ITB Opel GT
  Skip Barber
  Summit Point

Here's a quick review of Skip Barber's 3-day racing school. I attended in July of 1999 at Summit Point, West Virginia, and had a blast. It's not cheap, but it's a great value. This page has a quick summary of the school, tips for those attending, and some pictures from the weekend.

Three Days in the Mountain

The school runs Friday to Sunday, but for me it all started Thursday night, when I made the quick trip up to Charles Town West Virginia; which is NOT to be confused with Charleston. Charleston is a largish city containing people and things to do. Charles Town is merely English for "Town of Charles," and contains neither significant numbers of people or things to do. Anyway, I checked into a hotel room in Charles Town, which is about 15 minutes from the race track. I actually live close enough to Summit Point that I probably could have driven back and forth each day, but I thought of it as a vacation, and I don't commute while on vacation. Also, after zipping around a track all day unencumbered by speed limits or oncoming traffic, I figured I might get a bit enthusiastic on the drive home, and wind up either dead, arrested, or both.

Friday morning began with the typical introduction fan fare, some signing of papers (something to the effect of "If I get killed it's my fault"), and picking out driving suits and helmets. There was also a brief introduction to the joys of a non-synchromesh transmission. The class consisted of 15 males and one female, which I imagine is a pretty typical ratio. The one female happened to be married to another one of the students. Mad props if this was what passed for an anniversary present. The class was then broken into two groups. We each shared a car with someone in the other group. Generally, one group was in class while the other was on the track. Towards the end of the school, when the classroom sessions were finished, the non-driving group (A.K.A. "lucky Pierre's") was sent off in the van to a corner of the track to observe.

The cars themselves most closely resemble a formula continental or formula ford. However, they're called "formula barber" in what was undoubtedly a brilliant move in terms of product placement. They're little mid-engined jobs, with power coming from a modified Neon engine supposedly good for around 135 horsepower. Doesn't sound like much, but in cars as light as these it's more than enough power to get you into trouble. There's double A-arm suspension front and rear, and disc brakes all around, non-power. Steering in non-power as well and fairly quick, but the effort level is reasonable once you get moving. The cockpit is fairly cramped, and one of the bigger guys in our class had to drive with the fairing removed from his car just so he could fit his arms in. Even for the smaller among us, getting in was something of an art. The correct way involves an amount of balance and flexibility that few of us seemed to possess. After a couple of entrances and exits, though, we found a way that worked. The seats are unpadded fiberglass, but if you ask nicely you'll get a foam cushion for your back. If you ask in a rude manner, though, they steal your lug nuts. Gauges are limited to a tachometer and some temperature gauges. The cars run Michelin street tires (Pilot MXs, I believe), which were supposedly chosen for their predictable break away. According to those in the know, the cars were good for 1.5 G's of braking, 1.2-1.4 G's of cornering, and an acceleration of about 0.5 G, which equates to a zero to sixty time of around 5 seconds.

The first on-the-track exercises consisted of slaloms through cones and braking drills. We then moved on to cornering, one corner at a time. Orange cones marked the proper braking and apex points, and we stopped on the track after each corner to get feed back (via walky-talky) from the instructors. Eventually we'd get the chance to string some corners together and go half a lap without stopping, and finally run some flat out laps at the end of the school. For starters, though, they wanted us to learn the course one corner at a time. They also imposed an RPM limit, which was slowly raised as we progressed through the course. This way you built up speed slowly and learned the proper racing line. That's the way it supposed to work, anyway. At the end of the class I learned that I was one of only a few students actually obeying the RPM rule. Oh well. On the last day we ran a few sets of open racing laps, with 8 cars on the course at a time. Passing was restricted to the front and back straights, but in all other ways is was like an actual race. Except, of course, for the fact that they didn't keep score. In fact, they didn't even keep lap times, which was my sole complaint from the whole weekend. Some students timed each other and compared notes, but it would have been nice to see your progress as the school went on. I suspect they're worried about people getting to competitive and driving beyond their abilities, which is understandable. It's probably the same rationale for not having speedometers in the cars. Anyway, I passed a lot of people during the race, and got passed myself a few times, but on the whole I think I did rather well.

For the record, Skip Barber eats the bill for any damage you do to the car. There weren't any major incidents in my class, just a couple of spins. The person I shared my car with did end up bending a suspension piece on an off-course excursion, but was back on the track in a spare car in no time at all, with only a brief post-mortem from the instructors. On the whole, they were pretty low-key about the incident. I wouldn't press my luck, though, since they might be less forgiving if you bend, brake, or blow something major.

