I’m never going to make it as an IndyCar driver. That much I now know for sure. Still, there were moments, while I was on the track at the Bridgestone Racing Academy, when the idea didn’t seem that far-fetched.
Dreams aside, however, there is a huge gap between trying to properly negotiate a 170-horsepower open-wheel race-car around the school’s development track at Mosport and piloting an Indycar.
Still, like a kid pretending the street hockey goal just scored was really a Stanley Cup winner, it was fun to imagine the checkered flag waving to mark the end of a lapping session at the school was really signaling my victory in the Toronto Honda Indy.
The truth is, even in that lapping session there’s no time to daydream, not if you don’t want to screw up and spin into the grass. Driving a race-car demands total concentration; to do otherwise can be catastrophic.
I was part of a class of ten auto journalists invited to sample the Bridgestone school’s instructional fare. To help us keep our focus, school owner Brett Goodman made a point at the start of assuring us that neither Roger Penske, Chip Ganassi nor any other Indycar team owner would be secretly scouting our two-day training course.
He did promise, however, that our every moment on the track would be scrutinized by the school’s chief instructor, Jamie Fitzmaurice – and his critiques were probably as detailed and informative as anything Penske or Ganassi could deliver.
This wasn’t my first experience at the Bridgestone academy, having attended a one-day session there eight years ago. Recently, however, Goodman has upgraded the school’s racer fleet – the Reynard Formula 2000 cars used in the past have been replaced by state-of-the-art Van Diemens with 2.3-litre Mazda four-cylinder engines and sequential-shift gearboxes.
While the weight of both cars is similar – about 450 kg (~1,000 lb) – there’s a significant step up in horsepower and response. The Mazda, with an alloy head and block, twin overhead cams, 16 valves and electronic fuel injection, develops 170 horsepower and 170 lb-ft of torque, an improvement of 45 hp over the old Ford four-banger.
It’s the complete package – chassis, engine and gearbox – that combines to make these new cars a greater challenge to drive well, but also more fun, than the Reynard.
This is the same car used in the SCCA’s Formula Enterprise series, a U.S. spec racer tour. At the Mosport school, however, the cars are fitted with Bridgestone Potenza RE-11 tires, rather than racing slicks.
This ultra high-performance street tire, more typically found on such sporty production cars as the Honda S2000, Nissan 350Z and BMW M3, ensures a bit of a safety cushion on the race track, providing more warning than a treadless racing tire when you’re approaching its adhesion limits – and you know the consequences of that situation.
It also helps keep speeds at a more manageable (and safer) rate and allows the school sessions to continue if there’s rain. (In fact, it did sprinkle briefly during one of our sessions, but the Potenzas handled the wet track without an issue.)
An advantage with the new Van Diemen that I found important is the fact the cockpit space in this tubular steel chassis is a bit more generous. In fact, Goodman says these cars can accommodate a driver over six-foot-four and 275 pounds.
I’m within those parameters, but the fit was still snug. However, the school’s team of mechanics was relentless in packing and positioning padding to make me as comfortable as possible.
The Bridgestone school prides itself, justifiably, in the fact its safety record is injury-free over its 26 years of operation. Critical to that record is the thorough classroom preparation and steady, progressive pace it demands on track that allows even the most inexperienced drivers to stay within their comfort zone.
Each driver is only encouraged to step up one’s pace as confidence and skills develop. Our group ranged from drivers with real racing experience to raw newbies, but no one felt pressured to step beyond their individual capabilities – a testament to the coaching from Fitzmaurice and his team.
After each 20-minute lapping session, each driver was given a thorough debriefing that included praise for things done well and advice on how to improve areas of weakness.
Regardless of one’s lap times, the thrill of wheeling one of these real race cars at speed around the 12 turns of the academy’s course can’t be shared in words; you have to feel it.
With your butt barely separated from the asphalt by the car’s thin shell, the pace is amplified by your senses – the wind pressing against your helmet as you blast up the backstretch, the g-forces pulling your body against the six-point safety harness as you pound the disc brakes and crank the car into a sharp right-hander, the sound of that Mazda engine spooling over 6,000 rpm a few centimetres from your ears, the firm, mechanical feel as you pull back the slim shift lever to grab another gear, the feedback through the fat rim of the steering wheel, with its video-game-like digital readouts and LED indicators, as you urge the tires toward the apex of a corner.
After 20 minutes, in stifling heat, you’re exhausted, but memories of those laps will last for years. Just like winning the Toronto Honda Indy!