My mother once told me she would never try marijuana because she was afraid she might like it too much. I know how she feels. For 25 years I have been around motor racing, beginning as a 9-year-old when I traveled to places like Watkins Glen with my father. He raced a red Alfa Romeo and I idolized him for that. But I had always resisted getting behind the wheel of a race car for the same reason my mother avoided cannabis.
I always regarded myself as too practical to take up car racing. The sport demands so much time and money that it always seemed to me a dumb pursuit for anyone except a pro or a rich person. So I'm not quite sure why I stopped resisting the temptation to get behind the wheel; maybe the chance to do so caught me at a weak moment. Now, after completing the Jim Russell British School of Motor Racing at Riverside (Calif.) International Raceway, I feel it was fate.
I know the moment I got hooked: It was when I came out of Turn 8 full throttle and swung into 8A still full throttle and hit the apex perfectly and for an instant saw the right front wheel cocked in a drift, which carried the left front wheel within about six inches of the edge of the track and shot the car down the back straight. I can feel it now—I want more. My God, I thought, if only 110 horsepower can feel like...but it was time for fourth gear.
The car was a Formula Ford, similar to an Indy car but slightly smaller and with about one-sixth as much horsepower. The engines are four-cylinder 1,600-cc Fords, basically hopped-up Pinto power plants. But with only 900 pounds to push, a Formula Ford accelerates faster than even the quickest sports car and can reach 130 mph. The handling is twitchy-quick. It's a real race car, making it the ideal choice for a racing school.
There are a number of such schools at North American circuits, most of which train their students in sports cars. Two other schools that use Formula Fords exclusively and have excellent reputations are the Skip Barber Racing School, based in Massachusetts, and John Powell Motorsport in Ontario, Canada. The three schools have similar curricula and cost $750 to $900 per three-day session. At the JR/BSMR course I attended, the theory of fast cornering was taught on the first morning; the afternoon was spent practicing braking and shifting. On Morning 2 the instructor guided the eight students—an average-size class—through Riverside's nine corners, and in the afternoon he linked the turns together and led the class around the track on the racing line. Then the students took two cautious 12-lap sessions on their own. On the final day there were seven such sessions, with 10 laps in each session timed. The instructor dictated rev limits according to each student's progress, increasing them as the student advanced. The effectiveness of the gradual approach and individual tutoring was proved by how far the students came in just three days. Hitherto timid drivers could flick through the Esses at paces they would never have dreamed possible.
Sometimes the hardest part of racing school is finding a use for the diploma. With the Formula Ford schools, there's a solution. The Skip Barber and JR/BSMR programs offer a series of race weekends in which graduates can compete against one another in Formula Fords provided and maintained by the schools. Graduates of John Powell can compete in regional races in the novice category. An average race weekend costs $650 to $850; JR/BSMR also offers a program of 15 weekends (30 races) at Riverside and Laguna Seca in Monterey, Calif. for less than $8,000—a whopping bargain by motor racing standards. It's a pleasantly unburdened way to go racing, because one has none of the hassles of car preparation and an implicit guarantee that the cars are equal. The competition is fierce and is considered a superb training ground by many pros, including the likes of Rick Mears and Mario Andretti.
The instructor for my course, French-Canadian race driver Richard Spenard, was a winner of the JR/BSMR series in Canada in 1974, the year after he graduated from the course at the Mt. Tremblant circuit in Quebec. (He won a Formula Ford for the title; today the prize is a season's sponsorship.) Spenard is a superb instructor. He was pleased with the rain on the first two days because learning is speeded up on a wet track. And racing all but blindly into spray from the wheels of the car ahead is good experience, he said. But the third day dawned cool and clear, ideal for hot laps.
There were 84 of them, 227 miles in which to learn things such as "releasing the friction" (letting the car lead itself out of turn) and "racing the asphalt" (ignoring the other cars and concentrating on your own rhythm). And it became clear that concentration is the key to motor racing—it must be sustained without a single break for hours at a time, with each lapse a potential disaster.
It was a fast class; three of us—including me—broke two minutes, a lap time Spenard said few students attain. I had expected to be quick, but I hadn't expected to be so at ease. My style at athletic pursuits has never been very relaxed, nor have I been able to rely solely on my natural ability. But strapped into my car, bending through the bumpy Esses at 110 mph, I was so relaxed I had to remind myself to grip the steering wheel.
During each session Spenard would move around the circuit to watch and afterward critique each student privately. As he finished speaking he would say, "O.K., hop in your cars" for the next session. Most of the time I was already in mine, strapped down tightly, helmet and gloves on, waiting, calm and eager, thinking about the upcoming laps and savoring the feeling. It was as comfortable and secure as being in my own bed.
What now, Mom?