Bridgestone Racing Academy
Bridgestone Racing Academy; photos by Michael Clark. Click image to enlarge

By Michael Clark

Even automobile journalists need a chance to break out of their comfortable shells. Instead of the workaday drudgery of another minivan opinion, I traded in my Blundstones and Levi’s for the snug fit of a Nomex suit, and the even more snug confines of an open-wheeled Reynard Formula 2000 at the Bridgestone Racing Academy. The Academy performs its speedy deeds at the Mosport Driver Development Centre, part of the Mosport International Raceway complex just outside Toronto.

I was a little skeptical of how race-oriented the experience would be, as I flipped through the brochures detailing “corporate events” and meeting “prospective clients”. (If I’m wearing a suit, either someone is getting married or getting buried.) Then Academy co-owner Brett Goodman said the magic words. “Drive our cars as fast as you are capable.” Imagine the sound of a dozen wheel scribes wringing their hands together like mad scientists. “Igor! Fetch me my helmet!”

Throwing us the keys to the Reynards at this point would have certainly ended the Academy’s 21-year injury-free safety record. Lead Instructor Don Meskis took our group through the basics, dispelling numerous racing myths along the way. “Technique is what makes you fast,” said Meskis. “If you’re aggressive, it will be slow.” The Academy offers a wide range of accredited racing courses. Our track time would be spent learning proper shifting, cornering, and maximizing speed between the corners. Passing skills are taught at the more advanced levels.

Bridgestone Racing Academy
Bridgestone Racing Academy. Click image to enlarge

What you can get away with in a minivan and in an F2000 race car are two completely different things. Zero to 100 kph, and immediately back to zero, can occur in less than nine seconds with the Reynard. Slowing down as quickly as possible is the key to a clean cornering experience. While most everyday drivers simply coast or brake through a corner, those inputs can quickly prove catastrophic on the track. Too much brake input transfers the bulk of the weight distribution to the front of the car, making the back end light as a feather for an imminent spin-out. Relying on a downshift and subsequent engine braking can have a similar effect. “A common mistake is to dump the clutch at the turn-in point,” said Meskis. In reality, proper cornering requires the last thing your brain is telling you as you approach; steady throttle pressure.

The secret is to perform all of the required braking and downshifts before you enter the corner. To eliminate the dreaded weight transfer, you have to get hip to the “blip”. The blip is a quick throttle input boost that occurs during the downshift. As you approach the braking point for the corner, you begin to apply the brake in the true heel-and-toe

Bridgestone Racing Academy
Bridgestone Racing Academy. Click image to enlarge

fashion. “It’s a misnomer,” said Meskis. “You use the ball of your foot and the side of your foot to do it.” With this method, your foot is covering the gas pedal as you press on the brake. As the car begins to slow down, the clutch goes in for the expected downshift. While the shift lever drops down a notch, the throttle is given the necessary blip to match the RPMs of the engine. Releasing the clutch at this point reduces the engine braking effect, which keeps the car level for corner entry. As Meskis explains, it’s a procedure that must occur with split-second timing. “If you pause on the clutch coming out, you’ve essentially done nothing.”

Pylons aren’t just for adding life to TV car reviews; for our purposes, the pylons serve as a valuable teaching aid, labelling the turn-in, apex, and exit points for all of the track’s corners. “It’s simple,” said Meskis. “Just connect the dots.” OK, that I can understand. (If I have to paint by numbers, I’m in trouble.) The three turning point rules are as follows; Number One, stay off the brakes. Number Two, don’t forget to turn the wheel. Number Three, stay on the gas. “The reason you have to stay on the gas is the weight transfer and vehicle dynamics,” said Meskis. The throttle position can be as much as 50 percent, dependent on skill and comfort level.

Bridgestone Racing Academy
Bridgestone Racing Academy. Click image to enlarge

To illustrate the proper throttle inputs during a corner, Meskis offered up this analogy. “Picture in your mind a chain connecting the steering wheel to the gas pedal. As you wind the wheel up into the corner, the chain becomes tight, and pulls the gas pedal back. As you unwind the wheel out of the corner, the chain goes slack, allowing the gas pedal to go down.” Throttle pressure should then return to 100 percent, once the wheels have straightened out. “Road racing is essentially drag racing from corner to corner,” said Meskis.

