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How Racing Schools Work

Have you ever harbored dreams of being a race car driver? Anything can inspire the lust: catching a NASCAR event on TV, a few minutes of addictive (by which we mean "illegal") back-and-forth on the highway, or even the smell of new tires and potent fuel. Believe it or not, there's a sanctioned and mostly safe outlet for such indulgence. It won't land you in jail, and you won't have to watch in tears as your beloved ride is towed away to the impound lot. Your credit card balance will take a hit, but the driving skills you'll acquire are a good investment and will increase your skills behind the wheel. We're talking, of course, about racing school, where you can get pointers from well-known instructors and race car drivers, claim seat time in a variety of incredible (and incredibly fast) cars, and drive on some of the fastest and most notorious road courses and tracks in the country. At racing school, you can fine-tune your heel-toe downshifting and double-clutching skills to your heart's content.

Big-name racing schools like to brag about their celebrity alumnae, and there are a lot. Racing school has been the first serious step in the careers of many professional drivers, and actors, musicians and other famous folk are frequent patrons. Buying, driving and wrecking fast cars has long been a cherished pastime of the super wealthy and marginally talented, but why should they have all the fun? You don't need to be rich and famous to join the ranks of racing school graduates. Considering the consistent popularity of various motorsports, chances are there's a racing program operating at a race track near you.

The Safety Issue

Racing schools take safety very seriously. You'll probably sit through safety information and instruction before you're allowed near a car, and you'll hear all the rules pertaining to on-track conduct (such as whether or not you'll be allowed to pass). No matter how eager you are to get behind the wheel and break in those new driving shoes, pay attention to the safety lecture.

The school will provide you with a list of stuff you'll need to bring, such as specific clothing (though suits and helmets are usually provided), so there's no need to invest tons of money in equipment until you're sure racing is right for you. Even the best drivers have crashes, though, so at some point you might want to consider getting your own gear. If you can't afford proper safety equipment, you can't afford to race -- if you plan to pursue racing as a hobby or career, make sure you're investing your dollars in the right stuff [source: Bentley].

What Happens at Racing School

First and foremost, racing school isn't about going fast. It's about learning to control your car. Champion driver Ross Bentley says that coaching is a valuable investment, much more important than spending money to make the car faster. Schools are usually founded by "retired" racers who develop qualifications and standards to train instructors. Instructors are selected based not only on racing experience, but on their teaching abilities.

Devouring the vast menu of options can easily leave you confused. First, decide what you're after: Do you want to hit high speeds in a NASCAR-style formula car, or do you want individualized attention to develop street-smart skills? Are you after a vacation experience, an education or a potential new career?

The main types to choose from are:

  • General Driving Technique. These courses are marketed toward teens and new drivers, and instructors teach basic precision driving and road etiquette.
  • High Performance Driving. Usually taught in a passenger car, these types of classes focus on street driving technique and understanding how a car reacts to driver input. You'll learn advanced precision driving skills such as heel-toe shifting, trailbraking (braking into a turn to improve exit speed) and skid control.
  • Open-wheel Formula Car Racing. These classes are for people who want to hit high speeds on a track

Driving and high performance schools focus on improving a driver's skills with an emphasis on how those techniques will benefit you every day. Racing courses are intended to improve driving skills on the track, although they'll also be applicable on the street. In other words, someone looking to have high-speed fun while perfecting technique will probably benefit more from a driving program, though racing courses are also beneficial. According to Bentley, you'll learn a lot by driving both open-wheel (formula) and closed-wheel (production) cars.

When you're competent at handling your vehicle, it's time to pursue speed. On the next page, we'll discuss the cars you'll get to drive.

What if you crash at racing school?

Fast cars, high speeds and unfamiliar maneuvers can easily become disastrous and dangerous. If you lose control of the car, make no mistake -- you're liable. Your own car insurance policy won't help you out, unless you happen to carry a miracle policy that covers other cars driven off the street in what insurance companies consider to be a competitive environment. If that's the case, consider yourself lucky.

Generally, in the event of a crash, students must pay for any damage they cause. This includes whatever vehicles are involved and the facility itself (such as pavement, walls or other structures). Many schools offer optional insurance, which must be purchased or declined before your event starts. In most cases, the insurance will simply reduce the amount you'll have to pay, but it won't let you off the hook entirely [source: Houston]. Read the fine print carefully.

Racing School Cars

The fleets at most racing schools are a point of pride. For example, Skip Barber uses a variety of high-end performance and street cars, including Mazda, Lotus, Lexus, BMW and Porsche; the Bondurant School uses only GMs, such as Pontiac and Cadillac.

Once you're strapped into a street car, instructors will lead you through a series of exercises designed to show you how the car will respond to driver input -- what you, sitting behind the wheel, tell it to do. This will make you more comfortable, allow you to concentrate better (since it'll be more familiar) and reinforce the notion that the skills you'll learn are applicable to everyday driving. Straightaways are used for acceleration and braking instruction, and you'll practice handling an out-of-control car on skid pads. Instructors at the Bob Bondurant School of High-Performance Driving have been known to demonstrate these concepts with participants packed into a bus [source: Stein]. Learning how a car behaves and responds in any situation -- accelerating, decelerating, skidding, going straight or sideways -- will help you become a better, more confident driver.