The in-class instruction was well done, even though it was unavoidably less interesting than the on-the-track exercises. They covered the proper line for racing in the rain, tips for starting a race, and even what sort of budget you should set for your own racing career. They went over racing ethics, such as when and how to pass, and how to determine who has right of way. The techniques of trail braking and threshold braking were also explained. The two most important things I learned in class were:

  1. A squealing tire is a happy tire.
  2. How to "yunga." If you do not know how to properly yunga, you will be at a disadvantage in any racing situation. The ability to yunga effectively is what separates the Sunday heroes from the Monday zeros.

Do's and Donuts

As a graduate of Skip Barber Racing School (I swear; I even have the T-shirt to prove it), I have some tips for anyone thinking about going:
  • Stop thinking about it and GO! - There are plenty of reasons to put it off. They're all bad. It's expensive, and pretty much kills the weekend, but it's not the kind of thing you can do everyday. The students in my class were from all walks of life, and the only thing we all had in common is that we all had a blast and would do it again in a heart beat. I never met anyone who has regretted going to racing school. Some people may have gotten divorced as a result, but still, no regrets. It's that much fun.
  • Drink a lot. - No, not the fun stuff...water, juice, sports drinks, etc. They'll keep two coolers stocked with cold drinks at all times, free of charge. Take advantage of it. You'll lose a lot of fluids, especially if it's hot, and you'll need to keep your wits about you. So, have a drink. Don't cost nuthin'.
  • Dress lightly. - T-shirt, shorts, and tennis shoes would be a good idea. A wife-beater, "Jams!," and Fakenstocks would be a very bad idea. In general, comfortable and loose fitting is the way to go. You'll be given a driving suit and a helmet, and that will pretty much cover you head to ankles. It'll be warm enough without unnecessary layers underneath. The cars are open, so it's not so bad when you're moving, but when you're sitting still on the grid with the engine idling it can be murder.
  • Don't make any other plans for the weekend. - If your school is near a city you've always wanted to visit, or relatives you haven't seen in a while; well, plan a separate trip. You'll be dead tired after school each day and will want to take a shower, eat dinner, and go to sleep. The class only runs 8 AM to 4 PM or so each day, but the intensity of driving around at speed will wear you out in a hurry. This is why I went to school in West Virginia rather than Las Vegas.
  • Get your downshift finished. - This is the thing that took me the longest to learn. It comes from the street driving habit of trying to make shifts smooth, so I let out the clutch slowly. When racing, you want to get your shift done ASAP, ideally letting the clutch out as abruptly as necessary under braking so that the shift is finished before you start your turn in. You want to do this for two reasons: 1) Letting the clutch out can unbalance the car slightly, so best to do this while you're going in a straight line. 2) You'll want to be in gear as you go through the turn so that you can 2a) use the throttle to balance the car in the turn, and 2b) get on the power as soon as you apex.
  • Tip the mechanics. - Seriously. They work hard all weekend repairing the damage you do to their cars and don't get paid much for it. It may be a stepping stone to glamorous job with a professional racing team, but they're not there yet. Have all the students pitch in 30 bucks or so and give it to them on the last day of school.

8,000 Words About Skip Barber

Formula Barbers under maintenance

Field of 8 cars undergoing regular maintenance. Three full days of enthusiastic driving by the students takes its toll.

Close-up of formula Barber

Close up of one of the formula Barber cars. Note the adjustable sway bar and puke bottle for the transmission. Also note that the rear suspension has inboard brakes. There are inboard shocks on the front, but you don't get to see them in this picture. Too bad for you.

Me on the starting grid

Here we see the illustrious # 22 awaiting the start signal. This car was my home for about half of the class... or at least it was until the last day, when the car's other driver stuffed it in a corner and bent the front suspension. We were given a backup car, but it wasn't quite the same. You'd think that with a spec car you could jump out of one and right into another and not miss a beat. The reality is that all the cars have their own unique quirks and handling traits. Our replacement car had a different-feeling shift linkage. This would not normally be a problem, but when you're trying to double-clutch downshift twice while braking near the limit, a missed shift is very annoying.

Ready signal

Rasing your fist was the "ready" signal, meaning that you had started your engine and were belted in and ready to go. Alternately, it could be taken as an expression of "Skip Power." After all the drivers had given the ready signal, the cars were led out onto the course. The same signal was used to notify other cars that you were headed into the pits.

Number 22 at speed

The basics of racing: step #1 - Go fast...

Number 22 under heavy braking

#2 - Brake hard...

Number 22 coming out of turn 7

#3 - Turn... Repeat steps 1-3 as desired.

Skip Barber support vehicles

These are a few of the Skip Barber support vehicles. They manage to pack about 12 of the formula Barber cars into the tractor trailer. The Neons are used for on-track group instruction and general errand running by the teachers & mechanics.

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