The Nismo Performance Academy
Two years ago to this day (fittingly it was the 23rd of June) I had the privilege of being invited by Nissan to the inaugural installment of a series of events they put on for GT-R and Z owners. The event was called the Nismo Performance Academy and the very first one was to be held at Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas. We were told we would get the chance to drive our cars on the track with professional instruction as well as sample a selection of Nissan and Nismo vehicles at Nissan's expense – we just had to come to Austin with our personal cars. Needless to say I was as likely to pass up this invitation as I would one from Kate Beckinsale naked on a bed so late June 2013 saw me and my friend Nick blasting east from Arizona on an 1100 mile drive to Austin.
The day of the event we were asked to line up in four rows within the paddock parking area, two each for the GT-R and Z drivers of which only 20 owners got lucky to be invited for each model. Interestingly we were asked to turn over our keys – I was at first reluctant to relinquish control of my precious to the Nissan staffer but decided to trust they had a good reason. Turns out they had a cool surprise planned for us later.
|No Walmart parking lot ever looked so racy|
All of us plus one guest per owner were ushered into a large meeting room which connected to the grandstands on the main straight. Circuit of the Americas was a brand-new Formula 1 circuit and it showed in the amazing facilities. After checking in we were each handed a Nismo Performance Academy-branded ditty bag that contained an exclusive shirt, cap, and notebook, and for the car owners a brand new GoPro Hero3 and a mount so we could pop it onto our cars that day if we wanted to!
|Sweet glorious swag!|
The day began with a classroom session that went over the basics of high-performance driving during which we were introduced to the instructors that would be guiding us including Le Mans and Grand Am GT driver, Lonnie Pechnek.
|Lonnie telling us how we were unworthy maggots with no skill whatsoever (Nah, he really didn't say that).|
After the class session, we were broken up into groups to take turns for the hands-on activities. Our group's first session was autocross in a pair of brand-new Nismo Jukes. I'd driven a Juke before (almost bought one) and it was great fun getting to throw someone else's frog-eyed crossover around an autocross course but this was just an appetizer for the subsequent activities.
|A poor Juke just waiting to be abused.|
Following the Jukes we were bussed over to another part of the circuit where a set of new GT-Rs and Zs were waiting. It was time for some real high-speed fun as we were asked to put the cars through their paces by launching them as hard as we could, braking hard, then taking them through a slalom. The Z was fun but it was nothing compared to the face-warping performance of the R35s which I already knew from owning my own but was a shock to my friend who was driving one for the first time. AFAIK Nissan didn't blacklist me after the abuse I put their cars through. I swear guys, that was some other GT-R owner named Oliver!
A brief Q & A session followed where reps from Nismo asked our group what we'd like to see more of from their division. I was quick to pipe up that they needed to put fewer CVTs and more manuals in their cheaper vehicles. Of course everyone wanted to see a Nismo R35 GT-R since one hadn't been announced yet at the time. I stopped short of asking them to lobby Congress to legalize R34 Skylines. I didn't want to risk them branding me a loony and shoving me out the door.
We also got to talk to Brian Heitkotter, the first winner of Nissan's GT Academy in the USA. Cool guy and he later told me he just got laid off from driving a delivery truck when he got his big break. Now he drives a Nissan 370Z race car. How's that for an awesome story?
|Brian Heitkotter on the right listening to us being told again we were unworthy maggots...no wait, I may be making that up too.|
After that we finally got to see why we'd been separated from our beloved cars. We walked over to the track's pit lane where all our personal vehicles had been parked and now were sporting some very natty Nismo Performance Academy vinyls with race numbers on each side and our name spelled out on the top of the windshields. I got lucky and had scored number 35 for my race number (fitting for an R35) and with my excitement the instructors didn't have to ask twice when they told us to pile in for a familiarization lap. Lonnie was our group's lead instructor for that session and he had us drive out of pitlane then stop right on top of the daunting uphill Turn 1. If you've never been to COTA you would be amazed at the view from there as you can see the rest of the circuit sprawling down and away from you like you were on the edge of a valley. After a few more stops to hit the highlights of the track we finally got to drive it ourselves.
|Man that is gorgeous! The view behind the cars was nifty too I guess.|
This being a Nissan-sponsored event all our sessions were controlled by instructors in a lead car so this wasn't a full-blown track day. The last thing Nissan wanted was for a noob to bin his car or one of their own. It was still wonderful to get my R35 on track for what was then my first time even though the fact our instructor being in a Z meant that I had to drive pretty leisurely. We took turns following behind the instructor car but it was obvious many of the participants were new to track driving. I had done quite a few motorcycle trackdays before then and had practiced laps of COTA on an F1 video game beforehand so for me it was mostly a comfy Sunday drive. Below is a dull video of mine from the event:
That all changed however when I got into a Nissan-provided 2012 GT-R for the next session where Lonnie was leading in an R35 as well. Once my turn came he probably saw I was having no trouble keeping up because he turned up the wick and for one short interval I had the chance to drive the nuts off a GT-R while trying my darndest to keep up with a professional racecar driver. I'd like to say I impressed Lonnie enough to have him ask me to be his co-driver at his next race but my meager skills were no match for him and we had to back down shortly after to let the rest of the group form up again. Following him in full race mode was truly a highlight of the day for me however.
|These cars came from Nissan. Most of them came out unharmed.|
At the end of the lapping sessions the organizers had one final treat planned. We were all asked to line up in the pits and then did a parade lap of the circuit. Being in a pack of around 50 GT-Rs and Zs was amazing and doing so at a world-class race circuit just made it more so.
After rolling back into the parking lot we gave heartfelt thanks to the organizers and bade goodbye to the new friends we had made that day among the owners. Me and my friend had another 1100 mile drive to look forward to the next day but the experience had been more than worth the long trip.
|Saying goodbye to COTA|
Nismo did two more events after that first academy – both on the East Coast. Plans for more were apparently in the works but so far those haven't happened, probably because Nismo then started more involvement in US road racing. Someday I hope they revive the concept and a lot of us owners said we would gladly pay for a full driving school like it - but whether they do or not, going to that inaugural Nismo Performance Academy will always remain a highlight of my life as a petrolhead. As a fellow car nut I hope you get to enjoy a similar experience as well.