Executives, Start Your Engines

My concentration is intense as my hands grip the small steering wheel. My mouth is dry. I try to relax, but the bumps jolt my back, sending pain into my forearms. The tachometer hits redline, and with a quick motion I shift into top gear, causing another jolt. The figures along the pit lane are streaks of color and the dark clouds overhead surreal, but I barely see them because I'm focused on driving a Formula Dodge race car at its top speed of 130 mph. I feel like a blur of motion myself as I race along the straightaway.

I'm competing in a Skip Barber Formula Dodge Race Weekend at Bridgehampton, N.Y., not only against future racing pros but against business executives. Along with teaching Mario Andretti hopefuls, the Skip Barber Racing School trains executives and professionals who find speeding down a straightaway at 125 mph a respite from the rat race.

Driving a race car may not yet be as popular among businesspeople as driving a golf ball. Still, it's attracting devotees. "There is a definite crossover between racing and the business world. Both require decision-making and focus," says racer Janet Pendergraph, vice-president for finance at New England Motor Freight Inc. in Elizabeth, N.J.

COMPETITORS. Among the 70 entrants in today's five races is Eduardo Made, owner and president of Huber-Made Corp., a Miami-based import-export company. He had helped me with a seat belt adjustment before climbing into the car the school provides each of us--a 1,050-pound, single-seat, 4-speed, open-wheel racer, powered by a 2-liter, 132-horsepower Dodge engine.

I'm also up against John Reggio, vice-president for finance at Mitsubishi Chemical America Inc. in White Plains, N.Y. John, whose helmet is emblazoned with "Mr. Reg," says he races for pure enjoyment and camaraderie, but part of the thrill, he admits, is knowing you may be competing with the next Al Unser.

And there's Bob Ziegel, a publishing consultant, winner of the school's first race in 1976. He has gone up against Jeff Andretti and Scott Brayton, later IndyCar drivers. Today, we're competing with race-career hopefuls Tim Goetz and Steven Rikert, both contenders for a $60,000 Skip Barber scholarship, awarded to the year's best driver.

The school also draws interest from abroad. Two Japanese businesspeople sponsor Seiji Ara, the 1994 Volkswagen Cup series champion in Japan. I met Ara in May, on his first trip to the U.S. He spoke little English and looked like the new kid at school. To be friendly, I repeated some Japanese nursery rhymes I had learned as a kid--to Ara's amusement.

SEAT TIME. Skip Barber is the largest racing school in the world. In the 1970s, Barber was a Formula One driver--the world's elite category of racing. Now Barber, who has a degree in English from Harvard College, operates a traveling school that each year attracts up to 4,000 drivers at 18 tracks, from Laguna Seca, Calif., to Sebring, Fla. Courses range from a $395, one-day Intro to Racing to a $4,375, seven-day Speed Week. Students, among them such celebs as Victoria Principal, Tom Cruise, and Jerry Seinfeld (a Barber logo is on a refrigerator in his television show), span all income levels. Just look at the infield parking lot with its array of BMW-M3s, Acura NSXs, and an old Mazda MX-6. Oh, wait, that's my car!

As senior illustrator at BUSINESS WEEK, I'm known in the art department for my interest in illustrating automobiles and planes. My real desire, however, has long been to be a race car driver. So I started with the introductory course last year and began racing competitively in the spring.

Bridgehampton is my third race weekend, and I arrived a day early to get "seat time," the buzzword for becoming familiar with track and car. Some drivers spend an entire week acquiring seat time. You spot them strutting about the track in their "No Fear" T-shirts. I consider printing up my own "No Money" shirts: Racing has cost me over $9,000 this year, and, like the others, I'm responsible for paying the first $1,000 of damages to my $35,000 car if I crash. Fortunately, I never have.

Bridgehampton racing dates to World War I, when drivers sped along the town streets. The current 2.86-mile paved track with 13 turns through hills, sand, and trees was completed in 1957, and since then, such famous drivers as Mario Andretti, Bruce McLaren, Parnelli Jones, Dan Gurney, and even Paul Newman have taken its curves--in their own cars.

I'm a veteran of Bridgehampton, too, and the smell of Peconic Bay and the thumping sound of the wooden boards as I cross the bridge to the infield bring back memories of the first time I raced here, 15 years ago. I don't remember the track being this bumpy, but back then, I was on two wheels, competing in my first motorcycle race. In fact, I later got my first trophy here. So I have a sentimental attachment to the track. I hope there's no truth to the rumor that next year, privately owned Bridgehampton race circuit will become a golf course.

SLEAZE FACTOR. Golf couldn't get my adrenaline going the way racing does. I'm keyed up as I wait for the start of the pace lap. But the pit coordinator signals us to cut our engines so a racer can rush to the men's room for a different kind of pit stop. The driver to my right lifts his face shield to yell: "Hey Rob, can you believe that guy's a brain surgeon?"

The brain surgeon is in front of me now as I approach turn 7. I remember the advice of the practice instructor who had warned about early apexing, which means turning too soon and running out of road. "You don't want to be an early apexing low-life sleazeball," he had said.

As I concentrate on taking a late apex, Mr. Reg squeaks by me. And now, Domenico Seddio, a partner in Fabric Tradition, a textile company in New York's garment district, is right on my tail. We approach turns 10 and 11, known as the "lightbulb" because of their shape. I use the heel-toe shift, working the gas and brake simultaneously with my right foot, but miss second gear, and in a split second, Dom streaks past. Approaching the front straightaway, I see the white flag that means one lap to go. I stay close to Dom, catching his draft, then pull out ahead to gain a few car lengths. Sweat trickling down my neck into the fireproof long johns I wear under my driving suit, I hold that position to the finish and enter the pit lane to the cheers of my instructors. I've come in 10th in a field of 14. The next day, Dom outdrafts me, although I finish 9th.

That doesn't exactly make me the next Mario Andretti. Not this year, anyway. I won't give up the day job until I see how I do next season. Anyone wanna buy a "No Money" T-shirt?

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