So you want to be the next Mario Andretti?  You've got to start with the basics


 by Mark Cipolloni
November 17, 1999

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We go to the Jim Russell Driving school in Sonoma California to find out what it's like to learn to drive an open wheel racecar from professional instructors. 

Do it right and you brake, clutch, blip throttle, shift, declutch, hold brake, clutch again, blip throttle, declutch…until you are down to the proper gear for the corner. Over and over we practiced our "heel-and-toe" downshifting, a driving technique that is hard, REAL hard, probably one of the most unorthodox things you will ever try. Unfortunately, it's usually, brake, grind, squeal, clutch…you get the picture.

I am sweating profusely, the consequence, no doubt, of my failure to master the heel-and-toe technique on the morning of the first day. Having previously taken a driving school on an oval race track, and thinking I was king of the hill, I was in for a huge awakening on the road course.  Technically I found a road course much more difficult. Whereas driving on the oval required smoothness and intense concentration, I found the road course much busier, especially Sears Point Raceway, where as a driver, I was constantly turning, braking or accelerating, and banging up and down through the gearbox.  Never a moment to rest. (Note - click on any photo to see larger image)

Driving a real racecar at speed is addictive, probably the only legalized form of addiction in this country. Whether you are an aspiring Mario Andretti, a Walter Mitty, or just a CART fan who wants to better understand the sport they love, participating in a driving school is the best way to get your feet wet by starting with the basics. You don't master a road course through seat of your pants driving.  It is a learned skill, and learn we did, for three days at the Jim Russell Driving School at Sears Point Raceway in Sonoma, California.  Started by Jacques Couture, the Jim Russell School at Sears Point offers a full menu of driving courses.  

Jim Russell Class/Course


Russell 1/2-day Test Drive


Techniques of Racing Course


Advanced Racing Course


Oval Racing School


Driver Development Course


Lapping Days


High-Performance Course with your own car


Highway Survival course


Grand Prix Package


Race Car Mechanics program


USAC Formula Russell Championship


Russell/USAC Triple Crown Pro-Series


I was a student in the Techniques of Racing Course (TRC).  The TRC is not a class on how to be a better driver on your commute to work.  No, this class is a Techniques of RACING course, a course designed to allow you to apply for your SCCA or USAC license upon graduation.

Day One
Like all schools, this one starts with early morning registration, getting fitted for a driving suit and helmet, and meeting your classmates and instructors Ric McCormick, John "The Comedian" Knoedler, and Steve Ferrara. I did not have driving shoes and regular sneakers were deemed too wide for the tight confines of the cockpit and pedals, so I bought a pair  rather than rent. 

My class was relatively large, 15 students in total, ranging in age from around 20 to around 60. There was a student there on a dare, a husband and wife team.....to claim bragging rights of the family, a former race car driver and his son, a commercial real estate agent who had previously driven but wanted to brush up on his skills, an owner of a chain of grocery stores who races his own cars as a hobby, and even a young aspiring racecar driver. And me, an avid auto-racing fan who always thought he should have been a racecar driver, but never did what it took to be one. We all were there to get a glimpse of what it takes to push a high-performance car to its limit.

We do not linger on the morning lecture, basically outlining what we got ourselves into, the track layout and the basic do's and don'ts of the school, and the basics of the heel-and-toe technique. After about one hour of classroom time, it's out to the cars to get our first taste of just how much we don't know.

After adjusting the seat and squeezing my body into the tight confines of the 2.0 liter 100HP Mitsubishi powered VanDieman racecar that weighed about 995 lbs , I found myself playing with the pedals and shift lever to get a feel for them.  I was like a kid with a new toy, wanting to try all the new gadgets. I adjusted the mirrors, fiddled with the harness adjusters and pulled on the wheel just to make sure it was locked on.  Strangely enough, I couldn't find the coffee cup holderThen came the command to fire them up.....the fun part, or so I thought.

The rest of the morning was spent on practicing heel-and-toe downshifting. Like most of the students in the class, I had never tried it on my streetcar, and to make matters worse, I had not even driven a standard transmission in about five years. I found shifting up through the gears was like riding a bike, and I quickly became accustomed to the short throw of the shift lever and clutch of a real racecar. Downshifting, however, was a whole different bag of potatoes. In class, we were reminded of the need to synchronize the engine and drivetrain speeds as we downshift with brake, clutch and throttle gyrations that come as naturally as patting my head and rubbing my belly at the same time. The reason for this is to get the transmission into the proper gear for the exit of a turn without breaking it, not to help slow the car down that some of us thought. That's what the brakes are for. I knew that middle pedal was for something.

