Jim Russell Advanced Racing Course (ARC) - Learning to Race


 by Mark Cipolloni
November 20, 2001

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Tiered grandstand seating now surrounds the track
Copyright 2001 AutoRacing1

It had been almost two years since I first took Jim Russell's Techniques of Racing Class (TRC) at Sears Point Raceway in Sonoma, California (see 1999 article).  Three weeks ago I went back for their advanced class called, not surprisingly, the Advanced Racing Course (ARC).  Graduating from this class qualifies you to apply for an official USAC drivers license.  Needless to say, it's a bit more serious business.

Upon arriving at Sears Point on Monday morning, the first thing I noticed was how different the place was.  I hardly recognized it.  Speedway Motorsports, the track owners, have embarked on a massive upgrade project.  New garages, repaving, safety upgrades and more.  But the most notable change is the massive embankments they are building almost all the way around the track.  These embankments will contain tiered seating making it perhaps the best road race circuit in the USA from a spectator's standpoint.  Being an engineer, I have been to a lot of large construction projects before, but the magnitude of what the numerous giant earthmovers and bulldozers are creating is quite spectacular.

Blue shows ARC class course

This track map shows the Sears Point Raceway.  Because of the construction, the track for the school was modified.  Turns 10, 11 and 12 were all torn up and the construction crews built a temporary connection between turn 9 and turn 1.  That took away one of the best passing zones under braking for the turn 11 hairpin, but the turn 9/1 chute would turn out to be plenty challenging.  As you read further, you will see the class is still a great program even though we did not have use of the full track. In April 2002 we should see all the repaving and construction for the track complete. 

Day 1
After the normal first day sign-in exercise, we were suited up and off to the classroom to review some of the basics from the TRC.  I was glad they did that for I thought I might be a bit rusty after two years.  Rain was forecast today so the instructors were anxious to get us in the cars as soon as possible. 

Mazda Powered ARC cars
Copyright 2001 AutoRacing1

The cars we were driving for this advanced course were the Mazda powered Russell Racing cars.  The rotary Mazda engines put out up to 180 HP and the cars have a pretty good size rear wing and racing slicks. 

The first 30 minutes in the car were spent practicing our heel-and-toe downshifting and getting familiar with clutchless upshifts. Surprisingly, I found heel-and-toe downshifting was like riding a bike.  Although I had not done it since my TRC class two years ago, it came back to me as second nature.  I was rather surprised.

After a short classroom session it was back in the car for our first laps around the modified (due to construction) Sear Point track.  This was our first chance to push the car a little and my best lap time of this session was a 1:37.249 min. lap with the rev limit set at just 5,000 RPM.

After lunch it began to sprinkle and we spent some time in the classroom going over wet weather driving.  The trick in wet weather is to be smooth, brake in a straight line, a balanced throttle through the corner, and ease onto the throttle only as you unwind the wheel.  We were told to go to a balanced throttle earlier and earlier as our speeds increased.

Rear-view.  Note the large rear wings.  These are the real USAC Formula Russell race cars
Copyright 2001 AutoRacing1

Then it was back into the cars and our first chance to do some passing, but only in specific passing zones only.  The track was damp but not wet enough for rain tires.  After several laps in the mid 1:40's I started to push a little harder once I got plenty of heat in the tires.  My times then dropped to 1:37.339, 1:37.249, 1:36.371 and then a fast lap of 1:35.225 min.  After these 16 or so laps in the car I already started to feel some muscle aches and began to perspire.  Sears Point is a very demanding track - no real long straights to rest and you're almost constantly turning, braking and shifting hard.

After getting out of the cars we were individually critiqued before getting a  third session in the car.  This time the revs were bumped up to 5,300 RPM, which made it a bit easier to avoid always hitting the rev limiter.  After a slow warm-up lap I started to push a little too hard too fast and got two wheels off on the tight downhill right-hander at turn 9.  This earned me a quick black flag to get the car checked out.  Everything was OK so back out I went.

This time my lap times came down quicker and I bettered my previous best lap on my 9th and 10th circuit with two laps at 1:34.648 and 1:34.556 min.  The session ended and I felt pretty worn out by that time, but was happy because I passed a lot of cars and no one passed me all day.  After a debriefing I packed up and headed back to the hotel to rest my aching body.  I can tell you I was one hurting puppy.  Anyone who says a race car driver isn't an athlete hasn't driven a race car on a road course in anger for any extended period of time.

