Teaching Teens Safer Driving: Skip Barber Racing School

May 12, 2013

Poll parents with teenagers at driving age, and probably, you'll find they don't think their kids have been trained adequately to drive defensively on the road. Some teenagers might even admit the same.

Our own driving experiences run the gamut. Without giving away the ages of our editorial staff (hint--we range from 27 years old to more than 50 years old), we've talked about our own driver training, and find major gaps in generations--what was considered mandatory is hardly noted now when it comes time for a learner's permit.

Spoiler alert: teens are being let down and the driver-education system is failing them. Most are no longer required to spend time behind the wheel with a licensed instructor before taking the license test.

So where should parents turn for better education? Many driving schools teach teens how to use turn signals, to look over their shoulders, to check their blind spots, and to figure out which driver has the right of way. But is that enough? What happens when a driver is put into an emergency situation and needs to react quickly?

Skip Barber Driving School is one of the well-known and respected driving schools that focuses on improving skills while giving new drivers a better understanding of the road beyond just learning the rules. Barber's schools offer  courses ranging from a teen driving school all the way to a Formula racing series.

The Barber school invited us out to attend their Mazda Driving School at Road Atlanta to see exactly what drivers are learning. They waived the cost of tuition, but we paid our own way to get there and stay in the Atlanta area, so we could see how teens of various experience levels were learning more than just the basics.

Learning begins in the classroom

The Mazda Driving School by Skip Barber is a two-day affair and it's held at various race tracks around the U.S. The Team at Skip Barber fully discloses from the get-go that the Mazda Driving School is sponsored by both Mazda and Bridgestone. The cars used in the program are 2013 Mazda3s, 2013 MX-5s, and 2011 RX-8s. Mazda replaces the cars every year with new ones, and Bridgestone delivers tires to Skip Barber Driving Schools by the truckload.

So what do you do for two full days? First, you learn. The instructor spends about 30-45 minutes with you in the classroom going through some slides and drawing demonstrations on the white board. It's classic chalk-talk instruction, where they describe exactly what drivers will experience and what they shoulddo (and not do) in certain situations. One especially valuable thing for new drivers is learning about the driving environment and how a driver should be seated in the car, along with technical terms such as oversteer and understeer.

Preventing skids

After a brief in-classroom session, it's time to hit the pavement and put the knowledge to the test.

First up comes the braking exercise with cones and lights. This exercise is meant to let you experience what how a car reacts in an emergency braking situation where the anti-lock brakes and or stability control kick in to help prevent a crash. Many people get frightened in a panic stop when the anti-lock brakes kick in. They aren't sure what that pulsing or noise is, and why it's happening. Sometimes they'll try to pump the brakes, which defeats the purpose of the anti-lock brake system.

To counter that instinct, instructors tell you to speed up and then slam on the brakes to avoid an obstacle. In this case, the obstacles were cones. They have you brake late and hard so that you activate the anti-lock brakes. After each run they coach you on what you did right and wrong, from not pushing on the brake hard enough, to instinctively trying to pump the brakes. They'll tell you how to improve and then send you back to do it again.

On the skidpad, you learn cornering techniques. From load transfer and balance to understeer and oversteer, the skidpad is the place to learn the limit and how to handle a vehicle once you are past it. The skidpad is a wet asphalt surface that is sealed, which makes it quite slick. During our session it was pouring rain so the sprinkler which normally keeps the pad wet wasn't necessary. Two 2011 Mazda RX-8s are used in this exercise, with each sporting a smaller 15-inch wheel and tire setup in the rear. This in combination with unique camber and toe settings will help induce oversteer and understeer faster on the skidpad for the exercise. You're behind the wheel with a Skip Barber instructor riding shotgun. They'll have you go around the skidpad as they coach you on what to do, and what the car is doing. The key concept you learn during this exercise is how to perform CPR--correction, the pause, and the recovery.

Changing lanes and U-course

When you're put into an emergency situation and must make a last-minute lane change, vehicle dynamics get thrown out of whack. The car's weight shifts and the balance is upset. During the emergency lane change exercise, a cone course teaches how to steer through those circumstances. You barrel down a straight at full throttle and then slam on the brakes at the last minute, attempting to change lanes. At first it's a single lane change, but as you get the hang of the car's dynamics, the exercise moves up to a double lane change. As you would imagine, this upsets the car's dynamics even more dramatically. By the end the participants may not be comfortable performing an emergency lane change, but they certainly know how to. Instructors say you'll never be comfortable when put into a situation like this, and you shouldn't be. But knowing how to handle the situation is what's important.

Later in the course you'll return to the skid pad, after it's been changed it from a circle to a U-course. In this exercise you'll use what you learned about car control earlier on the skid pad and put it to the test in making a high speed U-shaped loop around the skid pad. You'll go full speed into the U and then clip the apex, as you round the turn the car will oversteer quickly requiring you to correct the skid and power through. You'll spend one session at this exercise the first day to get a feel for the concept, and the second day you'll spend a good amount of time here to practice and refine what you've learned the first day.

Team #Winning

One of the perennial favorites is the autocross. Using a course set up on the infield of Atlanta Motor Speedway, instructors cycle drivers through 2013 Mazda3s and 2013 MX-5s, teaching more braking, handling, and timing finesse, while giving students a better feel for how both a front-wheel and rear-wheel-drive vehicle drive on a track. The instructors sit shotgun and provide feedback and instructions the entire time during the first day.

The second day, students climb back into the cars for a competition. The instructors pit the two groups against each other on the autocross in a relay-style team exercise. Each team has its members drive around the autocross course as quickly and safely as possible, twice. The team that performs the deed the fastest wins.

The prize? Bragging rights. Of course we were on Team Winning, and naturally, we won by a few seconds.

What did our classmates have to say?

In all, there were 16 people in our two-day class, and from the start, the instructors broke us up into two groups of eight. During the two-day class we asked our fellow classmates what they thought of the experience as far as content and value. One of the gentlemen in our course has owned several Porsche 911s, and currently drives a Honda S2000. He told us that while he's owned fast cars, he's really never known how to drive them. He went on to say that the autocross exercise alone was worth the cost of entry. Another student in our class was a 16-year-old male who has had his license for six months. This was actually his second Skip Barber course, as he's already attended the teen driver class. Both him and his father felt the teen driver school and the Mazda Driving School were a value.

At least one father is ready to put his daughter through the equivalent of a Barber master's degree. Gene Morales is the owner of Euro Motorsport in Fort Lauderdale, where he sells exotic cars. His daughter just turned 16 and recently received her learner's permit. Both Gene and his daughter feel the driver's education system has failed them and that she is unprepared for the road. He has signed her up for every Skip Barber course that's offered.

Bottom line

So what's the bottom line? The Mazda Driving School that we attended had a $1,400 price tag. That's all inclusive including the vehicles, gas, anything you break on the vehicles (someone may or may not have dropped a clutch on one of the Mazda3s), lunch both days, all the coffee you need, and a course book.

For students who aren't yet prepared for the road, or for those who just want to learn how to drive at a higher skill level, the Barber two-day courses are a great starting point. You can't count on the usual driver's ed to take your skills to the next level--you have to take it into your own hands.


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