“And that’s the fire extinguisher,” my driving instructor says, pointing to a red lever located a few inches to the left of the steering wheel.
“In case the engine catches fire?” I ask.
He nods and, suddenly, this whole adventure seems like a bad idea.
Ready for a Race Car Driving Lesson
But it’s too late to back out. I’m shrouded in a decidedly unflattering padded full-body suit, a fire-resistant balaclava, helmet and gloves, and I’ve been expertly strapped into the seat of a 2008 Van Diemen Formula SCCA car.
The vehicle has a 2.3-litre engine and 170 horsepower. It weighs just 900 pounds and can go from 0 to 60 mph in a little over four seconds. I’m second in a line of four cars that, at the push of a button, rumble to life on the tarmac of the pit lane. We wait for the leader to pull out onto the track, signalling that we should follow.
In the car, I’m sweating. It’s partly nerves (What if I crash? What if I make a fool of myself?), but it’s also the midsummer sun pounding down on me.
To wipe my forehead would require removing my gloves, then my helmet, then my balaclava—impossible, given how tightly I’m strapped in here and how little room there is to move. My shoulders and knees are crammed against the chassis. There is so little space in front of me, the removable steering wheel could only be mounted after I settled into the car.
Taking pity on me, one of the young mechanics walks over with an umbrella to provide me with some shade. Sitting there, holding the umbrella in my gloved hand, I feel like a cross between Danica Patrick and Mary Poppins.
Montreal's Racing Schools
Every year, millions of fans attend racing events like Montreal’s Formula One Grand Prix (June 10-12), watching the cars as they whip around the track, buzzing like a nest of hornets. But thanks to racing schools such as the Bridgestone Racing Academy, 90 minutes east of Toronto, and the Jim Russell Racing School in Mont Tremblant, QC, open-wheeled car racing is no longer just a spectator sport.
The only prerequisite, other than being able to fit into a race car (i.e. shorter than 6’4”, lighter than 275 lb.), is the ability to use a stick shift.
The Bridgestone Racing Academy
Today, I’m at the Bridgestone Racing Academy, located on the Mosport Driver Development Track. There’s still the original Grand Prix track, which was built in 1962 to challenge Formula One racers, but lessons take place on a separate track designed specifically for beginners.
“It’s a tight, technical track, so you can get excitement without going 240 km/h, and it was designed with a high number of run-off areas, meaning few walls and guardrails,” explains Brett Goodman, Bridgestone’s president and owner. “Don’t worry. The academy has a 26-year injury-free record. We haven't even had anyone so much as break a finger.”
After two embarrassing stalls, I manage to accelerate out of the pit lane and join the others in single-car formation for our first exploratory laps. I move slowly, getting a feel for the vehicle and the track. The five-speed sequential shift gearbox, which requires me to pull or push a level to change gears, is confusing. But after a few laps, I get more comfortable with
it and am able to focus on the driving.
I start to see which parts of the track will give me a chance to push the acceleration, and where I’ll have to be careful with tight curves. It’s still hot as an oven, but I hardly notice; every second of driving requires my full attention.
Harder Than it Looks
One of the most common questions from students (and I was no exception) is, “How fast will I go?” There’s no way to tell for sure—the cars have no speedometers—but the absolute top speed an amateur like me could expect is 160 km/h. Off the track, this sounded disappointingly slow, but now that I’m on it, I realize that number means nothing. The car is so low to the ground and I’m so exposed, everything feels dangerously fast.
When I hit the straightaway on my first speed lap, the power of the acceleration slams my body back into the seat with a force that is both exhilarating and terrifying. I keep my foot on the accelerator for as long as I can stand it, the car eating up the distance to the corner.Then, at the last second, I drop down through the gears and jerk the car to the right. My left shoulder slams into the chassis as the car turns. I hit the corner just right, then straighten up to start another lap, feeling triumphant and shaky.
Over the course of the day, I completed a 12-minute warm-up and three 20-minute speed lap sessons, tightening my curves and pushing my speed with each one. By the end, I’m physically exhausted and mentally drained.
When I peel off the racing suit, I notice the outsides of my knees are bruised from bracing myself against the chassis at every turn. I have no idea how professional drivers manage to do this for 90 minutes straight at twice the speed while fending off other cars.
“How was it?” my boyfriend asks enviously when I get home.
“Amazing,” I say, before collapsing on the couch.
Lap Two: The Jim Russel Racing School
A month later, I’m continuing my education with a three-hour lesson at the Jim Russell Racing School. It has some pretty high-profile graduates, but it also has classes designed for beginners like me.
The vehicle I’m driving is a 2002 Van Diemen Spec Formula FR02 race car. In the right hands, it is faster than a Ferrari F430 Challenge, my instructor says. He uses a white board to show us how to corner and explains a technique I didn’t attempt at the Bridgestone Racing Academy: “blipping” the throttle on the downshift (also known as “rev matching”), which means matching the engine speed to the wheel speed in order to keep the most power possible while cornering. I barely grasp the concept before we head out to the track.
The Jim Russell Racing School uses a former Formula One track for lessons, which feels more exciting and more intimidating.
On the first few laps of the south loop, I feel the tell-tale signs that I’m doing it wrong: the car bucks when I tap the accelerator too hard and whines when I don’t tap hard enough.
Eventually, I get the hang of it. At the end of a particularly good lap, the car purrs its way from the top gear to the lowest. The instructor raises his eyebrows in surprise and nods, pleased.
From Practice to Speed Laps
In no time, practice is over and we’re heading to the north loop to practise speed laps. “Drivers love this circuit because it has a flowing rhythm to it and elevation changes,” says Keith Blatz, school manager and former racer. It’s easy to see what he means: the road rises and dips and disappears around corners that, at first, I’m afraid to take too quickly, not knowing what’s ahead.
Eventually, I build up my nerve. The best part is the straightaway, which goes right past the central tower. A crowd of friends and relatives has gathered to watch us race, and, as I accelerate down that corridor, it’s not hard to imagine the stands full of fans, cheering me on.
Finishing my stint on the track, I’m thankful I’ve thought ahead this time, booking a few hours at a local spa, Scandinave, where I can lower my adrenaline level with a long stint in the sauna, then a dip in the cold river. When the students leave the school, they’re encouraged to take it slow. “Remember—you’re off the track now,” our instructor says.
As soon as I get into my rental car, I know that won’t be a problem. It’s too comfortable, too shielded. Too easy to steer. Doing 160 km/h in this vehicle won’t be half as exciting as doing 50 km/h on the track. Instead, I cruise through quaint Mont Tremblant at a leisurely pace, enjoying the feeling of no wind in my face for a change.
Illustrations by Matthew Holling
Photos courtesy of the Bridgestone Racing Academy and the Jim Russell Racing School