172 MPH in a Champ Car 
is the ultimate adrenaline rush

 by Mark Cipolloni
November 29, 1999

Click photos to enlarge

Less than a week after the season finale at the California Speedway at Fontana, we step into a Champ Car at CART Driving 101 to experience "What It's Like Out There"

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FONTANA, CA - My head is being buffeted around so badly it's banging against the sides of the cockpit, the sand is blasting my windscreen and blowing up inside my helmet, and my helmet is trying to tear itself from my head.  The environment is hostile...almost violent, and I'm asking myself  - what the heck is going on?  Something is not right...get me out of this thing!  I'm happy to say, I survived just fine thank you, and once I figured out what the problem was, the experience turned out to be better than I had hoped.

                                                                                        Robin Jerstad photo
Back in June I got my first taste of a Champ car at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in the 100 level, 12-mile,  class offered by CART Driving 101.  As the saying goes, once is never enough, and when it comes to driving a Champ Car, that phrase is probably better stated "the more the merrier."   This time I registered for the 300 level, 50-mile course at Fontana, as I wanted the opportunity to drive more laps to really get a feel for one of these animals.  The 100 level class whet my appetite in eight laps.  I needed and wanted more.  (Note - click on any photo to see larger image.  Also see our Class Photo Page)

It's November 6th, exactly six days since Greg Moore met his untimely death at Fontana in the CART FedEx series season finale.  The track is quiet now.  It's 7:00 AM and the sun is having a hard time peeking through the thick haze that hovers over the track on this Saturday morning.  As I drive through the tunnel and into the infield I pause for a moment, reflecting on the enormity of what transpired the previous Sunday.  A CART Champ CAR race that had it all --  near packed grandstands, a beautiful sunny day, a points race that went down to the wire and ended in a tie-breaker, and a hard fought, very competitive race from start to finish.  Unfortunately, it also had the bad side of racing--the horrific crash that took Greg Moore's life.  For those of us who were a part of it, it was a day that left us emotionally drained, and we left the track not knowing whether to laugh or to cry.

But that is a part of racing, always has been, and unfortunately, probably always will be.  All week I wondered how I would feel as I drove through turn 2 where Greg had his incident.  Would I lift off the accelerator unknowingly through turn 2, afraid to lose control like Greg did? Would I see his skid marks, was the track rough through there, were there cross winds that caused Greg to lose control?

Now the day had finally arrived.  The day I had been dreaming of for five months.  The chance to once again drive a Champ Car.  But from the time I pulled up to the garage area and parked until the time I was leaving about 4 hours later, the previous Sunday was just a forgotten memory.  Driving a race car is a 100% commitment of all your senses and its easy for me to now understand how a driver can, and must, put tragedy behind them.  

Registration and Lecture                                                 
Like all schools, this one starts with early morning registration, getting fitted for a driving suit and helmet, and meeting your classmates and instructors.  I had just purchased a pair of driving shoes during the week, and brought them along.  I was not worried about crashing and burning, sneakers work just fine.  But I found that driving shoes are the icing on the cake in terms of driver comfort.

After the 5 minute lecture on the rules for the day, we were taken outside for an instructional van ride around the track where we learned:

  • What to do once you are in the car

  • Procedure for exiting pit road

  • Shifting points

  • Entering onto the race track

  • Proper following distance

  • Blending into the racing groove

  • Proper racing line

  • Entering and exiting of corners

  • Taking the checkered flag and exiting the race track

A Lap Around California Motor Speedway
Click on photos to see enlargements

Across the S/F line, at full song.  Note the haze.  

On the apron of turn 1.

Turn 2 near where Greg Moore lost control.  The track has a little roughness here.  Note the skid marks

Entering Turn 3 is smooth and wide with several different lines possible.

photo by Robin Jerstad

  Turn 4.  At this point you are back on the accelerator rather aggressively letting the wheel unwind towards the wall

After the van ride it's off to the cars and more instruction

Segment One                                                                          Robin Jerstad photos
Now it was time to grab a helmet and get to our cars.  Buckling in I immediately noticed how much larger this car felt than the cars you might use at other racing schools.
Buckled in and waiting 

I was happy to learn that the clutches in these cars were now conventional ones - lift to engage, depress to disengage.  In Las Vegas, when this school first started, the clutches were just the opposite and very confusing to most students.

We were told that our first segment would start out slow and the speeds would increase on each successive lap of each segment if you could keep up with the instructor and maintain the required following distance.   As I sat waiting I went over all the instructions in my head once again.  Finally it was time to crank up my engine.  The transmission in these cars is only two speeds and therefore  was quite easy.

We carried 1st (low gear) down pit lane and accelerated until we were midway between turns 1 and 2 where we shifted into 2nd (high gear).  From there, the engine had plenty of torque to pull us up to racing speed as we entered the racing line midway down the backstraight.  Owing to its larger size than Las Vegas ( 2.0 miles vs. 1.5 miles), Fontana is a faster track.  I immediately noticed that the turns did not seem as tight, the banking was at a shallower angle and the backstraight was much longer. 

The first lap was pretty much a cruising lap just to get acclimated....thank God!  As I alluded to at the beginning of this story, my helmet was too big for my head and I was sitting way to high up in the car causing my head to buffet violently while my helmet was trying to climb off my head.  On top of that, the week of dry windy weather had blown a lot of sand onto the track which somehow managed to make its way up inside my helmet.

