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CONFESSIONS OF A SPEED JUNKIE Rocketing Around the Learning Curve At the Skip Barber Racing School


SEBRING, Fla. -- Car No. 51 is leading a plume of blue tire smoke as it skitters across the tarmac -- front, back, front, back. From Turn 1, a half-mile away, you can see orange traffic cones flying into the air, like a covey of doves flushed from a field.

It is midday at Sebring International Raceway in central Florida, under a brilliant winter sky.

"Fifty-one spins in T.3 [Turn 3]," says instructor David Murray over a walkie-talkie. "He's having trouble finding a gear."

"Kappy that," says lead instructor Bruce "Twister" McQuiston, affecting a Houston ground controller's twang. The teachers at the Skip Barber Racing School radio comments to drivers -- and to each other -- as the drivers round the course.

A third instructor, Eric Van Cleef, comes in with a crackle, "Twister, I've got 51 here. He says his car's got a mechanical problem."

"Kappy that," Twister McQuiston says, and as 51 drives away he adds, with a wry smile, "Eric, I think all that car really needs is a new spacer."

Spacer is mechanic's slang for driver.

Getting up to speed

Fifty-one tried to blame the hardware instead of the software, and in that he is typical. Few beliefs are so deeply ingrained in male self-perception as the notion that we are terrific drivers.

While other innocent lies of youth -- I am a great lover, a good dancer, a natural athlete -- fall prey to experience, we cling to our driving skills, a granite outcropping against a tide of fallen hair and abdominal flab.

The Skip Barber Introduction to Racing course offers two perspectives on that perception.

By the second day, after you've spun your open-wheel Formula Ford racer a half-dozen times and left enough metal filings in the gearbox to fill an ashtray, life behind the wheel as you've dreamed of it is over. You're hopeless.

But by the third day, you're hammering the brakes into turns, nailing the rear end down with progressive throttle -- then rapidly faster, third gear, fourth gear, flat out at 6,000 rpm. The single-seat, open-cockpit car shakes and strains as you roar at 100 mph down the throat of the final turn, hands as hard as tire rubber, and track out into the main straight inches from the wall.

I'm actually fast, you think. God, I'm driving my butt off! I could do this. I'm a great driver.

Just then you cross the finish line.

Skip's world

The Skip Barber Racing School began with the man himself, a Harvard English grad and Formula One driver who set records in all kinds of cars until his retirement in 1974. The following year, the Philadelphia native opened his school of racing with four cars.

The school, the world's largest for aspiring racers, is part of a far-flung organization Mr. Barber commands from his post in Lakeville, Conn. He also runs a driving school that offers courses on handling passenger cars, a series of regional races and the Zerex Pro Series of races. The Zerex series is the highest rung in the Barber "Ladder of Success" and is regarded as the surest and cheapest steppingstone to big-time racing.

And in racing, cheapest is bestest. To competitively campaign one's own Formula Ford -- a simple, durable and inexpensive car -- for a season on the Sports Car Club of America circuit could cost $50,000. Every year, thousands of weekend warriors are bankrupted and broken on the wheel of racing.

The beauty of the Barber organization -- which has grown 20 percent a year since 1975 and last year did $15 million in business -- is that it makes racing relatively affordable. Competition school graduates can buy a race weekend in the Formula Fords for about $1,350, with another $550 for a day of practice. You simply show up and drive.

Compared to the hassle and expense of buying, transporting and preparing you own car -- tires alone would run you about $800 a weekend -- the Barber Formula Ford series is a huge value. In fact, it's the cheapest way to do real racing.

Driven to excel

The heart and soul of the Barber empire, however, is the three-day competition course. A movable feast taught at more ++ than a dozen racetracks throughout the year, it has been the starting point for innumerable big-time racers. Graduates include the Andrettis -- John, Michael and Jeff -- Gary and Tony Bettenhausen, Robbie Buhl, Dorsey Schroader, Lyn St. James and lots more.

And now there's you.

The hotel in Sebring is surrounded by fast and fancy iron from around the world. Mercedes 500SL, Acura NSX, Porche 911 Turbo, Firebird Formula, BMW M5.

