Scott Muir straps into Skip...
Scott Muir straps into Skip Barber's No. 99 car during open lapping and passing sessions. Barber's goal is to get students to where driving responses and choices come naturally, almost like a reflex. Because when you're heal-toe downshifting into turns at over 100 mph, you don't have time to think about it.
Come on, admit it, you've got it too-the nagging. When you chomp your corn flakes in the morning, it's there at the back of your mind and you just can't shake it. How can I become a better racer? Don't deny it-you and every other Circle Track reader is blessed (or burdened) by the same drive, the same passion. So what do you do now?
That's exactly what Los Angeles native Scott Muir asked himself recently. Scott's just like the rest of us-works a job, supports his wife, pays the bills, and escapes all-too-seldom to the racetrack.
So what does it take for a regular Joe like Scott-or you-to take it to the next level? How can you turn a weekend dare-we-say hobby into a bona fide professional racing career?
Well, for starters you've got to be a well-rounded racer to make it to the upper echelon of motorsports today. That means going beyond just wheeling your street stock around the local bullring. It also means familiarizing yourself with different forms of racing at different types of tracks. A road course is just the ticket to spread your wings beyond the four turns we're all used to, and it'll make you a better short track racer too. But exactly how and where to gain that extra experience?
Barber's lead instructor,...
Barber's lead instructor, Mikel Miller, didn't keep students in the classroom very much. The small size of this particular class-just twelve students-afforded a bit more drive time than normal. The majority of the time-upwards of 70 percent-is spent in the car.
To find out, we shipped Every-Day-Joe Scott and his cohort Jim Frye out of L.A. to the cooler climes of Monterey, California, the West Coast home of the Skip Barber Racing School at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca. After Skip Barber, the pair continued north to Jim Russell Racing Drivers School at Infineon Raceway. Skip Barber and Jim Russell are two premier West Coast road racing schools where you can get on your way to being that well-rounded racer along with a Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) competitive racing license.
Scott's first stop: Skip Barber. "It's well respected, and it's been around a long time," said Scott. "Plus it's at Laguna Seca-a world-famous track with the world-famous Corkscrew."
Patrick Linn, a drag racer from Orlando, Florida, came to get his regional license with plans to take the two-day advanced course in Sebring, Florida, for a national license. "This is my first race school ever," he said. "And my first time on a road course. I'll never drag race again."
Under the hood of a Barber...
Under the hood of a Barber car: a Dodge four-cylinder motor and a Ricardo Engineering five-speed sequential gearbox are tucked inside a steel-tube chassis with a fiberglass shell.
Matt Thill, from Phoenix, Arizona, said, "Besides getting my license, I picked Skip Barber because it has its own race series, and that's a big selling point. You can go race its car, race its stuff, its tires, and you don't have to have the heavy outlay of cash for the vehicle and the maintenance."
The Skip Barber car is an open wheel, single-seater Formula Ford, with a Dodge four-cylinder motor that tips the scales at 1,250 pounds. You get 150 hp at 5,800 rpm with maximum torque reaching 126 lb-ft at 5,200 rpm. Cranking through the Ricardo Engineering five-speed sequential gearbox will get you to a top speed of 135 mph on BFGoodrich g-Force Traction T/A street tires.
These cars were built for racing; there wasn't much civilized about them. "You can't just flick it around like a street car," said Scott. "Shifting gears takes a good pull or push, not a wimpy little movement." But that's not to say the car wasn't responsive. It was quick to react to load transfer, steering inputs, braking, and acceleration. "Because the car weighs so little," said Scott, "it takes no time at all to react to your inputs."
The Track-and That Famous Corkscrew OK, let's get this out of the way-the Corkscrew is fun. Plain and simple. "It's a pure joy to drive," said Scott. "The approach was actually scarier than the Corkscrew itself." You can't see where you're heading as you crest over the hill-you need to set yourself up correctly from the beginning, because there's no time for correction once you're in. "It's an absolute thrill."
The Track-And That Famous Corkscrew
Scott says he was pretty anxious-almost...
Scott says he was pretty anxious-almost apprehensive-about getting into those cars that first morning. The initial driving session is on an autocross course to get students accustomed to the cars. "I'd never driven an open-wheel car," says Scott. "It was awesome that they put us on an autocross course first. It definitely helped with the nerves."
