The Jim Russell Racing School sets the mark higher
At the end of those 5 days you will have been taught by some of the best instructors in the world, and you will have driven the fastest, most sophisticated race driving school car in the world, and pushed yourself to limits in a car that you never thought possible. More importantly you’ll know as you walk away sore, probably dehydrated, and nursing your fairly beat up body back to normal, that last day whether you have a career in racing or not.
In the interview to the right Chip Pankow tells us what makes the Jim Russell Racing Drivers School the best in the world and the philosophy behind what makes the school so good, so I won't repeat that here. Instead let's get right into the car they use, the most advanced school car in the world, and what it's like to actually take the Advanced School Of Racing class.
Before the school was bought by Emotive I had taken two other race classes at the old Jim Russell Racing school - the TRC class (beginners class) in 1999 and the ARC class (Advanced class) in 2001, so it had been 7 years since I had driven a race car in earnest. My goal was to not only brush up on my racing skills, but also to contrast and compare the old school to the new school.
Upon arrival at Infineon Raceway the first thing you find is that the school is now housed in a brand new state-of-the-art campus rather than a small office in one of the Infineon buildings.
When you walk in you might think you are walking into a Roger Penske Racing operation. Everything is sparkling clean, very modern and very upscale. In fact Roger Penske and his right-hand man Tim Cindric visited the school over the IndyCar weekend and came away very impressed, saying the facility was done just like he would do it.
The Car - A German F3 car
An extensive evaluation process went into the selection of the Jim Russell Racing Drivers School FJR-50 (Formula Jim Russell-50 Years) car. The following objectives were central to the process:
A variety of designs and manufacturing techniques were considered, but ultimately it was decided unanimously that a design based on the global standard of Formula 3 met all objectives. Lola Cars, a primary technical partner has created the FJR-50 based on the Lola B06/30 Formula 3 car which won the German Recaro F3 Championship in 2006, breaking the domination that Dallara has had on the class since 1993.
Most schools utilize tube frame chassis that have designs that are nearly 30 years old. These cars are no longer analogous to modern racing. They have steel chassis, long suspension travel, relatively low mechanical grip, no aero, and many use street tires or bias-ply racing tires (slicks).
For a driver serious about a career or a young karter coming out of a 125cc shifter kart, moving to an old-technology car can actually be counterproductive.
When you compare the grip levels, power-to-weight ratio, and relative performance; a Formula 3 based car is the ideal formula for drivers to make the transition. Once again, this supports their desire to move drivers as quickly up the ladder as is reasonable. Departing from the performance parameters too drastically (downward) to a car with a completely different and non-relevant handling model such as a steel framed, high suspension travel formula car is counterproductive to developing talent.
The engine is a turbocharged 2.0 liter Mitsubishi 4G-63, most commonly found in the Lancer Evolution IX. In school trim, it is 200 bhp and in race trim it has up to 300 bhp. In a car that weighs just 1,025 pounds that is a potent power-to-weight ratio for a school car considering there are no electronic aids to help you control it.
Most modern racing cars utilize either sequential or paddle shift gearboxes. The FJR-50 uses a Hewland sequential gearbox developed for this application. The Hewland JFR is a strengthened 5-speed gearbox.
Sitting there the car had all the makings of being fast. I was soon to find out just how fast! If you ever took a class at the old Jim Russell school with the old car, driving the new car is like night and day.
The first day of class each student was greeted outside the building and given instructions of where to go to get your fireproof driving suit, helmet and balaclava. We had to supply our own Nomex driving shoes. We were each assigned one of the equally prepared cars, got a seat fitting and had the pedals adjusted for our height. I was assigned Car No. 14.
We met our instructors for the three days:
The first one hour was basically an overview of what we were going to do the first day - braking and downshift drills, skidpad drills and in the afternoon some real track time to get comfortable with a car that was new to all of us.
The first drill was accelerating as hard as we could for about 1/4-mile and then learning to brake and downshift the car in the shortest possible distance. You soon learn that what they said in the classroom was true - with a winged race car that has a lot of downforce, you can slam on the brakes extremely hard for the first fractions of a second, but as the car loses speed, and hence wing downforce, you have to bleed off brake pressure or the wheel, as it loses downforce and hence friction against the asphalt, will begin to lock, as you see I did above a few times.
