Sharp Peaks Or Rolling Hills

I made a pledge to myself to not "let myself go" too much this winter. Last winter I gained some weight, saw my driving skill atrophy a little, and generally had a hill to climb to get back into the spirit of things in the Spring. The older I get, the harder it seems to be to put in the effort to do this remedial work. So I thought I'd try to nip it in the bud this year before it got out of hand.

A big part of the plan was another stint in an educational setting - but another big one: racing school. Last Spring, I did 5 days with the Bertil Roos race school program and really enjoyed it. Talking to a pro driver last summer, the name "Lucas" came up as a new option. And they came highly regarded as the successor to the Skip Barber legacy. Sadly, Skippy seems to be headed toward oblivion under the current management. The instructors have jumped from there to start this new option. And they have put quite a bit into it. The cars are shiny, new Rays F2000 style cars with Mazda 2 liter motors and paddle-actuated Sadev sequential gearboxes. 

I've been lucky enough to hang with some great PCA folks lately and we all deemed that this would be an interesting experience. We'd all hop into open-wheeled cars on a track most of us have seen only on TV and see what we're made of. Alex, Pierre, Alain and I saddled up in New England and flew down to Sebring to meet up with Walt who was local for the season. Hopefully this would bang the early rust off of our skills and give us a much-needed dose of vitamin D. 

My long-suffering-track-widow wife saw right through my "let's take a family vacation to Florida!" charade. I feared the big veto on this plan from the beginning but I was really sweating it as the time to commit to registration came and went with me still trying to get the green light. She must have had a moment of weakness at the last minute for me to save face and somehow it was agreed that we'd all fly down to Orlando and spend a couple days at the parks before I'd peel off to head two hours further south to Sebring. We had a few great family days at the parks before parting was such sweet sorrow.

I trucked back to MCO to meet up with Alain who was just arriving. He and I carpooled his stellar Chevy Cruze rental out of MCO and then raced Alex's Sonic Turbo rental down to Sebring to try to get a bite late on the Sunday night before two days of racing. We won't say who won but Alex owes us some more drinks, I think... Dinner at "the Chateau" might a stretch of the term 'dinner,' but we did have a stellar view of the hairpin that we'd be chucking ourselves through the next day right out of our hotel windows.

Early Monday morning, we arrived to find a nicely arranged paddock of multiple race trailers with extended awnings, tables, breakfast items, loaner race suits and helmets. We'd all eaten at the hotel but it's always nice to not have to worry too much about biologics when you want to focus on speed. We packed into a van to head over to the main paddock buildings along the main straight for classroom sessions. When you see the long line of signage displaying the victorious manufactures from 1952 to the present, you get an indoctrinating dose of the majestic history of this race track. In the year of my birth, Ferrari took the title. But that year was bookended by Porsche wins before and after.

The classroom sessions acknowledged the fact that most of us in the room were not so new to tracks, fast-driving, etc. We only had one person who hadn't really had any track experience. The ages went from teenage karting stars from various locations in the Americas to us "old dudes" who were getting a late start. One guy had been doing the school each year for 10 years and mentioned it being a good way to burn off assets before an upcoming divorce. Ok, whatever works, I suppose.

The classroom content was a decent refresher of the basics but during the whole two days, the classroom info was not the highlight. This was a big difference from Bertil Roos where Dennis Maccio's anecdotal method of teaching was both highly entertaining and very memorable. Gerardo has a passion for teaching and is very earnest but Dennis is a very hard act to follow.

Then we got to the cars. The cars seemed a bit simpler to use than the Bertil cars but race cars are always a bit unique. Here we had a main kill switch to turn on, then a toggle for the fuel pump, and then a button for the starter. There is a clutch for starting and to get going in first gear. Then you are pulling paddles. But getting into neutral - and out of neutral - isn't a simple task. Like many paddle shift cars, you have to pull both paddles to "set the system" before you can pull a paddle to select first gear. And you have to pull both paddles to get back to neutral. All told, race cars are never dead simple, it seems. Many guys were giving the cars too many revs before dropping the clutch - smoky burnout time. Or worse - broken half shaft. There were many stalls. But the clutch was pretty easy going, in my car at least.

If you've been in a PDK-equipped Porsche, you're expecting buttery-smooth shifts without even knowing that's what you are expecting! These cars shift like that sometimes in race conditions. But most of the time, you feel like the car is suddenly lurching forward right after you pull that paddle. You quickly learn to respect the car. And you realize quickly you are not yet Sebastian Vettel.