                                                                 Watch your speed! Hit your marks! (SC Photo)
With my head being tossed about, I was doing all I could to hang on the entire first segment.  We were warned about the seams in the asphalt down the backstraight, but on my first lap at speed they still caught me out.  The car moved sideways one full car width which sure got my attention.  Luckily I was not too close to the wall when it happened.  Since I was fiddling with my helmet and concentrating on holding my head upright, I forgot about the seams.  I was ready the next lap and tried to ride between or straddle them.

                                                                      Bill Howard adjusts neck brace (SC Photo)
The first segment was the shortest, just six laps, but I was able to reach a respectable 157.8 mph.  Given the circumstances, I felt pretty good about that.  I knew I had to do two things for the next segment, get a tighter helmet, and sit lower in the car.  Fellow driver Bill Howard, of Indianapolis had the right idea.  He brought a neck brace similar to those used by many Sprint car drivers.  He said wind buffeting was not a problem for him.

Segment Two                                         Some dashboards were instrumented (SC Photo)
I had a different car for segment two--the blue one this time.  Equipped with a better fitting helmet and sitting lower in the car, I was ready for some hot laps.  Now, I figured, things were going to get interesting and they did.

Top speed on the warm-up lap was just 60 mph, but on the second lap our speed jumped to 155.9 mph, nearly equal to our fastest speed of the first segment.  The 3rd lap was 161.1, then 163.6, down to 163.5 followed by a slow one of just 94.0 mph due to another group getting up to speed in front of us.  Once clear of them we ripped off a 172.21 mph speed on the last lap.  Considering the car had a terrible miss in the engine, and was bucking like a wild bronco throughout the run, that's about as fast as I cared to go in that segment.

Throughout the second segment the wind buffeting was hardly a problem, but the miss in the engine did tend to blur my vision somewhat.  Steering in the turns was heavier than I expected and I found the need to flex my hands on the straights to relieve my forearms, probably the result of holding the steering wheel too tight.

                                           Take the time to get buckled in properly (Steven Cipolloni photos)
Whereas I found the my course at Sears Point far more technically challenging, I found the high-speed oval in a more powerful Champ Car to be a harsher environment.  At least so far.  How well you are fitted in the car and properly braced is far more important on the oval where higher g-forces and wind comes into play.  The dilemma faced by CART Driving 101 is that the cars must fit all body sizes, so it's hard to get a perfect fit in the seat, with the pedals, and with any helmet bracing.  With the help of support personnel, it's up to the driver to get themselves as comfortable as possible or ask for another car.  On one instance I could hardly reach the pedals and I consider myself pretty average at 5'-10".  A change of cars fixed that problem.

Segment Three                                             My third car fit the best (S. Cipolloni Photo)
Now it was time for segment three and I was looking forward to a better car and hopefully some faster speeds.  The last car I was in, a red one, was the best of the three.

Out on the track we again started with a slow warm-up lap and already I could feel this car was smooth and the wind was not going to be a problem.  On our second lap the speed increased to 156.8 mph followed by 162.2, 162.8, 166.4, 169.0, 166.6, and 172.1.

This time we did not run into any slower traffic, and with a smoother, more comfortable car I was able to concentrate more on what I was doing and experiencing.   Whereas on the two previous segments I never really got a rhythm going, this time I did.  It was a lot easier reaching 172 mph in this car than the previous car.

Given that this program is a driving 'experience' where safety is of utmost importance,  we were never on the edge.  I would have liked to have gone faster in my third segment,  but that's for a more advanced class.  There was a lot more speed left in these cars on the straights and we entered the turns far slower than I would have liked.  However, from the middle of the turn out we did accelerate pretty hard on each lap, pulling some pretty respectable g's.  That was the most exhilarating part of each lap.

Unfortunately, all good things must end, and so too did our three wonderful sessions at CART Driving 101.  The reactions from everyone afterwards were similar to what I heard after the 100 level class at Las Vegas -- wonderful, exhilarating, spectacular..... you get the picture.

Afterwards, I had the opportunity to interview some of the other drivers and instructors (you will need Real Player to listen.  Audio from when I was with 7th Gear).

Bill Howard - Indianapolis, Indiana
Bill Marsh
- Phoenix, Arizona
Eugene Ciferno (Instructor)
- Pennsylvania
Jeff McCoy
- Santa Maria, California
Jim Sharp
- Orlando, Florida
Kurt Hardy
- Ventura, California
Tom Brady
- Sacramento, California
Nick Venditte (Driving 101 General Mgr.) - Las Vegas, Nevada

See our Class Photo Page

Founded by Robert (Bob) Lutz, who also founded the Richard Petty Driving Experience), CART Driving 101 offers a full menu of driving experiences at both Las Vegas Motor Speedway and California Motor Speedway in Fontana.  Like everything in racing - how fast you want to go depends on how much you are willing to spend.  At CART Driving 101, you attain higher speeds with each successive course.

CART Driving 101 Class/Course


 Champ Ride $199
 Driving 100 (12 miles) $499
 Driving 200 (27 miles) $899
 Driving 300 (45 miles) $1,499
 Advanced Experience (120 miles) $2,999
 MBA Program (75 miles) $1,749
 MBA Program (150 miles) $2,999

Dad, I want one of these for Christmas (Robin Jerstad photo)

CART Driving 101 may not be the real thing, but it's the closest thing to it going.  Recently NASCAR's Randy LaJoie, CART's Robby Gordon, World of Outlaw regulars Donnie Schatz, Sammy Swindell, Danny Lasoski, Greg Hodnett, and Johnny Herarra tried their hand at this school.  Even though he is a professional driver already, Schatz said, "there's nothing like it, it's the greatest thing I've done in my life."  To that we say, amen!

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