As a car enthusiast, I love attending events that automakers put on to get the average consumer into their cars. That’s because there’s free food, plenty of freebies like headphones, beanies, and caps, as well as the occasional gift card. Manufacturers put on these events because a) if people are willing to sit through hours of timeshare presentations for a $20 radio, there’s people willing to spend an afternoon test driving their products and b) they understand dealerships aren’t exactly the best places for sampling numerous models of their brand’s vehicles. (“Let me get this straight. You want to test drive the A3, A4, A6, and A8?! And you don’t know if you’re buying on a Saturday!? Go bother the Infiniti dealership!”)
Porsche has the World Roadshow, where you can spin off the track in a Cayman. Jaguar has the ALIVE program, which easily exceeds local sound ordinances. General Motors has their ride and drives at major auto shows, where you can “test the acceleration” of a (automatic) CTS-V wagon on residential roads. Land Rover has the Experience with small off-road courses coated in downtowns across America, which somehow don’t manage to attract environmental protests.
The Ford Ecoboost Challenge is another one of those events, held in places that have too much asphalt put over them, like stadium parking lots, the occasional naval base, and public parks that don’t attract many visitors because they have too much asphalt and not enough scenery. So basically anywhere but an actual race track.
When you arrive at the event, you’ll see three different cone courses. One will be a comparison loop, where you contrast the performance of Ecoboost-equipped Ford vehicles (Fusion, Escape, F-150) against some competitor cars (probably Camry, CR-V, Silverado). This (unfortunately) will not be timed, because Ford does not want to be on a hook for a Fusion with curb marks on the roof. Another cone course will involve a comparison of MPG between the C-MAX Hybrid and a rival (I’m guessing a Prius V).
But the last course is the one you should be there for. And that is the ST Performance Academy.
The description of it on the Ecoboost website is that you’ll drive a Fiesta ST on a timed track while competing against other drivers for the fastest time of the day. However, there is a lot more to it than that. It is, essentially, a free opportunity to compete against your friends (and other drivers with Ayrton Senna pretensions) in an autocross event in a car which totally isn’t yours.
This, ladies and gentlemen, happens once in a lifetime, usually after paying through the roof to race go-karts, a bunch of other Formula and Spec racing series, and then, after proving your talent for the umpteenth time, some professional racing team offering you a race seat, providing you bring “a couple million dollars” in sponsorship.
Here’s what happens when you take part in the ST Performance Academy. You have to run directly to the longest line at the event, because that’s the American way, especially when food trucks and Lady Gaga concert tickets are involved. You will be in line for at least thirty minutes, which gives you and your friends/competitors enough time to figure out which gear you need for each of the corners and engage in some trash talking.
Eventually, after what seems like an hour, you come to the front of the line, where you are given a tutorial (if you crash or nearly crash into something, you’re out) and are duly informed to leave the car in second for the entire course except when starting and stopping. You’re also going to be given only two runs on the course. You’re going to be timed. After that, it’s time to strap yourself into the Fiesta ST and express your inner Lewis Hamilton.
Granted, you do have to be nice to the car. Otherwise, the people there won’t really hesitate to take the car away from you. For instance, if you stall more than twice, you’re not allowed to autocross the car. The same goes for knocking over too many cones. Or nearly driving into some wooden barriers or a nearby fence.
When all is said and done, you don’t have to drive the car home and wonder how much life you took out of the clutch. That’s for the next owner to fathom, when the Fiesta ST is on sale at your local dealer as an “executive demo,” where the salesman will attempt to convince the customer that it was driven by a “high-level Ford executive” who bought it “as a commuter car,” a customer who’ll be scratching his head when he notices the clutch slipping while leaving the lot.
The best part is the fact that there are prizes for setting the best time of the session. Last year when I went, they gave away a small scale model of the Focus ST. This year, I’ve heard they’re giving away a set of really nice headphones. Meanwhile, at actual autocrosses across the country, you’re forced to contend with the prize being bragging rights and still being required to pick up cones at the end of the day.
In the end, it’s the opportunity to compete against your friends. In cars that aren’t yours. Which means you don’t have to worry about insurance. Your tires. Your clutch. There’s absolutely no need to perform corner work unlike your normal autocross event. You can just walk in any time before 5 pm instead of waking up early. The safety talk is much shorter and your car won’t need to be inspected. There’s even a prize for the quickest time. And you’ll realize the Fiesta ST is an excellent, excellent little car.
It so beats sitting through a timeshare presentation.