Dear Diary: I Want to be a Racing Driver

Atlas F1

Dear Diary: I Want to be a Racing Driver

by Ross Stonefeld, United States

The first race I ever saw happened when I was 4 years old. It was the Indycar event at the Phoenix International Raceway oval. My memories of the experience are limited to the extent that it was very noisy and very confusing, and that I found it all rather silly. Watching the Indy 500 some years later didn't change my lack of enthusiasm; racing struck me as something that people did as a weekend hobby. My dream as a kid was to become a fighter pilot like my dad while serving in the Navy. So, I spent my time reading all sorts of books about it, and making sure my grades were top notch so I could get into the prestigious United States Naval Academy.

In the spring of 1996 I learned that, due to past vision problems, I was disqualified from entry to the school. A few weeks later I woke up early one Sunday and flipped on the television. As I flipped through the channels, I came across the Monaco Grand Prix. I sat in wonder for almost 2 hours as the drivers glided the cars through the soaked streets of the principality. For some reason, at that moment, I decided that I would become a racing driver of some sort. The more I read about Grand Prix racing, the more I became interested. When I learned that only two Americans had ever won the World Championship, I made a conscious decision that I would join their ranks.

A day before my 17th birthday, I sat in a race car for the first time. Before going to the Skip Barber Racing School, I thought the neatest thing about being a driver would be the fame and the money. After I took my first few laps in the Formula Ford, it occurred to me that it wasn't about fame or fortune, but about the feeling derived from driving a race car. The faster we were allowed to go, the more fun I was having as I explored how to enter and exit a corner as quickly a possible. The challenge to be absolutely perfect and getting the absolute maximum out of a machine and myself was intoxicating.

Among the instructors at Skip Barber was Jim Pace (1995 winner of the Rolex 24hrs of Daytona), and Peter Argetsinger. Peter's dad, Cameron, was instrumental in bringing the USGP to Watkins Glen those many years ago. Peter became a racing driver himself, driving in British F3, and working with Jackie Stewart and Eddie Jordan. It was soon apparent that Mr. Argetsinger and I had a tremendous rapport, and I was able to feed off his immense knowledge and experience about racing.

After successfully completing the racing school, I did a few "lapping days" before entering my first race weekend. I was lucky (or unlucky) enough to be placed in the group with some very fast championship contending drivers. I managed to post the 6th fastest practice time, which was the fastest of all rookies. My first race was rather exciting. I was locked in a duel with another rookie to see who wouldn't finish dead last in their first race. After a controversial ending, I managed to pull off 11th place out of 12. For the Sunday race I awoke to rain. Having driven very well in the wet in the 3 day school, I was excited about my chances.

When the first 3 drivers on the grid crashed on the warmup lap, I honestly thought I could win the race. On the second lap, I went down the inside of another rookie into the famous Canada Corner. I was in his blind spot and he didn't see me as he turned in. His right rear ran over my left front, flipping him into the gravel. I was a bit shaken up and didn't feel entirely comfortable. After the green flag flew a few laps later, I parked it in the pits and went to see if he was okay. I was placed on probation for being too aggressive a rookie driver.

It was the only race for me in 1997, so I set my sights on gathering together some funding and doing a few races in 1998. I also chose to attend the Jim Russell school in Mont Tremblant Canada; Michael Andretti attended four racing schools, two certainly wasn't going to hurt me.

On my first day at the Canadian Jim Russell School, I was late to the track. In that part of Canada, breakfast is a 5 course meal. We were issued helmets and suits and directed to the pitlane tower. There we were introduced to our instructors, Phillipe Letourneau and Jean-Francois Doumolin (who drives in a few Toyota Atlantic races). We were given a basic course on the theory of how to situate one's self in a race car and heel-toe downshifting. We were assigned cars based on size, and I was given the number 8 car. Now, a Formula Ford 1600 is probably the most cramped race car in the world. Since it is a tube frame chassis, there's not a lot of cockpit room and that's not easy for someone like me who has the build of Alexander Wurz.

After a few attempts (it never gets easy), I managed to stuff myself in the race car. One of the mechanics then started to buckle me in. This was something new. At Skip Barber we just do our own belts up. I had always thought having a mechanic belt you in was something you only get in Formula One. A definite plus in the ego department, although I'm not used to having people fumble around between my legs. We slowly made our way to the straight on the unused portion of the full course. Cones setup at each end of the straight and we were told to run it up to fourth, shifting at 3200rpm. Start braking at the first cone, start downshifting at the second. Basic stuff, right? For most people it was. For me, it was actually quite difficult.

