Going Back to School

Prior to you obtaining your racing license and being allowed to participate in wheel-to-wheel races, it will be necessary to participate in competition driver’s schools. The purpose of these schools is to verify that you are ready for wheel-to-wheel racing from a safety aspect. You will quickly learn that there is much more to racing than simply going fast around a track.

What Needs to be Done to Prepare the Car?
One commonly asked question is, “What needs to be done to my car before it can be driven in a competition licensing school?” It is not necessary to have all of the go-fast parts such as a race engine or even a race suspension. When I took my first school, I had a stock engine, stock suspension, and old race tires. What is necessary are all of the required safety items such as a full roll cage, kill switch, drivers suit, and so on. The car also needs to have a logbook from the driving club and pass an annual tech inspection, assuming that the logbook was not just issued for that racing year. If you are renting a racecar for the school, make certain it is up-to-date with the inspections and has a logbook. I recommend that you review the club’s schedule and identify the schools you plan to attend early in the process. You then can create your timeline accordingly.

What Needs to be Done to Prepare the Driver?
Not only does your racecar need to meet specific safety requirements, you need to as well. Be sure to thoroughly review all of the personal safety gear that you are required to have (helmet, drivers suit, etc). Most clubs also require that you obtain a thorough physical examination from your doctor. If a physical is required, I suggest that you drop off or fax a copy of the club’s examination document to the doctor’s office in order for them to review what will need to be done. This can be important since these exams are typically more thorough than a standard physical exam. Call and schedule an appointment very early in the process. I was shocked at how far in advance I needed to call to schedule a physical appointment with my doctor, and I have heard the same experience from others. If you have medical insurance, verify that physicals are included in your policy’s coverage. Often times insurance companies only cover one physical per year, therefore you need to plan ahead. Once you have ensured that you have all of the required safety gear and made the appointment for your physical, you have some studying to do before the school.

Typically as part of the competition school, you will receive a written exam. Gulp! You may wonder how in the world you would ever be able to remember everything that is in the rule book? Will you ever remember that a vehicle weighing between 1701 and 2699 lbs. must have a roll bar thickness of at least 1.50 x 0.095 or 1.625 x 0.080 (outer diameter x wall thickness)? Clubs do not expect you to memorize this type of information. They do expect that you are familiar with the rule book and can find information in it when need be. For this reason, these exams are almost always open book. That does not mean that you don’t need to some studying. It’s important that you know what the various flags mean, how you should respond to them, and the general “rules of the road”.

Basic Checklist of Items to Bring:

  • Registration sheet
  • A check to pay for the school (if you did not pre-pay)
  • Crew
  • Novice permit
  • Racecar’s logbook
  • The club’s rulebook
  • Helmet
  • Driver’s suit
  • Plenty of water to drink
  • Lunch for yourself and your crew
  • Sun block
  • Sunglasses
  • Assortment of tools
  • Engine oil
  • Brake fluid
  • Other miscellaneous items such as paper towels and windshield cleaner
  • Spare tire for the racecar
  • Spare tire for the trailer

The Competition Licensing School
It is now two days before your first of two competition licensing schools. You have been preparing for this for quite some time now, and the day is quickly approaching. You think back to everything that you needed to accomplish before the event. Wow! There was a lot involved in getting this far, and you are well on your way to entering the world of club racing. The racecar has an up-to-date logbook, and you made sure to have its annual tech inspection completed well before the school. You hear that some people are having the car inspected at the school, but you can imagine how much extra stress that would add. If you had waited until the school to do this, who knows if you would have been able to participate or not – one minor issue causing you to fail tech and your car wouldn’t be allowed on the track. All of your paperwork, a check, novice permit, logbook, and other gear are in order and ready to go. Is there anything else that you are missing? Hmm.

It is now the evening before the school. You call the two friends who are going to the school with you as your crew and confirm tomorrow’s meeting time. As you try to fall asleep, your mind keeps wandering with many different thoughts. Finally! Your alarm clock goes off, and it is time to get going. The ride to the track seems like it is taking forever. As you get closer and closer, you become more anxious and a bit nervous about the day. When you arrive at the track, you and your crew members sign-in and complete the registration process. You can’t help but wonder if you are ready for this. When you timed yourself doing some laps at a recent high performance driving event, your lap times were in the 1 minute, 12 second range. Then you think about what the typical qualifying times are in your class under similar weather conditions. If you posted that type of time you would have qualified in the back. You think to yourself “Wait, maybe I am not really ready for all of this? Stop it! Why am I so nervous?” You have focused on learning the proper racing line and car control before registering for this event. You also remember what you learned while reading Go Ahead – Take the Wheel, and suddenly you feel relaxed, confident, and well-prepared.

