FOR A GOOD TIME…..CALL 1-800-RACE-NOW
Having decided to give driving school gift certificates to our motorhead daughter and son-in-law for Xmas past, last fall I perused Al Gore’s internet to see what was available. There is an amazing array of choices out there, from NASCAR stockers to open-wheel formula cars. In some, you bring your own car to the fray but most provide the wheels. Everyone has heard of Bob Bondurant, Skip Barber and a few other big-name schools, but for my purposes they were not good choices. Unfortunately, we were only going to have one day and they cater to more intensive programs. Their one-day schools are generally very basic and involve very little track time.
However, a more diligent search popped up the Bertil Roos racing school in Pennsylvania. Bertil was a Swedish racer of some repute, evidently in various Formula classes but beneath the splendor of F-1. Who now has established a cirruculum to teach the fine points of Formula 2000 racing with a very talented staff of young pros who actively contest these series. The school is located at the huge Pocono Raceway in the ‘mountains’ of Eastern PA. Pocono features a large tri-oval NASCAR track with twisty road race segments infield, just like Daytona. (Pikes Peak Raceway is similar in concept, but only about a third as large)
The school cars are purpose-built open-wheel Formula 2000s with Ford OHC four-cylinders, supposedly producing about 150hp. From what I’ve seen on Speedvision, these cars are slightly less sophisticated than those currently racing the series; they run normal street radials instead of slicks and have a touch less power than the real racers, so they’ll hold up under schooling.
The advance billing sounded perfect for an introduction to track driving; they believe in learn-by-doing, so there is a lot of track time, you drive at your own pace and they even allow passing! Best of all, a full day was only $850, so I signed up the kids as well as myself and we eagerly waited for this spring. Very detailed manuals arrived by mail that introduced attendees to what would be going on, and in particular, explaining the concept of double-clutched downshifts on the non-synchro Hewland gearboxes--with the suggestion that you practice the skill in your regular car before arriving.
So, last month we jetted Eastward, rented an Impala and scrubbed its tires soundly in anticipation during the drive into the Poconos. ‘Race’ day dawned bright and clear but with a threat of rain (they run rain or shine—no refunds). The school receives sponsorship from Volvo due to Bertil’s heritage, so there were some V-40 turbo sedans in which the instructors took groups of three around the course explaining braking points, entries, apexes, exits and shift points. Given the size of the track, they only use one end for the school, while on this particular Saturday a Porsche club was having its own track event at the opposite end, about a half-mile away. After each student in turn took three laps in the Volvos under tutelage, the instructors brought everyone back to the pits. We were put into two groups of six and introduced to the Formula cars. More discussion hammered home the concept of those downshifts, a few other operational points of the cars and the next thing we knew we were driving ‘em! This was a lot like teaching swimming by throwing people off the dock, and not everyone caught on right away. We ran the track clockwise, heading low into the big banked turn Four ‘backwards.’ At the speeds these cars run, that huge curve is essentially a straight, and about a third of a mile down there was a right-angle right into the infield. Six curves later along a delightfully undulating course another hard right put you back onto the apron of turn Four to begin another lap.
While one group went out on the track to graunch the Hewlands, the others were put in the Volvos and instructors drove them out to various vantage points around the course. They would explain to their charges what the student drivers they were watching were doing right or wrong and at the same time reporting via radio to a flag man stationed at the slow corner leading onto the banked turn. Anyone who was slowing down another student was blue-flagged at that corner and would move up high onto the bank to let the other(s) pass beneath. Anyone who spun or went off track with more than two wheels was black- flagged and given appropriate counseling before being turned loose again. If you were doing well there was no limit to how quickly you could lap, other than occasionally being balked by a slower student. Brian and I were pretty evenly matched and had our own furious little race going on during our sessions. As usual, experience and treachery could overcome his youth and enthusiasm, as I found if he was leading I could push him hard into corners and he would eventually make a mistake so I could get by.
WHAT FUN!! Fortunately, these cars are built surprisingly tough, as many took off-course excursions during the day. The street tires are run firm, which allows very nice controlled drifts under power, but also leads to a spin when momentum exceeds skill. The most difficult maneuver for most students was that ninety-degree right off of the fast straight. If you got a good drive out of the last turn, you’d be approaching 90 mph at the last braking cone before the turn. These light cars have fantastic brakes, so the distance before the turn-in was pretty short—during which you’re making two double-clutched heel-and-toe downshifts and slowing to about 30mph. It is a difficult skill to master!
These Formula cars are a riot to drive; the unpadded fiberglass seat has you reclined just a few inches above the pavement and the engine is mounted solidly to the chassis, so all sorts of vibrations and buzzes resonate up through your back and derriere. The open exhaust adds to the clamor while the open wheels toss all manner of dirt and rubber shards from the track back at you. After about twenty minutes, the driving group got called in and switched places with the observers to begin another session. This rotation carried on between other coaching sessions and lunch, and resulted in plenty of track time, so at the end of the day you were pooped. Not surprisingly, out of the total group I could tell from their conversation that not all had enjoyed the school as much as others. Some found the experience a little intimidating, some found that they weren’t another Schumacher, as they had thought, but all were very glad they had tried it.
I fear I have created a monster, though, as the kids took to it like the proverbial duck-to-water and want to know if we can do two days next year!
I would recommend the school heartily to anyone as it is probably the best value for the money in a track school I have come across. Pocono is only a two-hour very scenic drive from Newark airport and there’s a nice new motel just down the road from the track. And in the spring or fall it is absolutely gorgeous there. Look them up on the Al-net for full details (or call the 800 number above) and be sure to bring some driving gloves—the stubby, angular shifter is a little rough on your hands—but they provide everything else, including a damage waiver on the car!
-- Bill Orth --