Rocketing Around the Learning Curve At the Skip Barber Racing School


March 26, 1995|By Dan Neil

SEBRING, Fla. -- Car No. 51 is leading a plume of blue tire smoke as it skitters across the tarmac -- front, back, front, back. From Turn 1, a half-mile away, you can see orange traffic cones flying into the air, like a covey of doves flushed from a field.

It is midday at Sebring International Raceway in central Florida, under a brilliant winter sky.

"Fifty-one spins in T.3 [Turn 3]," says instructor David Murray over a walkie-talkie. "He's having trouble finding a gear."

"Kappy that," says lead instructor Bruce "Twister" McQuiston, affecting a Houston ground controller's twang. The teachers at the Skip Barber Racing School radio comments to drivers -- and to each other -- as the drivers round the course.

A third instructor, Eric Van Cleef, comes in with a crackle, "Twister, I've got 51 here. He says his car's got a mechanical problem."

"Kappy that," Twister McQuiston says, and as 51 drives away he adds, with a wry smile, "Eric, I think all that car really needs is a new spacer."

Spacer is mechanic's slang for driver.

Getting up to speed

Fifty-one tried to blame the hardware instead of the software, and in that he is typical. Few beliefs are so deeply ingrained in male self-perception as the notion that we are terrific drivers.

While other innocent lies of youth -- I am a great lover, a good dancer, a natural athlete -- fall prey to experience, we cling to our driving skills, a granite outcropping against a tide of fallen hair and abdominal flab.

The Skip Barber Introduction to Racing course offers two perspectives on that perception.

By the second day, after you've spun your open-wheel Formula Ford racer a half-dozen times and left enough metal filings in the gearbox to fill an ashtray, life behind the wheel as you've dreamed of it is over. You're hopeless.

But by the third day, you're hammering the brakes into turns, nailing the rear end down with progressive throttle -- then rapidly faster, third gear, fourth gear, flat out at 6,000 rpm. The single-seat, open-cockpit car shakes and strains as you roar at 100 mph down the throat of the final turn, hands as hard as tire rubber, and track out into the main straight inches from the wall.

I'm actually fast, you think. God, I'm driving my butt off! I could do this. I'm a great driver.

Just then you cross the finish line.

Skip's world

The Skip Barber Racing School began with the man himself, a Harvard English grad and Formula One driver who set records in all kinds of cars until his retirement in 1974. The following year, the Philadelphia native opened his school of racing with four cars.

The school, the world's largest for aspiring racers, is part of a far-flung organization Mr. Barber commands from his post in Lakeville, Conn. He also runs a driving school that offers courses on handling passenger cars, a series of regional races and the Zerex Pro Series of races. The Zerex series is the highest rung in the Barber "Ladder of Success" and is regarded as the surest and cheapest steppingstone to big-time racing.

And in racing, cheapest is bestest. To competitively campaign one's own Formula Ford -- a simple, durable and inexpensive car -- for a season on the Sports Car Club of America circuit could cost $50,000. Every year, thousands of weekend warriors are bankrupted and broken on the wheel of racing.

The beauty of the Barber organization -- which has grown 20 percent a year since 1975 and last year did $15 million in business -- is that it makes racing relatively affordable. Competition school graduates can buy a race weekend in the Formula Fords for about $1,350, with another $550 for a day of practice. You simply show up and drive.

Compared to the hassle and expense of buying, transporting and preparing you own car -- tires alone would run you about $800 a weekend -- the Barber Formula Ford series is a huge value. In fact, it's the cheapest way to do real racing.

Driven to excel

The heart and soul of the Barber empire, however, is the three-day competition course. A movable feast taught at more ++ than a dozen racetracks throughout the year, it has been the starting point for innumerable big-time racers. Graduates include the Andrettis -- John, Michael and Jeff -- Gary and Tony Bettenhausen, Robbie Buhl, Dorsey Schroader, Lyn St. James and lots more.

And now there's you.

The hotel in Sebring is surrounded by fast and fancy iron from around the world. Mercedes 500SL, Acura NSX, Porche 911 Turbo, Firebird Formula, BMW M5.

Jeepers, who are these guys?

The next morning, eight of the 12 students are sitting in the hotel restaurant -- some in custom Nomex driving suits and $800 antelope-skin shoes.

You're wearing a cardigan.

David Ordway drove 24 hours from Maine to get here. Tricked out in a black-and-red suit with Porsche Club of America patches, he explains that he's been to the Bob Bondurant school and has raced his 911 Turbo in Porche club events throughout the Northeast. He goes on to describe how he gets 470 horsepower out of stock-aspirated 911.

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