OK, let's get this out of the way-the Corkscrew is fun. Plain and simple. "It's a pure joy to drive," said Scott. "The approach was actually scarier than the Corkscrew itself." You can't see where you're heading as you crest over the hill-you need to set yourself up correctly from the beginning, because there's no time for correction once you're in. "It's an absolute thrill."
But there's more to Laguna Seca than just the famous Corkscrew. The track is perfect for learning because it combines high-speed and low-speed corners, challenging turns with more than one apex, and lots of runoff to accommodate student mistakes. Driving just a few laps is worth the price of admission-although there was a lot more driving than that.
Here's the quick and dirty. Day one: fundamentals of downshifting, braking, racing lines, getting a feel for the car and for the track-useful for less experienced drivers. Day two: high-speed braking, trail braking-more intense and perfect for learning how to handle a race car. Day three: passing, drafting, race starts and re-starts-definitely got you ready for your first competitive racing event.
What a drop! When it comes...
What a drop! When it comes to the famous Corkscrew at Laguna Seca, one of the home track's to Skip Barber's racing school, your approach is everything because you can't see over the crest of the hill. To set yourself up, you need to aim for a pre-determined tree on the far side of the turn. The Corkscrew drops 59 feet in only 450 feet of track length between the entrance of Turn 8 and the exit of Turn 8A.
"The curriculum has been around for 30 years," said Mikel Miller, the lead instructor. "It's designed to teach you what you need to know to race when you walk out of here after your third day." Upwards of 70 percent of the time is spent in the car.
"Mistakes happen," said Miller, "and as long as you learn from them, you won't be reprimanded." It's this philosophy that permeated the entire three days, creating an atmosphere where you weren't afraid to screw up.
The instructors for this particular three-day school all came up through the racing ranks, which means they know exactly what it takes to make the jump into a racing career.
"Being a racing teacher has taught me to approach things more methodically," said Miller. "I've learned that you need to approach racing like you'd approach a business. It takes a certain amount of money and it takes persistence. So you need to approach it methodically like you do a career."
Jim Russell's chief instructor,...
Jim Russell's chief instructor, Nicolas Roundet, is a French-born, Brazil-raised triathlete with 12 years of racing under his belt and multiple wins and championships in the trophy case.
Fellow instructor Steve "Stevie" DeBrecht said that Skip Barber's biggest endorsement is the fact that the industry's heavy hitters send their kids there. "We've seen the Andretti clan, Alex Gurney, the Unsers," said DeBrecht. "Go ahead and look at the Grand Am grid these days and I defy you to show me a dozen guys who haven't passed through Skip Barber at some point."
What advice does Scott have for guys interested in coming to Skip Barber? "Bring paper to take notes on," he said. "I ran out of room writing on the back of my track map." Also, he said don't show up as a know-it-all. "Listen to what's being taught and don't shut it out. You need to realize that you are probably doing some stuff wrong and you can learn." And most importantly, he said, "Take advantage of the fact that you have professional instructors all around the track critiquing your driving. It's a rare opportunity to get this level of attention."
You Should Go To Skip Barber If...
You want to drive a race car around one of the country's most famous tracks and through one of the country's most famous turns-the Corkscrew! Or, you can attend at any number of tracks where Skip Barber operates around the country. This school is for anyone who wants to learn the fundamentals of becoming a race car driver in a fun, supportive atmosphere from some of the industry's top instructors.
Jim Russell's FJR-50s are...
Jim Russell's FJR-50s are powered by this four-cylinder, 2.0-liter turbocharged Mitsubishi IX spec motor. It pushes 300 hp at 7,500 rpm and 273 lb-ft of torque in race mode. Additionally, it has MIVEC double overhead camshafts and a Haltech E8 with Vishnu bespoke mapping.
Now, on to Jim Russell in Sonoma, California-smack in the middle of California's beautiful Napa Valley. Infineon Raceway is home to everything from Open Wheel to American Le Mans to NASCAR, which just completed its twenty-first year there. The track is a 2.52-mile road course with 12 turns-the NASCAR course has 10 turns at 1.99 miles. Infineon features more than 160 feet of elevation change from its highest to lowest points. And it has Turn 6-the famous Carousel, which at more than 180-degrees, is a sweeping, downhill lefthander that seems to go on forever.
