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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

(continued from page 1)

My class of 16 included two women, one celebrity (Michael Castner, a host on E! Entertainment Television and an avid cigar smoker) and a whole bunch of businessmen, car enthusiasts and inveterate daydreamers who could barely wait to grind some gears. Fighting to sublimate the A. J. Foyt-like desires lurking in our hearts, we sat through an indispensable introductory lecture on the difference between street- and race cars, the importance of breaking bad street-driving habits and the sometimes life-threatening mistake of not applying constant throttle throughout high-speed corners. We tried mightily to pay attention.

A Skip Barber course--whether a one-day BMW car-control clinic or a seven-day "Speedweek class"--is structured to sensibly emphasize a mastery of basic skills before allowing lapping at progressively higher speeds. It's a crawl-before-you-walk (or turn- before-you-crash) approach. To this end, our instructors at the Sears Point track, four professional racers at various stages of their careers--from semiretired to looking-for-a-team--escorted us to the pits and literally showed us the Formula Ford's nuts and bolts.

With the bodywork off, the car looks like a sophisticated go-cart. The gearshift lever is about the size of a thumb; the steering wheel has the diminutive diameter of a salad plate and the dashboard, dominated by the tachometer, contains neither a speedometer nor a clock radio.

My class comprised a diverse group of people, who ranged in age from their late 20s to late 50s and in experience from semiregular vintage-car racers to those whose closest brush with competitive driving was at the amusement-park bumper-car track. Nevertheless, we were unanimously awestruck at our first view of the gleaming Formula Fords. These were real race cars. And without fear of highway patrolmen, scolding wives or penurious insurance companies, we were really going to race them.

The cockpit of a Formula Ford accommodates one tightly squeezed body. The driver has to slither into the cocoonlike space and secure himself with a five-belt safety harness that presses him into the bucket seat leaf-in-a-book-style. Fully outfitted, strapped and psychologically prepared to tear through Sears Point at Emerson Fittipaldiesque speeds, I couldn't help feeling like very hot stuff. Sitting in the pit, in neutral, every time I revved the crackling engine I could feel a spine-tingling, insanely powerful reverberation--the kind of roar the Ford back home in my driveway never produces.

Our first exercises focused on the basics of driving: steering, shifting and braking. We slalomed through orange plastic cones; we practiced downshifting; we went faster than we were supposed to when the instructors weren't looking. Not only was this racing stuff immeasurably fun, it was easy! Of course, at this point we may have been going a blistering 35 mph.

Then the instructors announced that we would be performing "controlled" spins, the first maneuver we encountered that wasn't something we'd normally do in the family station wagon. "We want to get these spins out of your system," announced Jim Clark, the lead instructor. "We're going to let you spin the car out here on the straightaway at a low speed so you can learn to correct it. Because in a race situation, if you're still lifting the throttle and oversteering at full speed in the S-curves--well, it's not going to be a pretty sight."

To prevent serious bodily harm, the Skip Barber teachers drilled us in CPR: "correction-pause-recovery." And if any of us had any notion that this wasn't serious stuff, our doubts were quickly disabused upon taking a tour of Sears Point's infamous tenth turn, where the indentations of a fiery crash could still be seen in the side of a trackside administrative building.

Motor sports are dangerous. The consecutive deaths on April 30 and May 1 of Roland Ratzenberger at San Marino and the legendary Ayrton Senna at Imola in Italy reminded everyone just how dangerous. Sears Point, which some race teams call "seriously pointless" (because of its demanding, hilly, frequently expensive--bent-up front-ends are costly--11-turn, 2.53 mile layout) features one particularly infamous stretch of pavement that will shake up anyone driving at full speed with less than precision handling. ("If you can drive here," our instructors promised, "you can drive anywhere.") With this in mind, our mentors stressed thorough comprehension of driving technique and driving theory before they would allow anyone to approach speeds that, if handled incorrectly, could produce frightening results.

After a morning of experimentation and familiarization, our teachers took us to the blackboard to learn the physics of racing. Given that most Formula Fords run at virtually the same top speed, how does one racer finish ahead of the pack? How do you go faster without ending up in a heap of twisted metal? Three days of many trials and even more errors, hours of lectures and minutes of on-track thrills revealed the answer: The Line.

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