Northern Exposure: Bridgestone Racing Academy motorsports customization auto articles
Bridgestone Racing Academy. Click image to enlarge

First published July 19, 2013

Article and gearbox brutalization by Justin Pritchard

When the lust for adrenaline, grip and thrust runs high, racecar driver hopefuls can partake in a program like the Bridgestone Racing Academy.

It’s not cheap, but where motorized bang-for-the-buck is concerned, it sure beats paying two bucks a lap to be propelled around your local kid-track by a Honda weed-whacker engine.

Normal go-karts have about four horsepower and are made of leftover appliance parts. The big-boy go-karts used by Bridgestone Racing Academy are called Van Diemen Formula Cars, and they have tube chassis structures and big spoilers and run special 170-hp Mazda four-cylinder engines.

They weigh about as much as an office desk – putting the output-per-kilo level somewhere in the ballpark of a model rocket or a new Corvette. And, since they’re lightweight and have ultra-gooey Potenza tires, the cornering grip is on par with your average high-speed, rail-mounted amusement park ride.

Backseat? No. Cupholders? No. Stability and traction-enhancing nanny systems? Brother, please. The Van Diemen machines are simply one great big contact patch consisting of a single seat, an engine, a steering wheel, and no B.S.

For a big, broad guy like your writer, the fit into the teensy cockpit was a tight one – especially while wearing a full firesuit, big helmet, and having no fewer than four straps buckled up to keep me from moving more than a millimetre or so.

But the driving experience is just bananas. The Van Diemen cars are forgiving enough that novice drivers with half a clue what they’re doing won’t spend half their day in the rhubarb – though for more experienced drivers, they’re far hungrier for winding pavement than anything you’d drive on the street.

So, regardless of your skill level, you’ll have a riot.

The course I participated in focuses on safety and fun. There’s no endless classroom component about the technicalities of apexing and trail-braking and weight transfer. The basics are covered in the classroom, and you hit the track, following a lead car. This isn’t a course you take to learn a whole lot about performance driving technique. It’s a course you take to have, probably, the four-wheeled thrill ride of your life. You’re coming away with an experience, not a skill-set, here.

And, a big part of that experience is the sound.

Northern Exposure: Bridgestone Racing Academy motorsports customization auto articles Northern Exposure: Bridgestone Racing Academy motorsports customization auto articles
Bridgestone Racing Academy. Click image to enlarge

If the ultra-snug cockpit and fireproof gear don’t make you feel like a racecar driver, the sound of the virtually un-muffled rear-mounted 2.3L engine behind you, and its intake system, just above your head, should do the trick. The noise adds to the experience in a big way, especially cranking the revs towards a 6,500-rpm redline as the LED light cluster on the steering wheel blinks frantically to request an upshift from the sequential gearbox.

Said gearbox has a clutch pedal but no shift gate. You just pull this stubby metal lever back or push it forwards to change gear. Towards you gears up. Away gears down.

Now, this is the funny part.

The instructors said something about keeping our foot on the clutch when the car was idling, and to use the clutch again when we pitted-in and stopped. They probably said something about using it to change gears, but I probably missed that part, texting in class or something. My work-pal’s racing Kart had a sequential gearbox (he told me), and in that sequential gearbox, (which must be the same thing as the Van Diemen’s??) you didn’t use the clutch to shift – only to get moving.

So, I made an assumption. And you know what they say about assumptions.

More on this later.

The process of getting a Van Diemen Formula Car moving from rest consists mainly of noisy revving, a sudden lurch, and then silence – followed by the sound of dropping an F-Bomb into your helmet and starting the engine again for the ninth time. Eventually, I figured this hair-trigger clutch out, and was able to achieve the miracle of forward momentum. From that point on, my clutch-foot would remain coiled back and dug into a tiny and uncomfortable piece of the Van Diemen’s frame rail near the pedal until it was time to stop, perhaps 15 laps later.

As I piloted the twitchy little rocket onto the DDT track at Canadian Tire Motorsports Park (aka, Mosport), I hit the straight stretch and hammered down. The revs climbed and peaked, and it was time for an upshift into second.




About Justin Pritchard

Justin Pritchard is a full-time auto writer, consultant, broadcaster and AJAC member based in Sudbury. When not writing about the latest new models and industry trends, you'll probably find him fixing his Dodge Viper.