At racing school the best classroom is the car, where you learn the mechanics through correcting past mistakes.
Photography by the author
In line we wait, student drivers strapped inside our vehicles. An engine roars occasionally, and I wince as if my nervousness has been exposed, as if I had coughed during a piano recital.
“The first lesson of the Skip Barber Racing School,” says the chief instructor at that time, Bruce Maclnnes, “is ‘Don’t run over your chief instructor.’” We smile cautiously, ready to frown fast if the grin disappears from the instructor’s face.
Maclnnes, a successful racer, once said: “I had to win; my rent was overdue.” Motorcar racing is indeed expensive, one of the most costly of all the adventure sports. Racing schools are not cheap, but the cost is nothing compared to the price for those who race privately.
We had our preliminary talk from Barber in the classroom. He said little because he believes the best classroom is the cockpit.
“We could give you no instruction, just the keys to the car, and let you pound around for three days,” he said. “And even then, you’d learn something.”
What you learn first is that cars brake, well … hard. This is , where the tires are being used 100% for braking with as much steering capacity as four rubber-tipped 2x4 stilts projecting from an engine. But ease off the pressure gently and you can turn a little. Ease off more, you turn more. Experiment. Calibrate.
We’re now into : a demonstration the old, classic style is wrong. You can brake and steer. The lessons continue. Double-clutch every time you change down, and since there’s no reason for changing unless you’re braking, you learn to heel-toe, the inner two-thirds of the foot squeezing the brake, the outer third of the foot rolling onto the accelerator.
Next are the slalom exercises that teach where the corners of the car are. Few owners have cars with enormous wheels sticking out like cauliflower ears. The difficulty is with the left front wheel because American drivers are used to sitting on the left side of the car not the middle.
trailing throttle over-steer
Now we meet caused by getting off the accelerator abruptly. Like brakes, the throttle should be used gently. The lesson is learned by going through the slalom with power and taking your foot off suddenly. Your rear is trying to overtake and bite you. Do this on a corner and trouble comes.
The three most important mistakes novices make are missing a gear change, causing trailing throttle over-steer and taking the wrong line around a corner. The right line is everything. It wins races. Cornering is done by using the whole width of the road. Start on the outside, cut to the inside apex, then swing to the outside again. It’s the way you ran country lanes as a youth. It felt right.
“Motor racing is not an intellectual sport,” Barber has said. “It’s easier to figure the line than to run it.”
The clutch has a very short traverse, you are told. You will stall the car a dozen times. That’s OK. Just learn. To find the correct line you have to locate the apex, which is in the middle of a constant-radius turn, late in a decreasing-radius turn and early in an increasing-radius turn. The biggest error the novice makes is taking an apex too early: turning gently too soon on a longer swing than required. It leaves the car too far over on the outside, traveling too fast and not turned enough to face the next direction.
“An early apex is like writing bad checks, because it feels good at the beginning,” is a racing axiom. Another is: “If you drive one mph faster than the others, even for 20 seconds, that puts you 30 feet ahead, and many a half-hour race is won by that margin.”
I see the young Turks looking over at me and deciding I’m the one they’re going to be driving faster than. I groan silently: Please don’t make me drive faster than you. You can win, OK?
It’s the last day of three. The last run. The cars are ready. I look up and read on a spectator’s T-shirt: “When the green flag drops, the bullshit stops.” The rain is lashing down. I’m soaked. The instructor shouts, and by tilting my head in its claustrophobic helmet, I hear him cry, “4600 revs this time.”
Impossible! Surely his confidence level has passed my ability level. Uneasily I shift in my seat. My back’s not hurting because the fear factor cancels out the pain factor. The instructor bends over. He pulls my shoulder straps tighter and shouts above the engine noise: “Get your engine and head in gear — GO!”
The engine bellows, the gear kicks, and I’m off. Out of the pits, look over the shoulder. Nothing coming. Accelerate. Change gear. Round the banking. To the outside, get the line. Brake. Change gears. Corner. Accelerate past the apex. Gently now. Don’t belt it. Change up. Easy. Stay in gear for the left-hand sweeper. Don’t lighten at the apex. Good. Now hit it. Double corner. Go for the turn that leads into the straight. Brake! Right turn with a double apex. Oversteer almost caught me, but I made it, tires screaming. Tachometer the same coming out as going in, great. The next corner’s on me, and the next. The gearbox sings as I swing around the uphill turn and go for my nemesis, the sharp right turn with the stone wall guarding its rear. Faster. Faster. To the wall, charging surely to oblivion. Faster. Beat the rain. Beat the wall. Win.
The rain spray arcs high from the front wheels. The wall flashes at me. I can see every piece of moss, every broken stone, every crack. l don’t know my name, my age or even what year it is, but I can see every crack in that stone wall hurtling toward me. 4600 revs. The wall. Brake! The wall slows down, the right wheel spray vanishes, the imprinted pattern of a locked tire freezes on my mind — I’m skidding!
The wall comes faster. Back off with the brakes. The tire blurs again and the wall slows down. Vroom, vroom. I’ve changed down. Corner. I’m losing it. Accelerate. Through!
Oil pressure in the turn holding. 4200-4300, water temperature OK. 4600 revs. My pent up breath escapes and my visor immediately fogs. Go straight. It’s clear.
Corner. Geez, missed that apex. Corner, that was better. Rain seems less now, the track is drying out and the line is more obvious, but if I miss the dry asphalt, the wrong line in the wet is deadly. Corner, skidding, losing. Go straight, brake, now corner. That gear change was music. The checkered flag. One more lap. Corner, corner. The wall. 4600, 4700, Geez, 4800. Brake, change, corner, apex. Oil pressure OK. Don’t lighten. The car sets. Accelerate. 4800!
I’M A RACING DRIVER.
The Man Who Cried Orange: Stories from a Doctor’s Life.
Eric Anderson, who live in San Diego, is a retired MD. The one-time president of the NH Academy of Family Practice, Eric is the only physician in the Society of American Travel Writers. He is a long time member of the Motor Press Guild, the largest automotive media association in North America. He has also written five books, the last called
Harvard University student Skip Barber started racing cars in 1958. In the mid 1960s he won three consecutive Sports Car Club of America races and once set 35 lap records at tracks all over the United States. In 1975, feeling driving was a skill that could be taught, he started the Skip Barber Racing School with four students and two borrowed Lola Formula Fords. It is now one of the world’s largest driving schools.The school visits many race tracks across the North America. I found a school location in New Hampshire. I am the only one amongst 12 tyro racing drivers who is taking the class for the writing experience. That makes us an unlucky 13. Ouch!Cool off. Here come the pits. Fist up to show coming in. Change down. Damn! Crashed gears, but I’m done.