The Jim Russell School laid out a clever course that allowed us the opportunity to go up and down through the gearbox four times a lap. Lap after lap we drove, practicing the heel-and-toe technique until we got it right. Well it's not exactly heel-and-toe, it's really more like brake and roll. While your left foot does nothing but work the clutch, your right foot must apply the proper amount of brake pressure while rolling off the right side of the brake pedal to blip the throttle with the right half of your right foot while the left foot has the clutch depressed. Sound hard?  It is. You must teach your brain to do five things all at once - steer the car, apply the right amount of brake pressure without locking the wheels, depress the clutch, blip that throttle and move the gearshift lever into the proper gear.  All this for each downshift. I now realize how much eye-hand-foot coordination is needed to contain the fury of a modern racecar.

I found myself breathing heavier and perspiring because I was doing something that just did not come naturally and my ego wasn't about to let myself look like a total fool to my instructors or my classmates. Although our instructors were absolutely professional at all times, I'm sure they have plenty of hilarious stories to tell outside of work. I am happy to report that by the end of the morning session I was doing what I thought I never would, heel-and-toeing. Not perfect mind you, but good enough for the first day, at least that is what I thought. 

After a quick lunch it's back into the cars for our first chance to try our mastery of shifting the car on a portion of the actual race course. In class, we were reminded that on a difficulty scale of 1 to 10, Sears Point is a 9.  Soon, we see why it's a 9.  The track doesn't have any real straights, at least not the upper course. As soon as you're through one corner, you're virtually approaching another. And each one is different. Different radius, different gear, different camber, uphill or downhill. Never a dull moment and never a chance to rest and think. But as they say, practice makes perfect….and practice we did. By the end of the session I was starting to downshift without even thinking about it. It was beginning to feel natural. The session started with everyone following the pace car that went progressively faster each lap. We then did laps on our own. We were not yet allowed to pass anyone, but at the end of each lap we stopped and were given space between cars so each of us could learn at their own pace. The Jim Russell school promises a lot of seat time and by my estimate that was at least 60% of the time.

The next hour we spent in the classroom with the master, Jacques Couture, learning all about the techniques and theories of cornering.  Jacques articulates the information like a seasoned professional and his examples flow forth with abundance.  First came the lectures explaining just why a car gets from here to there, what the forces are and how much of them a normal driver uses in day-to-day driving (as opposed to racing). Then it was on to how the car grips the road in any given situation and how the driver can alter the traction by using braking and acceleration, to put more load on some wheels and less on others. So we heard such esoteric terms as "understeer" -- where the rear tires have the greater traction, making the front tires slide toward the outside of a turn -- and oversteer, which is the opposite.

The last part of the first day was spent walking the track with instructor Ric McCormick. It was here that he pointed out all the nuances of the track and the tricks to driving a smooth lap. This was especially helpful since some of the corners were blind and off-camber.    This ended our day and we all went home yearning for Day 2.

Day Two
Day two started with a trip to the drag strip, not to practice how fast we could accelerate, but to practice how fast we could stop.  They call it Threshold Braking, the fastest way to stop in a controlled manner - braking hard, the tires straining at the limit of adhesion without locking the wheels.  We first received demonstrations on how to do it right, and how to do it wrong.  Then we got to try it over and over until we got it right, or at least better.

Then it was off to the upper loop of the track for a repeat of the first day's exercise, but with the RPM's raised to 3,400.   At first we followed a pace car around and then we were allowed to do it on our own.

After a break for lunch, we were told our class did well on the upper portion and we graduated to the lower portion at still higher RPM's - 3,600.  We followed the same routine as before, first we followed a pace car so they could control our aggression and watch our progress, before turning us loose on our own.  After a short break, we repeated the routine at 3,800 PRM's.  The 200 RPM jump after each session allowed us to build upon what we learned, with incremental increases in speed.

