Skipping Work for Skip Barber: We Get Schooled at the New Corvette Museum Racetrack

NCMMSP 1 3-06-16When an offer to attend a three-day Skip Barber Racing School is thrown your way—during the work week, no less—you take it. Skippy schools, as they’re colloquially known, are offered at some of the best tracks across the country, including Lime Rock Park, Road Atlanta, Road America, and our favorite, Virginia International Raceway. One-, two-, and three-day sessions are available in your choice of racing machine: a fully prepped Mazda MX-5 or a Skip Barber Formula car. With a craving to experience unassisted steering and brakes as well as a sequential gearbox, we chose the latter. As for venue, we opted to attend a track we’d not yet visited: the relatively new NCM Motorsports Park (pictured above), located near the National Corvette Museum in Bowling Green, Kentucky.

Back to School

Day one began with the usual chalk talk—a discussion of the basic ground rules for the day and general track-driving tips, often accompanied by chalkboard or whiteboard illustrations and delivered as if fired from a machine gun. To someone completely unfamiliar with track work, it could come across as overwhelming, but the experienced and helpful instructors gladly took the time to answer questions. We received a briefing on the basics such as “sight picture” (looking through the apex), vehicle weight transfer and its effect on contact patches, and over- and understeer. Then it was time to head to NCM’s 22-acre skidpad. Dark skies loomed, however, and major rain came down on us just as we fired the engines. This was no mere sprinkle; the residents of Cherrapunji would respect this downpour. But onward we drove, and we very quickly learned the over- and understeer properties of the Skip Barber Formula car, with many students spinning all over a skidpad covered with nearly an inch of water. Hanging on to the car here was a big confidence builder, however.

While enjoying a catered box lunch, we received more classroom instruction, this time on shifting technique. Skip Barber Formula cars use a five-speed sequential gearbox; this means the clutch is only used for launching the car and downshifts. To upshift, move the shifter when the desired engine speed is reached (instructors will limit your maximum rpm and gradually increase it throughout the course), barely lift off the throttle, and the transmission will slide into gear. Downshifting the unsynchronized gearbox requires using the traditional heel-and-toe technique, something that can be challenging in a slippery, waterlogged pedal box. After another wet and wild skidpad session to work on shift technique, the first day ended with a lead-follow session on the track to learn the racing line. Given the weather, we followed the wet line. However, since NCM is so new, there’s barely a racing line worn into the track, so we really drove where a wet line would be.

Skip Barber Formula Car

Day two brought more learning—and sunshine. After a quick recap of the race flags and the penalties that may occur, it was time to get back on the track. For the next three hours, we drove a car shared with another student, swapping back and forth. After each lap, students stop at a station to receive instruction on where they can improve—each hoping to be told that they’re a natural and destined for open-wheel greatness. It’s a time where you can grow as a driver by leaps and bounds as you feel out the limits of the car and its BFGoodrich g-Force tires. Engine-speed limits are raised, track speeds increase, braking zones shorten, and apexes become tighter.

Lunch brought on talk of braking technique. Did you know that tires deliver 100 percent of their braking traction when they are rotating 15 percent more slowly than the actual rolling speed of the car? This is achieved during what’s known as threshold braking. So we slipped the Skip Barber–provided race suits back on and headed out to perfect this technique. With the braking zone set, students bomb into Turn One as fast as they feel comfortable and then attempt to stop before a set cone. ABS is not an option in the Formula cars, so not turning the tires square requires a proper first squeeze onto the pedal and excellent modulation after that. But, hey, this is a place to learn, and they’re not your tires, so go ahead and find that threshold limit. The day ended with more lapping, this time with higher rpm limits.

Day three is when the dogs are let off the leash, and also, in this case, when Mother Nature opened the floodgates again. After one more meeting at the board to discuss passing and proper race-start etiquette, we headed out again. Some of us had been smart enough to stop and pick up a poncho the night before, which meant the downpour was now (mostly) only affecting grip. Yet for a few of our fellow students, this proved an insurmountable challenge as cars began to rotate out of control, meeting Armco and tire walls while augering themselves into the mud. At Skip Barber, as at most driving schools, you’re on the hook for any damage done to the car, although liability insurance is available for a fee to help mitigate the bleeding.

NCM Motorsports Park

NCM Motorsports Park hosts a variety of open-track days, HPDE events, and more—and, no, you don’t need to have a Corvette, as evidenced by this BMW and its honkin’ big wing. Check out the calendar here.

With passing and race-start exercises complete, it was time for the rpm limiter and stop box to be removed and for hot laps to commence. Yes, in the pouring rain. While these aren’t timed laps, you continually challenge yourself to shorten braking zones, raise your corner exit speed, and keep the throttle pegged in certain sections of the track. The Skip Barber handbook says that test days in the wet are invaluable, and it’s correct. If you can be fast in the rain, chances are you’ll be pretty well off in the dry. Of course three days of sunny, warm-weather track fun sounds ideal, but if you get a rainy day, count yourself as lucky. It will only make you a better driver.

With the last day complete and the cars back in the garages, it’s time to graduate—and a Skip Barber diploma means you’ve made substantial progress toward an SCCA racing license. Three days go by quickly, so make the most of the time and focus on hitting your marks without pushing so hard that you exceed the limits of yourself and the car. And if you’re inclined to further your skill level, Skip Barber offers more training beyond the three-day class, including two-day advanced racing and advanced car-control schools. These programs are a must for someone who has any interest in getting into racing or just wants to become a better driver.

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The Track

NCM Motorsports Park is located just across I-65 from the National Corvette Museum. The track designers had Circuit de la Sarthe—the location of the 24 Hours of Le Mans—in mind when the facility began construction in the summer of 2013 and opened for business Labor Day weekend of 2014. NCM features four miles of asphalt and six configurations that vary from the 1.1-mile East Circuit to the 3.15-mile Grand Full Course. Skip Barber uses the 1.97-mile, 15-turn Corvette Race Loop. This circuit offers an excellent combination of fast straights, double-apex corners, and blind off-camber turns, one of which is appropriately named Sinkhole. (Read these stories if you don’t get the reference.) This section blindly falls away to the tune of 40 feet after a right-hand double-apex corner and then quickly climbs left into the esses. Be careful to mind your unloaded suspension here, or you may be sinking some money into your rental racer.


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