Jeepers, who are these guys?

The next morning, eight of the 12 students are sitting in the hotel restaurant -- some in custom Nomex driving suits and $800 antelope-skin shoes.

You're wearing a cardigan.

David Ordway drove 24 hours from Maine to get here. Tricked out in a black-and-red suit with Porsche Club of America patches, he explains that he's been to the Bob Bondurant school and has raced his 911 Turbo in Porche club events throughout the Northeast. He goes on to describe how he gets 470 horsepower out of stock-aspirated 911.

I'm going to be shown up big time, you think.

You order steak and eggs, a large orange juice, and black coffee three times. At least you can eat like a champ.

In your mind you pictured school attendees as Walter Mitty types -- middle-aged dreamers, Rogaine poster boys and Slim-Fast dropouts.

The crowd of students gathered in the suite above pit row bears little resemblance to your imaginings. One guy is a former Navy SEAL and surgeon. Another is a professional water-skier. How good do you have to be, you wonder, before somebody pays you to water-ski?

A couple of interesting cases show up. One is Dan Doyle Jr., 22, a nice-looking kid with copper hair whose father owns Danka, a large distributor of Canon copiers. His dad also owns Danka Motorsports racing team. Not coincidentally, the team's professional driver, Wayne Taylor, has accompanied young Dan as mentor and coach.

At the end of day two, Wayne takes Dan around the course in a black BMW 850i, showing him some of the finer points. The instructors and students watch in awe as Wayne flogs the $85,000 Beamer for Dan's amusement and edification, proving once again the racing adage "money buys speed."

On the other end of the spectrum is a 40ish insurance exec from Palm Beach, who resembles a thoroughly dissipated Bobby Sherman. He owns a Viper, a Mercedes 500 SL and a 500-hp Mustang. By the end of the weekend, he will prove the corollary to the adage, "No amount of money buys skill."

The learning curve

The Skip Barber method involves driving sessions with progressively higher speeds, punctuated by chalk talks about the dynamics of car control, driving techniques and race craft.

The first morning session is handled by Twister McQuiston, a bike racer turned to race cars, whose freckled right knee is neatly bisected by a foot-long scar. He explains the reason the cars start out slowly is so that drivers develop good habits.

"We're not the fun police," he says, but "as soon as you're uncomfortable, you [should] get into a self-preservation mode. That's not fast."

The students laugh. Several are overturned and on fire in their imaginations.

What follows is an intense course in racing, the art of rocketing around the track without straying from the fastest path, the place racers call "the line." The farther off the line you go, the slower your time.

It's a course with its own language -- oversteer, understeer, turn-in, apex, track-out. But it boils down to learning how a car behaves under acceleration and deceleration -- especially on turns -- and how to maximize the car at all times.

In a turn, the front and back of a car can operate independently of each other, depending on which has the better grip on the road. When the front has a better grip, the back will tend to slide toward the outside of the turn. This is oversteer. Too much oversteer and the car spins.

With understeer, it's the front end that doesn't stay on course. When the car's speed exceeds the front tires' ability to stay on course, the front tires "plow" to the outside of the turn.

This dynamic -- weight shifting to the front when braking and to the back when accelerating -- creates the curious situation in which you have to roll back onto the gas in mid-turn to nail down the rear end before you spin out.

And you've got to be thinking about all this while you're flying into a turn, the place where you find the crucial points of "the line" known in racing jargon as the turn-in, apex and track-out.

Imagine that you are approaching a 90-degree turn at high speed. First, you want to drop speed; otherwise, you'll shoot through and miss the line. You do that in the "braking zone," a straightaway where you can jam on the brakes without spinning the car.

The point where you actually turn the wheel is the turn-in. The idea is to take the shortest distance around. To do that, you've got to drive across the apex -- the place where the line touches the inside of the corner -- and the track-out, where you let the car drift across the track as you accelerate into the straightaway.

Racing is problem-solving, Twister McQuiston explains, a complex calculus performed at savantlike speed that judges thousands of options -- where is the line, where is the traction, how to get high exit speed, where can you push your car and where can you save it?

The students in your group take notes like law-school freshman.