Day 2

Driving with slicks in the wet was a great way to learn car control and 'opposite lock' driving.
Copyright 2001 AutoRacing1

Rain was forecast for Tuesday and rain it did.  I always wanted to drive a race car in the rain, so I was looking forward to this day.  Upon arriving at the track we were issued rain coats to wear over our driving uniforms.  Later I would be thankful they did.

Before they sent us out on the real race course, they laid out cones and setup two different courses, one an oval, and one a slalom.  Instead of putting rain tires all around, they put rains on the front and slicks on the back.  Talk about a 'loose' car, it was going to be a handful to drive.

First instructor John Knoeller gave the class a demonstration on how to drive a car sideways in the rain.  He did 180's and 360's and full power slides just to demonstrate how to balance the throttle and wring the most out of a car with the backend (slicks on rear) that seems to have a mind of its own.

First we started with the oval track.  Now I know why they don't run oval races in the rain.  My first problem was visibility.  It was raining so hard when I got in the car the track was very wet, but that was the least of my worries.  My helmet visor was fogging up so badly I could hardly see a thing.  I tried driving with the visor up, but do you know what it's like having your pupils blasted with rain and dirt filled spray from the tires?  Realizing that wasn't going to work, I quickly went to plan B.  I cracked the visor about an inch and tilted my head backwards in the turns so I could see out the crack in the visor.  I could not imagine doing that at over 150 mph.

Other than the vision problem, driving was a blast.  I looped the car more than a few times, but I never would have been able to drive my street car that out of shape, for fear of crashing it into something, let alone running afoul of the police.  If was the first time I really had the opportunity to learn to drive fast in the rain and not have to worry if I went over the edge of no return.  The more laps I did the faster I got.  I never did so much sawing at the wheel and playing with the throttle to gain control of a car, especially one that tail happy.  But by the end of the session I was starting to get good at controlling the balance of the car with the throttle and the wheel.  It was a great learning experience, not only for future driving in the rain, but also how to handle a car when it got out of shape in the dry.

The slalom course in the wet was just as much fun.  Set up like a mini road course, the car was a real handful, especially over the paint stripes that made it almost impossible to put the throttle down without getting wheelspin and looping it, which of course I, like everyone else did.  If you didn't loop it you probably weren't trying hard enough.

I drove the #17 car the first day and a half, but later switched to the #3 when my first car developed an oil leak.
Copyright 2001 AutoRacing1

Wet and cold, I was nevertheless looking forward to getting out on the full course in the wet after lunch.  I was disappointed.  During the lunch break the skies began to clear and the track was drying from the wind.  By the time we got in the cars and on the track there were only a few damp spots left, so it was full dries for everyone.  They disconnected the sway bars to soften up the suspension a bit, making the cars a bit more forgiving in the damp cool conditions.

With the track damp we were cautioned to take our time getting heat into the tires and the oil and water temps up. Revs were limited to 5,500 RPM, 200 more than the end of the previous day.  After a 1:52.332 min. first lap, I gradually picked up the pace with a 1:46.0, a 1:46.4, a 1:40.6 and a 1:38.891.  I then hit a long line of traffic and no one in front of me was making a move to pass anyone. In this situation we instructed not to pass a car if that car was close behind another car.  It was for our own protection, because there was a concern we might get together if two of us made a move to pass at the same time.

I was frustrated as my lap times went up to 1:53.689, and 1:56.083.  Our instructors told us to pit and ask for space if we got into that situation, so I did.  

Back out on a clear track, I put in three laps at 1:38.390, 1:36.643 and then 1:34.988, almost my best lap to date.  I then came up on traffic and the fun began.  My next lap time was slower at 1:36.785 but I passed two cars on that lap.  

The downhill turn 6 was a real adrenaline rush.  The g-forces push you down into the seat and as the track dropped away on exit, I was able to put the car in controlled 4-wheel drifts right out to the edge of the drag strip straight that's part of the road course
Copyright 2001 AutoRacing1

On my next lap I was pushing hard and caught another car heading into turn 5. I banged 5th gear just before the turn-in point and swung wide midway through turn 5 to try an outside pass.  

