Tasteful Hot-Lapping: The First Petrolicious Drivers’ Academy At Willow Springs International Raceway
Photography by Alex Sobran and Shayan Bokaie
This past weekend, Petrolicious held its first Drivers’ Academy at Willow Springs International Raceway, bringing together enthusiasts of all experience levels in cars that ranged from a minty Lotus Elan +2 to a monstrous Dodge Viper GT3 machine (with plenty of Porsches in between). This wasn’t a standard outing with the local car club either. We partnered with Chopard (the official timekeeper of the Petrolicious Drivers’ Academy), and provided seasoned instructors to help both the first-time circuit drivers and experienced hot-lappers learn and hone. In addition to the one-on-one in-car coaching, participants were also treated to an assortment of gifts to remember the day by, including LGR sunglasses handmade in Italy.
At the end of the day though, it’s about driving. We love a spirited romp on choice backroads, and between Malibu’s canyons and LA’s eponymous forest, Southern California has no shortage of serpentine asphalt to play on, but it can be tricky to find the limits of your car if going over them means going over the edge of something steep. Seat time at the track will always be the safest and fastest route toward the ultimate go-fast modification—the “driver upgrade”—and while a track day is essentially just you and your car against what you and your car clocked on the previous lap, sharing that experience with friends and like minds makes it all the more challenging and rewarding.
Company founder and CEO Afshin Behnia neatly explains how the Drivers’ Academy fits into the Petrolicious brand at large: “I’ve attended a bunch of driving school and track days, but our vision with the Drivers’ Academy is closer to the ethos of our rallies. Namely, we bring together an eclectic group of both drivers and cars, mixing vintage and modern among different automotive subcultures.”
With the drivers split into groups based on experience level, we enjoyed the Big Willow circuit without the congestion of typical track days that fit as many machines on track as possible. But thanks to the variety of cars, you could be on the heels of a Lotus Elise during one session and an Alfa Romeo 8C in the next, though the Dichotomy of the Day award has to go to the Fiat 500 and Lamborghini Aventador that were in attendance and at one point sharing the circuit. No matter the car or the amount of skill behind the wheel, everyone shaved down their times over the course of the day and despite a few “offs,” all drivers and cars emerged unscathed for the ride back home under the desert sunset.
Throughout the course of the day, we talked with the participants to get their perspective on their cars and how they fit into the event, and Simon Propper’s Lotus Elan +2 was a rare treat to find on the entry list. We tracked him down for a chat right away, for it’s not every day that one sees one of these cars, let alone being exercised on a race track. We asked Simon what made him seek out the car, and why he decided to track it.
“As a kid, I always loved the shape. The +2 was introduced after Colin Chapman realized that if his customers had a kid, they’d have to sell their Lotus, and there’s nowhere in the standard Elan to put your baby. So they stretched the frame, and the body’s a bit of a different shape because of it, but the mechanics are the same. I’ve had a lot of classics, but after borrowing a Lotus Elan +2 I had to have one.”
On what made him bring it the Drivers’ Academy, Simon explained, “Lotus is a cult. The badge on the side of the car calls out how many F1 titles they’ve won, right? It’s race car bragging rights on a street car. This is my third track day in the car, and when I saw the #PetrolciousDriversMeeting on Instagram, I said ‘I’m coming.’
“That’s the thing about a Lotus—you can drive it everyday, get the shopping, take a date for dinner, then drive it to a track day. And that’s how I use it, it’s completely stock, and I commute in it every day, and here I am! It gets the blood pumping. Honestly, I just love it.”
Next, we managed to snag Afshin in between Alfa Romeo changeovers, his 8C and GTA 1300 Junior providing an excellent example of single-marque diversity. Swapping between a modern, powerful GT car and an ultralight race car that’s nearly half a century its senior might seem like a recipe for discombobulation, but they complemented each other quite well in the back-to-back sessions.
Describing the GTA experience, Afshin says “The engine just screams. It wants to pull to 8,000, so you have to be disciplined to not over do it as its quite easy to get carried away. It has that unmistakable Alfa sound to tempt you into it the whole time though. Twin overhead cams, inline four-cylinder paired with Webers. The sounds, the action of the gearbox, the handling, it’s all pure classic Alfa. While you don’t have the straight-line speed as some others, on the technical portions on the track it was just perfect.”
Parked nearby was his 8C Competizione, another beautiful and competent Alfa. “I wanted to continue to explore the limits of both cars. They’re completely different beasts. The 8C is more of a GT car, but still lots of fun on the track once you’ve built up the confidence to push and kick the tail out a little, especially on turn 3,” he says with a big grin.
The Petrolicious Drivers’ Academy is a high performance driving school where both beginner and advanced drivers receive thorough instruction and training on all components of driving dynamics and car control, but it’s not all about lap times, and indeed it seemed like there was as much fun to be had in the paddock than on track. People shared techniques for the track, stories about their cars, and phone numbers to continue where they left off. We hope you’ll join us for the next one. See you trackside.