If you get track time, this is where you're likely to hit your highest speeds. First, you'll probably sit in the passenger seat while an instructor drives you around the course at top speed. This is called a "hot lap" session and will help you learn "the line," or the fastest way to get around the track. You'll also have "lead-follow" sessions, where you take the wheel and follow the instructor around the track, using the techniques you've been practicing.

Some schools put mechanical limiters on the cars to prevent extremely high speeds, but others place that judgment with the instructors and students. Some programs even run lap sessions without a pace car (the lead car that "limits" drivers' speed -- when there's a pace car on track, passing it is forbidden). In general, though, you won't have much opportunity for triple-digit speeds in a basic or beginner program. At Skip Barber, for example, students in the 3-day school don't reach top speeds until the final day.

At racing school, you'll also learn why the sport is notorious for its outrageous expenses. Let's see how much this endeavor will set you back.

A racing school that's the real deal will cost you a pretty penny.

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Racing Schools: A Priceless Experience

There's an adage amongst racers: "How do you make a million dollars racing? Start with two million." The professionals don't disagree. Ross Bentley says that anyone can be successful in racing, as long as they're willing to sacrifice whatever it takes to get to the top [source: Bentley]. Though he discusses career and personal relationships at length, the literal cost of entry is the biggest and most immediate hurdle.

To register, students must be old enough to drive and hold a valid driver's license with no restrictions. Schools recommend that students are in good physical condition [source: Bondurant]. Some programs require the ability to drive a manual transmission, which should be mentioned in the school's literature before you register.

After you read the fine print, it's up to your high-speed dreams and your wallet. Racing schools offer sessions that range from single classes to courses spread out over several days. The longer programs cover more in-depth technique, and though prices vary considerably, the more advanced and longer the program, the more it costs.

Some examples:

  • Bob Bondurant offers "experiences," like 60 laps at Phoenix International Raceway, starting at $500, while multiple-day advanced racing courses can run upwards of $5,000.
  • Skip Barber's Mazda Driving School costs about $1,000 per day for advanced training in car control techniques, whereas the high performance driving school starts at $1,800 per day. On the other hand, Formula car instruction at Skip Barber starts at $700 for a 1-day introduction class; the 3-day course covers advanced shifting exercises, lap sessions and track drills.

If you're the ambitious, competitive type, the introduction courses might not satisfy your cravings. Instructors say that many of their students come back for more advanced training. You'll also be able to apply for racing licenses after completing certain road racing courses at the major schools.

If a racing school is out of reach, or you want to practice your skills more frequently, consider joining a track organization or club. The next page has more details.

Racing clubs let you share your passion with friends.

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Cheap Alternatives for Racing School

There are alternatives that'll help you get racing experience (and even individualized coaching), such as TrackDaze and Sports Car Club of America. Again, the emphasis is on safety. TrackDaze attendees, for example, are required to attend classroom sessions to review guidelines and procedures at each event. Your car has to be safe, too. Each organization has its own rules about car condition, but generally, your car must pass a technical inspection to ensure it's in good working order.

Though this option has a much lower sticker price per event, you shouldn't consider these organizations strictly in terms of cost. True, the registration fee is a fraction of a racing school's, but in this case, you're putting your own vehicle on the line. The cost for a weekend at a High Performance Drivers Education (HPDE) event or club track day isn't always less than the one-time cost of attending a school, since you use and wear out your own car in these programs. You should be able to perform emergency repairs yourself (or with the help of friends). Hobby racers are used to replacing parts often, and many track regulars own a separate car (and in some situations, a trailer and tow vehicle) for weekend racing. Even if you make it off the track without incident, you've likely toasted your clutch, tires and brakes while burning through tanks of expensive race fuel. Also, consider that your car insurance won't cover damage incurred at a track, and racing may affect or void your manufacturer's warranty (if a dealership finds out about it, that is).

Though club racing will ultimately make you a better, safer driver in your own car (and will be a ton of fun, to boot), it's a bigger long-term investment than many people realize. Either way, extensive dabbling in racing is going to be expensive.

Now you understand the investments in cost and time, but the thrills that await are simply too great. In that case, you might have what it takes to be a racer. The next page has links to great information about racing school and motorsports.

Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks ArticlesSources
  • Bob Bondurant School of High Performance Driving. (June 13, 2010)http://www.bondurant.com
  • Bentley, Ross. "Speed Secrets: Professional Race Driving Techniques." MPI Publishing Company. 1998.
  • Houston, Rick. "Bristol Motor Speedway." Stock Car Racing Magazine. February 2009. (June 16, 2010)http://www.stockcarracing.com/featurestories/scrp_0809_bristol_motor_speedway/index.html
  • Skip Barber Racing School. (June 13, 2010)http://www.skipbarber.com/
  • Sports Car Club of America. "Driver's School." (June 15, 2010)http://www.scca.org/contentpage.aspx?content=38
  • Stein, Jason. "Driver's Ed." Slate. June 13, 2008. (June 9, 2010)http://www.slate.com/id/2193496/
  • TrackDaze. (June 9, 2010)http://www.trackdaze.com