Then you meet the cars.

Seat time

Called the racing school's "textbook," the car is a Formula Ford with a Mondial B-1 chassis and a 1.6-liter overhead-valve engine. It rides on 15-inch Goodyear Eagle GS-C radial tires that hang at the corners of exposed A-arm suspension. A fiberglass body covers a space-frame of welded steel.

These cars pull about 1.2Gs in cornering force. A G is the force equal to the pull of gravity. Your average street car can round a corner with a lateral force of about .70 Gs before it breaks traction and spins. The cars travel from 0 to 60 mph in five seconds and 60 to 0 in about three.

All of which makes this tiny car the highest-performing vehicle you've ever driven.

To board the car you have to stand in the plastic seat, lock knees and slide your legs under the padded steering wheel. Then you snap together the five-point, webbed nylon harness and cinch it down tight. You're almost recumbent. Strap on your helmet, adjust your mirrors and you're ready.

Nice Go Kart, you think.

Twister McQuiston stands on a tire. "OK, gentlemen, take it easy. We just want you to get used to the car. We'll see you at the slalom."

The 12 students have been divided into two groups of six. The drivers in your group fire up the cars. They shake and sputter to life. You raise your fist in the air to indicate you are ready to follow the van to the exercise area. Notching the small aluminum shifter into first, you ease out the clutch.

Suddenly, you're driving a race car! The engine revs happily and gears fly by. Every twitch of the wheel brings an instantaneous, darting change in direction. The patched concrete on this converted runway reads like Braille against your backside. The brakes come on with the force of a tossed-out anchor.

You can see the front tires spin just a couple of feet away, hear them chirp. Through them you are hard-wired to the pavement.

Yes! Not just yes, but Hell Yes! This is great.

Smoke and dust

Well, not so great, because while the car delivers much, it also expects a lot. During the first exercise, you're asked to take the car through a slalom of four cones about 25 feet apart, while the car is turning 2,500 rpm in third gear.

"It's a piece of cake," says instructor David Murray.

But the Ford demands very accurate steering that is nothing like the vague direction that suffices in a passenger car. For the first few passes, you struggle to take a proper line -- slow in, fast out.

"OK, now we want you to bring the car up to about 3,000 rpm, and when you turn in for the third cone, chop the throttle," Mr. Murray says while shouting into your helmet at the end of the slalom.

The third cone approaches. You pull your foot off the gas pedal. The car's rear end whips past the front on the way to a huge, looping revolution. As the car stops, tire smoke and dust settle into the cockpit and the engine dies. Your first lesson in Trailing Throttle Oversteer.

Once more with the throttle-chopping exercise, and this time Mr. Murray gently chides you. "You win for biggest TTO. Try to catch it sooner with opposite lock." He means that you should correct your course by steering in the direction of the spin, the way they teach you in driver's ed.

You look at him blankly. Nobody said anything about catching it.

It occurs to you as you sit in the after-lunch lecture that your class is moving pretty fast. Someone who knew nothing about cars might be a bit at sea during the discussions of counter-steer, opposite lock, threshold braking and other bits of motor arcana. But the instructors have taken the measure of this class and, finding them all to be gearheads of one sort or another, have accelerated the pace of learning.

The other group -- the green team -- you refer to as the remedial group. You're sure they do the same to your group.

To the limit

The next two and a half days blend seamlessly together as you become Barberized. Double-clutch heal-and-toe shifting -- a technique necessary in cars with unsynchronized gearboxes -- takes up most of the afternoon on the first day.

It seems to take forever to complete the sequence; clutch in, put the car in neutral, clutch out, brake, clutch in, roll the right foot over to rev the engine, shift to a lower gear, clutch out, brake out.

In reality, it takes about two seconds to do right.

Day 2 is spent working on threshold braking -- jamming on the brakes very hard, until they almost lock up, then trailing off pressure as you enter the turn. Threshold braking is important because the less time you spend slowing down, the more time you spend speeding up. And you can't just lock up the brakes. If you do, you'll grind a flat spot in the tire and your race will be over.

This is the hardest part of the school. It takes tremendous willpower to slam on brakes after a lifetime of teaching yourself not to. It comes slowly.

