An old saying goes that 90% of drivers rate their skills in the best 10% of drivers. And, in fact, AAA released a more scientific study showing that fully 73% of American drivers believe they're above average—a mathematical impossibility proven daily on the roads of this country.

As an automotive journalist, however, I need to be a good driver so that I can more effectively review cars to suss out their strengths and weaknesses. But all the hardcore sports cars on the market today, plus the increasingly popular overpowered products of a booming tuner industry, really require a professional racer to push anywhere near their limits. And taking those kinds of cars to the limit on public roads endangers everyone present.

Despite a lifetime carving the canyons of Malibu and the Angeles Crest Highway, I found myself extremely glad when Radford Racing School recently invited me to attend a full week of Grand Prix road racing and drag racing courses, where I got the chance to hone my skills in a controlled environment under the watchful eye of professional driving instructors.

Welcome To Grand Prix Road Racing

The week kicked off on a cold Monday in Chandler, Arizona, where Radford's staff signed me in for a four-day Grand Prix racing class on the school's purpose-built training track. But before unleashing absolute amateurs such as myself onto the circuit, this signature course begins with a series of drills and classroom sessions to impress upon students how much everyone's safety depends on their behavior and focus behind the wheel.

The Radford track purposefully features plenty of tight technical sections and a relatively short straightaway over a total of 1.65 miles of tarmac, when open for its full configuration. The original design can be credited to Bob Bondurant, who formerly ran the Bob Bondurant School of High Performance Driving on the same site before a bankruptcy proceeding in 2018 led to the current ownership group's acquisition—a group that then partnered with reality TV star Ant Anstead and F1 world champ Jenson Button's new Radford brand revival.

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Dodge Challenger As Teaching Tool

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via Michael Van Runkle / HotCars

Now, Radford serves as the Official High-Performance Driving School of Dodge SRT (as many signs and banners on site clearly advertise) so unsurprisingly, a huge fleet of Challengers and Chargers dots the facility. Radford also recently signed a deal with Lotus, explaining why eight late-model Evora GTs also sit waiting in the garage for a forthcoming program where students will get to experience one of the world's last lightweight mid-engined sports cars in their natural habitat.

But Radford's General Manager Mike Kessler surprised me when he described the Challenger Hellcat as one of the greatest track training tools out there.

"It has a bad stigma with everyone in the world who’s never been on the track with it," Kessler said. "It is such a powerful and good training car on the track. It doesn’t have a lot of forgiveness. I’ve been able to drive the Audis on the track here, the Ferraris, the Porsches, the Lamborghinis. And those cars are awesome cars but the newer ones, they drive themselves. You almost can’t go wrong in those cars. But when you get in the Challenger and you have the power and that capability, you can try to keep it stable or you can drift it a little. You can drift it a lot, but it’s just an all-around blast."

Now, also in the name of safety, students don't sign up for a Radford course and expect to jump behind the wheel of a 797-horsepower Redeye—the manual Widebody cars we drove used their black keys, which limits output to a more "reasonable" 500 horses.

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First Lesson: Accelerating, Braking, And Downshifting

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via Michael Van Runkle / HotCars

After some preliminary safety discussions in the classroom, my fellow two students and I walked out to our Challengers—Widebody versions for anyone who can and wants to drive a manual or Redeyes equipped with automatics—for an introductory lesson in Radford's large paved front lot.

Our main instructor, Will Parker, wanted to acclimate us to the Challenger's power, balance, handling, and, most importantly, the shifter and pedals. He set up two cones about an eighth of a mile from each other and we proceeded to blast full throttle in a straight line, upshift from second to third, then hit the brakes hard while heel-toe downshifting back into second before the tight turn back around the other cone. Rinse and repeat.

Immediately, that supercharger whine at the lightest mash of the throttle became intoxicating and we all proceeded to get the rear ends a bit squirrelly while adjusting to the Challenger's unique mix of power and weight, which leads to plenty of predictable oversteer. Luckily, the wide lot afforded us plenty of wiggle room for this first drill.

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Strapped In For Safety

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via Michael Van Runkle / HotCars

Radford's Challengers use four-point harnesses and roll cages, which help to keep drivers slammed back in the comfortable seats. Personally, throughout the first drill, I struggled to manage the car's wide-spaced pedals, which seem designed for work boots rather than racing shoes. I learned rev-matching in cars with tighter pedal boxes that allowed for my right foot to just roll from brake to gas, rather than a true heel-toe move with my heel fully off the floor like I now found myself doing.

The Challenger's six-speed shifter, meanwhile, doesn't sit fully vertical in neutral, instead canted forward a bit almost like a vintage Shelby Cobra. I found myself pretty glad we got plenty of time to master the mechanicals before hitting the real track, since I routinely put the car in fourth or missed shifts entirely until Parker advised me to imagine a Ferrari's gated shifter, where you place the shifter into neutral and then select a gear rather than trying to do everything in one quick move.

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Lead-Follow Exercises

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via Michael Van Runkle / HotCars

We then moved back into the classroom to prepare for our first lead-follow exercises on what Radford calls the Maricopa Oval, coned off for us at one end of Bob Bondurant's track design. The whole track gets plenty of use but remains in great shape, especially since Radford took the opportunity to pulverize and lay new asphalt during government-mandated Covid-19 closures of 2020.

On a whiteboard, Parker walked us through the theories of trail braking, hitting the apex, and how Radford lines up a series of cones to indicate brake zones, turn-in points, and vision targets. But of course, all the talk in the world can't compare to the real world, so we strapped back into the Challengers—helmets on this time—and headed out to test those theories in real life.

We spent most of the rest of the day on the oval, other than a break for lunch, still learning about our Challengers but learning more about actual track driving at higher speeds, with tires scrubbing across the tarmac, weight and suspension shifting during hard maneuvers, and the satisfying feeling of finding the right line. The lead-follow format with Parker ahead of us in his instructor car gave us a great example to mimic as we worked through a decreasing radius turn at one end of the oval and a more consistent turn at the other.

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Vision On The Oval

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via Michael Van Runkle / HotCars

Over a few sessions, I discovered the importance of vision, which Parker had stressed repeatedly in the classroom. When I fixated on one of the braking or turn-in cones, I'd lose the racing line and struggle to keep up. But when I raised my vision to wider distances far beyond the next turn, with my peripherals taking care of the details, I could trail brake more smoothly, use more real estate, and nail the apex. Plus, I learned how to graze the red and white curbs just the right amount to help turn the car and plant the rear end coming out of the corner.

As Parker taught us, the best racing line helps to hold speed through a turn but also, just as importantly, allows an effective driver to get back to full throttle as fast as possible. Easier said than done, to say the least.

After what felt like a few hundred laps around the Maricopa Oval, Parker pulled us back into the classroom to chat about what we'd learned.

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Evasive Maneuver Training

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via Michael Van Runkle / HotCars

Next, we took the Challengers back to the front lot for another drill teaching evasive maneuvers using ABS. At Radford, the instructors explain that ABS doesn't just stand for "Anti-lock Braking System" but, they also say, "Ability to Brake while Steering." With a series of cone lanes set up, we explored the limits of traction for the Hellcat Widebody's factory brakes and Pirelli tires—a great lesson before graduating to the next day's full track driving, but one that also translates well to driving on public roads, too.

Parker wrapped up the long afternoon with some advice to eat well, drink lots of water, and get a good night's sleep. I went back to the hotel exhausted, neck and arms sore, feeling ready to conk out around 8 PM. And the first day of the GPR class ended up being easily the easiest, at least from a physical perspective.

Click here to read more about Day 2 of my experience at Radford Racing School.

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