Turn 5 is vision blurring, high g-load right-hand sweeper taken flat out.  There is a bump in the pavement right after the turn-in point if you go off line to pass, and it caught me out a bit.  The car stepped out sideways in a big way, but that wet weather driving in the morning really paid off big time now.  I never lifted and although the car was still fishtailing down the straight, I was able to keep control and make the pass under braking for the downhill turn 6.  I kept my foot in it even though my brain said "lift you idiot."  Because I never lifted, my lap time was a respectable 1:35.372, even with traffic.  That was my best pass of the three days.  I flirted with disaster and lived to tell about it.  

I passed two cars on the last lap of the day under braking for turn 9. I thought that was going to draw me a big tongue lashing because we weren't supposed to do that, but I guess the spotters never saw it.  I  got away with one.

After our normal post-track debriefing, Day 2 was over.  Again I was sweaty and tired, but satisfied that I had passed a lot of cars over the past two days and was never passed.  In fact no one ever came up behind me and filled my mirrors.  By this time I was feeling cocky, but something told me I was only fooling myself.   Day 3 would tell another story.

Day 3

I was hoping for sunshine on Day 3, our last day, and the weatherman cooperated nicely.  The first order of business was learning how to do side-by-side rolling starts.  After a classroom session to go over the rules of a rolling start, we spent the first 45-minutes in the car taking turns starting from the pole, outside pole, and further on back.  

The goal was to see who can get to the first turn first.  When you were starting in the first two rows, it was realistic to expect you might race for the lead going into turn 1.  Starting any further back and the best you could hope for was to make up positions on those beside or in front of you.

Not your modern F1 or Champ Car cockpit, but quite functional as a class car to learn in.
Copyright 2001 AutoRacing1

Our rev limit was bumped up to 6,000 RPM, which meant you could wind the engine right up to the higher rev limit before grabbing the next gear. The rolling starts were slow enough that 2nd gear was used for all starts.  I'm not sure if my car (now the #3 after my original car, the #17, developed an oil leak) had a bit more HP, if I just shifted faster, or if the others around me were not using all the revs available to them, but my little Hot Rod won every drag race to turn 1. Even from row 3, I was able to get into turn 1 as high as 2nd place.  I did feel like a fool on one start, however, as I had the car in 3rd gear instead of 2nd on the start. Fortunately the guy beside me missed a shift, and I was able to make up for my stupidity and get alongside him.  I then braked as hard as I could without locking up the fronts to grab the corner first.  

All-in-all, a fun exercise.

Next up was more race laps.  With more rev's at my disposal, I was determined to beat my previous best lap time of 1:34.891 min.  Whereas I ran laps on cold tires in the 1:50 range on the first two days, with the warm sun now out to heat the track and tires, and feeling much better about controlling a car that gets a little out of shape, I immediately banged out a 1:37.620 lap followed by a 1:35.040 and then a 1:31.830.  I took 3 seconds off my previous best time by my third lap.

After that I hit traffic every lap, but rather than pull into the pits to get some space, I decided to stay out there and see how many cars I could pick off.  My goal was to see if I could not only turn quick laps by myself, but to also see if I could race.  After all, this was a Advanced 'Racing' Course.  My lap times suffered because of traffic, fluctuating between a slow lap of 1:36.548 and and quick lap of 1:31.578, but I picked off 8 cars in 11 laps so I came out of the session feeling good.  This was fun.

During lunch break I kept asking myself, could I break the 1:30 barrier?  Did I have it in me?  Instructor Ric McCormick gave me a few pointers as to where I was losing time.  I was picking up the throttle too late for turn 3A and my exit out of turn 4 was off because I was braking too deep for the corner.  In fact, Ric told me I was braking too deep for all the corners. He said try braking a bit early, concentrate on getting a better line through the corner, and picking up the throttle earlier coming out.

Well his advice worked. The first session after lunch saw my times drop to 1:31, then 1:30 and then two sub 1:30 laps at 1:29.702 and then 1:29.404 min.  I had done it, I had broken the 1:30 barrier, certainly much faster than when I started on Day 1 at 1:44 min., but was there more? 

Up until that session no one had yet passed me.  However, even though that was my fastest session to date, one car did blow by me.  It was one of the instructors testing what appeared to be a new car with special 'Penske' shocks.  They warned us not to try and keep up with him, so when I saw him in my mirrors, I let him past right away.  Any thoughts of trying to keep up with him were quickly erased, however.  He was pulling away from me through the turns and down the straights.  He was flying.  Granted he had thousands of laps in these cars and his car had special shocks, but I realized then and there, I wasn't ready to take on the big boys without a lot more seat time.  Taking a class and doing well is one thing, but winning races against guys who drive for a living, is a whole different story.