We ran that drill over and over along the Infineon drag strip until we got it right. You never do get it perfect because the braking potential of this car from high speeds is enormous and each time you slam the brake harder than the previous time, it takes it and then some. The car generates over 2Gs in deceleration. Meanwhile, in those few seconds that you are braking, you have to learn to get your downshifts right or you won't be in the correct gear when you hit your corner turn-in point. Needless to say it's quite busy in the cockpit and we were not even racing yet!
After another brief classroom session, it was off to the skidpad in special built 2-seat cars to learn how to anticipate, and control both understeer and oversteer and what to do when it catches you out. This was the only time when you were in the car with an instructor where he can give you one-on-one instruction and you can watch him operate and then try to mimic what you were taught.
This was an interesting exercise because it is not often that you get to test the cornering limits of a car without fear that if you spin it out, you are not going to hit anything, though one student did manage to almost hit a nearby Port-O-John......twice.
First we played with understeer, holding a car at the limit in a circle - as the front end washes out and pushes toward the outside of the circle, there isn't much a driver can do to correct it with the steering wheel. The correct has to come with a slight easing off of the throttle, which allows the front tires to regain their bite so the car again turns where you aim it.
Next it was oversteer. We induced an oversteer condition by being aggressive with the throttle to get the back end to step out and then demonstrated how you can correct that with a quick wrist action of the steering wheel, by quickly turning into the slide and then back. I put that to use a number of times the next two days when my back end stepped out on the race track.
Finally after lunch we got to do some lapping of the circuit for the first time to get familiar with the track as well as the car. I did not really push it too hard the first session out because I wanted to work on memorizing my turn-in points and work on my downshifts and upshifts, because for me it was the first time I had driven a race car with a sequential shifter.
However, I still managed to have a 180-degree spin in the right-hand Turn 4 corner when I failed to get all my downshifting done under braking and tried to grab a gear while cornering on the limit. A dumb move and I paid for it, but at least I did not hit anything and the only thing I damaged was my pride.
After the first session we came in for some consultation and went out on the final lapping session of the day. Now I began to work at building speed and begin to feel the limits of the FJR-50. However, I continued to struggle getting all my downshifts done in time and turn 9-9A chicane was particularly troubling for me. You approach Turn 9 at full throttle in 5th gear and need to downshift to 2nd under very hard braking. At times I found myself chugging through the turn in 3rd gear and one time even in 4th. I was slow as a pig coming out of the corner, losing valuable seconds.
One time I had downshifted all the way to 1st gear by mistake and when I accelerated out of Turn 9A, I promptly spun because of too much wheelspin. Frustrated I got the car going again and drove back to the pits to have the car checked out. Since I did not hit anything the car was fine and back out I went.
As I built speed I was already turning lap times much faster than in 1999 and 2001 in the old school cars, and this was only Day 1. Then with about 10 minutes to go in the session I had a high-speed 120 mph spin in the esses and I went for a wild ride. I had turned in too soon for the 2nd left-hander and was carrying more speed through the esses than ever before. My left front rode up over the curb and before I could catch it the back end snapped around on me and my car did a complete 360-degree spin before I could get it locked down as I slid to rest in the dirt alongside the track.
Frustrated again I drove the car back around to the pits and the crew found I had cracked the carbon fiber front wing ever so slightly when I rode over the curb as I spun at 120 mph. That set my checkbook back $1,700 (students are responsible for the first $7,500 in damage). I didn't feel as bad as another driver who wiped out the left front of his car to the tune of $11,000.
No one ever said racing was cheap.
I wasn't the only one to go off that session, five other drivers had mishaps as well and our day ended with a scolding from the instructors that at this level (Advanced) we were making rookie mistakes that they see in the beginners, School of Racing, class. We were reminded that Day 1 was supposed to be a re-acclimation day. Day 2 and Day 3 is when we were expected to push the car hard.
Before leaving for the day Nico gave us some good advice on eating and drinking properly after a physically hard day in a race car, and what to eat the next morning before getting back into the car.