I've driven enough that I'm more accustomed to approaching corners at 90-120mph pounding the brakes, snicking it through the gears, and turning it into the corner. Apparently I had become complacent and messed up the first six or so tries while doing merely 50mph. There were 2 drivers there who had come out of go-karts, Alex (with about 7 years of karting experience) and Noah (who drives for a team run by Paul Tracy's manager) and they appeared to be having some of the same difficulties that I was. After about 45 minutes, we took a breather to go to get some fluids and maybe a pitstop in the lavatory. We went out for another downshift exercise. By this time I was used to the slower speed downshifts and happily tooled around for another hour.

After lunch we were divided into two groups. One group went to the skidpad and one group to the classroom. I was sent to the classroom first where an instructor gave us about an hour long presentation on corner theory. If I were running a racing school, I'd probably do all the lectures in the morning because after you've been out driving, it's a bit hard to keep your interest in just talking about it. Anyway, after what seemed like an eternity in the classroom we hopped back in our cars and headed for the skidpad. This would actually be the funniest part of the week for me. It was a large asphalt paddock flooded with water and littered with orange cones. We were told to go trough the cone slalom as fast as we could, and turn around at the end. Simple minds are amused by simple things I guess. I sure enjoyed myself splashing around trying not to run over the cones. After we had finished with the slalom exercises, we did a walk of the track with Jean-Francois and took notes on the various corners. The track is an old F1 circuit from the 60's and it hasn't been modified since. The track is very abrasive and there is absolutely no runoff (apart from a swamp in the esses) and some rather flimsily looking walls.

Tuesday was going to be our first day of lapping around the track. In the morning, we were instructed on how to put together the three stages of a corner. Entry (braking and downshifting), apex, and exit. We made run after run into the hairpin, and apparently we weren't doing it properly. Like any "school", we repeated the lesson until we got it right. This ended up occupying most of the morning. After lunch we went out for pace laps - the field follows a pace car and every three laps the guy in the front goes to the back. You follow the pace car and learn the line as best you can. They also hold up a sign telling you what gear you should be in at each corner.

Afterwards we were unleashed. Le Circuit Mont Tremblant is a fantastic track. The entrance to turn one is a dip in the road leading into a fast sweeper with a blind apex just beyond the top of a hill. After that, you sweep down right through an almost flat kink known as El Diable. A split second after you exit Diable, the entrance to the right-left ess turns come up. The exit of the esses is very, very bumpy and you have to be immaculate with both the wheel and throttle or else face a severe spin. A straight leads you into the 90 degree right hander Tic, then a short stab on the gas into another right hander, Tac-Toe. Both of these corners gave me a bit of a problem in the cockpit. The gearshift knob is kinda big and you need a lot of steering lock for Tic and Tac-Toe and my hand kept hitting the shifter. On both corners I had to shift my hands to the 7 and 11 o'clock positions on the wheel.

The exit of Tac-Toe rejoins the old circuit and opens on the exit. It feeds into the Gulch turn, a left hander that dips slightly at the apex. The exit is a red and white kurb, and a steel guardrail to punish the unwary. Up a short hill to the Bridge turn, a blind left under the bridge. As you track out of Bridge you keep the car to the right and apex the kink, then sweep out to the left to line up for the Namerow corner. Namerow is an awesome corner. It has an uphill bumpy brake zone that, to go fast through, you must enter on the right under braking then swing to the left just before you turn in. The exit is straight for about 75 yards, then the road starts to bend left. Apex the left hand kink just before the start-finish line to complete your lap.

On our first lapping session we had a rev limit of 3400. Subsequent lapping sessions moved us up through 3600 and 3800 rpm. Lapping sessions consisted of 15 lap drives followed by a break with feedback from the instructors observing from various corners. I took the afternoon sessions rather calmly, exploring the track and trying to map out mentally where the various bumps and possible rubble spots would be. Passing was not yet allowed, so I had to make a few pitstops to get myself out of traffic.

Wednesday, like all the preceding days, was dry. I took my first lapping session to warm both myself and the car up, and to reacquaint myself with the track. I drove the track in Grand Prix II before I left, but it was nothing close to how difficult the real track is. Throughout the day we progressed our lap times as both the rev limits were increased, and our own experience with the track improved. While we were waiting for the cars to be attended to after one of the sessions, I noticed a new driver had come to the track. I looked at him for a while and thought he looked familiar. It was Bertrand Godin, the F3000 driver.

