Thursday, September 15, 2011
Jim Russell Racing Drivers School
When I first became interested in sports and racing cars, I read everything I could get my hands on that dealt with the subject of high performance. Road & Track, Motor Sport and Car and Driver magazines were must-reads. Add to those the elegant and beautifully produced Automobile Quarterly and one could learn quite a lot about cars and the people who made and enjoyed them. Of course, I wanted more than to just read about these experiences. I wanted to take part. I wanted to race cars.
I began by reading two excellent books. The Technique of Motor Racing by Piero Taruffi and Racing and Sports Car Chassis Design by Michael Costin and David Phipps. It would be more accurate to say that I devoured these books reading them over and over. I began to understand apexes and braking points and concepts like polar moment of inertia and center of gravity as they applied to making a car move faster through a corner. It was a good start but I wanted more.
So it was that I went to the Jim Russell Racing Drivers School with its classroom near Rosamond, California using Willow Springs Raceway for the practical application of the lessons taught. It was my first time in an open-wheeled formula car--a Lotus Formula Ford. There was no synchromesh on the gears so one had to match engine revs with every shift while learning how to control every aspect of the car's behavior to the maximum extent possible. It was a lot to concentrate on because it was not driving for fun, it was driving for precision. Surprisingly, I was told to limit my revs--and therefore speed--and to focus instead upon accuracy with regard to braking points and apexes, entrance and exit points when cornering. As I would later experience when learning to fly glider planes, the deep concentration of the early stages became seat-of-the-pants instinct very quickly.
As we progressed, authorized speeds were increased. Finally, I thought I was moving along at a pretty fast pace between Turns 2 and 3 when a track version of a Shelby Mustang GT350 blew past me like the Lotus was parked, which taught me a valuable racing lesson that applies to street driving as well. Always keep an eye on your rear-view mirrors.
Months later, my familiarity with the track served me well when my friends and I spent the day at Willow Springs with the GTOs and several other Ferraris. More recently, John Fitch told me something I hadn't considered offering an interesting perspective. He said, "It is more important to go fast in the faster corners than in the slower ones since you gain more time in the longer corners." Rest assured, I've been putting that into action.
I have always thought that schools like Jim Russell should be required of all who drive a car on public roads. I think the current driving tests--at least in California--serve only to notify the public of the codes for which they will be fined when they are violated and have nothing to do with car control and competence.
This from Ed Niles:
"Sweet! In the early days of our marriage, around 1975, I put Phoebe through the Bondurant School, and she had a ball and came out a pretty fast driver; faster than I, for sure. The timing and the money never coincided for me, so I have lacked that experience. When we had the 275GTB/C she beat me up the Virginia City hillclimb. The timers were afraid to tell me, thinking my ego couldn’t stand it; I was actually quite pleased that I got my money’s worth! Ed"