I’d like to say I entered Sebring International Raceway for the Skip Barber 3-Day Racing School with the anticipation of a kid on Christmas morning, but that isn’t strictly true. I’ve never woken up on Christmas wondering if I’d forgotten how to drive fast, and if so, how much discovering this fact might cost me.
Make no mistake; I’ve done this before, a couple of times in fact, but I hadn’t sat in a Skip Barber formula car in eight years, and this is Sebring.
There are tracks where leaving the racing surface isn’t necessarily expensive or painful, but Sebring isn’t one of them. If you go off track at Sebring you are going to hit something. That something is made of concrete and will shorten and/or narrow your car. It’s as my friend Robert Dubler, the completely mad Swiss chocolatier/race car driver, said after viewing Summit Point’s Shenandoah Circuit- “I sink zey got ze very good deal on za concrete."
I made a mental note of the Baghdad-embassy quantities of concrete as I migrated to the classroom where I met my fellow students. Our instructors Casey Carden, Nick Andries, Don Kutschell and Ray Scott introduced themselves and student introductions followed. It quickly became apparent that we had a pretty varied bunch: At one end was Michai Stephens who placed 5th in last year’s IndyCar Academy (ICA), a mid-20s Florida police officer named Clint Scherb, and a young Canadian karting champ named Olivier Cote. At the other end were a couple of guys I couldn’t imagine fitting in the car, a late teen who’s never raced but intended to ‘find sponsorship’ after the school (making him inexplicably as naÃ¯ve as I was at 18 despite the subsequent invention of the internet), and a guy so completely indifferent that his entire introduction was a terse “I got the school as a gift, so I’m here". I (mentally) nicknamed him ‘Psycho’ after the Stripes character even though he didn’t actually threaten to kill anyone that called him Francis.
Carden started with a chalk talk in the classroom where we were introduced to the Skip Barber formula car and the Sebring track. The largest change to the cars since I last drove them is the welcome switch from an H-pattern shifter to a manual sequential gearbox. This has the dual benefit of being more relevant and making it a lot harder to spontaneously increase the number of moving parts in the motor.
Carden talked at length about the track, the texture of the different surfaces, the bumps, and the fact that we would be utilizing the Sebring Modified layout which makes a hard right between turns 1 and 3, rejoining the classic layout at Bishop Bend. Rather fortuitously this will be the same layout that will be used for the IndyCar Academy.
As a parting shot he adds this fun fact: “When it rains we’ve had cars crash at start/finish because the track owners have painted a large logo onto the track which, when wet, has the friction coefficient of ice." A flaming hoop on the backstretch wouldn’t be any dumber, but Skip Barber doesn’t have any say in the matter.
The class migrates to an autocross track set on the concrete pad (Again, Sebring doesn’t lack for these) between the pits and the back straight to get used to the car.
There’s not much to hit, unlike every subsequent time we’ll be in the car, so off the bat I turn it up to 11 and drive full Brazilian, searching for the limit of the car. I’m quick, but I also spin a couple of times. I’m not the only one spinning, but I’m definitely spinning the fastest. To my surprise I’m almost as fast as Cote when I’m not perpendicular to the intended path of travel. At this point I would characterize myself as exciting to watch.
You might expect the instructors to admonish my behavior, but they don’t- they stop me to explain how I can improve my technique and go even faster. This is what makes it a racing school and not a septuagenarian heart attack trigger like the Richard Petty ‘experience’. Going faster is the entire point of the exercise.
After three sessions we turn the cars over to the other half of our class, but almost immediately rain comes down. Natural disaster movie rain.
With racing postponed, most of the class piled into a 15 (16, 17..) passenger van for a ‘van-around’ tour of the track. Despite the pedestrian name, Skip Barber van-arounds are legendary.
Imagine being a passenger in a fully loaded van as the (race car) driver sets a lap time on a wet track while simultaneously explaining the nuances of every corner as well as orating the history of the track. They could sell tickets for this.
I had been vanned around Lime Rock by Bruce MacInnes way back before common sense was invented, so as opposed to being startled I was merely perplexed as to how the tradition survived into the 21st century. I did see a couple of my classmates who hadn’t done this before actually cross themselves, and I’m pretty sure a third was talking to dead relatives.
Back on track our group took part in a braking exercise on the back straight. This was particularly interesting because while a Skip Barber formula car won’t out accelerate a Corvette, and owing to the use of street tires it’s lateral acceleration doesn’t exceed 2g, the damn thing stops like a jumper hitting a sidewalk. Huge brakes, light weight and good grip is a hell of a cocktail. Threshold braking a Formula car makes you want to celebrate physics.
When we finally got to run the full racing circuit we’re given an RPM limit to adhere to which is increased over the three days until finally being eliminated for the final sessions on the last day. RPM limits are how SBRS ensures that students aren’t, immediately at least, exceeding their ability; physically, mentally and financially.
Michai, with his experience, is visibly fastest in the other run group. Clint and some others are getting up to speed (I want to ask Clint if he feels naked driving that fast without red and blue lights flashing), while one or two others curiously appear to be looking for a parking spot. The speed differential, even in the beginning, is startling.
Stopping for an institutional quality lunch at the Chateau Elan hotel on the Sebring grounds I had a chance to speak with Michai and Clint a bit more. Both are gunning for the IndyCar Academy themselves so it was refreshing to share our peculiar ambition. Michai’s story is straightforward; a 21 year-old wanting to be a race car driver is the least strange thing in the world to me, but Michai has a maturity and calm that I couldn’t have imagined at his age.
