Payne: For Christmas, track your dream car in an affordable experience

Posted by Talbot Payne on December 9, 2021

Atlanta — Just a direct flight away, Michiganians can visit Avengers headquarters, jump in a $150,000 Porsche 911 like Tony Stark, and spend an afternoon doing hot laps with an expert instructor.

Cost? About $500.

The world of Porsche and other performance makes has become a lot more accessible this Christmas for auto buffs who don’t necessarily have the means to purchase the cars of their dreams. The Porsche Experience Center (which Marvel used to film Avenger headquarters in the superhero franchise’s hit movies) is the cutting edge of a growing menu of auto experiences available to consumers directly from manufacturers.

Sign up for the Porsche Experience Center in Atlanta and get access to drive some of the marque's greatest cars.

Once the exclusive domain of expensive driving schools and track rentals, automakers are opening affordable opportunities to bond with their creations. The opportunities come as the performance product landscape has never been so robust. Track enthusiasts can find everything from a $38,000 Ford Mustang GT to a $60,000 Dodge Challenger Hellcat and even a $60k Chevy Corvette — an exotic, mid-engine package once unthinkable under $100,000.

These thoroughbreds are complemented by off-road performance too: think Jeep Wrangler, Ford Bronco and Ford F-150 Raptor.

The manufacturer programs signal a golden era for auto performance not seen since the ’60s. While emissions mandates and $8-a-gallon gasoline are squeezing vehicle choice abroad, U.S. makers are thriving on cheap gas and deep pockets.

Ford has long been a pioneer in offering performance opportunities to owners beyond getting the kids to school on time. Ford is opening a network of “Off-Roadeos” to celebrate the debut of its much-anticipated Bronco — and owners can take advantage of the opportunity for free (travel to these sites not included). Not to be outdone, the Jeep Adventure Academy caters to 4×4 owners with rugged playgrounds from Hollister, California, to Vermont starting at $329 a day.

Ford has opened a series of Bronco Off-Roadeos around the country to help owners explore the capabilities of their 4x4.

But the buffet is opening up for non-owners as well.

The Ford Performance Racing School in Charlotte, North Carolina, offers one or two-day driving schools in the iconic Mustang GT starting at $1,695. “All Ford Performance Racing School classes are conducted by professional instructors (offering) exhilarating, on-track driving instruction for every performance driving enthusiast, regardless of skill level or goal,” says the website.

GM has a similar program for those who want to see if the sexy Corvette C8 is their cup of tea before dropping their life’s savings. The opportunity costs $3,695 for a two-day school and buys them a ticket to Pahrump, Nevada. Owners get in for a grand.

Cadillac sweetens the deal for those who want to saddle up a ferocious CT4-V or CT5-V Blackwing sedan. Tuition is free for owners, $3,545 for non-owners. The school attracts about 12 to 24 Cadillac students per week.

Closer to home in Pontiac, Dodge makes available Dodge Charger Hellcats and Viper sports cars at M1 Concourse. For $2,000, customers can get schooled in how to drive M1’s race track in their own car, then take a spin in the Hellcat and Viper for comparison.

“The package was suspended last year due to COVID and we’re looking at bringing it back in 2022,” said Marc Molzen, chief instructor for M1 Concourse.

And then there’s Porsche. Its affordable offer to non-owners is unusual for such a high-performance brand.

The automaker keeps a fleet of 911 supercars, mid-engine Caymans/Boxers, Cayennes SUVs and Taycan EVs for curious drivers to experience. Porsche is the world’s baseline for performance, and drivers can experience the extraordinary limits of these automobiles for the price of an airline ticket to Atlanta.

The Porsche Experience in Atlanta is concentrated around a 1.5-mile track that envelopes a complex of skid pad, wet-skid pad, slalom course, and off-road course.

The experience not only allows Porsche the opportunity to addict potential buyers to the brand’s legendary speed, but also enables exposure to new products like the 2022 Porsche 911 GTS hellion — or the Taycan EV as the industry makes a risky bet on battery-only vehicles.

A visit to Porsche’s Georgia facility — which backs up to Atlanta’s Hartfield International Airport (fewer complaints from the neighbors about noise that way) — is also evidence of how foreign automakers have come to dominate geographical regions of the country outside the Detroit Three’s lair.

Today, Honda rules central Ohio with two plants churning out some of the highest-volume vehicles in the U.S. market like the CR-V SUV and Accord sedan. South Carolina is home of BMW, which produces its North American SUVs in Spartanburg — while also offering a driving experience like Porsche’s to whet consumers’ appetite for the Bavarian brand.

Out west, Tesla has become the signature California brand — its electronic wizardry in sync with a West Coast tech culture. Tesla does not offer driving experiences, but manufactures vehicles in a Fremont plant once home to GM.

Porsche has no production in the U.S., yet the American market is essential to its success.

Since the first 356 Speedster was sold in 1950, Porsche has aggressively marketed to Americans, establishing a New Jersey-based North American HQ in 1960. Porsche’s headquarters in Atlanta (established in 2015) is an ambitious effort. Set on 27 acres, the headquarters building is an architectural gem that has attracted multiple movie studios for filming — including Avengers. The company plans to expand the facility with a sprawling networks of roads and proving grounds.

For now, the Porsche Experience is concentrated on a 1.5-mile track that envelopes a complex of skid pad, wet-skid pad, slalom course and off-road course. The 90-minute program is designed with German efficiency to accommodate a traveler with an overnight stay in Atlanta’s airport on their way overseas.

Customers can choose from an extensive menu of driving experiences, from a singular date with the Porsche Boxster ($365) to a comparison test of 500-horsepower 911 Turbo and 911 GTS ($975). Allow me to recommend the latter. It’s the Christmas season.

Porsche Experience Center in Atlanta attendees get a tour of the Heritage Museum which includes exhibits like this one of the first, 1964 911 to win at Daytona.

The program includes food at the palatial headquarters and a guided tour of the facilities — featuring the Porsche Heritage Museum — a rotating exhibit that features some of the most legendary cars in Porsche’s racing/production pantheon.

My tour included Jack Ryan’s black #12 Porsche 911 — the first 911 to go to victory circle when it won the 2.0-liter class at the 1964 24 Hours of Daytona.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at or Twitter @HenryEPayne.

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