I wasn't worried. It was probably just something I ate. My parents had been sick for a few days after getting some virus on the other side of the country. Since I hadn't shown any symptoms, I assumed I was immune. The itch wasn't itchy enough to cough, so I persuaded myself that it would just go away and tomorrow, on the way down to Laguna Seca, I would feel perfect. There was no way I could get sick just before my 3-day racing school at Skip Barber, my introduction to Formula cars.
Along came the afternoon of the 22nd, just an hour before we were set to leave, and the itch was still there. Nothing to do about it now.
The next morning in the hotel in Monterrey I don my nomex undersuit with my "civvies" over top. I looked a little bit like a hipster, with my acid washed blue jeans and brown T-shirt over my white turtle neck-ish nomex, only with worse color coordination. I do this because I don't like to feel rushed when I arrive at the track. All I have to do is pull on my overalls and lace up my shoes and I'm good to go. Normally I'd wear my full getup with my suit's top and arms tied around my waist, but that looks a little odd when you're sitting down to breakfast. As the days went on I stopped caring and just put it all on in the morning. The odd looks people give are amusing.
Upon arriving at the track and getting settled in at the Skip Barber classroom (which is smack in the middle of the paddock), we meet our instructors for the day: Jonathan Frost, Lonnie Pechnik, Jeff Rodriguez and Ricky Shmidt. We also get the order of the day- autocross.
The idea behind the autocross is just to explore what the car feels like under, on, and over the limit before we get out on the track and get up to high speed. No transmission, no big braking zones, just brushing the brake, turning, applying the throttle, a little bit of sliding and maybe a spin or two.
But before we could do that, we needed to have a look at the car we'd be driving. So we headed out to the grid to have a look-see.
The Skip Barber R/T 2000 is a fairly simple machine, but not at first glance.
The first aspect is just getting into the thing. It's tiny. Once you've accomplished that, you have to do up the 5-point harness. The harness needs to be so tight it hurts, otherwise you can be in a lot of trouble if you crash at high speed. That's why street cars have auto tensioners and belt locks.
Now come the controls. Unfortunately, I didn't think to grab a shot of the dashboard, but I'll run you through it anyway.
The dials and lights, from left to right, are the water temp, the tachometer, the neutral light and the oil pressure. Just 3 dials. No speedometer.
The controls, from right to left, are the shifter stick (more on that in a moment), the steering wheel in the middle (obviously), the starter button just to the left of the tach, the master switch to the left of that, and down and all the way to the left is the neutral/reverse lockout.
Starting the car is more involved than just turning the key. First, you turn on the master switch (to the "up" position), which turns on all the electrics and cycles the fuel pump. Then you check to make sure the car is in neutral. If it's not in neutral, the neutral light will be off. To get it into neutral, pull out and hold the neutral/reverse lockout knob, and if you are in 1st gear, push the shifter stick half way forward until the neutral light comes on. Now you can push the starter button and it will come to life. You can still start the car in gear with the clutch in, it's just good to let the transmission get into it's groove. To get it into 1st gear, quickly press and hold the clutch and pull back on the stick firmly. If you hold the clutch in for too long before trying to get 1st gear, the transmission will lose synch and the gear won't go in, since this transmission has no synchro gears, unlike a street transmission.
1st gear goes to about 60 MPH, so no shifting is required for the autocross.
After a few slow laps to learn the layout of the track (a sea of cones can be a little confusing at times), I finally got up to speed in my new toy. Oh man, what a blast! It's incredibly responsive, even with the addition of springs and dampers. I was quickly trail-braking and 4-wheel drifting my way through sweepers, switchbacks and hairpins alike. I was enjoying this much more than karting. So much more patience and smoothness is required, it's just a lot more rewarding to drive. Feeling a longer wheelbase pitch and pivot around you is much more addicting to me.
Though, it is a much larger car, and I did clip a number of cones while I was sorting out my new "body". Make no mistake, these race cars and karts are very much a suit that you wear. A suit with wheels and an engine.
