We go to the Jim Russell Driving school in
Sonoma California to find out what it's like to learn to drive an open wheel
racecar from professional instructors.
Do it right and you brake, clutch, blip throttle, shift, declutch, hold brake, clutch again, blip throttle, declutch…until you are down to the proper gear for the corner. Over and over we practiced our "heel-and-toe" downshifting, a driving technique that is hard, REAL hard, probably one of the most unorthodox things you will ever try. Unfortunately, it's usually, brake, grind, squeal, clutch…you get the picture.
sweating profusely, the consequence, no doubt, of my failure to master the heel-and-toe technique on the morning of the first day. Having previously taken a driving school on an oval race track, and thinking I was king of the hill, I was in for a huge awakening on the road course.
Technically I found a road course much more difficult. Whereas driving on the oval required smoothness and intense concentration, I found the road course much busier, especially Sears Point Raceway, where as a driver, I was
constantly turning, braking or accelerating, and banging up and down
through the gearbox. Never a moment to rest. (Note - click on any
photo to see larger image)
Driving a real racecar at speed is
probably the only legalized form of addiction in this country. Whether you are an aspiring
Mario Andretti, a Walter Mitty, or just a CART fan who wants to better understand the sport they love, participating in a driving school
is the best way to get your feet wet by starting with the basics. You don't master a road course through seat of your pants driving.
It is a learned skill, and learn we did, for three days at the Jim Russell Driving School at Sears Point Raceway in Sonoma, California.
Started by Jacques Couture, the Jim Russell School at Sears Point offers a full menu of driving
1/2-day Test Drive
Techniques of Racing
High-Performance Course with your own
Race Car Mechanics
Formula Russell Championship
Triple Crown Pro-Series
I was a student in the Techniques of
Racing Course (TRC). The TRC is not a class on how to be a better driver on your commute to work. No, this class is a Techniques of RACING course,
a course designed to allow you to apply for your SCCA or USAC license upon
Like all schools, this one starts with early morning registration, getting fitted for a driving suit and helmet, and meeting your classmates and instructors Ric McCormick,
John "The Comedian" Knoedler, and Steve Ferrara. I did not have driving shoes and regular sneakers were deemed too wide for the tight confines of the cockpit and pedals, so I bought a pair
rather than rent.
My class was relatively large, 15 students in total, ranging in age from around 20 to around 60.
There was a student there on a dare, a husband and wife team.....to claim bragging rights of the family,
a former race car driver and his son, a commercial real estate agent who had previously driven but wanted to brush up on his skills, an owner of a chain of grocery stores who races his own cars as a hobby, and even a young aspiring racecar driver. And me, an avid auto-racing fan who always thought he should have been a racecar driver, but never did what it took to be one. We all were there to get a glimpse of what it takes to push a high-performance car to its limit.
We do not linger on the morning lecture, basically outlining what we got ourselves into, the track layout and the basic do's and don'ts of the school, and the basics of the heel-and-toe technique. After about one hour of classroom time, it's out to the cars to get our first taste of just how much we don't know.
After adjusting the seat and squeezing my body into the tight confines of the 2.0 liter 100HP Mitsubishi powered VanDieman racecar that weighed about 995 lbs
, I found myself playing with the pedals and shift lever to get a feel for them.
I was like a kid with a new toy, wanting to try all the new gadgets. I adjusted the mirrors, fiddled with the harness adjusters and pulled on the wheel just to make sure it was locked on.
Strangely enough, I couldn't find the coffee cup holder. Then came the command to fire them
up.....the fun part, or so I thought.
The rest of the morning was spent on practicing heel-and-toe downshifting. Like most of the students in the class, I had never tried it on my streetcar, and to make matters worse, I had not even driven a standard transmission in about five years. I found shifting up through the gears was like riding a bike, and I quickly became accustomed to the short throw of the shift lever and clutch of a real racecar. Downshifting, however, was a whole different bag of potatoes. In class, we were reminded of the need to synchronize the engine and drivetrain speeds as we downshift with brake, clutch and throttle gyrations that come as naturally as patting my head and rubbing my belly at the same time. The reason for this is to get the transmission into the proper gear for the exit of a turn without breaking it, not to help slow the car down that some of us thought. That's what the brakes are for. I knew that middle pedal was for something.
