Lexus driving school showcases brand’s wild (but not crazy) side

Lexus at the track: More than a 0-to-60 time

DALLAS — Consumers know Lexus vehicles for their tradition of smooth-riding sedans and plush utility vehicles that are at home at the country club, fine hotels and trendy urban eateries.

But how about at the track?

The wilder side of the Japanese brand is relatively new and unknown. Lexus is trying to change that through an expanded professional racing program, but also by inviting everyday drivers to the track to experience it for themselves.

The brand’s performance driving school is heading into its third year and adding slots because of heightened interest. It’s also giving a bigger role to racing veteran Scott Pruett, who retired from motorsports in January to be a Lexus brand ambassador.

“It’s not ‘hair on fire, pulling Gs, going crazy,’ ” Cooper Ericksen, Lexus vice president of marketing, told Automotive News. “It’s experiencing the product in a way that can be appreciated. The performance driving is to show consumers how we are approaching performance, which is broader than just a 0-to-60 time.”

Driving schools are old hat for German and Italian sports car brands, but Lexus’ embrace of the concept shows a newfound confidence in its niche performance segment.

The driving school’s skid pad drill acquaints drivers with vehicles’ cornering limits.

The Lexus experience is built around the F performance trim on the RC coupe and GS sedan, plus the new $100,000 LC halo coupe.

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The LC and the redesigned LS sedan are expected to get F variants in the next couple of years, expanding the performance lineup in size and intensity. The F performance division is barely a decade old.

“Many people don’t realize the level of performance that we have in these cars,” Ericksen said. “We’re kind of new to the RC F, GS F, LC game. It hasn’t been part of our DNA since day one. And so we’re trying to build that brand and expand on it.”

Lexus is in its second year of International Motor Sports Association racing with an RC F in the GT3 group. But Ericksen said the best way to show buyers that the brand is serious about performance is to get them behind the wheel. The school is intended for Lexus owners, conquest buyers and wannabe weekend racers of all ages.

“We love to have people come to these events and walk away saying, ‘I had no idea that this was part of Lexus,’ ” he said. “With all of the digital big-data methods going on today, nothing beats somebody being enthusiastic and talking about the experience they had.”

Driving school participants register for the track events on a first-come, first-served basis and pay their way to and from the venues. The program consists of classroom work on driving dynamics, a skid pad drill to get acquainted with the vehicles’ cornering limits and in-car instruction around the racetrack, including some from Pruett himself.

Drivers wear helmets for safety and compete against each other on timed autocross laps. The program culminates with a ride-along with pro drivers doing “hot laps” to push the full capability of the Lexus vehicles, the company said.

So-called experience marketing works at Lexus because it’s a relatively small global brand, even though it’s a powerhouse in the U.S. luxury market.

There are six pillars to Lexus’ lifestyle marketing. Not surprisingly, most revolve around boutique hotels, culinary events, golf, cycling and fashion.

But the focus on driving dynamics is taking on greater significance through the nine-hour performance driving school and shorter Lexus Tours drives, which are ride-and-drive events on closed courses to test acceleration and handling. Lexus Tours let drivers try the entire Lexus lineup, including crossovers and hybrids. About 3,000 people are expected to participate this year.

Lexus Performance Driving School is expanding from 150 full-day slots two years ago to 400 this year, starting in mid-September at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and concluding in January at Laguna Seca on California’s Monterey Peninsula. Lexus charges $995 for a one-day program, and participants can choose from four tracks.

Ericksen said that after the track experience, 96 percent of participants express a favorable opinion in surveys about Lexus as a performance brand.

“I think as we continue to mature the Lexus brand, we do want to broaden our appeal and enhance our performance reputation,” he said. “It’s really coming from an emotional perspective. We want our cars to be extremely emotionally engaging from the styling to the driving dynamics.”

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