Passing was opened by the end of the day to three special braking zones, and they wanted the pass completed before we got on the brakes. Coming out of the esses on one of my laps I noticed a large pack of cars ahead of me. Alex (one of the karters) went to the inside on the right of one of the drivers, but there were more cars ahead of him, so he was unable to move back into line. The pack of cars stacked up under braking, and as I came into the corner, I was faced with going to the right and hitting a car, going to the left and off the road (and into the observers vehicle) or just going straight and hoping I had enough brake distance. I had maybe a hundredth of a second to decide, and I chose to take my chances with just hitting the brakes. Unfortunately I came up about 5 feet too short, and succeeded in dislodging my nose-cone and impaling it on the exhaust pipe on the car in front.

By the end of the week, there was a brief graduation ceremony and certificates were presented to the top graduates for entry into the graduate run off at the end of the year. Alex and Noah tied for first, I finished second (damn go-karters).

Tips if you go to a racing school

  • Bring gloves. They don't have to be $300 top of the line Sparco nomex, but you should have something over your hands. Especially the right hand or you will wear the skin off your knuckles when you make upshifts and downshifts.
  • As for footwear, racing boots are the best. It's a good investment if you plan on continuing on past just the school. Otherwise a good pair of thin soled track and field shoes are good. We wrapped one guy's foot with duct tape because his sneakers were too big.
  • I would recommend a balaclava, especially if you will be driving in a warmer climate. A balaclava is a lot easier to clean sweat out of then the inside of a helmet. Sweaty helmets really, really suck.
  • Relax and just enjoy it. A lot of people are overwhelmed after the first day, and I was no exception. At the end of the school, don't base your success on how fast you went but how much you enjoyed it. If you can't have fun driving a race car, you are going to have a very short frustrating career.
  • Now, a lot of people have asked me to compare the Skip Barber and Jim Russell three day programs. I have and honestly I can't say that one is better than the other. Jacques Villeneuve is a Jim Russell graduate; Juan Pablo Montoya is a Skip Barber graduate. So, go figure. Both schools follow the same basic procedures, just some things are done in different orders.

    * * *

    August 20th, my 18th birthday, and it's overcast, with a threat of rain. I woke up and thought about that for a moment. I sure didn't feel any different. Oh well, off to the races as they say. On my way to the circuit I realized that I had left Speedy back at the hotel. Yeah, Speedy, my stuffed turtle. He was a graduate present and always sits in the right pocket of my driving suit when I'm in a car (left pocket if it's raining). So far this day wasn't looking too good.

    For the first time all week, I got to the track early (I must be developing that adult responsibility already) and took a close look at the F2000 cars. Did I mention I was enrolled in a 5-day Advanced course? Basic 3 days in an F1600, final 2 days are instruction on racing as opposed to driving, conducted in an F2000 car. "The first three days we teach you to walk, the last two, we teach you to run," as the instructors liked to say. The F2000 car is far from a thoroughbred, but a vast improvement over the F1600. The main difference are wings. Smaller differences, such as flat wishbone suspensions (as opposed to tubular A-arms) a tighter gearbox, and softer tires all make the car much more fun to drive. A slight horsepower and torque increase, but nothing too severe. There were only about 8 of us in the 5 day course, down from about 14 in the 3 day school. Noah and Alex were back, and I was looking forward to turning the wick up and showing them my stuff.

    After lunch, we went out for a series of pace laps (just like with the F1600s) around the track. Halfway through the session it started to drizzle. For the second year in a row, I would be driving a race car in the rain. After the pace laps, the rain really started to come down. They sent us out one by one with about a 10-15 second interval between us. Since it was wet, I spent the first session experimenting. I drove half my laps on the conventional racing line, the other half on the wet line. The times were within tenths of each other. The track is so abrasive that even in the wet, the grip doesn't get that bad, and never enough that you have to go off line. Maybe if the track was flooded you might.