"This track is probably the most challenging track in the world, definitely the United States," said senior instructor Rick McCormick. "If you look at the professional drivers from Indy, NASCAR, Le Mans, they'll tell you that this track hones your skills. If you can drive here you can drive anywhere."
Arriving that first morning, Scott had one thing on his mind-the FJR-50 race car he was about to drive. It's the most intimidating vehicle Scott had ever sat in: A single-seater Formula 3 with a four-cylinder, turbo-charged Mitsubishi IX spec motor, which puts out 300 hp at 7,500 rpm and 273 lb-ft of torque in race mode-although the school trim is 225 hp and 225 lb-ft of torque.
Rick McCormick is a force...
Rick McCormick is a force to be reckoned with as he gives feedback to the group after a braking exercise. Dan Cass (black shirt) says he came to the three-day class because, "I did the karting school and Rick said he'd beat me to death until I signed up for the three-day school." Hey, whatever it takes.
It sports a Hewland sequential five-speed gearbox in a Lola-designed chassis and wears Yokohama F3 spec racing slicks on all four corners. And they stuff all of this into a neat and tidy package weighing less than 1,300 pounds with driver.
"This is the best car in the industry for a school," said McCormick. "Nobody has a car like this."
Class participant Dan Cass had a keen respect for these cars: "I was more intimated to get into these cars than I was to get into an aircraft to do acrobatics at 10,000 feet," he said. He was referring to the fact that he had just completed an aerial combat exercise in a military plane two days prior.
"I knew this was serious," said Scott. "This car means business." And they didn't waste any time getting down to business. After 30 minutes of introductions in the classroom, they shifted outside where students quickly topped 100 mph in braking exercises. This is where Scott's problem started.
Scott gets into the two-seater...
Scott gets into the two-seater instructional car for a lap with Rick McCormick. "Make sure you get taught the proper way of driving," says Rick. "There are a lot clubs out there where you're basically being taught by a volunteer. Do your research. Here we've got professional instructors and people who do this for a living."
Let me explain: The day before traveling up to Sonoma, Scott fell and injured his tailbone. "When I first sat in the car, I didn't know if this was going to work," said Scott. And his fears were confirmed during that first braking exercise. "The pressure on my tailbone was so intense during shifting and braking that I couldn't concentrate because of the pain. I thought I was done." But the Jim Russell crew worked like a finely tuned pit crew to ensure Scott's comfort.
The Jim Russell school claims to have one goal in mind: To offer drivers the most authentic and complete driving experience possible. So how does it do this?
Day One: Classroom instruction paled in comparison to actually getting into the cars-those incredibly powerful yet agile cars-and blasting through a high-speed braking exercise on the dragstrip. Students hammered through five gears of clutchless up-shifting to more than 100 mph then broke hard while heel-toe downshifting. Then again. And again. Until it became second nature.
The afternoon saw slalom exercises designed to help drivers better understand how to rotate the car between cones, then lead-follow track sessions to learn the racing line.
In the two-seater instructional...
In the two-seater instructional car, the instructor rides along as the students spin and squeal through figure-eights to demonstrate how to control under- and oversteer.
Day Two: Students squealed through figure-eight exercises to learn how to harness over- and understeer. They then zoomed down to Turn 11 to practice smooth brake release before spending the remainder of the afternoon in lead-follow and open lapping sessions.
Day Three: The last day, students drove tons of open lapping with instructor feedback. The day wrapped up with students hopping into a two-seater car with an instructor at the wheel for one final, high-speed lap to show you how it's done.
"The limits of the car are so great that just trying to approach them is difficult," said Kerry Babinksi, a class participant who flew in from Albuquerque, New Mexico.
The instructors are accomplished racers and industry heavyweights. McCormick started at Jim Russell in 1990 as a mechanic in the training program. He landed a couple rides, got into Sprint Car, then landed the gig as a full-time instructor. "Here, we teach the ground-up basics of racing," said McCormick. "These are skills that apply in oval track too."