Around mid-afternoon we were called back into the classroom and told we would be allowed to pass for the first time, and use the entire race track.  The instructors stressed safety and outlined specifically where the passing zones were.  They warned us not to get too aggressive and to take it easy on cold tires.  This is what I was waiting for.

Wisely, the instructors spaced each car out, for no sooner did I brake for the downhill turn 4 on the first lap did I find myself doing a 180-degree spin.  I quickly restarted the car and got on my way before the next car caught up to me, but I was cussing at myself for being too aggressive and thought for sure I'd have to sit out the rest of the session.  Luckily I caught a break and was allowed to continue.

Having learned my lesson the hard way, this time I gradually worked my way up to speed and found, much to my surprise, that I was able to pass about six cars in the remainder of the session and no one caught me from behind.  That did a lot to help me regain my confidence after spinning out.  I was finally getting good at the heel and toe thing and I found that if I skipped a gear downshifting on certain corners, I saved a tenth or two.

By the end of day two we were all getting into this driving stuff.  Now it was all starting to click, and all the track time we got sure helped.  Jim Russell stresses seat time over classroom time, and for a very good reason.  Theory is nice, but until you actually experience it for yourself, it's just that, theory.  Putting that theory to work in the cockpit is what it's all about.  I couldn't wait for day three.

Day Three
We started off day three where we left off on day two, at 3,800 RPM's and with each session worked our way up in 200 RPM increments to 4,400 RPM's.  After each session we were critiqued for things like our line, our braking, our shifting, and when we were on and off the throttle.  As our times tumbled our mistakes happened faster, but by golly, it felt like we were actually racing...although passing a car here or there may have been racing to us, but our instructors repeatedly reminded us were were there to learn the proper techniques, for mistakes that are not corrected a slower speed are only magnified when you repeat them at higher ones.

In sessions where I was too aggressive, I made a lot of mistakes and my lap times suffered.  When I took my instructors advice and worked on being smooth and consistent, hitting my marks, and keeping my nose clean, my lap times were better.  Technique, technique, technique.

Our class finished the last session of the day early, and much to our surprise, we were in for a treat which none of us had anticipated, a chance to drive the cars used in the Advanced Racing Course (ARC).  These were the same cars that are used in the Formula Russell Racing program.  These cars had wider slick tires, and weighed 1150 lbs with HP in the 150 to 155 range.  Although we were allowed to pass, we were forbidden from pushing the cars or ourselves to the limit.  That meant no squealing tires, no missed gear shifts, no spins, etc.  If we did any of the above we would be black flagged and our session done.  This was just a chance to experience a bigger more powerful racecar and whet our appetite for the ARC course.

As I strapped in, I reminded myself, OK dummy, don't do like you did yesterday and spin out.  Take it easy and use what you learned in the TRC cars now.  It worked.  Now these felt like REAL race cars.  The power was, shall we say, awesome, and the grip phenomenal compared to the skinny threaded rubber we had just spent 3 days with.  It took two or three laps to get used to the brakes, clutch, shifter, increased power and better grip.  However, what we were taught with the TRC cars worked exactly the same with these cars.  Suddenly, on one straightaway, coming into an area of hard braking, I started laughing. The rigors of learning all those new techniques had been forgotten. This was incredible fun and I felt I knew how these instructors could live just for racing.

When the checkered flag waved signaling the end of the session, the phrase heard repeatedly as the students exited the cars was "now that's a racecar", or "that was awesome"!

As they say, all good things must end, and so too did our three wonderful days at Jim Russell.  After our short graduation ceremony, everyone said their goodbyes and headed back home to their regular everyday routine, with memories that will last a lifetime, and lessons that hopefully will last even longer.......whether it be behind the wheel of another racecar, or in that great big racetrack in heaven.  Heaven does have a racetrack, doesn't it?

A special thanks go out to all the people in the Race Car Mechanics Program who maintained the cars in great working order.  They are the unsung heroes who work behind the scenes.  This program has graduated over 2,700 race mechanics, many of whom now work in CART in the Champ car, Indy Lights or Toyota Atlantic series. Not only does it  teach the mechanics how to work on the cars, it also teaches them how to interact with the drivers, real people, just like they will encounter after they graduate.

I look forward to the day when I might return to try my hand at the ARC.  Did I say "might"?

Note: Look for a new article on our recent experience at CART Driving 101 on the oval in Fontana next week

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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