Learning to fly
What does it take to push a finely tuned Maserati to its limits? Roger Parloff enrolls in the Italian automaker's new Master Maserati school in Atlanta - and gets a crash course in high-octane driving.
By Roger Parloff, FORTUNE senior editor

(FORTUNE Magazine) -- Precisely how fast I drove a Maserati at Road Atlanta racetrack is not the point. Or maybe it is the point, but since the people with me all claimed to have driven much faster, I'm not going to get into it.

I'll say that I did eventually achieve 145 mph - though that was as a passenger, after my instructor took the wheel.

For someone who drives a 1998 Honda Civic and whose typical peak driving experience consists of using EZPass, attending Maserati's brand-new high-performance driving school was a joy ride down the road not taken.

Maserati, which returned to the U.S. market in 2002 after more than a decade's absence, is offering the program both to increase its visibility in this country and to allow its new owners to explore and master the capabilities of their exotic, high-end, Pininfarina-designed sports cars in a safe, police-free environment.

Similar schools are now offered by BMW, Porsche, Audi, Mercedes, and - since June - Ferrari.

Though Ferrari's program is restricted to existing owners, all the others are also open to anyone who dubs himself a "prospective" buyer.

With Maserati's $3,400 two-day course, the student gets a night at the posh Château Élan Resort & Winery in Braselton, Ga., near the racetrack. (This hotel must possess a very high percentage of all the bidets in Georgia.)

My school day began in the Master Maserati classroom, on the top floor of the Time Tower overlooking the finish line at Road Atlanta.

Six instructors - each a professional race driver - collaborate to teach up to 18 pupils.

After viewing a few PowerPoints, we headed out to the track to perform a series of exercises - braking, skidding, emergency lane-changing, slalom driving -designed to teach what these cars can do when driven to the absolute limits of their capacity. (What could be better? It's like abusing rental cars, except that each vehicle is a masterpiece and there's no guilt.)

Next, each of us took a turn driving through a miniature race course - an "auto-cross" - while being timed. I never knew second gear could be this much fun.

Then it was time for what we had been working up to: the main track.

Though I had expected a banked oval, like what you would see at most NASCAR events or the Indy 500, Road Atlanta is more fun than that. It's a 2.5-mile Le Mans-style course that simulates actual roads over natural terrain.

It has hills ("elevations") and 12 turns, including a real stomach-wrencher at the end that seems to bank the wrong way.

The instructors first drive the students around several times in a Quattroporte -Maserati's four-door luxury sedan - explaining the ideal "line" to pursue, when to start turns, where to brake, where not to.

Then each driver takes the wheel of a GranSport - the grittier, lighter two-door -and starts doing laps himself, first in a follow-the-leader procession and then in isolation but with an instructor in the passenger seat.

By the end of the program, my peers and I had shown great improvement, and it was easy to begin entertaining Walter Mitty-ish notions about what might have been.

Then it hit me that while I had improved my control over the car at high speeds and had gained a better sense of where to position myself on the track, I hadn't even begun to deal with an important piece of the racing puzzle: dozens of other race drivers competing against me.

Thanks be to God Almighty (and, doubtless, to insurance exclusions), there is no head-to-head competition among students at any time during the course. Once I began to imagine other drivers thrown into the mix, the whole racing dream turned nightmarish.

When I returned from school, more than one curious acquaintance asked me whether one can apply what one learns at Master Maserati to daily driving.

The answer will depend in part on whether you actually buy a Maserati or hold on to your Civic. The other key variable will be the degree to which your daily commute resembles Road Atlanta.

Sadly, mine differs in that I regularly encounter potholes, pets, stoplights, and--worst of all--other people.

Still, playing Paul Newman for even a day was its own reward.

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