The brakes were very good but very different from a road car. The pedal feel was instantly firm without the big bite you get on a street car. It was linear and you had to push hard on the pedal. There wasn't really any travel before you felt hard pressure against the rotors. It took me a long time to really trust how good the brakes were. At the end of two days I can safely say that the car still had more braking power than I was using.

Braking was my big aha moment from the experience. The cars were so light, and the track is so bumpy, that you really had to be aware of brake release. And an ill-placed bump can really mess up your smoothness. There were tons of spins, luckily no "incidents with contact" for our crew (can’t say that for the Apex crew that shared the track with us). Release the brakes too quickly while turning in and around you go. Release them too slowly and you're just going too slowly. The directness of the braking made it surprisingly hard to really modulate the brakes at first. But by the end of two day, you could really start to understand how braking was such a focal point in these cars on this track. They were hyper-sensitive but getting it right was almost as satisfying as a Bertil-Roos car double clutched downshift.

The best part of the classroom sessions was on day two when Gerardo handed us all a printed sheet showing our best lap to one of his laps. The trace graphed out our revs, speed, steering angle, brake force, throttle use, and lap time. None of my devices on any of my cars have ever had brake force data. I looked at the steep, sharp peaks of Gerardo's braking - an initial hard spike up and then a bit of softer modulation. And then I looked at mine - gently rolling undulations of braking with the occasional late panic stab at the "oh, no. I'm not making the apex" moments. Talk about humbling. And instructive. When you are looking at the trace, you can't lie to yourself anymore. It is racing’s confessional booth. I needed to go from rolling hills to sharp peaks under braking.

I think we all had similar epiphanies because we all came out of that classroom and into the cars with something to prove to ourselves. What we quickly proved was…our ability to spin the cars! I overbraked a turn and lost the rear end resulting in an agricultural excursion. Pierre's car rolled back in looking like he went to the track next door where Jenson Button was testing out Global Rallycross cars in the dirt! He said it all all Alain’s fault! Everyone had some good stories to share.

As the day wore on, Gerardo had to institute the dreaded ‘5 minutes’ rule: if you spin in the first 5 minutes of a session, you have to come into the pits and sit in your car for 5 minutes to think through why you suck so badly. We were all on notice. But it didn't stop all the spins so a few folks put some good time into the penalty box.

By the end of day two, we were all putting down some pretty good laps. Adrenaline was high and egos were mostly checked. We smiled a lot. We practiced some race starts. It really is a different thing to be in a tightly packed bunch of vehicles with the same goal - get to turn one really fast. It's scary enough to garner full respect. And fun enough to become an addiction.

The two days went by pretty quickly. It was very different from spending five days at Bertil Roos. The Lucas cars made it a bit easier to concentrate on attacking the track sooner. Having telemetry available was a nice touch but I would have liked a bit more of that. At Bertil, we did track walks and really talked about how to analyze a track. We didn’t have time for things like that at Lucas. Bertil Roos dedicates one instructor to two or three drivers for the whole time you're there. Lucas spreads three instructors across all students by stationing them at different spots on the track. Lucas’ feedback was a bit high-level and occasionally conflicting among instructors if you approached different corners differently. I felt like the quality level of instruction at both schools were good but at Bertil, they made sure you got very tailored and focused feedback on how to improve. Lucas had us tracking down the instructors after each session to get information. If you were aggressive you could get some good details but you could also easily drive for two days without hearing much from anyone if you didn’t want to. Very different styles of instruction.

At a certain point, I started to get a little frustrated that I couldn’t stay flat out in a particular section of track where I was supposed to be. I sought out Gerardo and posed the question about how to get better to him. He explained that if I could stay in the throttle, the car would indeed be going to fast for the turn. And it would understeer. So he told me I had to account for the understeer, turn in early, and basically slide the front end into this section. My mind was pretty well blown. After years of trying to drive fast safely and avoid understeer, here it was to be used to gain some extra entry speed. It made me realize (again) that these guys all have so much more info in their heads than I’m really ready to use.

It's hard to compare three or five day programs to two day programs. I'm spoiled for even having the chance to point out any variations. And I'm most appreciative of both schools for the chance to learn and experience the cars, tracks, and people. You really start to get a sense of how complex and laborious this business of racing can be. It's not for the faint of heart…or wallet. These schools offer the easiest and most cost-effective way to get up to speed, in my opinion, but be careful if you become addicted to climbing these hills and then longing for the peaks. 

It can be a steep climb.