A driver's education
By Steve Lange
I’ve had the race car’s gas pedal mashed to the floor for a mile and a half—all the way down the 4,700-foot straightaway and through turns one and two, which have been called the “fastest two corners of any racetrack in North America.”
It’s the first time, in today’s 25 laps on the three-mile long road course of Brainerd International Raceway, that I’ve been able to keep it floored this far.
And it feels fast. Maybe 125 fast. Maybe 130. I’ve caught the group of cars in front of me. Made it known that, oh yeah, I’m going to pass them. I mean, I could be a damn race car driver.
I’m using the phrase “gas pedal mashed to the floor” for god’s sake. Like I’m some North Carolinian NASCAR driver.
But then, just as I’m imagining drinking champagne in victory lane following my Daytona 500 win, I brake too late, turn too early, and downshift too late into turn three, the 130-degree righthander. The back end of the 110-horsepower, 1,400-pound Spec Racer spins around like I just hit a patch of black ice.
My adrenal gland instantly releases large quantities of adrenaline and noradrenaline hormones into my bloodstream. Heart and respiration rates increase. Pupils and arteries dilate.
My body instantly feels like a giant tension headache.
I steer instinctively (raised in Michigan) into the skid and let my foot off the gas. But, really, I’m thinking about what one of the other drivers said during the morning meeting: “I don’t want to die out here.”
The Monday morning drivers’ meeting is all nervous laughter.
One hundred-plus people are jammed in a couch-strewn, standing-room only space just a few hundred feet from the start of the straightaway at Brainerd International Raceway.
Ninety or so of the attendees will be driving their own cars—everything from Ford Mustangs to Ferrari F-50s. Past classes have included tricked-out Dodge Neons and the Ultima-manufactured GTR, a 200-mph supercar.
Eight of us will be renting the Spec Racers, a one-design class (built to tight specifications) of low-slung, one-seaters that make up one of the most popular entry-level racing cars in the U.S.
Before we get our first instruction—but after we’ve signed the always-terrifying liability waiver—everyone in the room is asked to introduce themselves and say something about their racing experience or what they hope to get from the class. Two-thirds of us, it turns out, have little or no time on a race track.
One woman says she’s here as a ride-along spectator, “just trying to make sure [her] boyfriend doesn’t get killed.” Nervous laughter.
Another introductee says he just wants to “get through the day without rolling [his] car or dying out there.” Nervous laughter.
Gary Curtis, the director of and lead instructor for BIR Performance Driving School, assures us that, in his 16 years of teaching, no student has ever been injured.
But then he also warns us that these are real situations with real cars going real fast. Tells us that the light rain will make the straightway, or at least the surface of the straightaway that’s used for drag racing, “slicker than anything you’ve ever driven on.” He tells the drivers who’ve brought their own cars to take the coins out of the ashtrays and any cans and bottles out from under the seats. So that nothing gets jammed under your pedals. And so nothing flies around and smacks into you in case your car rolls.
BIR’s dozen instructors include everyone from Derek Wagner (who has only had his driver’s license for two years but has 400 races under his belt) to Curtis (a motorcycle-turned-car racer who also won the American Le Mans Panoz GTS Pro Series in 2001) to 55-year-old Herm Johnson, the Wisconsin racing legend with two top-ten finishes in the Indy 500 (1982 and 1984).
The instructors will ride along with those who have brought their own cars, offering on-course advice (“Pull the steering wheel through the corner”; “Get that hand off the shifter and back on the wheel”). They will, if you want, drive your car around the track, with you as the passenger, to show you how to mash the gas and go.
Despite all the talk of rising gas prices and bicycling to work, Curtis says the Performance Driving School’s attendance is slated to double this year, to 1,500 drivers in the season’s dozen driving school dates and various corporate events. And while the majority of drivers seem to be 20-somethings—the kind of 20-somethings that look like they might be drag racing on dark side streets—the class includes plenty of 40- and 50-year-old men and a handful of women.
