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.'

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 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 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.

Once you achieve being smooth and finding the preferred line around the track, you are assigned a partner. Together, the two of you are paired for the remainder of the class. Round one is drafting practice where you take turns following each other around the track a mere six feet apart. By the way, when you're sitting in these full-bodied stock cars, six feet looks a lot closer than it actually is. I was genuinely surprised at how many of the racers in our group had trouble closing the gap, but Holman says that is not at all uncommon even for seasoned short trackers.

The next exercise is a passing drill. Hillenburg's school actually teaches you a very valuable piece of information that you will often read in the pages of Circle Track. That is the best place to pass is coming off of a corner, not going into it. If you don't believe that, this passing exercise will convince you. You gain a far better appreciation of the importance of passing at the right spot on the track in a big, heavy stock car at faster speeds than say in a Street Stock.

The passing drill was a lot of fun but you have to resist the temptation to check out on your partner after you complete the pass, otherwise they'll miss their shot at passing you on the next go-around.

You perform both the drafting and passing exercises multiple times for ten laps each session, always under the watchful eyes of the instructors. And with each passing lap, both you and your partner get better and faster.

The grand finale which actually takes place on the Day Two of the class is a 16 lap at speed four pack racing session. That exercise is designed to give you a true and accurate representation of what it is like to work a car in a pack. Both Bolles and I were amazed at how much buffeting goes on in a pack even on a mile and a half track. Sure you can watch a NASCAR race at Talladega and see the cars jumping around on TV, but until you feel it, really feel it, you have no idea how important car control really is. Everybody in the class agreed that the grand finale was the most eye opening experience of the weekend.

The school wraps up with a session back in the media center where all the students receive certificates, diplomas in speed, if you will, and then the opportunity to talk more with the instructors. We took the chance to sit down with a few of the weekly racers to see what they thought of the two day education in speed and, more importantly, whether or not it was money well spent.

"It was all I was expecting and more," said A. J. Watson. "It was awesome. The experience alone was worth everything." Watson, a dirt late-model racer from Georgia, has been behind the wheel for 12 years, eight in go-karts and then four in his late-model, all of them on dirt. He came to the school, his first ever laps on asphalt, to find out not only if he could do it but if he wanted to do it. What he found was extremely valuable, especially about remaining smooth and consistent all the way around the track, something he says he'll take with him back to dirt.

"I don't care if you race go-karts, full-bodied cars, dirt, asphalt, whatever, it's all related someway," says A.J. whose nickname is "Sideways." "I think wherever you race you can take it somewhere else and apply it." The biggest thing Sideways learned? "Keeping smooth and consistent about everything."

Sideways' experience is not unlike the other students in the class. Veronica McCann is an accomplished sprint car driver from Australia who, like Watson, boasts more than a decade of dirt racing experience. She wanted to try her hand at racing paved ovals, but there are really only two types of racing in Australia, dirt ovals and paved road courses.

"I came out to America to run Lyn St. James' driver development program," says McCann. "She asked me what I wanted to do and I said I wanted to run paved ovals. I can't do that in Australia so here was the only other option, which doesn't bother me. I've always wanted to come out to America."

McCann who has run IndyPro cars as part of the St. James program, has attended other racing schools but found her Fast Track experience exceptionally educational. "I think this school is very, very knowledgeable. These guys know what they're talking about so it makes you comfortable in the cars. I didn't stop learning all week."

McCann, a.k.a. "Red Hot Roni" is headed back to Australia for the summer to run a dirt late-model, her first time in that type of car, but will return to the States in the fall to continue her pursuit of an asphalt career. The 24 year old also said that her experience at Fast Track helped convince her of the type of asphalt career she wanted to pursue; full-bodied stock cars.

The youngest student in the class was 17 year old Chase Mattioli, the grandson of Pocono Raceway founder and owner Drs. Joe and Rose Mattioli. Unlike McCann and Sideways, Mattioli has a laundry list of racecars that he has driven; Quarter midgets, Allison legacy series, Legend cars, front-wheel-drive pony stocks, formula Fords and formula Mazdas as well as a Supertruck that he runs at Music City Motoplex, the Nashville, Tenn., half-mile that is home to the prestigious All American 400 late-model race.

