octane Academy, aka How I Got to Pretend to Be Ken Block for a Day

With lunch over, it was time for the main course, so to speak. The rest of the day was split between two tracks - the actual road course and the Urban Cross autocross course.

Follow the leader

We were restricted to the East Track - 2.2 miles of turns named, among others, quite appropriately, "Satisfaction", "Mabey Y'll Makit" (sic), "Agony" and "Ecstasy". Later on in the day one of my track mates would, even more appropriately, re-dub them "Oh, shit!", "WTF!" and other various examples of NC-17 language. I'd say his assessment was rather apt. This was, incidentally, my least-favorite on-track activity: following the two STs that were following the pace Mustang GT while trying to mimic the correct racing line as interpreted by not one but three cars and trying to keep up with the lot was a bit awkward, but did give me an opportunity to at least learn the turns. We did this in both the Focus and the Fiesta and I came away further reaffirmed in my belief that each of the STs has its own purpose in the world of motorsports. The more portly and planted Focus lives for the road course where its power band is enough to keep the car in third gear throughout the entire course and never want for speed, while its width keeps it firmly planted on all four wheels. The Fiesta is much more nimble, but feels more tall than wide and, as such, tends to be a bit more unsettled on the longer courses. Its gearing is also not as friendly to this track in particular as it sometimes chokes in third gear coming out of some turns. It is completely the opposite in the tight confines of the autocross track where the still-faster Focus evokes images of large bovines in fancy glassware establishments. Also, while the stock Fiesta has a leg up on its larger brother in the sound department, the Ford Racing exhaust fitted to the bigger car made it sound incredible, so the FiST lost that battle in my mind as well. Don't let this leave the wrong impression, though - I'd rock either one in a heartbeat as I've found either eminently livable in real-world applications, having owned the Focus and driven the Fiesta fairly extensively.

ST Octane Academy, aka How I Got to Pretend to Be Ken Block for a Day

Urban Autocross: Fiesta

The Fiesta, then, was the perfect vehicle for our first crack at the Gymkhana-style autocross course. It consisted of the following elements:

- Forward 180 in 1st gear

- Shift into 2nd, accelerate through cones into the slalom portion

- Hard left, another hard left, then figure 8 around two large barrels

- Hard right, hard left, chicane, finish

- Forward 90 for style points (have to get all 4 wheels into the box)

The Fiesta really flatters the driver here and I did fairly well, even if the forward 90 could have gone better: it's very difficult to switch your brain from full-speed mode to coasting and sliding in the span of half a second, all the while remembering to push the clutch in and stay over to the right so as not to slide the front wheels out of the box. We got three tries - one with the instructor and two more on our own.


Road course

It was time to choose our weapons of choice for an all-out assault on the track. Unsurprisingly, most of us picked the Focus. The first batch of laps came with some constructive criticism coming from the pro driver in the passenger seat - I found this to be considerably more useful than following the Mustang - and then it was time for us to go out on our own. Third gear all the way, top speed of about 85 mph and mind the kerbing, please. Whereas I sometimes found myself wishing for "Follow the Leader" to end, I didn't want to pull into the pits at the end of this session. This sentiment was shared by the rest of my track mates, one of whom "accidentally" missed the pit-in and took an extra lap while the rest of us watched from the control tower, marveling at the sound of the racing exhaust under open throttle.

ST Octane Academy, aka How I Got to Pretend to Be Ken Block for a Day

Urban Autocross: Focus

It was time for our "official" timed laps on the X-Cross course - this time in the Focus. A curious selection, to be sure, but if we were to try both cars at this course as well, one of them had to be the official and the other had to be the practice. Honestly, I couldn't care less either way as I knew that the Focus would be faster, even if it was more of a handful (lessons learned from the Ecoboost Tour). A reconnaissance lap was followed by two timed runs, neither one of which I managed cleanly. The first one was a bit too cautious as I short-shifted after the Forward 180 and in the second I knocked over a cone, which may or may not have gone unnoticed by the official scorers. The Focus struggled considerably in the figure 8, the tires scrubbing the pavement hard and the car bucking - something other participants harped on, as well - but accelerated appreciably better than the Fiesta. From my vantage point, I could have also done better in the Forward 90, as well.

ST Octane Academy, aka How I Got to Pretend to Be Ken Block for a Day

A few hours in the sun will take their toll on any hairstyle...

Hot Laps in the Focus

We had one more activity left before graduation - two hot laps with our instructors. If anyone wasn't entirely convinced of the value of the four-point harnesses we were strapped into before, these three or so minutes removed all doubts. Forget not shifting, avoiding the kerbs or, for that matter, breathing. I take my hat off to all the engineers who made these cars possible to be driven at the limit without ending up a mural on the Armco. The Focus never flinched, even when flung around corners at speeds I would generally consider to be best reserved for open-wheelers and with an occasional four-wheel drift induced - I, on the other hand, could barely keep my eyes open. No roller coaster could ever come close and after staggering away I was very pleased that I didn't let the prospect of motion sickness deprive me of this experience (I had previously considered skipping it and taking off slightly earlier to see the city before it got dark, but learned that I wouldn't be part of the graduation if I did that, so I stayed).

Graduation

We were finally able to strip away the sweaty racing suits, take a deep breath, cool off and be "rewarded" for our participation. We were presented certificates of completion signed by all the professional Ford drivers, a trophy in the form of one of those oversized handbrakes and a goodie bag that included a calendar, a copy of Grassroots Motorsports (an enthusiast magazine), an Octane Academy T-shirt and special ST badges for our cars (black with red trim).

ST Octane Academy, aka How I Got to Pretend to Be Ken Block for a Day

Official times from the Urban X-Cross were also announced. Imagine my shock when the first name called, for "barely making it onto the podium" (but making it, just the same!) was "Phil G.". I had to do a double-take as we had another Ph/Fil in our midst, but after confirming that the winner (Bill, aka Shomare from ST Nation, whom I mentioned earlier) was in the car immediately preceding, I had my confirmation. To say I was surprised is to put it mildly - after feeling thoroughly humbled by the events of the first half of the day, I could hardly expect to end up in the top-3, but there it was.

ST Octane Academy, aka How I Got to Pretend to Be Ken Block for a Day

Final Word

I did end up skipping the last event of the day (go-karting), but have this to say in conclusion. At the risk of being accused of pandering...Ford gets it. The hot hatch segment in the U.S. is still a fledgling niche and it would be easy to overlook it, but the fact that fans of the Blue Oval no longer have to salivate over the toys available across the pond, coupled with the recognition of enthusiasts such as myself and our appreciation of being able to interact with those of our ilk in the environment we would most likely never subject our own cars to, goes a long way. Is Utah the perfect setting for this event? No. It's far too remote for most, insanely hot in the summer and, at least for me, doesn't offer enough complementary activities to make a vacation out of the trip, but that makes this all the more special and it makes me, as both a marketer and an enthusiast equally, swell up with pride when I see so many fellow hot hatch fans take advantage of the opportunity. I just hope that this program is still available when it comes time for me to pick up my next ST, because I would most certainly come back again.

ST Octane Academy, aka How I Got to Pretend to Be Ken Block for a Day