Driving School Speeds You To Italy Without Leaving Illinois

A dreamy Italian man has his hand on my knee as I careen through a 45-degree turn.

My body and the car pull sharply to one side, the wheels screeching, as if they can feel my delight.

“Full throttle, full throttle, go, go, go! All the way! I want that pedal on the floor!” my instructor Francesco D’Avola says, pressing down on my leg, which in turn makes my foot press harder on the accelerator.

You don’t have to fly to Tuscany to enjoy fast cars and beautiful men, ladies. Try Joliet. At Team Stradale, a high-performance driving school inside the Autobahn Country Club, you can be the driving force behind your own thrill ride on the second longest racetrack in the U.S.

Track to self discovery
Driving on a racetrack, as I found out, can be a full lap of self insight. There’s nothing quite like showing your fears who’s boss.

I learned, for instance, that even though I’m an introvert who enjoys curling up on my couch with a good book while a loaf of zucchini bread rises in the oven, somewhere deep down inside … I’m a speed demon.

Racing is like a choreographed dance: You brake before a turn, accelerate hard into it and then let the car out to follow its momentum. Finally you burn it up as much as possible on the straight-aways. If you think tango is sexy, you haven’t been on a racetrack.

Once I learned the steps, all I wanted to do was drive “crazy,” pushing the limits and discovering what the wheels—and my nerves—were capable of. Unfortunately, I was driving an automatic Mitsubishi Eclipse, a relatively slow car, because I’m manual-transmission-challenged.

The need for speed
For all the heart-thumping pleasures—like going over a jump at 85 mph—I hardly felt scared for my safety. Team Stradale is the perfect place to experiment: If the car started to lean heavily to one side and seemed like it might spin out, Francesco would grab the wheel and steer me back on course. He also gave me constant coaching on how to handle the various turns.

And when I say I hardly felt scared, that’s not including the time Francesco drove, showing off his expert skills in one of the souped-up BMW Z3s. At several points, he flirted with another Z3, driven by instructor Gabriele Vignaroli, the bumpers almost touching. I closed my eyes.

“It’s like Great America,” he said in the most calm, matter-of-fact voice. “That’s exactly what it’s like,” I yelled through the sheet of air, wondering from my strapped-in seat if the tires were still in contact with the asphalt.

Clarity of mind
While it seems like thrills and chills might not ride alongside serenity and escape, driving has some very Zen qualities. For starters, when taking a turn at 60 mph, you can be sure nothing else will enter your mind. The track demands total focus, which makes the experience draining—so get a good night’s sleep beforehand.

Another word to the wise: If you don’t know how to drive stick shift, make sure to un-loser-ify yourself before you get to the racetrack, or let them teach you while you’re there. You don’t want to miss out on driving the track-ready Z3s. An automatic will make you feel girly—and not in a good way.

I went home that Friday blissfully exhausted, with a driver’s sunburn on my left arm, incredible, super-charged memories and a hunger to drive “crazy” again very soon.

So the next time you’re looking for a one-of-a-kind birthday party or other celebration, take your girlfriends where they’ve never gone before—to the edge of their wildest impulses. Andiamo!

High performance driving school at Team Stradale is $999 for one day, $1,499 for two days, or $125 per hour. The school’s teen defensive education program is $799. Group rates are available. For more information, visit the Web site.