Throughout the course of the Covid-19 pandemic, automotive culture blew up as enthusiasts took the time to get out in their favorite cars and enjoy fun drives, meet-ups with friends, and begin creative customization projects. A concomitant rise in collectible car values even led Hagerty to publish an official "Hottest Cars of the Pandemic" list, while chip shortages and supply chain issues resulted in new cars skyrocketing in price, as well.
Blame for part of the trend surely lies at the feet of social media, where the most famous builders, racers, and roads earn follows and likes galore. All of a sudden, the best drives and cars on the planet seem just in reach, though actually getting to push a modern sports car to the limits on public roads remains something of a dubious venture thanks to enormously powerful engines and the average's driver real-world ability.
Luckily, a spate of companies will happily provide vehicles and training to enthusiasts willing to invest the time, effort, and money. One such new venture going by the name of RS Xperience delivers curated rallies in and around the Blue Ridge and Smoky Mountains via by-now-famous winding roads with names like Tail of the Dragon, Hellbender, and Cherohala Skyway.
After my experiences learning about dedicated track driving at Radford Racing School in Chandler, Arizona, I spoke with RS Xperience founder and lead driver Andy Papa to learn more about how he puts together the perfect trips to coach drivers of all skill levels through some of the most technical twisties in America.
Driving With Instructor And Guide Andy Papa
Papa got his first taste of performance driving relatively late in life, in his forties when he bought a Porsche that came with track time as a bonus.
"When you buy a Porsche, they throw in a track event," Papa remembered. "I was like, 'Oh my gosh, I love this! I need to do more!"
After that initial experience, Papa repeatedly returned to Porsche's driving school in Birmingham, Alabama, where he received coaching from pros including Nascar and IMSA drivers. Eventually, his passion grew to a point where he decided to undertake the training to become an instructor himself.
"What's really interesting is when you're looking to become an instructor, people say, 'Well, these guys must be the really good drivers.' And that's not necessarily the case. It's people who have the ability to teach."
Many of the lessons Papa learned how to teach apply equally to hardcore track driving and enjoying a sports car on public roads, a realization shared by most students who attend any performance driving school once they get back out into traffic.
Founding RS Xperience
Eventually, Papa began eyeing some of the best roads through nearby regions like the Blue Ridge Mountains, mapping out driving tours that offer a less expensive alternative to instructed track days, while simultaneously remaining less dangerous to self and car than fully open track days. He founded RS Xperience in the summer of 2020, right at the height of the pandemic. I asked him how that training on the track translates to coaching average drivers on some of the most spectacular roads in America.
"We help people, number one, become more confident in their driving ability and then understand a little bit more what their car is capable of," Papa explained. "Eyes, vision, looking ahead, weight management, those types of things."
As much as RS Xperience offers a chance to hone driving techniques, Papa's clients get a chance to join in on the fun of driving with between eight and ten like-minded enthusiasts.
Most Modern Sports Cars Welcome
When we spoke, I could spot about six or seven different posters or scales models of Porsches behind Papa—no surprise, he leads RS Xperience in a GT3 RS but also daily drives a BMW M2 CS. The cars that clients bring cover a wider range, though, even if they need to remain relatively modern to keep up and handle the rigors presented by full days of spirited driving.
"We get asked a lot, 'Can I bring my M4, can I bring my M3, can I bring a Lexus?' You can bring whatever you want," Papa explained. "We've had Mustang GT350s, we've had BMW 850s, a Jaguar XJS. Gosh, what else have we had? We've had Lamborghinis, a McLaren 600 LT, Porsches."
The range of different vehicles that Papa's clients drive does present a bit of a logistical challenge—as can the skill and confidence levels of the drivers themselves.
"You get a mix of clients," Papa admitted. "Some clients are like, 'Hey, let's, let's move.' Other clients are like, 'This is fast enough.' And so you just have to manage that with the different capabilities of the cars."
Canyon Carving In Lead-Follow Formation
I asked Papa if he vets clients before they show up, just to check on details like prior track experience or a history of shenanigans. He seemed confident that the entry cost of modern sports cars and the rally itself—pricing starts at $2,500 for three full days—will help discourage any potentially problematic drivers from joining. And he begins each trip with a quick primer on what he expects students to focus on throughout the course of the journey.
"When you first meet and have a conversation with a student, it's all about learning, being safe, and having fun," he replied. "We talk about car control techniques, so there is a document that I have put together and we run through things like vision and awareness."
One of the details that Papa discovered came as no surprise to me: seating position. Most drivers tend to sit too far back, arms and legs extended almost straight. On the track, G forces quickly educate drivers about the need to scoot forward. At RS Xperience, Papa helps everyone get settled in properly before heading out. Then, once on the road, he leads in his GT3 RS (or maybe that M2 CS someday soon) while another experienced driver pulls up the rear to prevent sling-shotting and hot-rodding. Meanwhile, he's on the radio giving out driving tips, as well as delivering safety instructions.
"I'm calling out whether it's debris on the road, roadkill, pedestrian, cyclists. I'm coming up to it first," Papa told me, adding, "I'm really a stickler about touching the yellow line. Do not touch the yellow line. And there are some roads where police, especially the Tail of the Dragon as you may have heard, they will ticket you even if you're going to the speed limit but you're on that yellow line."
At lunch stops, photo breaks, and later on in hotels and restaurants, conversations on an RS Xperience trip naturally focus on the day's roads and driving lessons, as Papa steps back and lets the students develop a bit of camaraderie (and sometimes, even a bit of banter between competitive fans of, say, Porsches and BMWs).
Developing An Curated Experience For Clients
This year, the RS Xperience calendar already includes seven drives spanning the better weather from early April through late October. Papa also revealed plans to expand his reach in the near future, including working with exotic rental companies and the new subscription models from manufacturers like Porsche to offer clients the option to rent incredible cars for the duration of their trip. He might also begin exploring new terrain for cars and clients in other popular driving regions across America.
"There are other roads further east, towards the Asheville area," he revealed. "And then also, I have some people that I know that are in different parts of the country, like in Colorado, up around the Seattle area."
Whether in the Midwest, Northwest, or even the Ozarks, an RS Xperience package will always include the hotels, meals, and photogenic stops planned out along the way. Papa wants to reduce the amount of logistical thought necessary for his clients, so they can simply focus on the task of the day.
"You don't need to load something into your navigation," he said, "You just follow me, enjoy the drive, and enjoy the scenery."
Sources: rsxperience.com, radfordracingschool.com, porsche.com, and tailofthedragon.com.