By the end of the day I was completely spent, as was everyone else, including the younger drivers. My 53-year old body barely had enough energy to grab dinner after I showered and I reminded myself that racing was a young man's sport and why you never see a fat road racing driving. NASCAR yes, but they primarily drive around in circles all day.
There is no way that you can compete competitively in an open wheel race car on road courses and not be fit. In a car that has no driver aids, the physical effort it takes and the forces exerted on your body are huge. That's why when NASCAR races on road courses twice a year, the races are much shorter than their oval races. As a driver you simply could not drive at 100% for 4 straight hours like they do for their oval track marathons.
Day 2 started off with a good breakfast in the Jim Russell hospitality area. The forecasted high temperature for Day 2 was an unusually high 102 degrees F for Sonoma Valley, so I tried to hydrate my still sore body as much as possible and not eat too heavy of a breakfast - just a hard boiled egg, some fruit and orange juice.
The first exercise for Day 2 they broke us up into two groups - one group did very high speed braking drills and the other group worked on turning a car into a corner, hitting the apex and accelerating hard out of the corner. The idea was to rotate the car (induce oversteer) at the right time to get the car turned better for the 180-degree hairpin. We did that drill over and over until we got it right.
For the high-speed braking test we ran the entire length of the Infineon drag strip flat out and well into the drag strip runoff area before reaching our high-speed braking zone. I was wide open in 5th gear when I reached the first braking cone at 140 MPH.
At anything over 100 MPH my steering wheel was shaking so bad I could not hold it in my hand so I pulled off and asked the mechanics to check my front end. They said it looked OK so I went out and did another run. Same problem, so I pulled in again and this time they changed my front tires. Big difference. I must have lost a wheel weight on the other set of tires because it was much better now.
We ran the high-speed braking drill over and over and the instructors critiqued our form. I was braking well, but still I struggled with my downshifts so I tried clutch and clutchless downshifts to see which would be better. Some I got right and some I did not, but I was getting better.
Then it was off to lapping the track again. It was now late morning and it was beginning to get hot. Sitting in the car with the engine running was very uncomfortable and it felt like at least 140 degrees in cockpit. I was sweating already and I had not pulled out of the pits yet.
I started off slow, making sure to properly heat my tires and to re-acclimate myself with the track. My first two laps were slow, in the 2m16s range. Slowly I worked up to speed, finally getting down to almost 2 minutes flat on my last lap. A respectable time, but I knew there was a lot more in the car.
After a short rest period we got buckled in again for our final lapping session of the day. My goal was to get down under 2 minutes for a lap but it was not to be. I had a hard time keeping the car running in the pit lane and I never made it around my first lap, my engine died halfway around and I could not get it restarted so they towed me back in.
By the time I was towed in and the mechanics determined that the high temperature had caused a vapor lock situation, which happened to another car as well, there was no time for them to get me fitted into another car and get the pedals and seat adjusted, so I missed the entire last session of the day. I was disappointed and it definitely set me behind for Day 3.
Disappointed yes, but I still learned a lot and I was still exhausted from the day's activities in very high temperatures. Thankfully it was not humid too, it was a dry California heat.
We did have the opportunity to look at data from the telemetry in our cars at the end of Day 2, however, and for the first time I was able to see where I was losing time. I was losing most of my time in Turn 1 and through the esses. Some drivers were wide open through most of Turn 1 and through the esses, both in top gear. I was not doing that. On Day 3, I was going to have to suck it up and trust that the car would stick wide open through those turns.
Day 3 dawned bright and sunny again and the forecast high was worse than Day 2 - a sweltering 106 degrees F.
Day 3 was the big day. The agenda was to get a practice session in the morning, qualify for the afternoon's two races, practice rolling starts and then have two races - real races. Remember this was an advanced race driving school and the goal was to prepare us to race. The learning was over. It was now time to put everything we learned together.
It was now game on.
Missing the last session the day before and eating too large a breakfast for this even hotter Day 3 definitely set me back in the practice session. I only got 8 laps in and I felt rusty. My best time was only a 2m04s lap.
Nothing was gelling - my shifts, my turn-in points, my confidence. I got out of the car and had to try to focus myself in time for qualifying.
But at least I was able to finally run wide open through the esses. It was like threading a needle. At over 120 MPH you had to be precise and hit your apexes, but I did it.