Clint’s story is a bit more unusual; a local police officer from South Florida who wants to be a race car driver. I’m perhaps a bit immature in my view of law enforcement (it’s all Super Troopers to me), but we bond over the fact that we’ve both been in the service. Clint has been to the desert whereas I have not, so regardless of my feelings about local Florida cops he has my respect.
Also, he told a hysterical story about how his 1994 Viper recently got totaled, Ferris Bueller style, by a valet.
Back at the track, and over the course of the next three days we continue to improve our lines, shorten our braking distances and carry more speed through the corners. Our RPM limits are raised and some of my classmates really start pushing themselves and each other.
A couple of students push a little too hard and wind up taking a fully depreciated nose cone and/or rear wing assembly home with them.
Through the course Michai turns out to be a good benchmark. Because he finished fifth in last year’s ICA he gives me an idea what sort of speed would be required. While we weren’t on the track at the same time I nevertheless felt reasonably good about my pace, but I lacked the consistency I wanted.
I spoke to Andries, a former kart champ and current Indy Lights driver, about this and he gave me some pointers. Andries himself is product of the Mazda Road to Indy and was racing these very cars not that long ago so his insight proved particularly valuable.
The last two sessions of the course are run without the ‘Stop-box’ where we previously stopped once each lap to receive verbal instruction/exasperation/disbelief from the instructors over a walkie-talkie and I feel like I’ve finally found a rhythm. Apparently, not having to stop once per lap does wonders for one’s consistency.
Even after taking it a third time, the Skip Barber 3-Day Racing School remains one of those rare experiences that I wish I could universalize. It’s so much fun, so rewarding, and so educational that I wish everyone could/would take it. When I was 18 it was life changing, and at 44 it’s life affirming.
As a postscript on the 3-Day school, it did rain enough that I had a chance to test out the slick painted patch at start finish. Sure as hell I got wheelspin in 4th gear. Wow.
The Skip Barber 2-Day advanced school in early September is my last opportunity to make my case for inclusion to the 2013 IndyCar Academy.
Entering the classroom my first impression is that the students in the 2-Day Advanced School look, perhaps predictably, a lot more like race car drivers than in the 3-Day school. Lots of people with their own Nomex, painted helmets, and embroidered blood types.
Several more Canadian karting champions show up, leading me to believe either that I’d now met all of them, or every karter in Canada is champion of something. They are preparing for the Skip Barber Karting Shootout, as is 19 year old American karting star Sabre Cook. IndyCar Academy aspirants are also well represented.
Our instructors again include Carden and Andries, but the venue is changed slightly. This school is to take place on the iconic 3.7 mile 12 Hours of Sebring track configuration. The track is exactly as I remember from my visits as a spectator except that a chicane of sorts has been installed in place of the turn 7 hairpin. According to Carden, in some intervening year a sports car lost its brakes, went through the tire wall and landed on the highway in front of the track. I bet that was exciting.
Starting again with the autocross, I wind up chasing speedy Sabre Cook. Her website says she’s been racing for 10 years, has two world kart championships, and carries a 4.1 GPA. She also makes Danica Patrick look like James Hinchliffe. She ought to be easier to market than air, but she’s back for the karting shootout which she previously contested in 2011, because it’s just that hard to get a ride.
From the autocross we do some lapping sessions before taking part in the signature component of the 2-Day Advanced School; lead/follow sessions with instructors in the Skip Barber formula cars. Yes, the instructors are professional racers, and yes they probably have hundreds, if not thousands of laps on the Sebring track in these cars, but watching them pull away in front of you is still an odd experience; it’s galling and at the same time a bit satisfying knowing that they do every bit as well as they teach.
It’s also worth noting at this point that despite their prodigious driving and education skills, there isn’t a trace of egoism or condescension from any instructor in either school. You might be saying, “And for what I’m paying there sure as hell better not be", but ask yourself this; have you ever taken a SCUBA/firearms/skydiving class where the instructor didn’t think he was a Navy SEAL? I rest my case.
After the lead/follow, the rest of the course involves an awful lot of lapping with the primary difference between the schools being that we’re allowed to pass almost anywhere on the track including the approach to braking zones, but just not actually at the one and two markers.
This adds a great deal of realism to the racing experience, as if driving at 130 mph with your helmet wanting to lift up over your head isn’t real enough already.
By the end of the second day I’m pretty spent; we lost time on the first day due to rain which added a couple of sessions to an already full day. I’m exhausted in fact, but thrilled. I learned, listened, focused and drove my ass off without bending anything. Now it was time to wait.
THE CALL came out of the blue one afternoon from the now familiar 678 (Atlanta) area code, with my SBRS advisor Scott Hartinger on the other end- I was selected for the 2013 Skip Barber IndyCar Academy and will be going to Sebring for the shootout! Not that I was expecting Publisher’s Clearinghouse, or even a singing Telegram, but I received the phone call with as much relief as joy. I made it to the show. Now the real work begins.
If you are interested in learning more about the IndyCar Academy, click the link. If you want to follow along in real time, you’re in luck because the 2013 Skip Barber IndyCar Academy starts TODAY, November 5, 2013.
I will be posting on Twitter (@keithori) in real time from the track for the next 3 days.
I also recommend following @skipbarberRS for official results, photos and information in real time, as well as the Skip Barber Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/SkipBarberRaci…
Finally, if you want to geek out to real time, lap by lap results of the IndyCar Academy, or pretty much any racing series short of Formula 1, get the RaceMonitor app for iOS and Android phones here: http://www.race-monitor.com/ by Keith Ori