As part of the lead up to the Honda Indy Toronto, Bridgestone organized a series of events for the media to experience their products in action. One of these events was a day at the Bridgestone Racing Academy on Mosport’s Driver Development Track. As formula cars aren’t designed to house Clydesdale’s we figured that it would be good to send Miss Shelby rather than yours truly. Unfortunately, the cut off age for the event was 18 years of age, so that nixed that idea. I had a look through the BRA website and found that the fitment guide says that drivers over 6’4″ and 275 lb might actually fit in the school cars. My heart skipped a beat and I headed up to the track for a test fitting. Sure enough, while it was a tight squeeze, I was able to shoehorn myself into the hot looking red and white rocket.
Yahoo…I’m gonna drive an open wheeler!
Rather than a full on racing school type of day, this was a corporate event day that the Academy has developed for corporations to use for team building. For some of the guests in our group, it was their first opportunity to drive a high performance vehicle while for others it was essentially a lapping day.
The BRA has been around for a long time now and has an impeccable record of producing pro racers, along with successful events that are both fun and safe. In fact, the school is about to celebrate 25 years of injury free high performance fun. That track record has much to do with a structured daily routine and on track guidelines, along with modern equipment. The staff come from around the world and are very adept at making guests feel comfortable.
Obviously, the equipment takes center stage in any driving event, so maybe we should start there. Rather than the traditional Formula Ford or Formula 2000 cars that many schools use, the BRA uses 2008 Van Diemen Formula SCCA cars. Essentially the same cars that are used in the Star Mazda series, but instead of the RX-8 rotary engine, they are powered by a 2.3l Mazda Duratec 4 cylinder. Given that the Van Diemen only weighs 900 lbs, the 170 hp Mazda has the potential to propel the car to rather serious speeds. All of the cars are shod in Bridgestone RE-11, high performance street tires wrapped around steel wheels designed to take the punishment students are likely to deliver.
Drivers are grouped randomly and then as their skills become apparent during the warm up laps, instructors begin sorting drivers into separate smaller groups so that everyone can drive at their own pace. Participants are reminded to keep six car lengths apart to ensure lots of space when the inevitable spins occur.
I ended up being grouped with a couple of other folks who had intentions of showing everyone how fast they were. I was just happy to be in the car and ecstatic that I was able to actually start pushing the limits a bit.
Beyond the cramped quarters (more so for some of us than others) the first thing one notices is that the acceleration is nothing short of brutal. First gear is actually less sensitive than I had expected and then a quick tug on the sequential shifter brings you to second gear which is accompanied by a solid rush as the car accelerates hard through the power band. On the mile long circuit, we were told that most of the fast guys use 2nd gear for most of the track, only shifting into 3rd climbing the back straight. Redline in third was said to be about 100 miles per hour. While I heard a couple of guys talking about using fourth on the straight, I followed the instructor’s advice and my LED tach was fully lit up as I approached my braking point for the 90 degree right at the top of the hill.
Once you are accustomed to the car, it is time to begin pushing your own limits. I say your limits, as there is little chance that you will be exploring the car’s limits on you first day out. That is not to say that you can’t exceed the limits of the car fairly easily. During my first session, which was unexpectedly quick, I actually overcooked it into a tight right hand turn and locked the left front wheel momentarily. This isn’t my first rodeo, so I knew there was nothing to worry about, I eased up on the pedal a shade which allowed the wheel to start turning again and then I turned in later than I planned to. Provided the driver doesn’t do anything stupid, these cars are unbelievably forgiving.
As I became more confident, I found that the old school four wheel drift (as opposed to modern drifting) is very easy to accomplish in the faster corners. In the slower corners, it is super easy to coax the back end out at speed with a bit of throttle. Once the tail is out, it can be controlled by the right foot or the steering wheel depending on what your preference is. I was having a great time exploring the limits, when I finally ran out of talent. You just know I had to loop it at least once!
Turn 1 follows the short pit straight and if you are moving quickly, it requires a quick stab of brake to settle the car down and set up a drift. I had been having fun pushing the car a bit harder through here and had been using more throttle on each lap. As I came through the apex, I fed in more throttle than I had before and was hoping to control the slide with steering only, rather than lifting. It was one of those situations where a driver says to himself “I think I’ve got it. Yep, I’ve got it…” just before the car snaps and spins in the opposite direction. I believe the bike racers call this a tank slapper. Anyway, as I rolled backwards onto the grass, I could see the group of mechanics at pit out cheering. I’m surprised they didn’t hold up scores. Yes, I stalled it. I dumped the clutch and looked for neutral, but there is no neutral in these cars and I didn’t dump soon enough.
The beauty of a day like this is that everyone is able to take things at their own pace and have a great time. There are a few participants who I suspect never made it out of first gear and yet their smiles were every bit as big as mine when they got out of the car. A corporate event isn’t about racing, it is about stretching the horizons of team members, perhaps putting them outside their comfort level so they learn to adapt. Some managers take their staff bowling, which is fun and the effects might last for a week. I’ve taken several car dealerships go karting and the effects last for months. The bond that team members build at a driving event goes far beyond day to day operations, it allows people to really accomplish something with their peers. In our case, we had a group of motorsport media that ranged from young ladies in their twenties, to a wonderful gent in his late sixties. Most of us don’t work together, but any time we cover an event together, we will have instant recognition of the people we were there with.
As media, obviously Bridgestone would like to hear some feedback on their product. The RE-11 isn’t a racing tire. It is a high performance street tire that also has technology developed for track days. Looking at the school cars throughout the day, I was impressed to note that the tire wear was even across the tire on all of the cars. Even more impressive though is the consistency of grip throughout a complete heat cycle. Giving a lap or so to bring the tires up to temperature, the level of grip remains consistent even after a 20 minute session. Remarkably for a street tire, there is no chunking of the outer tread blocks either. It would seem that the RE-11 would be a good choice for the enthusiast who is also a weekend track warrior.
The Bridgestone Racing Academy offers far more than corporate team building events. No matter what your experience level, the BRA offers thrill rides, half day programs, full day programs right on up to 3 day sessions to get your racing license. Graduates of the racing program include several current NASCAR and IndyCar drivers, so you know you are in good company. I know, this is beginning to sound like an advertorial, but it isn’t. I just get really enthusiastic when an organization does great things with something I’m passionate about.
The folks at the Bridgestone Racing Academy are nothing if not passionate about driving fast. One visit and you will agree.