Turn 1 was another story. I tried various lines but my car would just slide out and off the track if I did not feather the throttle. Either the drivers who told me they were wide open through Turn 1 were pulling my leg, or my 205 pounds of body weight was just that much heavier to not enable my car to stick to the road.
Qualifying wasn't much better. It was interrupted by several cars going off and I never was able to get my rhythm. I got in three laps at 2m02s in qualifying, good enough for 7th on the grid. Not even as fast as the day before. Again I was disappointed.
After an early lunch we practiced rolling starts about 5 or 6 times until we got it right, each of us taking turns starting from pole position and racing up to Turn 3 only. We had to hold our line but the goal was to go up through gears as fast as we could at the drop of the green and to gain position if you could, but stay behind the line of cars ahead of you.
I found I was good at the starts, always gaining positions. When I started from pole I easily was able to get the lead and keep it, so my reaction times were good and I was aggressive enough, but after qualifying 7th, how would I perform in the race?
This was a 5-lap sprint race. I started 7th and moved up one position to 6th at the finish. The good news was that my lap times in the race were a full 5 seconds per lap faster than in qualifying. My fastest lap in the race was a respectable 1m57.328s.
But 5 seconds faster! Wow, I guess the competitive nature that I have to try and win in everything I do in life pushed me to new levels. Pushing myself to stay ahead of the car behind me (Brennan Slavik) and try to pass the car in front of me (Ron Smith), made me far more focused and things began to gel for me. I tried to make a move on Ron on the next to last lap but I could not get it done and settled for keeping all four wheels on the car and on the road. In hindsight, the fact that I left so much on the table in qualifying was frustrating.
By now it was around 3 PM in the afternoon and the air temperature was up to 106 degrees F. It was hot and we all did our best to find a shady spot.
After a 30-minute recess it was time for Race 2.
I made a good start and gained one position in Turn 1. On lap two a whole chain of us came up over the blind crest in Turn 2 only to find a competitor in front of us had spun and was sitting right in the middle of the track. Some of us went around him on the outside and others on the inside. It required split-second reaction time to avoid hitting him.
Several of us went off into the dirt and it was all I could do to keep the car under control, but I was able to come back onto the track and actually gain a position.
All four wheels were still on the car and nothing appeared damaged, but my hot tires picked up a lot of stones and dirt so I had to tiptoe around the rest of that lap until the tires were clean again. During practice we were told it was mandatory to pit if you put a wheel off to get the car checked out.
So I pitted not knowing I didn't have to since this was a race. I pounded the steering wheel when the pit crew told me I did not have to come in.
My race ruined I went back out and spent the remainder of the race working on my rhythm and to turn consistent lap times. Again my fastest lap in Race 2 was 1m57s and this time I did it on my own with no one pushing me, so I felt good about that.
Two times during Race 2 rocks hit my helmet face shield at about 140 mph, thrown up by a car in front of me. Let me tell you that gets your attention and it happens so fast at those speeds there is absolutely nothing you can do about it. If one word best describes what it's like to drive one of these cars, I might say 'violent.' It's definitely not for the faint of heart.
By the end of the 30-minute Race 2, I was pretty well spent. The heat wore us all out and drivers were making mistakes.
My hands were raw from not wearing driving gloves all week (big mistake), my arms sore, my legs were sore, but deep inside there was that intense satisfaction of knowing I had experienced something not a lot of people get to do, drive and learn to race a modern open wheel race car, and I walked away knowing that given my limited seat time in a race car compared to others, and no experience whatsoever since 2001, I felt good that I made decent progress and raced much better than I qualified.
Do I have a long way to go to be a real race car driver? You bet, but at my age I have no illusions of starting a career when most drivers my age are already out to pasture.
Without a doubt the Jim Russell Racing Drivers School has set the bar much higher than all other race schools, especially those in the USA. And soon they hope to open a school on the East Coast and eventually in key locations around the world.
So if you have the money, and the desire to learn at the best racing school out there, give it a try. It's sure cheaper than buying a race car only to find out later maybe racing isn't your thing. And if nothing else, it's great to spend time in Sonoma Valley - Wine Country......just don't drink and drive.
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