SKIP BARBER OPEN WHEEL RACING
By Michael Power
8am, day one of a three day race clinic at Las Vegas Speedway Road Course. The group is primarily made up of men in their 40s with bald-spots and friendly smiles. Our first task is simple enough, stand up and tell the group our motivations for being there:
Rob, an investment banker from Denver with no racing aspirations has brought his friend Evan, a fine art photographer along to taste the adrenalin thrill of racing an open wheeled car. Charlie, “the old guy” has come from Miami to pick up some skills to apply to his new 600 horsepower Cobra. Chad had a recognizable American Road Psycho smile. His kids never need to be told to put their seatbelts on. Chuck, a former American military man has been to other racing schools and drives a Mustang Cobra; he strikes me as a man that likes to shoot things. Kevin, 21, a karting champion from New Hampshire attending on a Skip Barber scholarship, an evolutionary step for any young man that’s been successful in the competitive world of karting. Vahen, a Swiss-Armenian elementary school principal from Glendale, has come to fulfill a lifelong dram. John, a retired 60-something all-American dad has come to learn both racing skills and bond with his son, Scott, owner of a successful sprinkler company and a million dollar smile. And last, but certainly not the least, JC, a late-30s landscaper from San Diego, who announces with the most serious face that he is here as “a first step to becoming a Formula One driver and taking the title away from Michael Schumacher.” The group gives the biggest collective and exaggerated eye-roll I’ve ever witnessed.
During the introduction we all check each other out like a group of alpha chimpanzees. I look around the room for tell tale signs of experience – worn racing shoe, gloves… I notice ‘Karting Kevin’ has his name in personalized graphics on the side of his helmet, oh lord, and a mic cable. The rest of the group looks pretty inexperienced as they try to find a Skip Barber helmet that fits.
Named after its owner, a former American F1 driver, Skip Barber is the most respected racing school in America. On Average, a third of the drivers in the Indy 500 and any Nextel Cup race are Skip Barber graduates. A lot of famous buttocks, such as F1 ‘s Juan Pablo Montoya, have graced the hard plastic seats of the Formula Dodge open wheel 2.0- liter four cylinder 130hp cars that are about to be made available for our abuse.
The introduction to the course is peppered with jokes rehashed a thousand times over for different groups. “These are your helmets. Always wear one of these—especially in a town like Vegas.” The group laughs. I sit and wait nervously to be introduced as the attending journalist and stop myself just as I’m about to rehash my usual joke: “you may feature in my story unless you don’t want your wife to know you’re here.”
We all sign liability forms, a reminder that we are about to undertake is very serious business. After sometime in the classroom we are led onto the coned parking lot course and paired off. I’m partnered with teacher Vahen, due to our similar heights, to cut back on seat adjustment. I feel bad for sprinkler Scott as the mechanics work furiously adjusting the pedals to accommodate his 6ft plus frame.
As part of group one, I’m quickly squeezed into the claustrophobic narrow 1100 lbs Formula dodge car. The only other open wheel racecar I’ve driven was an Indy car, which by in comparison felt like an RV. Six cars at a time, we are unleashed onto the course, kept in second gear and encouraged to go fast as we can. It’s messy. Tires squeal, cars spin and stall. It’s as if the cars are actually being manned by chimpanzees. The first session breaks, and as group two gets out of their cars, people are beaming Christmas morning smiles.
It’s morning, day two. While group two has its go on the track, group one is back in the classroom, discussing theory. World-class race drivers don’t just have the fastest reaction times; they also are able to perform a series of complicated maneuvers in repetition. This strikes a chord within me and I resolve to ignore my ego and relax my accelerator foot. The other drivers pay more attention to who’s catching who on the track, whose spun off or are generally just distracted by JC’s banter about the seedier side of Vegas, and how sore his back is from the plastic seat.
Car racing is often about knowing when to go slow. If you go slower entering a corner then you will probably be out quicker and building a speed down the next stretch of straight road. Gentle cornering arcs have a larger radius and thus support more speed. Think of it in terms of a jar lid: Placing a jar lid on a map of the course will always give you the smoothest path through a turn.
Out on the track, I catch Rob, the investment banker. I know he always goes tight into the long round left hander is and is slow coming out of the turn. I also know he sees me in the mirrors. We have been told not to pass, so I don’t attempt it, but in my mind, I’m looking for openings. In my mind I know I’ve already passed him.
