Take a Lap on the Fast Track

It's a short jump from the front office of a fast company to the front seat of a fast car. Grab your helmet, strap yourself in, and get ready for the ride of your life.

Coming out of a sharp right turn, G-forces pin my shoulder hard against the side of the tiny cockpit. I mash the throttle of the Formula Dodge race car flat on the floor. The engine behind my helmet winds up with a delicious scream. A deceptively broad left-hander approaches fast. I aim the racer toward the right side of the asphalt to take the turn as wide as possible, plunging as deeply as I dare into the corner. At the last possible moment I stab the brake hard and turn left. Too quickly, I jerk my foot off the pedal. I'm skidding! I try to correct by turning the steering wheel into the slide. Too late. Suddenly I'm a passenger on a Tilt-O-Whirl carnival ride careening wildly out of control.

In my mind I hear my instructor Bruce MacInnes holler, "If you spin, both feet in!" Push in the clutch. Lock the brakes. The two Goodyears that dominate the view forward abruptly stop turning. That ends the skidding, but the car keeps moving, jouncing through a swath of wildflowers carpeting the infield. Finally it slides to a rest. Silence. It's so quiet I can hear my heart pounding.

Back on the track, I'm not quite so aggressive as I head toward the start/finish line. I pull up and am handed a walkie-talkie. On the radio is MacInnes who, having watched my agricultural excursion, cautions me to be quicker with the steering wheel. Slow hands, he says, won't do in a fast car.

Fast Track for Beginners

Bruce MacInnes, a boyish-looking 50-year-old instructor at Skip Barber Racing School and a two-time pro Formula Ford champion, is showing 14 of us how to drive real racing cars at real racing speeds on a competition course. Barber, the nation's largest and best-known racing school, holds classes at 24 different racetracks around the country.

In the early 1970s Skip Barber, then a pro racer, observed that every other professional sport except car racing had a school where athletes could hone their skills. He set out to rectify that oversight in 1975 -- with four students and two borrowed race cars. Today the name "Skip Barber" is synonymous with racing school; more than 5,000 people a year sign up for courses at his schools.

I've come here to take the premier competition course -- three days of instruction at Barber's home track, Lime Rock Park. Ever since it was carved out of the rolling, forested Berkshire hills of northwestern Connecticut in 1957, Lime Rock has been a favorite of drivers and spectators. The mile-and-a-half-long course winds through lush, green fields, climbs a hill at the back side, then makes a breathtakingly steep dive under a bridge toward a fast right turn and into the 2,400-foot-long main straight. Many regard it as the country's most beautiful track.

We're not here for the scenery, however. "Anyone nervous?" MacInnes asks as we gather in a small classroom on pit row the first morning. "If you don't raise your hand, you're lying." His ability to give voice to our fears is reassuring. Jim Lentini, a real estate and facilities planner for Lotus Development, sighs with relief. Although he's dreamed for years about becoming a professional race driver, he worries that he's the only one who has never been in a race car. He's not alone. We're all a little nervous. None of us, in fact, has driven an all-out racer. We don't know quite what we're getting into.

Most class members are in their twenties to early forties. The youngest is Chris Dyson, a 17-year-old hotshoe with go-kart racing experience. A couple of us have clear memories of President Eisenhower. All are male, although women typically make up 5% to 10% of Barber's classes. Most of my classmates are in business or a profession, but the class also includes a paving striper and a crewman who waves lighted batons to direct aircraft where to park.

What brings us together is a passion for cars: speed, acceleration, anything mechanical. We know we're a small fraction of the population. Most of our friends, after all, have never pushed a car's accelerator to the floor. When Michael Goldman, who designs custom software applications for the financial community, told colleagues in New York City that he was spending his vacation at racing school, they asked, not entirely in jest, "Did you take out more life insurance?" We're environmentally incorrect throwbacks bent on converting Earth's precious hydrocarbons into pollution and noise for the sheer joy of it. The hospital wristbands we wear to get us into Lime Rock seem peculiarly appropriate: we must be a little touched to be here.

But if any of us thinks we're in for a wild and crazy ride, MacInnes quickly dispels the notion. On the track, he says, "you should have a sense of calm." Just as in business or in life itself, "racing is all about problem solving. We never get mad, happy, excited. We just deal with problems. And just like in life, if it starts feeling good, watch out."

