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Simraceway School Of Racing Stage 1: Getting To Know Formula Cars

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If you've never had a car try to rip your head from your neck at 100 mph over nothing but a high-speed turn, you've probably never driven a formula car. If you'd like to, no matter your experience, the Simraceway Performance Driving Center is a great opportunity.

I just spent a couple of days there, at its Infineon Raceway home, experiencing exactly that. Repeatedly.

Disclaimer: Simraceway waived my entry fee so I could bring you this review of the school. I paid the travel, lodging, and food bills.

Simraceway, if you haven't been keeping up with the latest, is the new name and new ownership of what used to be the Infineon chapter of the Jim Russell Driving School. Carrying forward the proven curriculum and most of the same instructors, the Simraceway Performance Driving Center is closely tied with the Simraceway driving simulator--though the simulator wasn't involved in this Stage 1 school.

Who needs simulators when you have the real thing at hand, anyway?

Simraceway School Of Racing Stage 1

Simraceway School Of Racing Stage 1

Enlarge Photo
Day 1: Intro to the FJR-50


Upon arrival at the school, you'll enjoy a light breakfast and some coffee (or, in my case, lots of coffee), sign away your life and a large chunk of your bank account in the event of an on-track screw-up, and then head over to the classroom for a sit-down session outlining the basics of what's ahead.

After that, you'll get your driving suit and helmet, a few laps around the track in a Mitsubishi Evo X to get a basic idea of the line, followed by your first taste of what it's like in a real formula car. Based on the Lola F3 chassis--but widened to accommodate a larger ranger of drivers--the FJR-50 is a turbocharged Mitsubishi Evo IX-powered, 220-horsepower (in school trim), 1,200-pound piece of rather high-tech, carbon-fiber engineering. Very effective aerodynamics, including front and rear wings, underbody tunneling, and a diffuser help suck the car to the track at speed.

The first drills in the FJR-50 are straightforward, and designed to introduce the driver to the basics of operating the car: starting it from a stop, upshifting, downshifting, and braking. The braking and downshifting drill is, for a first-time formula driver, intense.

Simraceway School Of Racing Stage 1

Simraceway School Of Racing Stage 1

Enlarge Photo
With that much power on tap in such a light car, acceleration is very quick, but it's the braking that's really amazing. Once you get the car going quickly enough for the aero to kick in, the initial stopping power is immense, even on the intermediate tires you'll be using for the whole Stage 1 school. Mixing in heel-toe downshifts of the sequential Hewland five-speed dog box introduces some tight and tricky footwork.

You'll quickly learn, through the visual aid of tire smoke and locked wheels, that the massive stopping power under aero load quickly goes away, requiring smooth and progressive release of the brake. Getting all of the available brake while still moving at speed is the trick here, a technique called digressive braking: going to max brake almost instantly upon coming off the gas and gradually releasing pressure on the pedal to match the available braking power as speeds drop.

Despite a great deal of repetition in our three-student/two-instructor class, none of us had mastered the combination at the end of the first session, though we all got the basic idea of it--enough so to continue with our work of getting to know the car--and to get an idea of the neck-stretching in store for us.

Simraceway School Of Racing Stage 1

Simraceway School Of Racing Stage 1

Enlarge Photo
Learning the track


Next on the list of activities is a lapping session of Infineon Raceway with the instructors behind the wheel of a pair of Mitsubishi Evo Xs, students riding along. After they explain the track and the basic line, braking markers, and turn-in points, you'll swap seats for a handful of mid-speed laps of your own in the Evo, the instructors critiquing line and other elements of your driving.

This might seem like a step backward, but getting familiar with the track in a more familiar road-car environment helps remove the noise of operating a foreign machine as well as the time-compression factor brought on by the FJR-50's raw speed.

After you've shown you can make 11 turns without running off into an amateur farming excursion, you'll get some ride-along time in a two-seat sports racer on a skid pad to get a feel for how throttle and brake affect front-rear weight transfer, and what that does to line. Hint: adding throttle in a constant-radius turn will reduce front grip and make a larger radius.

Then you'll head back to the classroom for a track talk, and get back behind the wheel of the FJR-50 for some lead-follow laps to wind up the day.

After day one, you'll be tired, overloaded with new information, and likely nursing a stiff neck.

You'll also be pretty satisfied with the experience--the instructors are active professional drivers, capable not just of driving very, very quickly, but of explaining how to do it, and, even better, observing what you're doing and helping you to fix the bad stuff and improve the good stuff.

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