After we all had our fun on the autocross, we headed back into the classroom to detail the next drill - shifting.
The idea behind the shifting, braking and downshifting drill was simple. We line up going backwards in the pit lane, and we'd drive out and make a left going to turn 11, the hairpin. We'd go down the front straight in 4th gear and when we got to turn 2, there'd be a braking point set up which was conservatively placed in front of the corner with plenty of time to slow down. During the braking zone, we'd downshift once, slow right down, take the corner nice and easy, then turn to the left and enter the pits backwards again. In the pits, there was another braking zone, again placed with plenty of time to slow down for the tight pit "entrance". Rinse and repeat. We had a rev limit of about 3500 RPM, so even in 4th gear we were only going maybe 65 or 70, at the most.
To upshift this car, with it's sequential transmission, all you have to do is lift the throttle and pull back the shift lever. It's not quite that simple though. You can't just yank it, you have to do it smoothly with your hand and sharply with your foot. To downshift, just brake, put the clutch it, push the stick forward, blip the throttle with your right foot, and release the clutch.
Blip? What's a blip?
A blip (like a small push) of the throttle while braking and downshifting is called heel and toe. It's called heel and toe because there are 3 pedals, and the only way to operate all 3 of them with 2 feet is to use part of one foot on one pedal, and the other part on another pedal. The heel and the toe are most convenient, so it's called heel and toe. But why do you have to do this in the first place?
Think about a normal upshift. If you go from 3rd to 4th, what happens that you can observe? The engine revs drop. You've switched to a lower ratio gear. In 1st gear, the engine might be turning 3 times for every 1 time the drive shaft turns. In 4th gear, the engine might turn once for every 1 turn of the drive shaft. It depends on the ratio of the gears installed on the car. In many cars, 5th or 6th gear actually means the engine crank is spinning slower than the drive shaft. That's called overdrive.
So if you switch from 3rd to 4th and the revs drop from 4500 to 3500, what do you think is going to happen if you switch back from 4th to 3rd? The engine will be moving slower than the drive shaft wants it to, and the rest of the drive line will drag the engine up to the proper speed. As you can imagine, this is quite unsmooth. It's also hard on the car. If you're braking hard, this will also probably momentarily lock the driven wheels.
To make a down change smooth, you use heel and toe. The process goes like this. You put the clutch in, you choose the gear you want, and while the clutch is still in, you use the throttle to rev the engine up to the proper speed for the new lower gear, and you release the clutch. If you did it right, you don't feel a thing, and your entire drive line will love you for all eternity.
It gets a little more complicated when you try to do this while braking. As I said before, 3 pedals, 2 feet. So, you use your toes to brake the car (or, more specifically, the ball of your foot), and you pivot your heel over to strike the throttle while you shift down. Heel and toe.
This whole process takes a fair amount of coordination to pull off, without missing a shift or adversely affecting your brake pressure, not to mention making it accurate enough to be smooth. That's the purpose of the downshifting drill. The Skip Barber car does have a sequential transmission, which can be both upshifted and downshifted without the clutch, but the only reason not to use the clutch with a sequential is if you left foot brake, and in this car the steering column is in the way. So you are literally forced to heel toe, and if you've got a spare foot, you might as well use the clutch and give the mechanics another few hundred miles before a transmission rebuild.
I did a couple of passes at the downshifting drill and I thought I was doing okay. I'm sure the instructors had plenty of notes for me, but all that was cut short when I crested the hill going back into the pits and saw a yellow flag. We pulled in, and I could see a car down at the end of pit lane that had crashed. I didn't see it, so I had no idea how bad it was.
It turns out, a young girl who didn't have a whole lot of experience had somehow missed the braking point, not slowed down, and hit the wall right in a spot with no tires. A helicopter was called in, because she was really hurt. We later learned that she hadn't tightened her belts all the way, and her helmet hit the steering wheel. She had a broken jaw, a broken ankle, and lost some teeth. The instructors said it was one of the worst crashes they'd ever seen at Laguna. A really terrible thing.
