The Guide to Road Racing, Part 4: Getting Started - Race School
By Bradley Iger
March 03, 2014
After choosing a path toward a racing license, acquiring the necessary safety gear, and prepping for race school, we've finally arrived at day one of Cal Club Super School at Buttonwillow Raceway. Super School is an intensive two-day training program which, upon completion, would qualify us to race in the SM class the day after we completed the program. Pen in one hand and a large cup of strong coffee in the other, we stepped into class as a fairly normal person and left as an amateur race car driver. Here in Part IV we'll fill in some of the blanks as far as what you'll come across in between those two phases.
What is the purpose of the school?
The main purpose of school is to teach you how to safely operate a race car on a race track populated with other race cars.
Recognizing how to interpret and react to different flag signals, learning how to safely navigate the course when vehicles at non-race speeds are present, safely entering and exiting the course, and understanding how to properly start a race where the start pace is dictated by a pace car are some of the most important tenets of race school.
Of near-equal importance is the basic understanding of good driving techniques, races lines, car control, passing and how to take a turn a near-race speeds. As the instructors put it, "Would we want to be on the same racetrack and race with you?"
What do I need to know before I attend?
Make sure you take a look at Part III of the guide to help get prepared for school. Don't forget your gear. Don't forget your SCCA card and Novice Permit. And if you stay at Motel 6, bring your own shampoo.
From a knowledge standpoint, you are not expected to have studied beforehand. You can show up “cold”, with two exceptions: you have to be a (road) licensed driver and if your car has a manual transmission you need to be able to be comfortable with a stick shift.
What level of track experience do I need to have done before I attend?
While it never hurts to have some track experience under your belt when learning a new motorsport discipline, many attending Super School had no prior track experience whatsoever - your author included. And since the purpose of the school is to make you safe, and not to make you a class winner, your ability to go fast from the start of school is not important or at all necessary.
What happens in the classroom?
Instruction. You're introduced to the various roles of track workers and how they impact what you should be aware of when on track. Important aspects of the GCR are covered. "What if" situations are posed, answered, and explained. As the sessions progress (and as you've acquired more time on track) the conceptual complexity of these topics expand. As mentioned earlier, the ultimate goal of these sessions is not to make you the fastest racecar driver you can be, it's to make you the safest racecar driver you can be. On the first day, you're also assigned to a specific driving instructor, which will explain in the next section.
What do the instructors do?
Initially, you will go on a ride along of the race course with your instructor in a street car. Not only does this provide you with a basic understanding of the layout of the track, you're also shown the racing line and offered a chance to see how a car will behave in certain corners, and so on. Then you will go out on course on your own (since most race cars do not have a passenger seat). After each track session, you will meet with your instructor to get some tips and insight on how to improve your track performance based on the behaviors your instructor and the flag station workers observe from trackside. Your instructor will evaluate your performance based on a number of criteria, including judgment and technique, as well as your attitude on and off track and your understanding of the GCR rules and flags. They will also be the ones to make the final determination as to whether or not you're ready to move on toward earning your competition license.
Are there tests?
There is a written test, but fear not as it's one they want you to pass. As such, you're given all the learning materials and the test itself to take to the hotel with you on the first day (and return at the end of the last day) so that you can research the questions you don't know the answers to and find out what the right information is. In other words, the test is open book and not timed. In other SCCA regions, the practice here may be different. The purpose of this test isn't to see how well you can regurgitate information - it's to make sure you're aware of what is important to know out on the track. Once you internalize the importance of safety, you want to know this stuff.
Is it hard to pass the school?
We attended Super School with about 20 other students, all with varying degrees of experience ranging from those with extensive track experience in another motorsport discipline to those who had no prior racing experience whatsoever. Everyone passed. However, this isn’t always the case, as there's the occasional nutcase out there who prioritizes the wrong elements of race school and simply isn't safe to race.
Anyone with a reasonable attitude and basic learning skills should be able to make the cut. Listen to your instructors, follow the directions given, pay attention to the flag stations, and be respectful of everyone you're sharing the track with and school will be no sweat.
What if I'm not fast enough?
Nobody expects you to be the next Sebastian Vettel straight out of the gate - or ever, really - but especially not after a few of hours on the track. Everything is new, and improvement in motorsport takes practice, patience and lots of experience. There is almost no such thing as "not fast enough", and more often than not, race school horror stories are about guys who tried to go too fast. You're encouraged to drive in a manner that you're comfortable with. Come to school with the expectation that you're embarking on the first step of a life-long journey and you'll have the right attitude for success.
Is it boring? Is it fun?
Super School is an incredible experience. You quickly realize that the majority of your time is not spent in the classroom, but in the car on the track. With every lap you'll gain more confidence and a better understanding of how to judge corners, how to make passes, how to brake later, turn more precisely, and how to conduct yourself on and off the track. Each classroom session becomes more interesting as the instruction gets more in-depth and your ability to process it through your time on the track makes that subject matter even more valuable and applicable to your next track session. It is truly a fantastic way to spend a weekend.
Stay tuned for Part V of The Guide to Getting Start in Road Racing, where we'll cover the day after graduating from driver's school, also known as race day.