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Ford launches Octane Academy

8/15/2011
Octane Academy professors: Brian Deegan, Ken Block, Tanner Foust and Vaughn Gittin Jr. Courtesy Octane Academy

Want to learn how to drive like Ken Block? So does Shaun White, based on his recent driving-school spree. Since White signed up with BFGoodrich, he's crammed in driving lessons from at least three institutions of higher four-wheel education.

Now Ford wants to help fans get in on the learning action through Octane Academy, with two catches: only in a Ford and only for members of the millennial generation. For everyone else interested in motorsport skills, there's tried and true Skip Barber and nine-month-old DirtFish Rally School.

Ford is baiting the finicky millennial generation (18-29 year olds) by rounding up Ford motor-sport superstars to launch Octane Academy. Ken Block, Brian Deegan, Tanner Foust, and Vaughn Gittin Jr. are being tapped as professors for the new "academy", and each will take a turn hosting one of the four "action sports fantasy camps" on courses they helped design. Ford is taking the typical manufacturer driving school and throwing it into the dirt -- literally. The first class gets in session November with off-road truck racer Deegan.

Since Ford wants to lure the millennials, the chances of slipping their filter drop drastically for those approaching 30 years of age. Besides the right age, and a valid driver's license, Ford only asks for a personality video. They forbid footage of driving shenanigans, likely since the ensuing carnage is a mess Ford lawyers would avoid. Each four day camp culminates in a competition. The champ driver wins -- you guessed it -- a Ford, specially "designed" by Block, Deegan, Foust and Gittin. Perhaps worth noting, superstars do not often make good teachers, but fans are hopeful these guys prove otherwise.

The Collins English Dictionary says an academy is "an institution or society for the advancement of literature, art, or science." While literature is lacking, art and science are arguably critical for serious drivers' education. Science, it seems, is Skip Barber Racing School's specialty. Walt Irvine, longtime instructor for Skip Barber said, "We teach one thing: driving based on the law of physics. An average person will come from our driving school able to slide the car, and understand all the dynamic forces about how to get the car sideways." Irvine says learning laws of the universe have helped prepare countless Indy and NASCAR drivers like Bill Elliott and Jeff Gordon.

"The driving skills we give are universal. Shaun White started out just like anyone else, from zero," said Irvine. Shaun was part of a multi-day Formula course at Laguna Seca, Calif. "In the beginning he wasn't so good, but he ended up being extremely good, and was the quickest in his group by the end." Irvine says many schools run by car companies want to get people into their brand, but Skip Barber focuses on skills transferable to any car on the road. They don't offer any instruction off-pavement currently. The cost for a three day open wheel course, also offered in Lime Rock, CT and Atlanta, GA, lists at $4,400.

If Skip Barber is a school of pavement science, DirtFish Rally School might be the dojo for the art of rally. Ross Bentley, President of DirtFish said, "The best athletes have an amazing ability to picture -- get a clear mental image -- of what a certain technique looks and feels like before they even try it." Bentley says White has that visual ability. "He was spectacular at driving on a loose surface. He's obviously very comfortable being in that environment -- maybe more so than on a paved road course," said Bentley. "If he put his mind to it, he'd be a winner in rallying." Until White trades his board for wheels, Bentley says to look out for recent grad, freestyle motocross rider Robbie "Maddo" Madison, in his debut at Rallycross and X Games.

Launched in October 2010, DirtFish features 315 acres of tarmac, gravel-strewn mud and grime just outside Seattle, Wash. In the three day course, students pilot full race spec 300hp ex-factory Subarus once driven by the likes of Block and Travis Pastrana. These AWD rides cost over $100,000 and likely deliver monster performance for newbie taskmasters. But Bentley says instructors make all the difference because they are "selected and trained for their ability to match skills and desires with a level of training that keeps students on the edge of their comfort level." A ticket for this roller coaster ride costs $2,995.

With a name like Octane Academy, a bevy of superstars, and massive resources, it will be interesting to see whether Ford's splashy venture into racing education legitimately delivers future motorsport talent, or if it's just another fantasy sideshow. Either way, aspiring hoonigans will be fighting for a chance to hang with their roll models. For those who don't meet Ford's demographic, there's always the Bill Caswell DIY school. Otherwise, DirtFish and Skip Barber seem tuned to make champions and not brand mongers.

Professors Block, Deegan, Foust, and Gittin were unavailable for comment.