If I beat Bob Lutz Thursday, most of the credit goes to Skip Barber and its Advanced Two Day Mazdaspeed Racing School. It transformed me from a safe-but-rusty track driver into one that's competitive and confident. Watch your ass, Bob.
Full Disclosure: Skip Barber provided me with this racing school free of charge because they really want Bob to lose. Or, Wert's just very nice at asking. Either way.
Held at Connecticut's Lime Rock Park, I drove the Mazda MX-5 Cup Racecar over the Formula 2000 car in the hope that it'd be more relevant to the Jaguar XFR sedan I'll be driving in the race — both were sorta owned by Ford, so I figured it couldn't hurt. As an added bonus, completing the course qualifies me to race MX-5s in the Skip Barber Mazdaspeed challenge.
The advanced two day program is designed for students who've already completed the three-day fundamentals of racing course and is much more lap-intensive than that initial program. I've completed a few other racing and advanced driving courses at other schools, but going into this, hadn't had any experience with Skip Barber.
The largest racing school in the world, Skip Barber visits 22 tracks in this country and is widely reputed to be the last word in driver training. The school's namesake and founder is one of only a handful of Americans to drive in Formula One and essentially invented the idea that driving could be coached, just like more traditional sports. The school was founded in 1975.
I was largely skeptical of the Skip Barber hype going into this-after all, how different could driving schools be?-but quickly found myself in a little over my head with classmates who were already up to a pretty good speed; two straight from the three-day course and one who'd already done this advanced course seven times this year.
One big advantage the other students had over me was confidence in braking while turning, something that none of the other schools I've attended have taught. Traveling flat out in fifth down the main straight, you turn into Lime Rock's turn 1 very, very late while braking and downshifting into 4th gear, then turning harder and shifting down to 3rd. The theory behind this makes total sense-just like accelerating, you can brake while turning in an inverse relationship to how far the wheel is turned-but after having "brake in a straight line" drilled into me over and over elsewhere it took a certain leap of faith to trust the car wouldn't spin, even if the classroom sessions explained clearly why it wouldn't.
Luckily, there were only three other students driving MX-5s and more instructors than students, so they had ample time to
browbeat encourage me to pick up my pace. My lead instructor was Bruce MacInnes, widely considered the leading driving instructor in the country, his former students include Tom Cruise and Paul Newman. Positioned around the track during lapping sessions, they provide instantaneous feedback via radio and detailed analysis immediately following each session. Other instructors take to the track with the students, demonstrating how to apply the improvements that are being suggested. It's a system of continuous, individual feedback that's broken down corner by corner and delivered in a few different ways. I'm typically a slow learner (in addition to just being slow), but I found myself able to implement their lessons on the next lap, probably because their analysis was so clear and immediate. As a result, I felt myself improving lap after lap, throughout both days.
The cars we were driving weren't just plain Mazda MX-5s, but Cup Racecars. Over the standard vehicle, they add a $5500 Mazda racing package that includes a new intake and exhaust, boosting power from 167 to 200 HP. There's also remote reservoir Eibach dampers, considerably stiffer Eibach springs, solid antiroll bars, racing brake pads and 225/45WR-17 tires. The cars are also stripped of their interiors and soft tops, have a full cage welded in and you sit in racing buckets with five-point harnesses facing a removable wheel. The whole thing weighs just 2,600 Lbs. In short, it's a real race car with much improved throttle response, steering and outright grip. It's an extremely neutral car that'll understeer if you push it too fast into corners and let you tighten your line if you lift the throttle, making it near perfect to learn on. I just wish the Jaguar was going to half as adjustable on the limit.