One more session for the day.  Could I go even faster?  Certainly there was more in the car, but was there more in me?  

The rev limit was bumped up a bit higher, I was ready.  1:35.037 on my first lap out, two seconds better than my previous session.  I was on it.  By my 4th lap I was down to 1:30.465.  Then traffic and a 1:33.15 and 1:38.834.  

After getting by those three cars, I had a bit of clear road ahead.  Two successive laps in the 1:30 bracket and then I blew it.  I missed my line through the uphill 3A/3B esses and ran wide on the exit of 3B.  I never lifted and still turned a 1:30.535 lap, but the off earned me a black flag to have the car checked out.  After losing 3 or more laps in the pits, I went back out only to see the checkered flag fall after my first warm-up lap.  I was mad as hell at myself for missing what was probably the best chance to break into the 1:28's or 1:27's.

How tired was I?  I sat in the car for a couple of minutes before I lifted myself out.  I was mentally and physically spent.

My class (L to R) Thor Gjerdum, David Campise, Ed Hawthorne, Marty Stein, Ron Petersen, Ken Katashiba, Robert Tryon, Mark Cipolloni, Masayuki Tamashita, and Timothy Ng.
Copyright 2001 AutoRacing1

Still, I was satisfied.  What an awesome three days.  I got to pass a lot of cars, learned to do rolling starts, drive in the rain, and to repeatedly apply a bit of opposite lock oversteer exiting the corners.....just like you see the pros do.  Get it right, and it's pure racing ecstasy.  Get it wrong and spin haplessly off the track, maybe into the wall, or lament at the lost revs on your tach down the straight.

But most of all I learned a lot of what I'll call race craft, the ability to pass another car.  To judge the speed of the car in front of you so as not to get balked, then to come off the corner a little faster, dive inside him and brake a little deeper for the next corner to complete the pass.  It's like a dog chasing a cat, first you gotta catch 'em, nip at their tails a bit, and then you gotta pounce and get 'em.  It's almost a killer instinct.


Russell Racing offers a full spectrum of courses including Open-Wheel Racing Courses and a Race Series, Highway Survival, Corporate Adventures, Karting, High Performance in your own vehicle, and more! The Open-Wheel Racing Programs range from a day experience, to 3-day Techniques and Advanced Courses to racing for prizes in the USAC Formula Russell Championship Series. From novice to pro, Russell Racing programs allow students to learn and fulfill their desires and talents.

In the 40 years of its existence, many great race drivers have come through the Russell racing school.  Most recently CART Champ Car driver Memo Gidley, who was the 1992 USAC Formula Russell Racing champion.  Al Unser Jr. even sent his son, Mini Al,  to this school to learn.

The Driver Development Course is a one-on-one personalized instruction that is customized to your needs with emphasis on improving speed, consistency, and lap times. Data acquisition and/or on-board cameras can be incorporated into the program in order to closely examine how you drive a race car and assist you in improving your driving skills. 

Each year graduates of Russell's TRC and ARC courses compete in the Grad Run-Offs for a free season of racing. That's right. A free season of racing in the USAC Formula.  To get ready for a race weekend, or just fine tune your racing skills, do their Thursday and Friday lapping days. You get lots of seat time, and personalized feedback from their race-seasoned instructors.

Do you think you want to try your hands at learning how to really drive a race car?  It's one thing to follow some one around an oval, or ride-along with an instructor, at the many 'driving experience' programs out there, but the courses offered by Russell Racing are a bit more serious.  You learn a hell of a lot more, and you come out of their advanced courses ready to really race.  If you want to see if you have what it takes, try out the TRC and ARC courses.  It will be the best three days of your life, and if you do it during the slower winter months, between now and March 2002, you'll save yourself some of your hard earned money to boot.

What's next for me?  I have completed both the TRC and ARC courses.  Maybe next time I'll come back and try my hand at an actual race with the big dogs.  Then I'll know what it's like to be the hunted, rather then the hunter.

The author can be contacted at markc@autoracing1.com.  To learn more about Russell Racing, visit their website at http://www.RussellRacing.com

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