The Jim Russell School laid out a clever course that allowed us the opportunity to go up and down through the gearbox four times a lap. Lap after lap we drove, practicing the heel-and-toe technique until we got it right. Well it's not exactly heel-and-toe, it's really more like brake and roll. While your left foot does nothing but work the clutch, your right foot must apply the proper amount of brake pressure while rolling off the right side of the brake pedal to blip the throttle with the right half of your right foot while the left foot has the clutch depressed. Sound hard?
It is. You must teach your brain to do five things all at once - steer the car, apply the right amount of brake pressure without locking the wheels, depress the clutch, blip that throttle and move the gearshift lever into the proper gear.
All this for each downshift. I now realize how much eye-hand-foot coordination
is needed to contain the fury of a modern racecar.
I found myself breathing heavier and perspiring because I was doing something that just did not come naturally and my ego wasn't about to let myself look like a total fool to my instructors or my classmates. Although our instructors were absolutely professional at all times, I'm sure they have plenty of hilarious stories to tell outside of work. I am happy to report that by the end of the morning session I was doing what I thought I never would, heel-and-toeing. Not perfect mind you, but good enough for the first day, at least that is what I thought.
After a quick lunch it's back into the cars for our first chance to try our mastery of shifting the car on a portion of the actual race course. In class, we were reminded that on a difficulty scale of 1 to 10, Sears Point is a 9.
Soon, we see why it's a 9. The track doesn't have any real straights, at least not the upper course.
As soon as you're through one corner, you're virtually approaching
another. And each one is different. Different radius, different gear, different camber, uphill or downhill. Never a dull moment and never a chance to rest and think. But as they say, practice makes perfect….and practice we did. By the end of the session I was starting to downshift without even thinking about it. It was beginning to feel natural. The session started with everyone following the pace car that went progressively faster each lap. We then did laps on our own. We were not yet allowed to pass anyone, but at the end of each lap we stopped and were given space between cars so each of us could learn at their own pace. The Jim Russell school promises a lot of seat time and by my estimate that was at least
60% of the time.
The next hour we spent in the classroom with the master, Jacques Couture, learning all about the techniques and theories of cornering.
Jacques articulates the information like a seasoned professional and his
examples flow forth with abundance. First came the lectures explaining just why a car gets from here to there, what the forces are and how much of them a normal driver uses in day-to-day driving (as opposed to racing). Then it was on to how the car grips the road in any given situation and how the driver can alter the traction by using braking and acceleration, to put more load on some wheels and less on others. So we heard such esoteric terms as "understeer" -- where the rear tires have the greater traction, making the front tires slide toward the outside of a turn -- and oversteer, which is the opposite.
The last part of the first day was spent walking the track with instructor Ric McCormick. It was here that he pointed out
all the nuances of the track and the tricks to driving a smooth lap. This was especially helpful since some of the corners were blind and off-camber.
This ended our day and we all went home yearning for Day 2.
Day two started with a trip to the drag strip, not to practice how fast we
could accelerate, but to practice how fast we could stop. They call
it Threshold Braking, the fastest way to stop in a controlled manner -
braking hard, the tires straining at the limit of adhesion without
locking the wheels. We first received demonstrations on how to do it
right, and how to do it wrong. Then we got to try it over and over
until we got it right, or at least better.
Then it was off to the upper loop of the
track for a repeat of the first day's exercise, but with the RPM's raised
to 3,400. At first
we followed a pace car around and then we were allowed to do it on our
After a break for lunch, we were told our
class did well on the upper portion and we graduated to the lower portion
at still higher RPM's - 3,600. We followed the same routine as
before, first we followed a pace car so they could control our aggression
and watch our progress, before turning us loose on our own. After a
short break, we repeated the routine at 3,800 PRM's. The 200 RPM jump
after each session allowed us to build upon what we learned, with
incremental increases in speed.
mid-afternoon we were called back into the classroom and told we would be
allowed to pass for the first time, and use the entire race track.
The instructors stressed safety and outlined specifically where the
passing zones were. They warned us not to get too aggressive and to
take it easy on cold tires. This is what I was waiting for.
