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Thursday, August 11, 2011

A Quick Trip Up North to the Bridgestone Racing Academy

Put a bunch of people in identically prepared cars, stick a seasoned instructor in front of them, and point them toward a race track—boom!—instant racing school. It’s a relatively simple formula, one we’ve experienced in Miatas, through forests, and at the wheel of fully prepped rally cars. Formulaic could also describe accredited engineering colleges, but that doesn’t mean they’re all the same—in both cases it’s the quality of instruction, the facilities, and the curriculum (not to mention the heftiness of loans required for enrollment) that differentiate them. Having completed one, we probably wouldn’t jump at the chance to try out another exciting engineering program, but another driver-training school? Just tell us when and where.

The when was last week. The school in question is the Bridgestone Racing Academy, which uses Mosport International Raceway outside of Toronto as its base of operations. The students were mostly Canadian journalists with a couple of Americans tossed in the mix—we were outnumbered eight to two, and they had the home-country advantage. But this wasn’t a competition, despite the lap times printed and passed around on day two, and the word “racing” right there in the school’s name. Fortunately, the cars help even things out.

About those cars: The academy has a fleet of relatively new Van Diemen Formula cars. They weigh about 1000 pounds and are powered by a 170-hp, 2.3-liter Mazda four-cylinder. The terribly un-sexy one-lug wheels are wrapped in—you guessed it—Bridgestone tires. The school uses RE-11 performance street tires as a learning tool—progressive loss of grip is easier to anticipate and correct. Plus, Bridgestone wouldn’t be too mad if students left the class with the urge to buy a new set of similar rubber for their cars.

We were there for a two-day session modeled after the Learn to Lap course, which runs $2495 Canadian. Day one starts off with a chalk talk (or whatever the modern white-board equivalent is) in the classroom. After being fitted for protective gear, all of which is provided, we headed out to the cars for a walkaround. The first exercise was designed to get us used to the transmission, which is a sequential five-speed manual with neutral locked out. Prepare for a left-leg workout. We practiced braking with downshifting and began to get settled in the car. Next up was a lead/follow exercise to begin learning the line around the track. The afternoon was spent doing what we’ll call follow/lead laps—after trailing an instructor we were waved by to lap at our own pace and received feedback afterward. Straightforward stuff, but necessary when hopping into an unfamiliar car on an unfamiliar track.

The real fun came on day two. Despite soreness resulting from day one, we were all getting comfortable with the cars and their quirks, and also starting to learn what to do where. A track walk in the morning helped solidify things. This would have been too much to process on day one, and the instructors were good about limiting the number of things you have to think about at any given time; cone gates show turn-in points, braking zones are marked, and each round of practice had instructors giving feedback about one part of the track instead of forcing us to process our mistakes for every turn at once. Timing sheets for each of day two’s five lapping sessions provided proof of improvement. Some people spun testing the limits. Everyone had a good time.

Some advantages of the academy over similar schools: The track was purpose-built for training and provides a good variety of learning opportunities with very few truly dangerous spots (they call this low risk). And it’s reconfigurable, allowing the instructors to match the complexity to building skill level. The academy is the only one in North America to teach race starts and passing, and it seems to work; graduates include James Hinchcliffe, who was on hand fresh from the Toronto IndyCar race to provide some expert instruction on day two. His exhibition lap just before the graduation ceremony showed everyone what the cars could really do.

We didn’t quite get to his level in two days, but everyone did get better. It’s cheaper than engineering school, a lot more fun, and something we’d be pleased to repeat.

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