Several years ago (maybe it was when I turned sixty) I decided that I really wanted to make into a reality, something I had only fantasized about most of my adult life: I wanted to drive a racecar on a racetrack. My wife Jan—God bless her—instead of saying what most wives of going-on-elderly husbands would say: “Grow up, old man! Go bowling, whydontcha?” said, instead: “Sounds like fun. Is there someplace where you can do that?” Google brought us quickly to Skip Barber Racing, in Lakeville, CT.
Skip Barber was a Harvard-educated racecar driver back in the Sixties who, after a successful, if not spectacular, road racing career which included three SCCA Championships and consecutive Formula Ford National Championships, among others, garnered what was perhaps his greatest victory. He realized that racecar driving was a teachable endeavor and, after his retirement from road racing, started what would become the Skip Barber Racing School. The school is currently headquartered in a bucolic Connecticut village that is so beautiful, so trendy and so fashionable, thoroughbred race horses and thoroughbred humans like Meryl Streep call it home.
The Skip Barber Racing School was, to this aging Baby Boomer with all the emotional maturity of a recently-post-pubescent teenaged boy, a wet dream come true. For a price that, while not insignificant, is relatively reasonable, one can pilot a somewhat scaled-down, but still formidable, F1-type car around the stately course at Lime Rock Park, one of the world’s most celebrated racetracks, for a couple of tumescent hours. Merely climbing into the dashing red Skip Barber racing suit alone was a thrill almost beyond compare.
There was a half-hour of classroom instruction before driving commenced, featuring much talk about foreign sounding concepts like “vehicle dynamics,” “hitting the apex,” and, “brake in, throttle out,” when navigating a turn. It seemed like a lot for neophytes to absorb in thirty-minutes, and the instructor, sensing that some of us might be lost already, said, “Don’t worry too much about all this stuff. It’s just a car. Drive it.” Another thing he said was perhaps even more prophetic: “You might as well give me your checking account number now, because you’re going to want to do this again and again. It’ll make it easier for us to take your money.”
We then went trackside for the car intro, and, almost immediately, this little concern began seeping into my consciousness in the guise of a tiny voice that kept repeating, “What have you gotten yourself into?” It wasn’t fear, since I was now mere moments from fulfilling a lifelong fantasy. Instead, it was a gently gnawing anxiety that this old man (I was by far the oldest in the group) might be about to embarrass himself beyond repair. This feeling grew, as the instructor went through the workings of the car, and moreso a bit later, when we were matched up with our cars and I fully realized just how small and tight the cockpit was.
There is a reason why most racecar drivers and jet fighter pilots are relatively small in stature. Their vehicles are designed for maximum speed and maneuverability; by definition, they must be fast, relatively light, and extremely nimble. The human element is a necessary evil in this speed-above-all equation, and so must conform to the profile of the machine itself. Humans must, in turn, be fast thinking, relatively light-and-compact, and nimble of hand and foot. As a six-foot tall, more than 200-pound senior citizen, I was as far from the ideal racer profile as a human being can be.
But I still managed to squeeze my bulky body into the cockpit, and my head into the helmet, and soon we were off. The protocol for this “Introduction to Racing” course consisted of a professional driver in a lead car, with three or four students following in single file, in theirs. The pro driver plots the “ideal” line around the course—hitting the apex of every turn, braking on the way into the turn, and punching the throttle on the way out, then quickly setting the line into the next turn. It’s our job to try to follow and keep up with him, slowly for the first few laps, then at near race-speed for the rest. Each racing student takes several laps directly behind the lead car, then is signaled to pull over and let the car behind him assume the first position.
This goes on for several series, over a ninety-minute period, with a ten-minute break between sessions for critiquing and discussion. Each succeeding session gets progressively more difficult, and by the third and final session it is virtually impossible to keep pace with the lead driver who, by the way, is not driving a racecar, but a stock road car. (It was a BMW 3-series sedan on my initial visit to Lime Rock.) That nagging, naysaying voice in my head disappeared after the first two laps of the day; I discovered that I was not only comfortable in a racecar (tight squeeze notwithstanding), but may also have possessed a modicum of aptitude for the exercise. I had very little difficulty in practice with the concepts of vehicle dynamics, apexing turns, and brake-in/throttle-out—even though I had a very difficult time comprehending them in the classroom.
Two hours literally raced by. I left Lime Rock that fateful day carrying a deluge of emotions, sensations, and complications with me. Driving a fast car fast is addicting; probably not for everyone, but definitely for me. What this says about my personality, I am not sure. But I instantly developed a craving for more of it; I wanted that feeling of “speed for speed’s sake” to be at least a small part of my life, from that day forward. I’ve been back to Skip Barber to drive a Mazda MX-5 race car; drove a formula car at Pocono Raceway with Bertil Roos Racing; piloted an assortment of supercars on New York State country roads with Word Class Driving; and participated in autocross in the parking lot of Giants Stadium (excuse me; Met Life Stadium) with Imagine Lifestyles. Imagine that. (Did I mention that I have a 2002 Porsche 911 that I drive sparingly, but more swiftly than I ought to, around northern NJ?)
As a result of these experiences, I have developed a real respect for people who drive racecars for a living. Especially the pioneers of racing, many of whom gave their lives before driver safety became a priority. (If you’ve seen Ron Howard’s film “Rush,” which graphically and deftly recounts the early days of Formula One racing and the heroic battles between Britain’s James Hunt and Austria’s Niki Lauda, you’ve gotten a sense of racing’s epic dangers.) Almost anyone can drive a racecar around a track under controlled conditions; very, very few people can do it for real. Elite-level racecar drivers are genetic freaks, in the same way that other elite-level athletes, artists, writers, etc. are.
It takes a vast amount of skill, courage and genetic superiority to drive a racecar competitively at even a very basic level. At the elite level, where drivers routinely average over 200 mph during the course of a race, the physical, mental and emotional stresses they experience are immense. A study done recently on the reflexes of NASCAR drivers showed that their ability to process information and react accordingly takes place 33% faster than in the rest of us. At 200 mph, the equivalent length of a football field zips by every second. I’ve driven a racecar at nearly 150 mph, under rigidly controlled conditions, with no one trying to pass me, for brief periods of time. It is both exhilarating and terrifying; and it is at the absolute limit of my ability. To go 50 mph faster is not 25% more difficult, but exponentially so. It is a world apart; a bridge way too far for mere mortals.
The earth sped up for me that day, in the pastoral village of Lakeville, CT, imparting doses of enthusiasm, excitement and enlightenment that, frankly, were in dire need of replenishment. In doing so, perhaps, the experience I had there slowed down, if only a little, the inevitable excursion to that great bowling alley in the sky that awaits us all.