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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 2)

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.

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.

Though Skip Barber instructors tend to talk about The Line with the kind of mystical reverence most people usually reserve for religious deities or aging rock stars, it's a very real, very tangible thing. Basically there's one optimal, inarguably fastest way through each turn on the race track. Find it, follow it, use your brakes and you'll be on the righteous path to speeds previously unimaginable. Get off it at 100 mph. and be prepared for a one-way ticket to Dante's seventh circle.

To demonstrate the importance of The Line, our instructors took the class on a high-speed tour of Sears Point's pernicious bends in, successively, a BMW 325, a rented Nissan Maxima and a Chevy van. Negotiating hair-raising turns in a cumbersome passenger vehicle at 40 mph has a way of converting the staunchest cynic into a true believer. For the duration of the school, we learned empirically how a proper marriage of physics, geometry and power pays off.

Though the teaching staff gave a battery of classroom seminars throughout the course--a "downshifting talk," a "braking talk," a "passing the slowpokes talk," the bulk of our learning was accomplished the best way: on the track at progressively higher speeds, where mistakes become magnified and solid skills produce the kind of frisson you get only from going to the edge and not falling over. But nobody ended up as lunch meat for the dozens of red-tailed hawks that circled the Sonoma sky. Nearly a quarter of the class crashed; none of the accidents produced a single injury.

Indeed, save for the badly mangled axle on one spun-out car, the most serious damage of the three days may have been to our egos. At a Skip Barber class, a waving yellow flag ought to mean: "Caution! American Male Quickly Approaching Midlife Crisis!" Most men would probably rather admit to being lousy lovers than bad or slow drivers. To car-loving, speed-addicted Skip Barber students, getting passed on the back stretch can be nearly as traumatic as discovering the spouse in bed with someone else.

If the average high-school kid took his lessons as seriously as the average Skip Barber student, the Scholastic Aptitude Test would be rendered obsolete. Our Three-Day Competition Course may have been the first and last time some of us would ever have the pleasure of driving a race car, but to see the determination on our faces you might have thought we were one day away from Le Mans. Over lunch at the Winner's Circle Cafe before the climactic 5,000 rpm lapping session, I learned I wasn't the only student whose nightly dreams were dominated by visions of brake-downshift-turn-throttle-upshift. I wasn't the only one who had the Sears Point layout on the back of his corneas.

After three days of tutelage, a few burning clutches, many ground gears and many, many crumpled orange cones, all of us, with varying degrees of success, had learned to drive a race car.

Even if the closest we would ever come to passing Nigel Mansell would be in freeway commuting fantasies, the prospect no longer seemed so distant. We knew, after all, the charm of threshold braking, the ignominy of trailing throttle oversteer and the secrets of The Line. We knew.

And as we collected our diplomas at Skip Barber's informal graduation ceremony, more than a few of us made one last wistful visit to the racetrack and for a melancholy moment seriously considered a radical change in careers.

Michael Konik is the gambling columnist for Cigar Aficionado.

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