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Chasing Road Racing Dreams
Author: Ali Allage
Last Updated: 5/1/2008
By: Ali Allage & Matt Freeman
Like most aspiring amateur race car drivers, our careers begin on the sofa – watching the heated competition of F1, Le Mans, DTM, Grand Am or World Challenge. As the hours flew by and the laps racked up, dozens of circuits around the world become permanently etched into memory. After some time though, back seat sofa driving got boring. NASA and SCCA provide the means for any aspiring Michael Schumacher to get off the couch and get in their own cars to try the real thing.
Gentlemen, don’t start your engines just yet; like anything worth doing it takes a little time, and due to the inherent danger of performance driving a newbie can’t just jump in a racecar and decide to race. Anything motorsports related uses a ladder system with steps to bring the driver to their goal.
Both a good understanding of the theory and excessive practice are crucial to becoming a safe and successful driver. Life comes at you fast when braking hard into turn 1 off the long straight. Your career won’t be illustrious or long lived if you panic at speed; this isn’t a venue where you want to go out with a bang. Driving school is an important first step and it serves as the springboard to a potentially addictive lifelong hobby.
Most seem to underestimate the importance of a good driving school; instructor reputation greatly supersedes price. While it may be tempting to save on a cheaper school, there’s a good reason that the better schools are more expensive. You wouldn’t skimp on a skydiving instructor would you? The same goes here. Imagine yourself behind the wheel of a powerful car hurtling down a decent straight and we think you’ll agree that even the added confidence wouldn’t hurt.
My performance-driving story is not unique or surprising. Like most I attended weekend driving programs with my own car. Instructors endured lap after lap in my passenger seat offering tips and their lifetime of knowledge. Every weekend I had some of the best road race hardened instructors right in my car; both of us focused on how to improve my driving. As steadily as each lap blended together and weekends flew by, I noticed a bigger issue developing. Each weekend promised a different instructor in my passenger seat. While varying perspectives are often of great value, it quickly became apparent that the consistent feedback I dreamed would bring my driving ability to a new level was not to be found at these events. Something had to change.
Initially it was an issue of quality vs. quantity. My routine of track fees and car prep/maintenance and instruction topped several hundred dollars per weekend (without anything breaking on car). A weekend spent at a proper high performance driving school is about three to four grand (equivalent to six track weekends). That’s a lot to shell out for a weekend all at once, but it was going to happen sooner or later, so I pulled the trigger and went with the tried and true Skip Barber Racing School. Drivers like Juan Pablo Montoya, Michael Andretti, Townsend Bell, and many others have all taken the program offered by Skip Barber. With a list like that, it becomes increasingly harder to pass up the opportunity.
The next hurdle was deciding on which program to take, the Formula School or the Mazdaspeed Racing School. My natural response was to create a pole in the motorsports section (http://forums.evolutionm.net/showthread.php?t=32810), and most of you suggested that I go with the Formula School. Majority opinion aside I decided to ignore all of you and take a chance on the new Mazdaspeed Racing School at Laguna Seca Raceway. The program was so new and curiosity was my motivation. Having spoken to others who have taken the course I understood that the program was based on the Formula program and was a great choice for anyone looking to further their career in closed wheel racing.
As the event drew nearer, I started losing sleep. I wondered who the instructors would be. I wondered what my classmates would know. Finally, with all arrangements made, it was time to set out to experience what Skip Barber had to offer.
Like any first day of school, day 1 was overwhelming. It was exciting to meet the other students (some of which were members here) and our instructors (Randy Buck, Conrad Grunewald, Andrew Shoen, and Jeff Rodrigues). I couldn’t recall that I’d ever been that excited to be in class. We had a lot to cover and everyone was on the edge of their seat. Topics included: General Overview, Explanation of Vehicle Dynamics/Car Control, Race Car Intro, Racing Line, and Downshifting (heel and toe). Recess promised a lot more than it did in grade school, although that same anxiety and restlessness hung in the air. Even with the amount of instruction needed to get the basics taught, there was a ton of in car time. All day we oscillated between the classroom and the cars. At each point we applied the lesson through a series of in car drills.
Our first in car practice session was on the mock track setup on the skid pad. An instructor rode shotgun while other instructors stood at certain points along the “track.” Having a group of similarly trained instructors watching every move was something I desperately needed. This type of instruction seemed to wipe away bad habits. With enough practice, the carefully designed drills corrected the various spectrums of possible flaws. By the afternoon everyone could see varying hints of good technique that was becoming sub-conscious behavior.
The sun was high when we got out onto the big track. Much like the morning, an instructor was positioned along each turn; critiquing every move. After the drills were over, each instructor provided a list of possible improvements as well as praise for aspects executed correctly. By the end of the day exhaustion had set in and all were ready to head back to the hotel to pass out.
Topics covered in Day 2: The Race Track, Flags, Braking & Trailbraking, Technical Line Talk, and Passing. Braking & Trailbraking were the most physically demanding due to the practice required to get the techniques down. The braking portion required us to get up to speed, and then slam on the brakes hard enough to get close to the lock-up point. Doing that a few dozen times gives you far more than you bargained for in terms of a neck workout.
The second portion to the lesson was the fun and equally scary technique of trailbraking. The goal of the exercise was to get the car to rotate using weight transfer. Coming off a high speed straight into the “Andretti Hairpin” (turn 2), a driver must brake really late to properly carry speed through the corner. This is far more of a mental exercise than a technical challenge. Once I had overcome the mind-game of applying the brakes way beyond the point that seemed logical or even sane, it wasn’t difficult to get it right. Later in the afternoon we were on to open lapping sessions dedicated to passing and learning the line, which was a great way to end the afternoon. The next day would be our last and it was time to get some rest.
Ah day 3. This was the day I was most looking forward to because we were to practice race starts and have a lot of open lapping time. Topics covered on day 3: Rain Racing, Race Starts, and Recap of the previous two days. My biggest worry was the mock race start, but in retrospect it wasn’t worth getting worked up over. We did three separate drills per race start, with a position change for each drill. There were two separate race starts we completed (both rolling starts), single file and side by side. Open lapping was the last item on the list, which was the perfect opportunity to apply what we had learned. We had been sheltered in our drills before; now the tires and brakes started to heat up and we had to readjust our entry speeds in order to maintain speed coming out of the turn. Keeping the car consistent was difficult under these conditions but we used what we learned from our drills and classroom time over the previous 2 days to get the job done. After our final track session was over we reluctantly said goodbye to the cars, had a brief graduation ceremony and packed our bags. On the plane home and over the next several days I realized that I had gained a lot more than a few friends and a certificate of completion.
Usually I end a review with, “you should really get this part,” or “you should really do x, y and z,” so you’ll have to trust me when I say that the moment you register for this school, the rest of your life will be owned by racing. It’s been a few weeks since I attended and a day hasn’t gone by without thinking about building a spec Miata to race as soon and as much as possible.
So please, do yourself a favor and don’t go to this school, unless all you really want to be is the best possible driver you can be. Don’t go to this school if you’re afraid of your friends being jealous. Don’t go to this school if your wife already tells you that you’re spending too much time and money on your silly hobbies. Sounds awful doesn’t it?