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Racecar School Offers Amateurs Thrills, Spills, Insurance

Auto Racing School for Beginners Ends in Debris
Bloomberg automobile reporter for Muse Jason Harper sits in a Mazda racing car at the Skip Barber Racing School. Photographer: Paul Taggart/Bloomberg

So, you want to be a racecar driver? You’re not alone. Actors, airline pilots and surgeons have told me they dream of chucking their day jobs to race cars professionally.

(For a slideshow of the racing school, click here.)

A great fantasy provided you have deep enough pockets. When it comes to motorsports, there is one guarantee: It’s going to be expensive. Racecars aren’t cheap to buy, run or fix.

So how to indulge the dream if you’re not fabulously wealthy?

The short answer is to rent somebody else’s car, and if possible, rent their know-how and mechanics, too.

This concept is called turn-key racing. Simply show up on race day to find your car gassed up and pit crew waiting. Dream achieved. You’re a racecar driver.

Which is why I’m scrunched inside a car, the size and shape of a coffin, familiarizing myself with the oddities of an open-wheel Formula Mazda. In a few months, I will be racing one.

The Mazda has no roof, doors or windshield, just a small cockpit you wriggle into, with four oversized tires and a rear-mounted engine.

My plan is to compete in at least one race this summer, and this is the vehicle I’ll eventually be racing in Skip Barber’s Open Wheel Formula Car Series.

The series has 20 race weekends throughout the year at various courses. Everybody is driving the same model, so it all comes down to driving skills.

Rags to Races

It’s the poor man’s entry to racing -- though poor is a relative term. A weekend costs $3,500, including the car, pit crew, tires and gas. You even get coaching.

Drivers qualify on Saturday, and then get to race twice on Sunday. Races last 30 minutes.

I spend dozens of days a year on racetracks, but have never experienced wheel-to-wheel racing. Instead of stepping directly into the heat of battle, I’m investing three days at the Skip Barber Racing School, at Lime Rock Park in Connecticut.

Skip Barber is America’s most venerable sports-driving program, operating since 1975 and putting some 250,000 drivers through various programs. Any professional race in the U.S. will probably have a Skip Barber graduate or two among its drivers.

The three-day race school ($4,000, though discounts might be available) is open to anyone with a driver’s license. Instruction includes time in the classroom and at the racetrack.

Country Roads

Those with more experience might instead consider the two-day advanced session ($3,500).

Skip Barber does not teach NASCAR-style driving, which takes place on oval tracks. It focuses on road courses, more like country roads, with tight corners and elevation changes.

Lime Rock is one of Skip Barber’s main locations, with hubs in California’s Laguna Seca and Road Atlanta in Georgia.

Drivers develop relationships with different tracks, and while I’ve got a lot of respect for Lime Rock, I don’t like it. More than 50 years old, it’s short (1.5 miles) and fast, with a notorious blind uphill and a long sweeping downhill.

I’m never comfortable here, battling the turns rather than settling into a rhythm.

It’s dangerous, too, as the up- and downhill have safety barriers crowding them, something to consider when deciding whether to opt for the school’s $500 insurance.

Creaky Cars

Our class consists of seven students, and the instructors really know their stuff. Compared to other schools I’ve attended however, the cars and curriculum can be creaky.

The cars are sturdy but old -- on one, a plank of plywood serves as its aerodynamic underbody. The three-day course offers no lap times, let alone computer telemetry telling you which corners where you need the most improvement.

And it isn’t until the third day when we’re allowed to pass other cars.

Still, piloting an open-wheel car is a joy. There are no fenders covering the wheels, and the wind slams you in the face, bugs splatting against your helmet’s screen. You feel incredibly connected to the car, the asphalt and the elements.

It’s the end of the afternoon on the third day, and we are struggling to master the tricky blind uphill. On one pass I miscalculate and the rear of my car wiggles. An instructor admonishes me after. “Be careful right there. There will be serious consequences if you get it wrong.”

Several laps later, a New York City-based photographer makes a nice pass on me, and charges up the same uphill, much too fast I think.

Close behind, I come over the rise just in time to see his car pivoting, wrongly. Tire smoke, a vicious slide, then he spins off the racetrack and crashes the rear of his car into a wall. Debris explodes into the air.

Amazingly, he’s unhurt. The car’s safety cell and five-point safety harness did its job, though the entire back of the Mazda is smashed to the tune of some $16,000 in damage.

It’s a sobering end to our day, and reminder of the bad things that can happen out here.

Skip Barber Racing School; +01-866-932-1949;

(Jason H. Harper writes about autos for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Muse highlights include Jaroslovsky on tech and Esplund on art.

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