Getting in Sync

At midmorning on day one we meet the cars -- diminutive, open-wheel Formula Dodges powered by four-cylinder Neon engines. They weigh just 1,100 pounds, which puts them among the runts of the racing world. But their engines produce 132 horsepower, and this gives the little racers roughly the same power-to-weight ratio as a heavier 415-horsepower Dodge Viper or 400-horsepower Porsche 911 Turbo. In the hands of a good driver, a Formula Dodge can hit 124 MPH at the end of Lime Rock's main straight and average more than 90 MPH around the track.

The biggest problem we have to solve is learning how to shift. Race car transmissions lack the synchronizers found in street cars, which make the gears spin together at the same speed before they mesh. A careful neophyte can go up through the gears reasonably well, and most of us accomplish this on the first or second try. But no one can downshift without producing awful grinding noises. And if we can't shift down, we'll be in the wrong gear coming out of corners.

MacInnes explains the secret: synchronize with our feet. We have to brake at the same time, enormously complicating the process. The combination, dubbed heel-and-toe downshifting, is the equivalent of rubbing your head and patting your stomach -- while tap dancing.

We practice shifting on the main straight. The drill goes like this. Accelerate to 3,000 RPM in fourth gear. Step on the brake with your right foot. Depress the clutch with your left. Move the shift lever to neutral. Release the clutch. Rock your right foot onto the accelerator pedal to speed up the engine and thus the gears (remember to keep pressing on the brake). Depress the clutch again. Shift into third gear. Then shift down into second and first. Head back to the other end of the straight, and do it again.

By early afternoon we haven't yet reached 60 MPH, but we're beginning to sense that we really can command our racers. At least we can shift -- most of the time. Soon we'll embark on our maiden voyages around the track. Standing at a whiteboard with a handful of colored pens, MacInnes diagrams the best line to hit the entry point of a turn, the apex, and the exit. He cautions us: "Look where you want to be. Your hands will follow your eyes."

To Build Confidence, Go Faster

As we turn faster and faster laps, we learn that we can plan for adversity and cope with it when it comes. It's an insight that we can apply to everything from racing to deal making to traveling. Jim Lentini discovers this in Big Bend, the two connected turns that together make a 195-degree right after the long main straight. Too soon, Lentini steps on the gas. He veers wide in the second turn and runs off the track. Invoking his training, he straightens the steering wheel so the car settles and eases back on the track at turn three. He'd been afraid of wiping out and getting mangled. Coming out unscathed is a confidence builder.

"This is a thinking man's sport," Lentini says. "Yes, it takes some stamina, but it requires a lot of thinking about what I'm going to do next."

When Michael Goldman almost loses his car on a corner, he reacts just as MacInnes had said he should. He looks where he wants the car to go, and his hands take him there. "It works," he says, nearly leaping out of his racer. "It's magic."

Seeing Red

After two days we've become a group. We compliment one another's driving and share our triumphs. On the third day the RPM limits come off. We're free to go as fast as we dare. For the first time we're also allowed to pass each other on the main straight. It's not a race, but there's sure going to be a competition. Bruce MacInnes cautions us to beware the dreaded "red mist," the bloody fog that clouds your judgment when you pull down the helmet visor. Practice "disciplined aggression," he tells us. "You're not racing anyone but yourself."

Sure, Bruce.

I steer the racer onto the course, and all the lessons and all the practice feel like they're coming together. I'm no longer afraid to go fast.

Time seems to slow as the tachometer winds up. The tires howl through the corners. I rocket past a telltale tree alongside No-Name Straight. Brake hard at the tree into the uphill turn. Get back on the power. I crest the top of the short, steep hill so fast that the car unweights. The rear wheels lose their grip, spinning momentarily. The car jerks as it settles back to Earth -- not quite straight, still accelerating. Down the back straight, wide-open in third gear, the engine shrieking. Brake again. Shift to fourth. Still full throttle, still picking up speed. I flash down a hill and under the Toyota bridge. Brake slightly to load the front tires to turn, then full throttle at 90 MPH into the corner and down the main straight.

Suddenly, as I near the end of the main straight, Dyson, the high school hotshoe slips past me. I can hear MacInnes hollering. "Be calm! There's no place for emotion on a racetrack."

I can't pass, so I tuck in close behind him. You might get by me, kid, but I'm still here. He's paying too much attention to me. Two turns later he spins into the infield.

Problem solved. Sometimes, the smart way to win is to let your opponent beat himself.

William J. Cook (wcook@usnews.com) is a senior writer at "U.S. News & World Report." He's been a motorhead since he was nine years old, when he learned to drive a 1938 Dodge Pickup.

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