ST OCTANE ACADEMY
An adrenaline-junkie writer and the all-new 197-horsepower Fiesta ST enroll in the Ford Racing School at Miller Motorsports Park—driver’s ed for the fast and furious.
By Kent Black
Photography by Daniel Byrne
We are heading fast for some bad Attitudes.
Brian Smith, a deceptively laconic Carolinian who is the lead instructor of the Ford Racing School at Miller Motorsports Park in Tooele, Utah, is showing the sparkling new 2014 Fiesta ST no mercy on the 2.2-mile East Track. We come so fast out of the right-hand sweep of the fifth turn, Satisfaction, that we probably leave a quarter-inch smear of rubber from all four tires. A split second later, Smith takes a tight line through a left named Agony and then positions the Fiesta ST against the left shoulder of the track as he prepares to negotiate a treacherous set of S curves known as The Attitudes.
Smith explains that the trick with The Attitudes is to not get suckered into hitting the apex of the blind right-hander too early. After the drop off, the next left and right Attitudes get up in your face fast. If you do hit the apex early, you then have to steer yourself out of landing somewhere in the desert. Strapped in a race-inspired RECARO®* seat, Smith casually pilots our Molten Orange Ford rocket to a point just beyond the first apex, a subtle move that allows him to take a nearly straight line past the next two curves before he rolls on the throttle for the short straightaway. I notice the needle on the speedometer jumps past 80.
Faster still, as the Fiesta ST sprints down the front straightaway, Smith discusses the car’s attributes so casually that it’s as if the two of us were kicked back over a couple of frothy mugs. I am white-knuckling the bucket seat, grateful that my fingernails are not sharp enough to shred the leather. I choose not to interrupt Smith’s monologue with this unworthy thought.
“With older front-wheel-drive cars, there is a tendency to push off from the corner, which delays getting on the throttle,” Smith explains. “But the first thing I noticed with the Fiesta ST is how well it turns into the corner, a lot earlier than you’d expect, so you can keep your line and come out with a lot of speed…and, man, that’s a lot more power than you’d expect.”
While the Fiesta has now been around for nearly 40 years (and sold a staggering amount of global units in the process), there is a distinct lack of humility in the new ST. The ST stands for Sports Technologies and as Smith succinctly pointed out during our track tests, the Fiesta ST “is not a compact car. It’s a sports car.” The five-door hatchback boasts a high-output 1.6-liter EcoBoost® engine with nearly 197 horsepower and 202 foot-pounds of torque.** With those numbers, you’d expect to lose out on gas efficiency, but the Fiesta ST manages to respectfully hit 35 mpg highway.†
As Smith noted on the track, “the folks at Ford have been doing their homework” when it comes to suspension and maneuverability. “Usually when you get in a car this quick and nimble,” says Smith as we prepare to push the Fiesta ST even harder around the second lap, “you expect to sacrifice some comfort. But the way they have the suspension set up, this is a car I’d be happy driving for six straight hours.”
CAMPUS TOURIt’s no accident that we’ve come to this extraordinary facility about a half-hour southwest of Salt Lake City. It’s fabled country for people who like to drive fast. Really fast. On the western edge of Tooele (pronounced two-ella) County are the Bonneville Salt Flats, where drivers have hit record-setting speeds of more than 600 miles per hour.
We’ve stabled the Fiesta ST in one of the state-of-the-art garages that face the pit area along the track’s straightaway. While the car gets prepped for my turn at the wheel, Dan McKeever, vice president of operations, explains how the park evolved from a personal playground where the late Utah entrepreneur Larry H. Miller used to run some of the Shelbys in his $30 million vintage auto collection. “He thought he should also create a school here so that other people had the opportunity to experience it,” says McKeever, who came here from heading the BMW Performance Center in South Carolina when the park opened in 2006. “So he purchased 20 Mustangs from the dealership to use in the school. [His goal] was to provide the best drive and instruction experience you could get.”
It wasn’t long before a relationship was established with Ford Motor Company, resulting in the Mustang Challenge Series in 2008. Though Miller passed away in 2009, his family has not stopped improving and enlarging the facility. The 4.5-mile track is often divided into two equal-size east and west tracks. In addition, there are off-road, rock crawling and go-kart facilities, as well as over 900 acres of land used for a desert course. According to McKeever, their fleet of Mustang GTs has grown to 45 vehicles. Added to that are 15 Mustang Boss 302s in the Boss Track Attack and eight Raptors in the Raptor Assault program. “If you’re a Ford enthusiast,” says McKeever, “this is the place to be.”
But the buzz that has instructors, drivers and Miller executives dropping in at the garage to check out the Fiesta ST is that the hot hatch is now one of the featured players at the Ford Racing School. Starting last fall, buyers of the Fiesta ST and Focus ST are offered a full day of driving and racing instruction at Miller Motorsports Park free of charge. Although participants are responsible for their transportation and accommodation, the free tuition is no little perk—a one-day session in a Mustang runs close to $1,500.
“One of the things we’re most excited about with the ST Octane Academy is there’s a ton of driving,” says Cindi Lux, who is the director of the performance schools at the park. The former pro racer says the school has 10 Fiesta STs and 10 Focus STs for participants’ use. Students arrive the night before for a reception and dinner at Ken Block’s Hoonigan Racing headquarters, and then get up at the crack of dawn for a classroom session where instructors lay out a program of advanced training in oversteer and understeer, braking and downshifting, and spin maneuvers. The afternoon is devoted to driving the racetrack with individual and team autocross competitions. “They not only drive the STs, we put them in go-karts and in a whole lot of different driving environments,” Lux adds. “It’s a very, very full day.”
FINAL EXAMSpeaking of which, I’m getting a little antsy just standing around with my crash helmet while this crowd ogles my Fiesta ST. I get the nod from Smith, who climbs into the passenger seat to prevent me from breaking the sound barrier. I put the manual six-speed into first and immediately stall. Lux had told me earlier that the instructors at the school get at least one student in every class who’s never driven stick. Smith is giving me the eye like I’ve just doubled the week’s stats. I fire the Fiesta up again and ease out onto the track.
We take the first lap slow with Smith giving me pointers on the 13 corners that make up the East Track. As when skiing or mountain biking, it’s key to always be looking ahead, out your side windows at what’s coming up, not what’s right in front of you. “Your peripheral vision will take care of that,” Smith advises. It is with superhuman patience that I wait until the home straightaway to stomp on the throttle and throw the Fiesta ST into fourth. I feel a nice little g-force tug on my cheeks before braking lightly into the first turn and downshifting to third. It blasts out of it so fast I shout an unseemly word of delight. I can hardly believe the car’s agility as we fly through the corners of Gotcha, Satisfaction and Agony. And just like that The Attitudes rear up at me. Smith points out my line, and with just a minute adjustment to the wheel, I am through, hitting the throttle, shifting back into fourth and building up some scary speed.
Oh yeah, I think, the Fiesta ST has attitude.
WHAT MAKES AN ST
HIGH-SPEED DNA A high-output turbocharged direct injection EcoBoost® engine delivers plenty of horsepower and torque**, and is paired with a six-speed manual transmission.
SUPERIOR CONTROL A low center of gravity and unique sport suspension aid response and stability, and electric power-assisted steering adjusts responsiveness according to vehicle speed.
DYNAMIC APPEARANCE ST styling is aggressive inside and out, with performance tires, aluminum racing-inspired accelerator, brake and clutch pedals, a unique ST steering wheel and available RECARO® racing seats.