“Sixteen years ago, we might get one woman per season,” says Curtis. “Now, women make up about 20 percent of our students. And they get a lot out of it, because they tend to listen more during my presentation.”
Curtis’ presentation, a 90-minute long Power Point on a big screen TV, focuses mostly on common sense, safety, and “smoothness.”
“Smoothness is the ultimate goal,” he says. “Smoothness means safe and fast.” There’s even a formula. “Concentration plus technique plus preciseness plus consistency equals smoothness.” C+T+P+Cy=S.
Curtis thankfully keeps the specifics to a minimum, instead stressing the basics like running a smooth line through the turns, accelerating smoothly, braking in a smooth manner. He’s calm and collected. He’s heard his share of nervous laughter.
“I’ve got the greatest job,” he says. “Everyone I deal with is happy. It’s like coming to Disneyland. You watch someone get into the car and they have no confidence and look like they’ll never make it through, and by the end they feel like race car drivers. We’ve got the same people who come back year after year.”
“We get eight or nine corporate events per season,” he says. “Groups come in, and I can see the cliques. I can see that people from one department don’t talk to people from another department. It’s like high school. Then, after a half day on the track they’re all talking to each other. Giving each other high-fives. They have something in common now as a group. People who probably haven’t talked to each other in a year have something to talk about.”
After the presentation, we head to the semi trailer parked behind pit lane. Inside, we get fitted for racing suits, helmets and gloves. We’re strapped into the Spec Racers and, just like that, head out onto the course, single file behind the instructor’s bright yellow pace car. Each one of us spends one lap following directly behind, then driving directly in front of, the instructor. If he thinks you’re ready to race, he waves you on. That’s it. You’re on your own, driving as fast as common sense—and your car—tells you.
“The steering wheel will tell you when to straighten out from a turn,” Curtis told us earlier. The weight transfer will tell you when to accelerate. The engine sounds will tell you when to shift.
Apparently, though, I don’t speak car.
In the first six laps, I am doing everything wrong. Driving too hard and too fast. Jabbing at the breaks, sawing the wheel. Then, at the end of our first half-hour, ten-lap session, the smoothness talk starts to make sense.
And while the cars do not have speedometers and we never see our lap times—“That’s by design, it would be a testosterone fest out there,” says Curtis—I start to feel fast. I’m listening to the engine tell me when to shift. Listening to the steering wheel telling me when to come out of a turn. I can keep the pedal to the floor from the start of the straightaway through most of turn one. I pass my first Spec Car just before the spotters wave the checkered flag signaling the end of our first session.
When the eight Spec Racers park in the pits and get out of our cars, we give each other smiles and nods and high-fives. And we don’t even know each other.
After a box lunch it’s back on the track for the second of three 25-minute sessions (we’re part of the $785, three-session Spec Car package; the six-session, full-day package runs $1,395).
By the end of session three, I can keep up with even some of the faster street cars through turns three through nine, though the Ferraris and the Ford GT-40s are hitting 160-plus on the straightaway.
At one point, one of the other Spec Racers, just in front of me, comes out of turn ten too fast and suddenly he’s gone, sliding across the race track, through the grass, into the sand. It looks pretty violent, but nothing and no one gets hurt. The guy later describes it as “pretty scary ... but pretty cool.”
Then comes that perfect straightaway, and those first two turns flat-out. Then I make my late-breaking, early turning, late downshifting mistake into the hairpin. When I release the clutch, with the car already into the turn, the unexpected lateral load spins the back end around.
I let off the gas and steer into the skid and, just when I think I’m heading ass-end off the track, the rear end whips back around and the car straightens out as fast as it got loose.
The adrenaline is really flowing, and, for a split second, I think that maybe I should take it a bit easier. Maybe let off the gas in turn two next time around.
But that group of cars that I had just caught is already getting away from me. In my rearview mirror, I see another Spec Car coming up fast.
I mash the gas and go.