To start the on-track festivities,...
To start the on-track festivities, BBRS owner & CEO Jeff Boyer and the other instructors give a few pace laps to warm up the cars as well as perform the missing man formation in honor of Buck. A very nice touch.
Just like in high school driving class, you can watch all the film you want. Somebody can explain how to drive a race car for a week with drawings and technical explanations. But it doesn't mean anything until you're behind the wheel yourself.
Whether you run Late Models, Mini-Stocks, Modifieds, or any other class of racing, you can always benefit from more seat time. Or, if you've only run Mini-Stocks or Limited Late Models and want to move up to ARCA, ASA, USAR, and so on, you need seat time in that type of car. Or if you're a fan and just want to see what racing is all about from the driver's viewpoint, seat time will help you.
Now if you're like a lot of younger racers who read Circle Track you likely have only ever driven one type of race car and going to a different division will bring in a whole new set of challenges that you'll have to tackle if you're going to be successful. You can listen all you want to racers in other series talk about how their car handles or what to expect at a given track, but without that quality seat time it doesn't really mean anything.
That's where a racing school comes in. You'll get an experience, an education, and that all important seat time in a car comparable to your targeted series. A Mini-Stock drives and handles completely different than a Late Model, Modified, or a full-bodied Stock Car. The feel, the setup, vehicle dynamics, even the way you sit in the car is different from division to division. A good school can help you overcome those differences.
So, what do you look for in a racing school? First, you want to find a school that specializes in or has the cars you want to race. You also want to find a school that runs at some of the tracks you aspire to race. Now these tracks don't have to be the exact tracks in your targeted series, but they should be at least similar. Daytona, Talladega, or Indianapolis may be the e-ticket ride, but the experience you get there won't translate to a half-mile bullring.
We had the opportunity to attend the Buck Baker Racing School at the historic North Wilkesboro Speedway. Located in North Carolina, the late NASCAR legend, Buck Baker, started his school 30 years ago because he saw that nothing like it existed for young and upcoming racers. He believed that there was nothing like seat time at a true racing school to get acclimated to full-bodied Stock Cars if you wanted to race in NASCAR, ARCA, ASA, USAR, and the like.
Because of that philosophy the school has always used real NASCAR race cars purchased from teams after they retire the cars. Its current lineup includes former pre-COT Cup cars and a 2007 Nationwide Series car. The cars are detuned from race trim so they can last more than a weekend or two. While that may be a little disappointing to hear, most students won't notice the difference as they are concentrating on other aspects of driving.
When Baker passed away a few years ago, his widow looked to sell the school but most suitors wanted to change the name and the curriculum. That wasn't what Buck would have wanted, so she talked with lead instructor Jeff Boyer about buying the school. Jeff jumped at the chance and is now the owner/CEO. A former, and on occasion, current, ARCA competitor, Jeff came to the school 12 years ago as an instructor.
So, what's the day at a racing school like? You'll first show up and sign in. Like any track you go to, there'll be a waiver to sign and other paperwork related to the school. While you're waiting for everyone else to arrive you can walk around the cars and see what's waiting for you.
Once everyone arrives, the school will have a classroom session where it covers everything from safety while you're at the school to car safety, track safety, and what you should expect to get from attending the school.
After unloading the cars,...
After unloading the cars, the staff prepares them for duty. Here, the former Sprint Cup National Guard car has had the ride height adjusted and just needs to be warmed up. It was 25 degrees that morning, so everything needed a lot of warming up.
Lead instructor, Allan Johnstone,...
Lead instructor, Allan Johnstone, gives a morning classroom or in this case, a pit wall, session on what to expect for the day. Every racing school will have classroom instruction where it will cover track safety, car safety, and a basic overview of the track and how to get around it. This is probably the most important part of the day because if you miss something here it can have dire consequences later on the track.
The instructor is in the car...
The instructor is in the car with you, and can help with even the basics of starting the engine if it's your first time in a race car.
Each school is different, but the Buck Baker School allows anyone who has signed the waiver to be behind the pit wall, around the students and cars. Only students and instructors are allowed beyond pit wall. Our instructor for the day was Allan Johnstone, who has been with the school for six years and knows how to get around the track and how to teach students to do so.
In lieu of a classroom session, Johnstone spoke for a few minutes from atop pit wall and then took us for a track walk. Along the way he pointed out how to get around the track by showing us where to apply the gas or brakes, where to turn into the corner, where to let the car float out to the wall on the straightaways, and more. We also took the time to check for any debris on the track that might have been missed during track prep. In the case of North Wilkesboro, the track has sat vacant for 12 years, so it was especially important to check for debris. (For more on North Wilkesboro Speedway see the sidebar, The Return Of An Old Friend).
During the walk Johnstone emphasized over and over that the class was not about speed. We weren't going to drag race down the straights and then lock up the brakes to get in the corners. No, just like any track, the idea was hitting the marks and getting the rhythm of the track. Once you accomplish that the speed will come.