After a long wait for all the safety crews to finish, we eventually did get back out for a couple of lead-follow sessions to set up for the next day, which would be spent on the track. These were just slow speed recon laps to get us familiar with the layout and the line of Laguna, which, thanks to the simulator, I already had a good grasp of.
The second day was all on the full track, though it was with a changing rev limit all day. At first it was 3500 RPM, but it ramped up to 4500 RPM.
The first sessions of the day were simple laps with a rev limit, only at the end of the lap you would stop in a cone box and get the feedback from the instructors over the radio. Then you'd be allowed to go on another lap with enough space from other traffic. I was starting to approach the limits of the car, and I was getting some really good feedback.
In between each group, the instructors would take students out in the vans to various corners to watch. They also did evaluation runs in the Mazda 3s so they could more closely observe our inputs.
Then we started braking drills. The drills were simple. Accelerate with no rev limit towards turn 11 from turn 10 and stop as fast as you can. Get your feedback at the apex then continue on down to turn 2 and do the same thing.
I struggled a little with the brakes. In the kart, I'm used to oversteer telling me when I've locked up (since the kart has rear brakes, locking up is the same as yanking the hand brake really hard). In the car, you have to pay attention to the front tires with your eyes. Plus, the brake pedal is a lot firmer than the kart, and I had to recalibrate my foot to modulate at those high pressures.
I had a couple of attempts in turn 11 where I nearly went off into the gravel from locking up, then releasing a little too much, then locking again.
Then I went off down to turn 2 and there was another student still sitting on the apex getting his feedback. So I tried to run wide but ended up sliding off the track and getting beached. There's always a first time to use a tow truck...
Braking drills just don't seem to go my way. I learned a bit though.
The day was really hot, over 100 degrees, and right before the last session I got a throbbing headache and a slightly upset stomach. I immediately downed two bottles of water and some ibuprofin, which seems to work better for me than acetaminophen (Tylenol). Fortunately the headache went away before the final session and I was able to concentrate again.
The final session was a free lapping session with a 4500 RPM limit. I started exploring the car in a more natural way and gathered a lot of good data to carry into day 3.
Day 3 ended up having fantastic weather and I was no longer sweating buckets. And even more good news: no more rev limits! We were now able to use the full range of the car, and that meant shifting at about 6k RPM. Unfortunately, I had to switch cars, because the white one I had been using developed a problem with the clutch and kept stalling.
I think now's a good time to give up a video.
This is from the top of my helmet, and it really shows how much smoother the whole thing is compared to the kart. Also keep an eye on my right leg as it heel-toes on the downshifts and snaps off the throttle on the upshifts. At the end of the main straight the car is doing about 105 MPH.
And here is a more traditional roll bar mounted shot.
My laps at the end of the day were in the 1:45s, which isn't really quick, but I was trying to be a little careful. Even after 3 days I was still feeling out the car, and the 3rd day was really the only time I could really get on it and learn it the "normal" way. I can find more time in the high speed corners, and a tenth or two just about everywhere. I suspect the slowness is in part due to old tires.
As far as damage goes, it's not that bad. After 3 days of driving this car, I feel like I've only done a half-day of karting. If I ever have any stamina problems in this car, I'll know I've gone soft. The steering is more vertical, however, and I was definitely using new muscles for that. My cold did end up taking over right after I got home, that's why I didn't update for a couple days. Fortunately I only had a sore throat during the actual school, so the timing was pretty good all things considered.
Whew. That's one of the longest posts I've done here. I should get a laptop so I can update once per day on these multi-day trips.
Anyway, I had an absolute blast, and I really, really can't wait for my advanced school, which is next month.
There are a couple more pieces I want to do as a result of this, so there's more to read in the coming weeks. What? I can't just dole it all out right now. Then you'd have to wait even longer for new stuff. Also, there should be some professional shots coming up in the next couple of weeks, which I will post, naturally.