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The Fast Track

The Skip Barber Racing School Turns Adolescent Fantasies into Real-Life Thrills
Michael Konik
From the Print Edition:
Bill Cosby, Autumn 94

If you're the typical, red-blooded, middle-aged American male with the usual imbalance of too little common sense and too much testosterone, you probably enjoy driving entirely too fast. Roaring, rumbling speed is a simple aphrodisiac and an antidote to the mundane workaday world. Your fantasies revolve not around alluring nymphomanics riding horseback but muscle-bound red cars whining with redlined horsepower.

You may be wildly successful at whatever it is you do. And what you do may be what you've always dreamed of doing. But let's face it: you would rather be a race-car driver. It's more fun than anything else in the world.

There are several ways of fulfilling this fantasy. Be unspeakably rich. Be Paul Newman. Be the son of someone named Unser or Andretti.

Or if you don't meet those criteria, you can attend a "Three Day Competition Course" at the Skip Barber Racing School, America's premier institution of motorsports higher education. Completion of a three-day course awards students the necessary credentials to race in the International Motor Sports Association (IMSA) events and half the accreditations to race in Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) meets. Dozens of famous racers, including the Unser and Andretti brood, have come through the program. And even if you don't plan on eventually conquering Indy, graduation from the Skip Barber Racing School entitles you to a bumper-sticker decal whose presence on the fender of your Buick announces to the world: "I have been behind the wheel of a race car and have driven it very, very fast."

Doing that is essentially the most enjoyable activity you'll ever experience that doesn't involve sex. I recently attended a three-day course at the Sears Point Raceway in the shorn-from-a-postcard countryside of the Sonoma Valley. (Skip Barber schools are conducted nationwide at 18 different road-racing tracks, like Sebring, in Florida, Watkins Glen, New York, and Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin.)

Having spent a disproportionate amount of time and money racing on a "virtual reality" simulator at my local video arcade, I arrived at Sears Point an accomplished pretend racer. Thanks to a collection of colored dots on a two-dimensional screen, I was expert at pretending to be behind the wheel of a screaming metal monster, pretending to feel the wind on my face as I roared down the back straight, pretending to smell the inspiring aroma of burnt rubber. No matter how many vehicles I crashed or innocent bystanders I maimed, a new car and a clean conscience were only 50 cents away.

Alas, colored dots are merely colored dots.

Skip Barber's three-day course costs $1,995, the equivalent of 3,990 games at the simulator. But unlike the computer game, the school provides safety equipment like a crash helmet and a driving suit, the donning of which inexplicably transforms even the most flaccid of men into a strapping Adonis. (The suit has patches all over it from manufacturers like Mobil and Goodyear; you feel sponsored.) Tuition also covers expert instruction from real race-car drivers (Skip Barber actually exists and has set 35 different lap and race records while winning three SCCA national championships), a damage waiver that indemnifies you from clutch casualties or any mishaps caused by an unexpected rendezvous with the guard rail and, most important, a textbook.

It doesn't take long to read, but whether you've barely made it out of high school or done post doctorate work, the primer takes some getting used to. Because at no other academy of higher learning is your textbook a 1,600 cc, 110 horsepower Formula Ford.

These sleek, little cars are B-1, open-wheel, rear-motor racers that place the driver's rear end about five inches off the pavement. Top speed is a mere 120 mph. But thanks to a lightweight Mondiale chassis and a removable fiberglass body that a child could lift with one hand, the Formula Fords only weigh 900 pounds. With 110 horses, that translates into a power-to-weight ratio that would blow the average street-tuned Ferrari Testarossa off the track. It's not the straightaway speed that impresses so much as the velocity in negotiating turns at 75 mph.

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