Thursday, October 23, 2003
A group of about 22 people sits in a mobile classroom in the paddock area of Laguna Seca Raceway. The instructor asks us who likes to drive fast, and about 20 hands shoot into the air. Welcome to Skip Barber Driving School, he says, smiling.
I''ve signed up for the one-day course ($595 off-peak), an introduction to the school''s three-day racing class ($3,295 and up). Tommy Fogarty, a professional Pro Series driver and instructor for the Skip Barber School, teaches all over the country, as do our four other teachers. Most of the students, like me, admit we like to go fast, but we want to do it safely.
We introduce ourselves around the room. It starts to sound like a 12-Step meeting for speed demons until one young man announces he got in trouble with the law, and that''s why he''s here.
"I was court-mandated to come because my friend jumped his car and I was the passenger, so I got charged with aiding and abetting," he explains in a contrite yet amused tone. "He lost control and rolled it, and then we went down a 13-foot embankment."
The race drivers sympathize--"I can''t tell you all the stupid stuff I did when I was 18," says Fogarty--but they take this chance to emphasize the importance of driving safe if you''re going to drive fast. This one-day driving school will put us in the seats of Dodge Ram extra-cab trucks, Dodge Neons, and finally, the highlight of the afternoon--Dodge Vipers.
Off we go to where two large trucks are parked near a wide-open parking lot covered in water. Our leaders in this exercise are Cliff Sigmann and John Dickman. As they explain how we''re going to purposely spin these V8 trucks into a skid and then control them out of it, my stomach starts to tighten. The professionals go first, with a student in the front seat and one in the rear extra-cab seat.
"Accelerate fast up to the corner," says Sigmann, calmly flooring it. "Brake and turn hard and as the back end comes around, look forward to where you want to be going, not where you''re skidding into, and slowly release the wheel so the truck straightens out. You can feel you''ve gotten control back, then give it gas into the next corner."
We''ve gone around three loops of the oval shaped, water-logged parking lot just in the time he''s been talking and I''m already dizzy. My co-driver, Jeff from Pacific Grove, hops in the driver''s seat and we barrel into a corner. The skid and the braking go well but he forgets to "uncrank" the wheel and we spin right into a 360.
Now it is my turn to lose control of the vehicle. I soon find out how hard it is to loosen your grip on the wheel when you feel panicked in the turn. Sigmann urges me to go faster, go faster in the straightaway, to get enough speed to "flip" the back end. Around and around we spin, sometimes successfully skidding and regaining control, sometimes sliding in circles and stopping. My knotted stomach gives way to giddy smiles as I start to enjoy the out-of-control sensation and manage to come out of skids without bouncing Jeff around in the back seat.
Finally, we earn the chance to get on the racetrack. Not on our own, unfortunately--the professionals take us out for a joyride in the Neons. On the first lap, Dickman shows us all the tricks we''ve just practiced, the cornering and skid control, only we''re going considerably faster and we''re doing it on the infamous Corkscrew corner. We try passing one of the other cars on the next lap, but Dickman takes it a little too fast and we do a 360. "I thought I could make it," he laughs, "Don''t try that at home."
Safely back in the parking lot, we are faced with two fire-red Vipers. Just getting into the car proves to be the first trick. The exhaust runs along the outside and bottom of the doors, making it pretty warm if you''re wearing shorts. "Just have fun, and remember what you did earlier," the instructor says as I slide into the driver''s seat. "It''s just like other cars. It''s 450-horsepower, V12 engine, but the basics are still the same."
I have to slide down in the seat to push the clutch in far enough, and I nearly stall the engine as we pull off. I press the gas and we leap forward. The first lap is pretty jumpy, given the highly sensitive pedals and steering, but on the next lap I can pay attention to the turn-in and track-out points. Once I get over being intimidated by the car, it is actually fun to drive.
In the last exercise of the day, our groups form relay teams and each person races the Viper two laps, and hands off to another driver. At our graduation ceremony back in the classroom, we get T-shirts, and the right to affix a Skip Barber sticker to our cars. "If you happen to get pulled over on the way home," jokes Fogarty, "just show this to the officer. They''ll understand."
For information on the Dodge Skip Barber Driving School call 800-221-1131 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.