It's 8:00am and the mercury has already crested 80 degrees. But for now we're inside the air conditioned media center at Lowe's Motor Speedway in Charlotte, NC. Bob Bolles and I have come to this mecca of big-time NASCAR racing to find out if a short track racer can find some value in attending one of the many NASCAR-style race schools available today. Often these schools are geared toward giving fans the "chance" or "experience" of driving a "real" Nextel Cup-style racecar.
Our school of choice was Andy Hillenburg's Fast Track High Performance Driving School. Hillenburg, the 1995 ARCA Series Champion, has run the school since 1989 and has an alumni list that boasts some pretty well known names: Earnhardt, Lasoski and Kinser to name a few. Unlike other fan oriented racing schools, there is no follow-the-leader format here; we were going to be solo driving 800hp stock cars by 11:00am.
Still, as students gathered in the spacious foyer of the media center I couldn't help but think to myself, 'what if they're all just fans? What a waste of time this'll be.'
While the class walks the...
While the class walks the entire track, Lead Instructor, Sheldon Holman, shows the proper line around the 1.5 mile speedway. It turned out to be a lot trickier than it looks on TV.
Needless to say, all my fears were put to rest when lead instructor Sheldon Holman had us go around the room and introduce ourselves; two dirt late-model drivers, an Australian dirt sprint car driver, two road racers and an asphalt late-model driver. So out of the class of 11 students, six of them were bona-fide short track racers, several with more than a decade of driving experience. At that moment I knew we were on to something.
Class starts out with an in depth discussion on the safety equipment in the cars including the belts, helmets and HANS devices (Fast Track mandates that all students wear one).
Then it's outside to walk the track. As Holman talks with the class, an instructor drives the school van through the preferred groove around the track. Lowe's Motor Speedway actually has two racing grooves but Holman doesn't talk about that until later. He points out idiosyncrasies of each turn in addition to explaining how the car should feel and react at different spots on the track.
Holman, who actually went to high school with Hillenburg in Indianapolis, has been working at Fast Track for 13 years. Ironically, after high school the pair became step-brothers when Holman's mother married Andy's father. Holman later came to Charlotte on vacation and never went back. "In fact, I started working for Andy on that vacation," he says.
Holman gets help showing the...
Holman gets help showing the line from the school van around Lowe's Motor Speedway the entire time our class walked the track.
Holman leads a team of qualified instructors, all of whom have big track experience, in teaching students about racing heavy stock cars. For many years, Fast Track was one of just two race schools where you could go to drive a NASCAR-style stock car, as such classes tended to be populated by fans. Then, Andy signed on to become the Official Driving School of ARCA and steadily the class demographic began to change.
"That (ARCA relationship) was a big help, but we've also been getting more word of mouth going among racers. If you want to get big track driving experience there really is no other racing school that does what we do," says Sheldon.
Holman wasn't kidding. We had looked at several racing schools for this story and settled on Fast Track because we would get to solo drive the cars for the majority of the school. In fact, the only time we had an instructor with us was at the very beginning after we were through with walking the track. That's when we got in our street cars with an instructor in the passenger's seat and drove the track to demonstrate that we knew the proper line around Charlotte's 1.5 mile tri-oval. Because of the track's dogleg front stretch, that line requires you to drive straight toward the wall at two places on the track, coming out of turn four and coming out of the dogleg before you enter turn one. It's a whole new perspective when you intentionally drive straight toward the wall. You get five laps to get it right in your passenger car with your instructor before you head off to the changing rooms to suit up.
The tell tale sign of a real...
The tell tale sign of a real dirt racer is found on A.J. "Sideways" Watson's shoes, proving that Fast Track is no fan school.
The first solo drive was a ten lap run where you're on the track with one other car, but you're spaced out so you actually never see the other driver. Lowe's Motor Speedway was far and away the biggest and fastest racetrack that I had ever driven and I really didn't want to wreck one of Hillenburg's cars, so I decided to heed Instructor Sheldon's advice and increase speed gradually lap after lap as I got more comfortable with the track and the handling of the car.
Fast Track instructors are spaced around the track to keep a watchful eye on all students and all are in radio communication with one another. If they like what they see in your line, the instructor in the flagstand gives you the signal to go faster. 4,500 rpm...5,500...6,500..., pretty soon I found myself cracking that 7,000 rpm mark. The car was really stable and felt great. After a few laps at that speed, I guess I got cocky and let my mind wander. I did something Instructor Mike Holt termed early apexing turn three.
When you early apex a turn, any turn, you begin the process of making the turn too soon. If you do that at Charlotte in turn three, you wash up the banking in the center of the corner and completely screw up the exit of turn four. Trust me when I tell you if you want to learn the value of a proper line, early apex turn three at Charlotte at better than 7,000 rpm.
Lesson number one learned: Concentrate on hitting your marks every lap.