Even though the car and the track might be different, the same concept applies as in other forms of racing. You have to hit your marks and have a rhythm to get around the track successfully.
Because Buck Baker started...
Because Buck Baker started the school as a true racing school, passing is allowed, but under controlled circumstances. All passes are to the outside and only after the car in front moves down a line and waves. Bad things can happen otherwise.
For example, at Wilkesboro you come out of Turn 4 on the gas. Let the car float out to the wall and then let off the gas just past the flagstand. A tap of the brakes, then you turn into Turn 1. Hug the bottom into Turn 2 and when the car is set, it's back on the gas and let it come out to the wall in the backstretch.
Just past the crossover gate, let off the gas and tap the brakes. There are bumps in Turns 3 and 4. You'll turn into 3 and pretty much miss the bumps, but in Turn 4 you need to either be down at the bottom next to the apron or up a half a lane to miss the bumps. This is crucial because you're getting back on the gas as you go over the bumps. If you're in the wrong place it'll be pancake time in the wall.
You then repeat that for several laps and the addiction kicks in. After that, you're hooked and ready to go for a few hundred laps and get your speed up to qualifying speed. Of course, depending on your experience this probably won't happen your first time in the car or on the track.
Now, it's time to climb into the car. In the passenger seat, that is. Each car has two seats. Your instructor will drive you around the track for five laps showing you where the line is and your marks for gas and braking. Once you come back into the pits, you swap places with the instructor and head out for your first set of laps.
Each school will have various packages to meet your financial or racing needs. In our case, we got four 10-lap sessions. Other schools may do it differently but the Buck Baker School instructors ride along with the students for at least the first session. During that session they will give you hand signals letting you know when to hit the gas, when to brake and when to turn into the corners. They may also adjust your line by moving the steering wheel. In our case, they even grab a hold of your leg to get you off the gas! Oops!
After each session the instructor will go over how you did-where you hit the marks, where you missed the marks, and how to correct that. The post-session discussions are the most important part of the day. The saying, "Practice makes perfect," only works if it's perfect practice.
Because this is a school and...
Because this is a school and not a race, they will keep some distance between the cars. There's no reason to be close when you're in a new race car. Learn the car and track first. Then you can step up to side-by-side racing.
Depending on the racing school...
Depending on the racing school the flagman may use hand signals as well as flags to tell you what's going on. Here, Johnstone demonstrates the "think about what you're doing on the backstretch" signal. Because you're going uphill on the backstretch at North Wilkesboro your braking point is little later than the front, but you need to be on the right line so you can apex Turn 3 correctly.
Here, instructor Tommy Thompson...
Here, instructor Tommy Thompson is going over how to apex a corner after a session on track. Listen to your instructor and ask questions if you don't understand. Then, during your next session you can practice what you've learned, making you faster.
You could drive around for 800 laps but if you're not correcting the problem areas you'll never get better. The mantra, "Slow-is-fast," is repeated over and over. If you learn nothing else that day, you'll remember that. Easy on the gas pedal, easy on the brake pedal, and easy on the steering wheel. The car is setup to go around the track. You simply have to learn how to guide it.
Not all of the students at the racing school are there to get experience for the next step in their career. Some are there simply because they are speed junkies.
Robert Porter from Houston, Texas, has been to several racing schools. Attending a school like the Buck Baker Racing School lets him get his racing fix without the need for owning or maintaining a car. He shows up to the school, gets his laps, and leaves with a wide grin.
Here, Thompson is telling...
Here, Thompson is telling the author that he was turning in too early in Turn 1, which pushes the car up in Turn 2. That scrubs speed off and keeps you from getting back on the gas early and slowing your backtretch speed. Worse case scenario is you push right into the wall.
William Smith usually is found on pit wall in the USAR series or an occasional Camping World Truck Series race. This was his first chance to get behind the wheel and drive. William liked the experience because it gave him a better insight to what the driver is experiencing in the car. "It helps the relationship between crew chief and driver," he said.
Whatever your reason for attending a racing school, you'll definitely enjoy the experience. For some it's a step up, for some its more knowledge, the rest are speed junkies looking to feed their hunger.
The Return Of An Old Friend
Built in 1946, North Wilkesboro Speedway became synonymous with NASCAR-first as a dirt track then as asphalt, after being paved in 1958. The last race was in September 1996 and it has sat silent since then. A few attempts have been made to purchase the track and revitalize it. Now Speedway Associates, Inc. has at least four race events planned for 2010. It's also in the process of renovations that it hopes will revitalize the track and bring racers and fans alike for years to come. On the weekend we attended the school, local fans came out to see the first action on the track in several years. North Wilkesboro mayor, Robert Johnson, is excited that the track is re-opening. As a boy he used to peek through the wooden fences and watch the action from outside Turn 4. His hopes are that the track "brings more to the economy and jobs and excitement to hear the engines roar. It means a lot to North Wilkesboro." For more information on the speedway visit www.historicnws.com.