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