Skip Barber High Performance Driving School

On June 15, 2009 I went back to school for a day. And what a day. I had signed up for an advanced diving school at Lime Rock Race Park, owned and operated by Skip Barber, a famous American race car driver, who is also operating the racing school.

Skip Barber Class

The school owns about 250 cars of every possible configuration, from pure racing cars (wheels outside the body) to Mazda Miatas, Mazda RX8, BMW 330i, Lexus IS F (smallest Lexus with V8-416 HP), Lotus Elise, Porche Cayman, Porche Carrera. We got to drive most of these cars except for the Miata. (There are 40 full time mechanics at Lime Rock, so this is a big business!).

The day started with classes, teaching driving dynamics. How the weight of the car switches from front to back when you accelerate and opposite when you brake. That much we had probably all figured out already. And when you turn in a corner most of the weight is transferred to one front tire. Then we learned that going fast into a turn, you are supposed to brake very hard before the turn, and continue braking through the beginning of the turn. This help set the weight distribution of the car so that you are ready to accelerate. This was news to me. I have always heard that you brake before the curve and accelerate through the turn, but I suppose this is street driving.

Then it was time for several practice events, the skid pad, the auto cross circuit and the breaking and lane change exercise, and finally the race track.

The skid pad was a large circle, maybe 100 m in diameter, with sprinklers keeping the surface soaked and with puddles everywhere. We drove this event with an instructor in the passenger seat. So, I asked what the purpose of this practice is, and the answer was “you’ll find out”. So I drive out on the skid pad (in a Mazda RX8 with Wankel or rotary engine) and increase the speed until the car starts to skid. Then the instructor tells me to take the foot of the gas. As you might guess the car promptly spins out. I ask if he wanted me to correct the skid, and he says yes from now on. Letting go of the gas has the same effect as if you used you hand brake on the back wheels. Then we go again and I speed up until the car is in a constant skid, while the instructor keep on saying … faster … faster… and of course you know what will happen then. The car starts spinning out and I correct. Then we keep this exercise for about 45 minutes with different variations. After many spin outs and many successful corrections, I have learned (or relearned) to control most of these provoked skids.

Skid pad exercise

The auto cross circuit basically is a miniature race track, with many turns (with increasing and decreasing radiuses) and very short straights. There are very few opportunities to go really fast on this track, so it mostly provides and opportunity to practice turning, and turning with controlled skidding as well as braking. Every corner is marked for where you are supposed to start braking, as well as the entry (turn in) and the apex of the curve (as it is on the real race track) and the turn out. So now we get to apply what we have learned in class. You drive toward the first entry very fast and brake as hard as you can until you start to turn, and apply gas gradually. If you had a passenger he would think that we were in the ditch by now. The fun continues with many laps in several different cars. I drove a Porche Carrera, a Lexus IS F and a Lotus on this track. It was raining the whole time, so the skid pad exercise was a good warm up. I made no wipe out on the auto cross track.

After some additional classes we went on to the brake and lane change exercise. In this exercise  you drive in one of three designated lanes marked by cones. Then there are no cones for about 20 feet, and then the lanes continue. At the end of the lanes there are three green light, one for each lane. We are supposed to drive down one of the outer lanes while all the lanes are green. At the last second they turn two of the lights red. So when you come at 45 mph and the lights turn red, your instinct is to hit the brakes hard, and then make the lane change. We are told to throw the car one or two lanes over without killing the cones, and once in the correct lane brake very hard. In the beginning it was fairly easy to change one lane, but it got harder with two. It was a very difficult to move the steering wheel enough. They told us to shuffle the steering wheel. Well, I graduated, and the car smelled bad from burnt rubber. The car I used for this exercise was a Porche Cayman.

Now, we were ready for the big track at Lime Rock, and driving w/o an instructor. Except for the breaking exercise we had until now had an instructor in the car. Again, I was able to secure on of the two Carreras. It was really fun to apply what we had learned, but unfortunately we had an instructor driving ahead of us and two or three cars followed him. The track was still wet from rain, but it amazing how much grip you still have and how fast you can go without any problems. On the short straight I made it up to 105 mph once, and then I had to break, or I would have pushed the instructor off the road. But as always the most fun was the curves, and applying the new aggressive breaking skills, and proper turn ins, apex and turn outs.

The finale was to be passenger when a race car driver took you around the track demonstrating the full capabilities of the car.

This was a fun day and I wanted more!

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