Even though Mattioli had experience in so many different cars, he was quick to admit that he learned some very specific and important lessons during the two day school. "I learned a lot about throttle control. It was all about being smooth. In the past, it was something where I would just let my foot right off the pedal and it would do so much to me in the turn I never even knew about it, especially doing my oval stuff," explains the soon-to be college freshman. "Going and racing road courses, you'd think coming back and doing an oval would be so much easier but it's a totally different world and if you think you can pick it up just because you can drive that, you're wrong."

Mattioli wasn't the only road course racer in the bunch. Twenty year old Amy Elizondo has accomplished much behind the wheel in her 13 years of racing from wins in quarter midgets to legends cars. But she made her mark in 2005 in the ASA ProAutoSports Challenge Series in her home state of Arizona. That season, she captured not only the series Rookie of the Year award but also the Series Championship.

Now, you might think that racing full-bodied trucks on a twisty road course like Firebird International Raceway would have little relation to a big oval track like Lowe's Motor Speedway but that couldn't be further from the truth. "What I learned will make passing so much easier even on road courses," says Elizondo, who has her eyes set on ARCA as her next step. "Because setting up for the turns, you still have the apexes, you still have the straightaway, but (the classes teach you) to find the drafting zone and then make the pass smoother without taking one or both of you out. Not that I've ever done that."

In fact, Amy's on track driving record would make any highway patrolman proud, but that's another story. Her Fast Track experience was a far cry from what she is used to in the trucks. "It's completely different, you have to be smooth with the throttle, be smooth with the wheel, but the application process is very good."

It was pretty easy to tell that the students in this class gained valuable information from the course. Many hung around hours after the class had ended, discussing their experiences, potential next steps and other ways of advancing their racing careers. One of those next steps could be a one-on-one session with Fast Track founder Andy Hillenburg. For those students who are serious about getting to the next step in big track full-bodied stock car competition, Fast Track's Advanced Course is a half-day one-on-one session at the track of your choice. Hillenburg guides you through 100 laps of progressively faster lap times where the best students can actually achieve ARCA competition speeds. Throughout the course, Hillenburg is in constant radio contact with you as you make laps, giving you pointers, adjusting your line and so on.

Whether any of the students in our class choose to take that advanced class, pursue moving up the ladder or remain at the local level, one thing was unanimous: The experience of running these full-bodied stock cars around the big track at Lowe's Motor Speedway is going to make all of us better racers regardless of what we race or where we race it.

While Fast Track focuses on one type of car, there are numerous other schools around the country that tackle other racing disciplines. We'll be hunting those schools down and investigating their programs throughout the year as part of an ongoing effort to help you, our Circle Track readers, become the Ultimate Racer.

For me, going to the Fast Track driving school at Lowes Motor Speedway was a chance to experience the feeling of the car and how it reacts to the cornering forces. I drew on past conversations with numerous drivers and then tried to feel the very same reactions as the car approached maximum velocity through the turns.

The instructors at this school have done this for a very long time and their experience was evident. We were allowed to progress along as quickly as we felt comfortable and as long as, in their observations, we were smooth and hit our marks on the track. The single car session on the first day was our chance to go as fast as we wanted.

I personally feel very comfortable with racecars and have a good feel for what they are doing and wanting to do. So, I progressed fairly quickly. I was afraid they would object, but they did not, only commenting on my high entry to turn three on one lap. I knew what I did when it happened. It reminded me of an old story a friend once shared.

A newer Cup team was testing at Richmond one year and being off by a full second, they asked Dale Earnhardt, Sr. if he could take the car for a few laps to see if he could tell them what was wrong. He went out and picked up almost the full second they were missing. The difference was in how the two drivers modulated the throttle. Dale rolled on and off the throttle while the other driver lifted and accelerated too quickly.

On my flying lap where I missed the turn three entry, I too had to modulate the throttle to get the car down again to properly exit turn four. I could feel what it was like and how the car reacted. So, I learned a bunch. I think it makes me a better race engineer when I have a better understanding of how drivers do their jobs. And that makes experiences like these well worth it in addition to being a blast to do.

SOURCE
Fast Track High Performance Driving School RaceQuip (Helmets)
www.racequip.com
G-Force (Racing Suits)
www.gforce.com
Dragonslayer Safety Equipment (Gloves & Shoes)
www.dragonslayersafety.com
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