The Jim Russell success-story poster boy, though, is instructor and alumni Dane Cameron, who came up through the karting program. He won the 2005 championship, got a partial scholarship with the graduate run-offs, moved into open-wheel cars, and has been competing nationally ever since. (Grand Am Rolex series)
Through the esses after Turn...
Through the esses after Turn 7B at Infineon Raceway, home of the Jim Russell School. The berms are painted blue and gold in honor of Track President Steve Page's alma matter, Berkeley.
"Jim Russell was a huge step for me to get into racing," said Cameron. "It was definitely what got me to the next level."
Scott's Two Cents
"Don't injure your tailbone before you go," says Scott. And he's not joking-try to be in tip-top shape for the school. This is a physically demanding experience. Honing reaction time, adjusting to different cars and learning the nuances of reading a track are all things you can take back to the short track. Come in with an open mind and listen to the instructors. No matter who you are or what you drive, you can improve your game.
You Should Go To Jim Russell If...
You're interested in driving an incredibly dynamic race car around one of the country's most famous racetracks. But also, it's for anyone who's serious about getting professional instruction to move your racing career forward. Because of the seriousness of these cars, a level of experience will better position you if you want to drive here-but a person with no experience will still learn a ton and have a great time doing it.
But Aren't These Schools Only For Road Racers?
No. The skills learned are very similar to those used by circle track drivers. "Most formula car drivers have gone through Skip Barber at some point," said Skip Barber's Kris Wilson. "But the same goes for IndyCar drivers and Stock Car drivers, such as the Jeff Gordons and the Jimmy Johnsons."
McCormick, with Jim Russell, said that circle track drivers get a huge benefit from attending racing school. "A.J. Foyt, Mario Andretti, they'd drive anything to improve their skill," he said. "They were well-rounded drivers. Road racing will make you work with its left and right turns. You can improve reaction times, adapt to new situations and challenges quicker, and analyze the track surfaces better through road racing."
Fellow instructor Cameron added, "Road racing has become more and more important to NASCAR and other major sanctions. There's a lot to learn just in general car control and basic techniques."
So What's Next?
Turn 2, Day 2. Infineon has...
Turn 2, Day 2. Infineon has more than 160 feet of elevation change, from 174 feet at its highest point to 14 at its lowest.
OK, Scott, you've finished the three-day schools at either Skip Barber or Jim Russell. Now what? "First I pay my $90 national fee to join the SCCA, which is needed for the license." Then Scott visits his doctor-a physical is required. Next, he contacts the school for his Letter of Compliance. And finally, he sends the letter and all the forms to the SCCA, and buys everyone a round of beers once the license shows up in the mail.
Well, Scott with all this great schooling we'll see you in Victory Lane!
**Online: To watch Scott's race-school adventures, check him out online at www.circletrack.com.
Can You Afford These Schools?
These schools ain't cheap-but they're worth every cent. If you save your pennies, here's what you'll need
School: $3,870 (includes damage waiver)
Skip Barber Letter of Compliance: $225 (after completion)
Racing shoes: $129
Racing gloves: $84 (optional)
Hotel: $400 for three nights
Gas from/to LA: $45 x 3 tanks = $135
Food: 3 dinners, about $50 (you're in Monterrey)
Earplugs (for racing buddy's snoring): $5
Total Skip Barber trip cost: $4,898
School: $4,795 (includes damage waiver-potential $7,000 liability)
Jim Russell Letter of Compliance: $200
Roundtrip flight to/from San Francisco: $140
Rental car for 3 days: $125
Racing shoes: $129
Racing gloves: $84 (optional)
Hotel: $225 for three nights (Cheap, no-frills hotel. Arrests in the parking lot)
Gas from/to racetrack: $50
Food: 3 dinners, about $50 (Breakfast and lunch included in school fee)
Earplugs: $5 (which you bought last trip but forgot to bring this time for racing buddy's snoring)
Medicated heat pads to relieve butt pain: $8
Total Jim Russell trip cost: $5,811
Additional License Costs
SCCA membership: $90 per year (depending on location)
SCCA License Application Fee: $80
A doctor's physical: $20 co-pay (HMO)