The afternoon heat combined with our racing suits is almost unbearable. We are drinking gallons of water and curiously never going to the toilet. As we wait for the crew to refill our tanks, ‘Karting Kevin’ stands with a foot kicked upon the tire and reaches into his pocket. He says, “How much do I owe ya?” This makes me laugh hysterically. I suddenly realize the heat and the painkillers I’m taking to numb my finger, possibly dislocated from a slide on day one, are starting to make me koo-koo for coco puffs. I don’t mention the finger. They might not let me drive. In silence, I suffer. But I’m starting to understand my car, my body and both of their limitations.
Day three is the big day: open lapping. Before abandoning us to an afternoon of unadulterated racing and ego enhancement therapy, instructor John warns us that first we must practice rolling starts. “This is the most dangerous thing we are going to do at Skip Barber,” he warns. The lead car sets the speed for the group behind the pace car.
Once the pace car leaves the track, the lead car then drives at whichever speed he sees appropriate as the group approaches the flagman. If the flagman deems the group to be well ordered, he can signal the start of the race by whipping out a green flag flag from behind his back. It’s the motorized equivalent of Pamplona as everyone tries to find a fast direct line to the first corner.
As we walk out of the track , helmets in hand, like a slow-mo scene from a war movie, we notice JC carrying two white gaffer taped together to form huge driver’s seat cushions. We watch in sunned silence as he inserts them into his car and starts to fluff them like a maid at Caesars Palace. Smiles confirm our collective thought. Today we will see if those cushions will help JC’s highly anticipated performance.
We do two test laps in formation to get a feel for the ride. But like Tom Cruise in Top Gun, by the second start, I can’t resist ‘buzzin’ the tower’. The minute the flag comes out I slam into second, passing three cars before the first corner and two in the short distance to the next. Black flags fan my deviousness as everyone stopped on the track. My verbal reprimand is swift and sharp.
Starting exercises completed we are now ready to paddle into the big waves: open lapping. My confidence is at an all time high when I start to push the car and myself over our limits. Engaging in fourth in the back straightaway and entering turn seven with way too much speed, my tires come out of the grip and suddenly the world glides by in violent slow motion. You know when it’s about to happen. You’ve learned that an extra centimeter of tire on track or 1mph less and you would have made it. But you didn’t. And now you’re spinning uncontrollably around in circles, gravel flying into your car. As instructed, you’ve jammed both brake and clutch to the floor, and then you wait for the car to hit something – anything; nothing. The car comes to a rest. Then you breathe.
Engine still on, I engage first and head for the pit lane for another dreaded ego slap from instructor. But helmet visor firmly slammed shut I’m back on track. The constant presence of an ambulance crew waiting trackside makes me wonder if they are hoping for a crash, I wonder if they have wagers on whose going to be the first one on the straight board with neck support. I ask the instructor about previous injuries – “I remember broken arms and wrists, fractured ribs… In 2001 a guy flipped a Dodge Neon and I was in the hospital seven weeks with a broken neck. The guy was fine.”
Back on the track, Kevin and I decide to chase each other for three laps to try and pass. During one of our chases we catch JC in our sights. I know he’s watching us gain on him, so we tease him by splitting in two lanes every time the track allows, heightening his fears. And then there is a gap. Both Kevin and I are through, JC waves us bye.
I watch proudly as my partner, Vahen, races his car perfectly through every turn with the modest perfectionism you would expect from an elementary school principle. “There is nothing more exciting or gratifying in a race car than when you pass someone on the track. This doesn’t just happen quickly; it’s like a long duel. You’re approaching someone from behind doing your best to get closer and closer, yet the person in front of you is trying everything they can not to let you get close enough to pass. Lap after lap, you inch closer to your opponent until you are striking distance, you get as close to the car in front of you as you dare until you have enough open straight away to dart out from behind him and pass him. This type of move produces such a rush of adrenaline that words cannot describe. To me it is the ultimate high!”
As we all shake hands in the parking lot before going our separate ways, I am left wondering how all that knowledge will be applied in the real world. Since attending the Skip Barber program I’ve participated in Bullrun cross country rally which allowed me to take my 3.2 liter Audi Station wagon up against some of the world’s most impressive super cars both on and off the track. It was surprising how my approach differed to the people without track experience and I found myself passing Ferraris with ease and even allowing them to go ahead of me so that I could hunt them down in my A6.
What of the others? Will I spot Kevin’s personalized helmet poking out of the cockpit of Formula One car on race day? I know one thing for sure: Nothing would give me greater pleasure than to see JC running through the infield, cushions in hand, late for the start of his first race with Ferrari team mate Michael Schumacher.