Crashing on a closed race track sucks. I've done it before and it's my hope to never do it again, yet I know full well that the possibility will always be there. For hours leading up to the "moment" I was doing fine, my instructors even moved me up to the faster class. With each passing session, I felt I was learning the line better and in the process going faster. But when the time came to go and lead the pack for once, the overconfidence crept in, I got sloppy—I spun out thinking, "Oops," and then it happened. That confidence was now shot down. I was down but certainly not out. "Tomorrow's another day as long as you're OK!" my instructor told me. And this is where I tell you how I conquered the track...
Invitations to racing schools pop up every now and then, and as both an automotive enthusiast and journalist, I consider it mandatory to attend. There's nothing better than spending as much time as one can possibly give to learn more about how to improve their driving skills. Bridgestone has had a long standing partnership with the team at the Canadian Tire Motorsport Park facility, located about an hour outside of Toronto, and invited me and a few other local journalists/bloggers to come try their hand at open wheel racing, using a Van Diemen Formula car, which they kindly reiterated had a price tag of $72,000 for 170hp in a 1,000lb car. For comparison's sake, they equated that to driving a stock Viper at that power/weight ratio. So let's see: fly to Toronto and go racing—don't gotta twist my arm!
Dubbed the "Bridgestone Racing Academy" for obvious reasons, I was elated to find that the instruction would last two days whereas most courses I've driven in have been only a day long. Sure, you'll get a sufficient amount of classroom talk and spend a couple hours applying your training to the track but one day is simply not enough time to learn much. Also, all of the racing schools I've done prior have been done using standard passenger vehicles. This was my first time ever in an open wheel car; pretty intimidating if you ask me. But I was eager for the challenge. Our first morning at BRA was spent learning about the history of the school, which includes a young Danica Patrick as a graduate (who was said to not only have been extremely fast, but the most studious when it came to watching her classmates and picking her instructors' brains about how to beat them), course layout and which driving techniques to apply when going through the paces to master that layout; stuff that makes a ton more sense when you're finally in the car. They had us suit up in full gear and meet their full crew at the paddock for our first training sessions.
This is where you start to feel pretty damn good about yourself. These Formula cars are no joke! They're powered by a 2.3L race-prepped engine that's linked to a 5-speed sequential-shift gear box, which literally roars to life after your pit crew straps you in. Yes, if you sign up for this school, you get to work alongside a group of students who are there to learn about their craft, just as much as you are, except it's their job to have the cars up to par, operating at their best and adjusted to your liking (seat positioning, strapping your harness on, checking tire pressures, and so on). The experience is unbeatable; your nerves come crashing in as you wait to be signaled onto the track. Getting the car going out of First gear is tricky at times, but once you're off, it's cake from then...until it gets more serious.
The first couple of sessions are more assessments to see what your existing driving skills are like; you play follow the leader with an instructor and rotate with everyone in your group. It's the most important part of the school, remembering to take mental notes for each corner. The summer heat adds more physical stress to the mind, so staying focused is key. This cycles throughout the remainder of the afternoon until the final session, where you're then told to play "leader" once you're signaled, to show what things you've learned up until that point. I hadn't even completed a full lap before spinning out on a turn that I had been good with all day, but a spin is hardly something to keep me from giving up. It was playing catch up to my group where I got sloppy and it caused me to skid right into a tire wall. Grounded for the day (luckily the last session), this is where I tell you again that crashing on a closed race track sucks.
Nerves still shaken, ego crushed and bruises popping up in places you wouldn't imagine, if you crash, you have to learn how to shake it off going into day two, which is tough. After my first session of the day, it was clear I'd lost my confidence and now that we were finally being timed, I could see that I was far off from the rest of my group. Not that I'd ever claim to be ultra fast to begin with, which I'm fine with not being, but I needed to find a better benchmark to compare myself with as the day went on. In my second session, my car ran into transmission issues, which caused me to lose half my time warming the tires up on the new car; again, not the best morning for getting my groove back. The lead instructor noticed this and pulled me aside, saying "You were a lot faster yesterday...up until your crash. Don't let it bother you. Focus. Come back stronger. Let's go faster." We then took a quick break from the heat and individually we were shown by him where we were excelling and also where our biggest mistakes were happening and how we could improve. That was exactly the push I needed.
I really took his criticisms to heart. I knew where I was f'ing up but now I had the tools to fix it. I stopped trying to go as fast as I could and instead concentrated on going as smoothly as I could. By simply doing so, I was coming out of corners faster, keeping my foot on the gas longer and feeling that same confidence I had the day before, which only kept growing toward the end of the day. Working with the mechanics, I kept tweaking my seating position, which helped even more. At the start of my day, I clocked in at 1:16.303 before the transmission gave out, and a 1:21.451 trying to warm up the replacement's tires. The mid-day saw a big drop, all the way down to 1:08.330, which was but a couple tenths off from the fastest driver in the first session—not too bad I thought! However, I was super stoked to see my last session result in a final of 1:06.150! That was enough to bring a huge smile back to my face and walk out of the Bridgestone Racing Academy with my head held high. Crashing, it still sucks, but I figured out a way to get over it, and holy shit, it feels good.
More About the Tire: The Potenza RE-11A
This story wouldn't be complete without mentioning the tires used on the Van Diemen Formula race cars, which are actually street tires that you can purchase for your own daily driver or track project. The Potenza RE-11A was meant for track duty, and clearly showed me how to push its limits in terms of handling, grip, cornering and overall response. I can only imagine how great they'd feel on a car that I'll have easier access to, like my Civic. They have a wide variety of sizes ranging from 15 through 18-inches. Definitely worth a try!
For more information on how to sign up for the Bridgestone Racing Academy, please visit race2000.com.