A brief warning about competition schools: The purpose of the school is not to teach drivers the proper driving line, although it is briefly discussed. The school is to ensure that, prior to competitors being allowed to participate in wheel-to-wheel racing, rookies won’t be a safety hazard for themselves or fellow racers. Racing lines and basic driving techniques are best learned at high performance driving events. Some students have attended race schools without prior track experience, but it often ends up being a very, very tough day. Do yourself a big favor and learn how to drive a racetrack in a high performance driving event environment prior to attending a competition licensing school. Come to the school well-prepared – this goes for yourself and your racecar. All of this is not said to intimidate you about the licensing schools. If you feel comfortable driving on a racetrack before going to the school, then I would be extremely surprised if you did not have an absolute blast! If you are looking at your typical lap times and comparing them against qualifying times posted during a race weekend, you shouldn’t be concerned if your times would put you in the back of the pack. After a few races, when you are being pushed to go faster by your competitive nature wanting to keep up with more-experienced drivers, you will gain an even better comfort level racing. You might be surprised to see how quickly your lap times drop. Take me, for example. Before attending the racing school, I compared my times to typical qualifying times. Maybe this was a mistake. It made me think that I was not ready for racing, and wondered if I would ever be. After a few races, my times dropped by a few seconds per lap and instead of running towards the back of the pack, I was running in the middle of the pack. When you go out on the track and have someone in front of you that is a bit faster, typically you will push the car a bit further, and your lap times will begin to drop. Keep in mind that the qualifying times represent the person’s fastest lap of that session. It does not mean those are the lap times they are doing lap after lap. This brings up another point. Being consistent in racing is very important. Sure, that driver’s fastest lap might be ½ second faster than yours, but their average lap times are ¼ second slower than yours. Guess who is going to win that race? The goal of the school for you should simply be to get through it safely, learn as much as you can, have fun, and obtain your racing license. There are no professional racecar scouts in the stands, and you receive nothing for being the fastest car on the track. In actuality, a successful race school is one where you essentially go unnoticed by the instructors. Even if you are one of the slower cars, as long as you are safe and demonstrate that you can drive the proper lines, you will be just fine.

After you unload the car, your crew completes a few minor, last-minute tasks, such as to torque the lug nuts and clean the windshield. Umm, this isn’t good! For some really strange reason, the driver’s side power window won’t go down. Your frustration shows as you smack the window and curse. “This has never happened before!”, you exclaim. One of your crew members sees you eyeing the large metal hammer and orders you to please go to the classroom session. You shake your head in frustration and walk away. When you arrive at the classroom, instructors provide you a briefing of the day and hand out some information including a schedule. When you look at the schedule, you are surprised at how full the day’s agenda is – classroom session, track session, classroom session, track session, classroom session, track session, classroom session, track session. Then it hits you: There are no scheduled breaks in between the sessions. Yup, it is going to be a busy day!

The first of several classroom sessions is complete, and it’s time to hit the track. While you were gone, your crew was able to get the window down without using the big hammer. During this first session you focus on your driving technique and making sure nothing stupid happens. Although one instructor who brought his racecar out on the track really tested you by getting right on your bumper, you did not get frazzled, and you made it through the session successfully. You quickly say “hi” to your crew and run off to the next class. During the class session, a few of the instructors question why certain drivers made various moves. They also said that all of the students really need to pick-up the pace. One of the instructors yells out, “Are you guys here to race? Or are you just here for a nice Sunday drive?” You think to yourself, “Don’t give in. They are going to attempt to push us to make sure we don’t drive over our heads and do something unsafe.” In between each session, your crew knows exactly what to do with the suggestions you’ve given them concerning what they should be checking after each track run. The next few sessions go smoothly and you drive fast, but you don’t push things too far. During one session the corner workers threw a red flag. Since you have been paying attention to the flag stations, you quickly see the flag and come to a controlled stop on the side of the track. You briefly chuckle at another driver who zooms past you, but realize the problems and potential for a severe accident that could be caused by him not paying attention to the flags. Later in that same session one driver spun off and smacked the wall, but was physically all right. After the session you see the driver load up the car on the trailer; his day is done, and he won’t get signed-off for this school. Ironically, this is the driver who probably was the fastest of the group but felt the need to attempt to impress the instructors therefore drove over his head.

At the end of the day, the instructors gather and meet to determine which students should get signed off on this school. You receive your novice logbook and congratulations from some of the instructors. One of the students got signed off on both of their school requirements in this one school, but you are not at all jealous. Besides, why wouldn’t you want to attend another school, even if you could have gotten signed off?

The Importance of Bringing Crew with You
When I had originally planned on going to the school, I really did not give much thought to bringing people to the event with me. Besides, what can possibly happen? I never thought twice about going to a high performance driving event by myself, so why do I suddenly need people to come with me to these schools? Fortunately, I was convinced to bring some people to the event with me. Without their help, I am not sure that I would have been able to complete the school. The window thing? That was me. I have no idea what happened that day, but all of a sudden the power window won’t work. It never happened before that day, nor has it happened since. Go figure. Seriously, bring someone with you. If you think you need to find people who are certified mechanics to help you, that is simply not the case. Bring anyone who is willing to help, even if they are not mechanically-inclined. For the most part, you really just need someone there to help with some minor tasks such as refueling the car, cleaning the windshield, and adjusting air pressure in the tires.

Typical entry fee for each club’s competition licensing school: $200 – $300
(Normally it requires two schools to get signed-off on your school requirements.)