Great Drives: Skip Barber Racing School

March 12, 2006

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So you know how do drive, huh? I mean really drive? You’ve done a few track days and you feel pretty good out there. Perhaps you’ve even taken a few driving courses and maybe you’re wondering how much else there is to learn.

If that’s the case you sound a lot like me, chock full of misplaced bravado (not to mention a little quiet skepticism) prior to taking Skip Barber’s new High Performance Driving School at Laguna Seca Raceway in California. I had heard a lot about Skip Barber’s driving schools and most of the people who had taken the course raved about it. Still, I couldn’t help but wonder: How good can it really be?

Well, I stand before you (actually I’m sitting but that doesn’t sound as theatrical) a new man, not because I’m now some driving god but because my eyes have been opened to just how much there is left to learn. I now have a greater appreciation of how a car behaves at the limit, which not only imbues me with new confidence on the track but, more significantly, I look at street driving in a different light as well.

And do you want know what the weird bit is? All this happened in the Laguna Seca parking lot long before we ever hit the track. Sure, driving the Corkscrew for the first time was fun, but that was really just the icing on a very rich, multi-layered cake.

The ingredients

I’m at Laguna Seca at Skip Barber’s invitation because the school is keen to show a few of us impoverished auto writers how the “other half” learns to drive their exotic sports cars. The HPDS isn’t for the spanking-new novice driver because the course does require a certain degree of driving skill, but they don’t expect a roomful of Earnhardts either — after all, the instructors are there to teach us how to be better drivers.

Despite their extensive experience all types of racecars on all kinds of tracks, there’s no pretense or elitism and none of the instructors use us as a captive audience to bore us with their war stories. Not only are they friendly, articulate, and clearly enthusiastic about what they do, they’re also very professional and, thankfully, well aware we’d prefer to be out actually driving fast rather than simply listening to the theory of driving fast. The classroom session with chief instructor Randy Buck is a snappy 45 minutes and after that it’s pure adrenaline for the rest of the day.

First off we hit the skidpad, which sounds like a very high-tech device but actually comprises of little more than a huge chunk of slightly inclined parking lot drenched in water from a perforated hose. If the skidpad’s execution is simple, the skills involved in negotiating it are not.

First we have to become accustomed to working out how their BMW 330i behaves in the slick conditions and then later learning how to trail-brake into a slide before balancing the car on the throttle. The hope is that we’re able to compose perfect Dukes of Hazzard slides by the end of the day, but the reality is that most of us had quite a bit of difficulty getting used to pitching the car sideways on the brakes. The key is to turn into the loop only very slightly while slowly releasing the brakes. This should, if I’ve got your entry speed and steering angle right, swing the back end of the car out and begin the slide.

It sounds simple, but it requires so much mental reprogramming that I end up understeering past the cones more often than not. I also had to learn to steer into the slide sooner because, as the instructor pointed out, by waiting for the steering to unfurl itself I could never get enough opposite lock dialed in to maintain the slide. Eventually, the proverbial light bulb illuminates and I manage to string a few slides together with what feels like reasonable grace and poise. The feeling of executing a powerslide that continues for several seconds is simply indescribable and is worth the $2695 price of admission alone.

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