Lifestyle

Great Drives: Skip Barber Racing School


So you know how do drive, huh? I mean really drive? You've done a few track days and you feel pretty good out there. Perhaps you've even taken a few driving courses and maybe you're wondering how much else there is to learn.

If that's the case you sound a lot like me, chock full of misplaced bravado (not to mention a little quiet skepticism) prior to taking Skip Barber's new High Performance Driving School at Laguna Seca Raceway in California. I had heard a lot about Skip Barber's driving schools and most of the people who had taken the course raved about it. Still, I couldn't help but wonder: How good can it really be?

Well, I stand before you (actually I'm sitting but that doesn't sound as theatrical) a new man, not because I'm now some driving god but because my eyes have been opened to just how much there is left to learn. I now have a greater appreciation of how a car behaves at the limit, which not only imbues me with new confidence on the track but, more significantly, I look at street driving in a different light as well.

And do you want know what the weird bit is? All this happened in the Laguna Seca parking lot long before we ever hit the track. Sure, driving the Corkscrew for the first time was fun, but that was really just the icing on a very rich, multi-layered cake.

The ingredients

I'm at Laguna Seca at Skip Barber's invitation because the school is keen to show a few of us impoverished auto writers how the "other half" learns to drive their exotic sports cars. The HPDS isn't for the spanking-new novice driver because the course does require a certain degree of driving skill, but they don't expect a roomful of Earnhardts either - after all, the instructors are there to teach us how to be better drivers.

Despite their extensive experience all types of racecars on all kinds of tracks, there's no pretense or elitism and none of the instructors use us as a captive audience to bore us with their war stories. Not only are they friendly, articulate, and clearly enthusiastic about what they do, they're also very professional and, thankfully, well aware we'd prefer to be out actually driving fast rather than simply listening to the theory of driving fast. The classroom session with chief instructor Randy Buck is a snappy 45 minutes and after that it's pure adrenaline for the rest of the day.

First off we hit the skidpad, which sounds like a very high-tech device but actually comprises of little more than a huge chunk of slightly inclined parking lot drenched in water from a perforated hose. If the skidpad's execution is simple, the skills involved in negotiating it are not.

First we have to become accustomed to working out how their BMW 330i behaves in the slick conditions and then later learning how to trail-brake into a slide before balancing the car on the throttle. The hope is that we're able to compose perfect Dukes of Hazzard slides by the end of the day, but the reality is that most of us had quite a bit of difficulty getting used to pitching the car sideways on the brakes. The key is to turn into the loop only very slightly while slowly releasing the brakes. This should, if I've got your entry speed and steering angle right, swing the back end of the car out and begin the slide.

It sounds simple, but it requires so much mental reprogramming that I end up understeering past the cones more often than not. I also had to learn to steer into the slide sooner because, as the instructor pointed out, by waiting for the steering to unfurl itself I could never get enough opposite lock dialed in to maintain the slide. Eventually, the proverbial light bulb illuminates and I manage to string a few slides together with what feels like reasonable grace and poise. The feeling of executing a powerslide that continues for several seconds is simply indescribable and is worth the $2695 price of admission alone.

In total we spend about 40 minutes each practicing the black art of trail-braking and while that seems an awful long time to be driving around two cones in a figure of eight, it was over in a blink. Frankly, I could have spent all day right there. I think it was the most educational 40 minutes I've ever spent in a car?well, in the front seat at least.

I scream cones

Next up is the lane-change exercise, where we have three highway lanes marked out in cones with a big cone-less gap in the middle. We drive a Boxster through one column of cones at about 40 mph watching the traffic lights off in the to see which of the three upcoming lanes we're directed into at the last moment. When we get to the gap, the instructors close two of the lanes by turning the lights red. We then have to dive into that open lane, simulating the effect of having something BIG and unexpected happen in front of you on the highway.

Thanks to years of Playstation abuse, I was actually pretty useful at this event but my ride partner, Kim Wolfkill from Road & Track, couldn't get his head around the test. I would have mocked him senseless were it not for the fact he was extremely magnanimous during the skidpad exercise, sitting quietly in the back seat while I continuously pirouetted off-course following his demonstration of exemplary car control.

Having repeatedly rear-ended the imaginary bus full of nuns and orphans during the lane-change maneuvers, we're then let loose on the autocross track where I immediately see the effects of my skidpad and lane-swap work earlier in the day. Braking has always been a problem area for me because I've always been told there's only one way to brake - late, hard, and in a straight line. Even on the low-speed autocross track I found myself trail-braking the Boxster into the fast right-angle bends, using the brakes to rotate the car. I was both faster and smoother than I've ever been before, demonstrating the immediate benefits of my tuition.

Finally, we took to the slalom in a Porsche 911 to experiment with how to use the throttle to control not just the car's speed but also its attitude through the cones. At the end of the slalom, a brake test. How hard could we stop the 911 without activating the ABS? I have to confess, I wasn't brilliant at the brake test bit because there was a rather large MTV film crew just past where the cones end and I didn't feel like mowing anyone down, regardless of how irritatingly trendy they are.

Lap dance

Because a prior commitment meant I couldn't stick around for the second day, so I missed the timed autocross course, taking the Viper on to the skidpan, and the three on-track sessions in the 911, Boxster, and BMW M3. They did make special arrangements for me to do a lead-follow on the famous Laguna Seca circuit before I left, though, and even gave me a spanking-new Boxster in which to experience the track, too, which was kind of them. Had I been put in a Boxster at the start of the day and told to get out there and drive the track I would have been petrified, but after a full day's expert tuition I felt confident and eager to get out there to see how it all came together.

I immediately noticed how much more comfortable I felt on the brakes because I'd spent all day rotating the cars in such a fashion. As a result, found myself braking later and harder than I'd ever have dared before, which has the knock on effect of better cornering lines, better consistency, and faster overall laps.

Like I said, I feel like a new driver and not only on the track but on the daily commute as well. Driving is just amazing, isn't it? You think you know SO much and then you meet the guys at Skip Barber and you realize that there's always much, much more to learn.

Incidentally, if flying out to California sounds like too much hassle, Skip Barber also has full two-day programs at Lime Rock Park, in Connecticut, Sebring and Daytona Beach in Florida, and Road America in Wisconsin. For more details, check out www.skipbarber.com.

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