Everyone dreams of that waving checkered flag during their track experience, however there are a multitude of colours and varied warnings in the flag department. A stationary yellow flag signifies the warm-up laps, while a waved yellow requires caution and reduced speed. (A spin-out on the track is a common waved yellow warning.) Green means go, as in the race is underway. A red flag denotes a serious situation, such as a crash or rollover. A black flag can mean either an issue with a car that is unseen by the driver, or driving that could be putting the driver and/or others on the track at risk. The black flag requires an immediate visit to pit lane, for either tightened lug nuts or a tongue-lashing. When the driver is greeted by the checkered flag, a final lap at a lower RPM helps to cool down the engine and brakes.

Bridgestone Racing Academy
Bridgestone Racing Academy. Click image to enlarge

Time to suit up. A snug race suit is complemented with fire-resistant gloves, socks, and balaclava. Racing boots aren’t made for walking; the narrow style of the boot assists pedal inputs, in an area wide as some old-time power brake pedals. A Pro-spec helmet tops off the ensemble.

The Reynards are not without their battle scars. While the cars may be upwards of 20 years old, they are constantly being rebuilt by the Academy’s mechanics, who come from around the world to learn the ins and outs of race car maintenance. The 2.0-litre Ford mills use a four-speed VW gearbox with straight-cut gears. This means plenty of first gear grind when first engaged in the pit lane.

Wow, I haven’t been in a cockpit this tight since that Pontiac Solstice last Fall. You are literally wedged into the roll cage, even more wedging for those of us who still dig carbs. The pit crew assists with the attachment of the racing harness. Meskis advises a tight belt fit. “The tighter you are in the car, the more connected you are to it.” Once you’re in, the removable steering wheel is re-attached. The gearbox shifter is more like a toggle switch, with an almost indiscernible gate when compared to a common stickshift. The most feared collision in racing is a t-bone into the roll cage. It should be; you’re wearing it.

A booster pack is used to crank the engines to life. The burble of open exhaust headers fill the air, as an RPM of 2000 is held to help boost the operating temperature. The clutch is firm, the way a clutch should feel. I ease out of pit lane behind Meskis, who quickly applies the throttle, egging me on in an almost “lets see what you’ve got, rookie” display. It takes some getting used to the tight cockpit, and the first few upshifts were anything but clean. As you twist and turn, your bone structure seems to quickly adapt to the squeeze; you become more comfortable the longer you’re in the seat.

The Reynard is easily the go-kart of the Gods. 3800 RPM is where it really starts to sing, up to a redline of 5500 RPM. I recite the cornering mantra in my head; brake, clutch, shift and blip, clutch out. The first few tries are exaggerrated, however it has the desired effect. The tires don’t even whimper as the turns are negotiated. This was the first debut of the new Potenza RE-01R’s from Bridgestone. While a street test will be coming soon, let’s just say that if the track is any indicator, get some, before they sell out.

Bridgestone Racing Academy
Bridgestone Racing Academy. Click image to enlarge

Meskis gives a wave after turn 7, indicating the drop-back procedure. I pull out to the right side of the track, allowing the other cars to pass before falling in behind. Six car lengths is the recommended safe following distance for our exercises.

I discover the concrete curbing that lies on the edge of the track at the turn-in point for select corners. Meskis had mentioned an almost “sandpaper-like” effect under acceleration. Unlike the asphalt track surface, the rough concrete provides a grip sensation that slingshots the car through the corners. I make a mental note of my new speed-enhancing friend.

Thump! Oops, got a little too close to the edge of one of the concrete patches, dropping a wheel off the track. Track personnel see all, and a pointed black flag sends me into the pits. There’s no finger wag; it’s simply a precautionary measure to guard against any loose wheels or steering attachments.

The track sessions each last 20 minutes, with a de-brief by Meskis. The heat, the stress, all mixed with an adrenalin cocktail. What you soon discover is that racing is hard, gruelling work. That’s when mistakes happen. Mine was a polite little 180 at the bottom of turn 7 during our last race of the day. I remembered Meskis speak of the proper spin procedure. “If you spin, both feet in.” This means mash the clutch and brake pedal. By locking the brakes, you slide in one direction, which is crucial to allow other cars to see your path, and take evasive action if necessary. The clutch-in prevents a stall, which can be a bit of a wait for a restart. The Reynards are not equipped with alternators; they actually suck back the needed electrical juice directly from the battery. I didn’t feel too bad about my goof. (Seems all the drivers from Quebec were making a day of mowing the grass.)

While some may think of such an excursion as the bailiwick of extreme sports junkies, a day at the races is one of the most effective, safest ways to truly learn the consequences of haphazard driver inputs. You may bruise your pride, however the lessons learned will definitely help to keep collision bruises off of you, and the people you care about.

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For more information on the Bridgestone Racing Academy, visit www.racef2000.com

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