I recently had the opportunity to test out my driving skills with the Skip Barber Racing School out at the Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca racetrack. Obviously I jumped on board; I mean how could I pass up a chance to drive a sporty vehicle with tips from my very own professional racecar driver, this is something some people can only dream of!
The day had finally arrived for my afternoon of high speeds out on the track. I always love the drive out to Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, the twists and turns approaching Skip Barber’s headquarters gave me just the warm-up I needed.
Thirteen other daring participants were eagerly up for the driving opportunity of a lifetime just as much as I was. After signing our lives away (not really just a quick waiver) we met up with our driving instructors. I was impressed with the experience and dedication this team had. Some drivers were “newbies” while others were bona fide professionals in the field of racing with several years of instructing under their belts. Let’s just say I was thankful to know that I was in good hands.
We headed out to what is the “Paddock Area” at the racetrack where several cones and obstacles had been set up. This particular driving drill was about the art of turning sharp corners at high speeds. Two instructors demonstrated what we would be doing beforehand in the Mazda RX-5’s. I couldn’t wait to get my hands on the wheel!
Putting on a confident front, I volunteered to be the test guinea pig, but I wasn’t fooling anyone; they could all see the terror in my eyes. Once I got in I realized there was one slight problem, this car was a manual not an automatic! Having never learned to drive a stick I knew I was in for an interesting ride. Luckily, my instructor had the patience of a saint and walked me through the process of shifting gears manually as if I was a pro.
With my new found skill of shifting gears I began weaving myself around the strategically placed cones out on the practice track. The trick is using your eyes to scope out the turns in front of you. Once I let my eyes do the guiding the rest was smooth sailing; in no time as I was turning corners like a champ, at least I thought so until the pros showed us what these cars could really do.
After my quick glory ride on the course I took the passenger’s seat and left the driving to the pro. My “saint-like” instructor suddenly had a devious streak and had me clenching on for dear life. The instructor was pivoting through cones at unimaginable speeds while my hair was flailing about and the smell of burnt rubber permeated the air. Talk about an adrenaline rush! I am still thanking my lucky stars that I am even able to write this blog after that stunt.
Taking a quick breath, I gathered enough courage for the “Skid Pad” challenge. I was intimidated before the drivers even explained what we would be doing. Heaping amounts of water had been sprayed on the pavement creating for a visibly hazardous scene. The instructors gave us a quick demo on the slippery track in two Mazda RX-8’s. After putting the pedal to the metal they hit the lip of liquid and spun out, on purpose!
Ignoring my apprehensions I approached the vehicle and securely fastened my seatbelt. Boy was I nervous! Peter my instructor told me to gas it just before approaching the small pool while turning at the same time; was he crazy? Not wanting to disappoint him, I did what I was told which resulted in a 360 degree spin out. Surprisingly I wasn’t hysterical and Peter gave me a fatherly lecture on what to do when in a situation such as this. I clearly didn’t have the grip on the wheel as I should have and slamming the brake was apparently a no no. On my next go around I listened to his advice and only did a 180 degree spin; improvement! I certainly hope to never use this newly found technique out on the open road but I definitely had a blast recreating the dangerous situation in a controlled environment.
Skip Barber had one last surprise up its sleeve, Hot Laps around the famed Mazda raceway Laguna Seca. I have been fortunate to have seen several races out at the track but I can’t say that I have actually been on it in a race car with a professional driver. I suited up and was securely fastened in the passenger’s seat next to my trusty driver in his Mazda MX-5 Cup Race Car and with no warning he hit the gas and we were off! I have not idea what our actual speed was but to me it felt like 200 mph. I imagine I resembled a dog with his head out of the window; fortunately no one was around for a photo opp. The 11 turns on the 2.238 mile course even had me feeling queasy and my stomach literally plummeted on the Corkscrew! After three exhilarating go-arounds my day with Skip Barber had sadly come to an end.
Experiences like this make me appreciate the diverse activities we have here. This once-in-a-lifetime experience definitely gave me a new perspective of the track and an appreciation for the instructors running this school. I especially commend their patience because lord knows they need it with amateurs like muah out on the road!
Interested in a lesson? Check out the Skip Barber Racing School program offerings at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca.
As the Content Manager at the Monterey County Convention & Visitors Bureau, Allyson manages digital marketing and social media for SeeMonterey. If she's not taking scenic pictures around the county, you are likely to find her on the Monterey Bay Coastal Rec Trail, sipping wine in Carmel Valley or hiking at Fort Ord National Monument.