Become A Race Car Driver in 3 Days
My boyhood dream had finally come true!!! I drove slowly up the hill, and as I reached the crest, through the fog, I could see it... The legendary Mazda Raceway at Laguna Seca. I had seen this world famous track before while playing Grand Turismo on PlayStation and on a few occasions I had watched professionals race in person, but this time, I wasn't going to be a dreamer any longer but rather an actual racer. Now I was going to be the one with my race gloves on switching gears around the legendary "Corkscrew" turn that always challenged me in the video game and hauling ass past the pit lane!
Watch the video of my racing here:
Read the blog:
I have wanted to do this racing school for years. When I was a kid, I always had posters of Ferraris, Lamborghinis, and Porsches on my walls. My prized Transformer turned into an F1 car (or it did until my little brother accidentally broke it in half). When I first started playing the Grand Turismo at 18, I found a section in the manual from Skip Barber Racing School. I never knew that there was such a thing as a racing school! But unfortunately, I couldn't afford it during my teen years. Fast forward many many years and here I finally am, about to live the dream that had been with me for so long!
About the School
Skip Barber Racing School has been around since 1975, employing professional race car drivers to teach the basics of racing to aspiring racers, car aficionados and average joe drivers. Their courses range in level and purpose from helping newbies drive safer on the streets to jump-starting careers in racing. With alumni like Jeff Gordon, several of the Andrettis, Patrick Dempsey, and Paul Newman, all who have gone on to success in racing, there is strong evidence that this program can get racers off to a good start.
This particular course is generally taught at multiple racetracks around the country throughout the year with prices starting at $3395, depending on which track is chosen and the time of year. It is offered in two types of cars: 1) a specially prepared Mazda Miata or 2) an open-wheel Formula Skip Barber car that looks like a small Indy Car or Formula 1 car.
I chose to do my program in the Formula Skip Barber car because I thought it would be as close to an actual Formula 1 car that I could get into at this point in my budding racing career. The 132 horsepower engine is controlled by a simple sequentially shifted manual transmission, and the car will hit a top speed is 125 mph which feels very fast when you are that low to the ground.
I chose Laguna Seca because I knew the level of technical challenge it would present me from my many laps around it on the PlayStation and of course it also brought back some great memories when I had visited before to watch professional races.
My Experience in Detail
I arrived at the track early on the first day. I met the instructors, was fitted for a racing suit and helmet, and was directed into a classroom just off the track. The school is conducted as a mixture of classroom sessions (to teach techniques and strategies) and track sessions (to get in a car and apply the classroom lessons). Looking around the classroom, there were all kinds of students. Two older men decided on a whim to take the course to supplement their golf vacation. Two Brazilian teenagers, who were already accomplished go kart racers, wanted to transition into to driving cars. One son of a professional race car driver from the 80's came to try his luck. And a bunch of guys just like me, who all wanted to have a turn at playing race car driver.
DAY ONE. The first day started with learning different aspects of the driving dynamics of a race car and what it does in certain circumstances. Then we would go practice what we learned, first on a giant open concrete pad, then towards the end of the day getting out onto sections of the big track. We would walk different portions and drive in a van on others to learn more about the nuances of the track.
Midway through the day, the skies darkened and it began pouring rain. The Formula Skip Barber cars are open cockpit cars, so the only protection we had from the elements came from our makeshift ponchos we fashioned from large black trash bags. Even with the adverse weather, every person in class was not ready to call it a day when the time finally came because we were all having too much fun.
DAY TWO. The weather continued to quite literally rain on our parade. Our instructors told us that we were actually a very lucky class to have this special training, as most professional racers unfortunately get their first lesson driving the rain line in the middle of a race! The rain gave our class the opportunity to have an extra educational experience and we would be better drivers for it. Although this sounded like a good spin on a bad situation, I've come to agree that I learned so much more than I would have in dry conditions.
We continued the day, with a few classroom sessions and more time on the track, learning things like how to drive down a long straightaway and into a hairpin turn. We started doing more and more and more laps around the full track. Strapped into the tiny cockpit of the car, I rocketed down the track, quickly shifting through gears as the engine roared right behind me and as big fat raindrops smeared across the visor of my helmet. It was hard to believe this was real, that I was actually blasting around this track that I had seen so many times in video games. At the end of the day, I was saturated and tired, but I did not stop grinning until I finally fell asleep that night.
DAY THREE. I woke to something unexpected. Sunshine. The clouds had lifted through the night, and the track was quickly drying out. The class was excited to shed our garbage bag ponchos and get out on the track. We had a quick class session and then we went out for our first laps on a dry track. This day was mostly on-track coaching; do a lap, and then pull over at the start/ finish line and one of the instructors would convey coaching tips and feedback by walkie talkie from the other instructors who were posted and watching from different spots around the track. After many laps and some practice race starts and restarts, we came into the classroom one last time. At this point, we were all pronounced graduates of the school, we received certificates declaring our successful completion, and we all went about discussing our Skip Barber adventure before heading back to real life.
The Pros of the Experience:
Great Instructors: The instructors really do a great job teaching the concepts of how to handle a race car. If you want to learn how to race, this is a great place to do it.
The School is Rain or Shine. Some might not think that it would be fun to drive an open cockpit race car in the rain in winter, but I did. And because I had two wet days and one dry day, I got to compare how the car handled in the different conditions, and I learned a lot. Aside from the educational benefits, it was also nice that the weather didn't cause a cancellation of the school because I (as well as many others in my class) had travelled a long way to get to the race track. I had to make travel arrangements in advance and if the school was cancelled, I would have lost money on all those arrangements.
The Cars are Simple. A steering wheel, a gas, brake, and a clutch pedal, and a sequential shifter. In this day where modern race cars have more technology and more buttons than the space shuttle, these cars are basic so you can focus on driving.
It Was Fun. Ridiculously, awesomely, amazingly fun.
The Cons of the Experience:
I Wish the Class Size Was Smaller. There were 22 students (2 slots in this class were unfilled, so the class could have been 24) to 4 instructors. And while that seems like a small student to instructor ratio, the class was handled as one big group. I wish I could have more personal attention and feedback to make improvements. I am going to do the Advanced Racing School in the near future which I believe has a smaller class size.
The Cars Have Older Technology. The head instructor for my class said “These cars are using tech from the 1970’s.” They do not have things that are standard on modern day race cars like data loggers, lap timers, or even shift lights. There is no in car radio so you cannot get coaching while you drive. Competing schools like Sim Raceway Racing School have cars that do have much more technology if you are looking for that kind of experience. However, I think Skip Barber intentionally keeps their cars simple so students focus on learning to drive rather than pushing for better lap times when they aren't ready.
It's Not Cheap. That isn't to say the price isn't competitive, because it definitely is. There's a lot to pay for, from renting the track to maintaining the cars. But unless I hit the lottery, I won't be doing a racing school every weekend. That being said, get on their mailing list, as they send out deals on programs that aren't full which make the programs more affordable.
To sum up my experience, I absolutely loved every second of this incredible experience! Many people have asked me to describe the experience, and I give them a very simple answer: "It's the most fun I have ever had with my clothes on!"
Are there things that weren't completely perfect? Yes and it actually made the experience so much more rich! But I guarantee you will not be thinking about anything but exhilaration as you blast through turns and straightaways with the engine howling and the tires squealing!
If you or someone you know is into cars or racing, this is the experience of a lifetime! But just remember you definitely need to know how to drive a manual transmission- no automatics here. I fully recommend the Three Day Skip Barber Racing School without hesitation.