Wisely, the instructors spaced each car out,
for no sooner did I brake for the downhill turn 4 on the first lap did I
find myself doing a 180-degree spin. I quickly restarted the car and
got on my way before the next car caught up to me, but I was cussing at
myself for being too aggressive and thought for sure I'd have to sit out
the rest of the session. Luckily I caught a break and was allowed
Having learned my lesson the hard way, this
time I gradually worked my way up to speed and found, much to my surprise,
that I was able to pass about six cars in the remainder of the session and
no one caught me from behind. That did a lot to help me regain my
confidence after spinning out. I was finally getting good at the heel and
toe thing and I found that if I skipped a gear downshifting on certain
corners, I saved a tenth or two.
the end of day two we were all getting into this driving stuff. Now
it was all starting to click, and all the track time we got sure
helped. Jim Russell stresses seat time over classroom time, and for
a very good reason. Theory is nice, but until you actually experience
it for yourself, it's just that, theory. Putting that theory to work
in the cockpit is what it's all about. I couldn't wait for day
We started off day three where we left off on day two, at 3,800 RPM's and
with each session worked our way up in 200 RPM increments to 4,400
RPM's. After each session we were critiqued for things like our
line, our braking, our shifting, and when we were on and off the
throttle. As our times tumbled our mistakes happened faster, but by
golly, it felt like we were actually racing...although passing a car here
or there may have been racing to us, but our instructors repeatedly
reminded us were were there to learn the proper techniques, for mistakes
that are not corrected a slower speed are only magnified when you repeat
them at higher ones.
In sessions where I was too aggressive, I
made a lot of mistakes and my lap times suffered. When I took my
instructors advice and worked on being smooth and consistent, hitting my
marks, and keeping my nose clean, my lap times were better.
Technique, technique, technique.
Our class finished the last session of the
day early, and much to our surprise, we were in for a treat which none of us
had anticipated, a chance to drive the cars used in the Advanced Racing Course
(ARC). These were the same cars that are used in the Formula Russell
Racing program. These cars had wider slick tires, and weighed 1150
lbs with HP in the 150 to 155 range. Although we were allowed to
pass, we were forbidden from pushing the cars or ourselves to the
limit. That meant no squealing tires, no missed gear shifts, no
spins, etc. If we did any of the above we would be black flagged and
our session done. This was just a chance to experience a bigger more
powerful racecar and whet our appetite for the ARC course.
As I strapped in, I reminded myself, OK
dummy, don't do like you did yesterday and spin out. Take it easy
and use what you learned in the TRC cars now. It worked. Now
these felt like REAL race cars. The power was, shall we say, awesome,
and the grip phenomenal compared to the skinny threaded rubber we had just
spent 3 days with. It took two or three laps to get used to the
brakes, clutch, shifter, increased power and better grip. However,
what we were taught with the TRC cars worked exactly the same with these
cars. Suddenly, on one straightaway, coming into an area of hard
braking, I started laughing. The rigors of learning all those new techniques had been forgotten. This was incredible fun and I felt I knew how these instructors could live just for
When the checkered flag waved signaling the
end of the session, the phrase heard repeatedly as the students exited the
cars was "now that's a racecar", or "that was
As they say, all good things must end, and
so too did our three wonderful days at Jim Russell. After our short
graduation ceremony, everyone said their goodbyes and headed back home to
their regular everyday routine, with memories that will last a lifetime,
and lessons that hopefully will last even longer.......whether it be
behind the wheel of another racecar, or in that great big racetrack in
heaven. Heaven does have a racetrack, doesn't it?
A special thanks go out to all the people
in the Race Car Mechanics
who maintained the cars in great working order. They are the unsung heroes
who work behind the scenes. This program has graduated over 2,700 race mechanics, many of whom now work in CART in the Champ car, Indy Lights or Toyota Atlantic series. Not
only does it teach the mechanics how to work on the cars, it also teaches them how to
interact with the drivers, real people, just like they will encounter
after they graduate.
I look forward to the day when I might return to try
my hand at the ARC. Did I say "might"?
Note: Look for a new article on our
recent experience at CART Driving 101 on the oval in Fontana next week
The author can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To learn more about Russell Racing, visit their website at http://www.RussellRacing.com
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