    The second session was when the fun began. Again we had a gap between the cars as we were sent out of the pits. Alex went out first, me second and Noah about fifth. It wasn't discussed, but you could tell the three of us were going to see what the other was capable of. I wasted no time and quickly set off after Alex in the wet. I caught up to him after about the third lap, and I stuck to his gearbox for lap after lap, trying to force an error. During this Noah had caught up with me, and the three of us flew around the race track. When we ran up on traffic, we wouldn't go by one at a time, but as a train. About half way through the session, Alex pulled to the inside coming out of the esses to allow me by. I thought he might be sliding, so I backed off what I thought would be enough, but was too much. I kicked my back end out but managed to hold on and slide around him on the outside, Noah following.

    Having clear track ahead of me, I took off as fast as I could. For the next four laps Noah hounded me while I used all of my limited experience in trying to go faster than him. At one point coming out of Bridge, I noticed Noah's car was pointing at a rather odd angle as it passed by the apex, then watched in my mirrors as he slowly rotated through 360 degrees and came to a stop in the grass. Finally, the pressure was gone and I could just drive regular -- if there even is regular driving when it comes to race cars. I got a bit too complacent on the white flag lap for the session and I missed two gearshifts coming to the finish line, but I was able to hold off Alex at the checkers. It wasn't an official race, but it sure felt like one.

    Friday was just straight forward lapping. Six sessions of 15 laps each, all timed, open passing. The final two sessions would be started under a pace car to simulate a race start. I took off in the first session determined to set fast lap after fast lap. The speeds in the corners with the F2000 car was night and day compared to the F1600. Turns 1 and 2 were absolutely flat out. Mostly I used a bit of brake at the top of the hill just to put weight on the nose of the car to help it turn. With the higher speeds of the F2000 car, with the bumpiness of the track and my being out till 4 am celebrating my 18th birthday, I got to the beginning of the third session and was plain exhausted.

    I used the 4th session to cool down in preparation for the race-started lapping sessions. During the weekend, there was going to be a vintage sports car race at the track and there were lots of people there setting up. They took time off to watch us lap. Pretty neat to drive when you have people waving at you. I was started on the front row next to Alex. Now, I hadn't driven off line all week except in the wet and I never experienced "marbles" on the race track before. I figured, I'll just be careful. So at the start, we went two-wide through the first turn with Alex having a slight advantage going into Diable. At the entrance to the esses we were dead even and I figured I would just go around him on the outside to protect the inside for the second part of the turn. Hello moron. I got about 1/3 through the corner when the car spun around twice and came to a stop about three feet from the swamp. I guess when they say on TV, "the marbles don't have grip," they aren't kidding.

    On the cool down lap for that session, there was an errant cone in one of the kinks, and I hit it with my right front wing. It tore off the endplate. The mechanics and I stood around scratching our heads wondering how flexible orange plastic tore off steel endplates.

    The sixth and final session of the week I took pretty sedately. At the very end, I made a five lap hot run to see if I could set a really good time. Unfortunately, I kept hitting traffic so I didn't go very fast. My fastest time was a 1:19.66 (compare that with Bertrand Godin's 1:16.8 - That's why he is in F3000 and I'm not. Yet).

    So now what do I do? Well, as you read this (assuming it's Wednesday) I just finished up competing in the annual Jim Russell graduate run-offs. Top prize is a fully paid year in F2000 and a trip to Donnington, England for another runoff driving Formula Vauxhall Jrs, Touring cars, and Formula Opels (with a top prize of a fully paid year in the Formula Vauxhall Jr. series). Hopefully, I will have made the cut on my Tuesday pre-qual, and this Saturday I plan on winning the Canadian run off. Obviously, I would like to be a Grand Prix driver. People look at me and say, "You haven't done karting? You are an American? You'll never get to F1!" Well, that makes the challenge all the more fun and I feel the journey will probably be more of an adventure than the end result. And, if I can get this shot at the Donnington runoff and a year of Vauxhall Jr, it'll put me well on my way. If I don't, I hope to somehow come up with sponsorship money so I can run Winter Formula Ford with Skip Barber. Failing that, I'll work as a Mechanic/Test-driver with Jim Russell during the summer along with a possible job at Team Rahal in CART. Ideally, I'd run Winter FFord, Fall FFord, before making my professional debut in the Barber Dodge Pro series in the spring of 2000 at Sebring Florida. I just need the funding.

    Maybe in ten years time I can write about what it's like to be a Grand Prix driver, standing on the top of the F1 podium crying my eyes out as the US anthem plays. Who knows? A person can try, can't he?.

    Ross Stonefeld 1998 Atlas Formula One Journal.
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