To complicate matters, you're being asked to threshold brake while double-clutch downshifting. Your feet feel huge and numb, as if you are wearing snowshoes.

Each time around the nine-turn, 1.4-mile course, you stop on the checkerboard on the straightaway for feedback from instructors.

"That's good but you need more brake pressure," another instructor, Jim Pace, says repeatedly. "More pressure."

"Blue 34, this is David in Turn 3. You're still not braking hard enough, and you are overshooting the turn-in. Remember, slow in, fast out."

"Hi. This is Bruce in 8. Well, you missed the apex by about 5 yards but at least you were slow out," he cracks. "Try to get the footwork done before you turn in for 8. Thanks for stopping by."

"Hi. This is Eric in Turn 6 where you just had your TTO spin. Remember to smoothly transition between brake and gas. Don't hammer it too soon, otherwise you'll have to let off to make the apex and that will give you TTO spin. Thanks."

By the middle of the second day you are utterly disgusted with yourself and these smug, condescendingly polite instructors.

Can't they see how fast I'm going? The rev limit is 4 grand and I'm well over that. Look at me! I've got this bucket of junk going full-bore. Doesn't that count?

On the ride back to the hotel you discover you're not the only one in anguish. David Ordway, the Porsche driver, is nearly in tears behind his amber racing glasses.

"I can't stand this," he says. "There's too much criticism. I mean, I know what I need to do, they don't have to tell me every time.

Let me go on and do it. This is stupid."

He seems totally over his limits, and his lip trembles. "I hate this."

You notice that his foot is pulsing on the gas pedal of his Jeep, making it lurch down the road in a way that's making you queasy. You refrain from saying anything, choosing to study the orange groves. The trees look waxy, the oranges artificial. . . .

Putting it to the pedal

Third day. You wake up to an unexpectedly cold Florida morning. Great, more horsepower. Colder air is denser, and denser air burns faster in the engine.

Somewhere in the middle of the night the elves came in and rewired your synapses, because now, without warning you're dialed in. The first pass around the track, with a putative rev limit of 4,600 rpm, goes by effortlessly.

In Turn 1 at about 100 mph, you ease the car within a tire width of the wall with your foot flat on the floor . . . wait, wait to turn in. Now! Brush the brakes, go to third gear, aim for the patch at the apex, on the gas, brake, blip, now in second. Now, threshold brake at 3 and just park it. Set up for 4. . . .

And so it goes, each lap coming easier and faster. The snowshoes have come off. Your breath is warm and even in your helmet.

Around 6 you get a little sideways, but a quick correction straightens the car. It settles on its springs just before you go around the lazy right-hander of 7. Eight coming -- this one's a buster -- wait wait brake shift look -- yyyuunnggghhhaaa -- turn in, go, go, go. . . .

You develop a rhythm, a vision that time-travels you several seconds into the future. Everything you do is as planned as a chess game.

Today you can pass people on the straight. During the first session you pass black 51 and blue 16. Then, in the stubborn Turn 3, you spin again. But this time, it's just a matter of trying to get fancy with throttle steer.

You immediately gear up through the course to chase blue 16. You pass him again. You are unconscious now. The engine bays at 6,000 rpm as you reach the straight. Your hands and feet move in a perfect rhythm, so rapidly you hardly recognize them. The course is open, and you push every corner as hard as you dare.

Another lap and you see a car at the other end of the straight. You can lap him -- no small feat in a Formula Ford. This time, you think, I'll take chances.

Closer, closer. Carrying big speed out of 8. Will the engine blow? Will he eat the wall trying to get away from me?

And then it's over. They wave you in and you get out of the car. All your fingers and toes are buzzing. All you can see and hear and think about is the track and the car and the way you'd take the next corner. You've got the junk running in your veins, and it won't let you stop.

You seem normal enough, even make conversation, but the whole time you're adding up your mental calendar, figuring when you can get in a race car again. You start mulling your personal finances. Where can I get the money?

Racing is beautiful, but addiction is never pretty.

DAN NEIL is the automotive editor for the Raleigh, N.C., News & Observer.

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