Now that we’ve reached the bottom of The Great Recession (we hope) and things are starting to look up, perhaps its time to dream again and have a little fun instead of clipping coupons and pinching pennies. For a lot of car enthusiasts, especially those of us who are fans of Formula 1 and the IRL, those dreams might include piloting an open-wheel Formula race car, even if it’s just for a few laps. You may have thought this kind of dream was unattainable, but as I recently learned while taking the Bridgestone Racing Academy’s ‘Thill of a Lifetime 3’ course, you can experience the rush of driving a state-of-the-art Formula SCCA racing machine without having to apply for a second mortgage.
|1. Courses start at just $595 Canadian.
2. Van Diemen Formula SCCA race cars weigh 1,000 lbs and have 170 horsepower, giving it a better power-to-weight ratio than a C6 Z06 Corvette.
3. A 5-speed, close ratio sequential gearbox makes selecting the next gear foolproof.
4. Equipped with Bridgestone Potenza RE-11 street tires, grip level is still amazingly high.
Not that $995 Canadian dollars is an insignificant amount of money (the Bridgestone Racing Academy is located at the world famous Mosport International Raceway facility not far from Toronto, Ontario, so prices are in Canadian dollars), but given that you’re strapped into a brand new $72,000 Van Diemen chassis Formula car for three 20-minute lapping sessions behind an instructor-driven pace car, the cost of the experience is very reasonable. There are other courses available for those of you with bigger or smaller budgets, from the ‘Thrill of a Lifetime 1’ course at $595 for one 20-minute lead-follow session all the way up to the ‘Thrill of a Lifetime 4++’ course at $1695 where you get two 20-minute lead-follow sessions and two 20-minute “pass the pace car” sessions with some open lapping. And if you’re a real Schumacher in the making, the school also offers advanced courses that’ll allow you to acquire a racing license.
Having used Reynard chassis Formula 2000 machines with 2.0-liter, 125 horsepower Ford engines for over 20 years, owner Brett Goodman and his staff at the Bridgestone Racing Academy knew it was time to upgrade their fleet of school cars when they could no longer find replacement parts for the old Reynards. As luck would have it, American billionaire Don Panoz, who owns a number of race tracks including Mosport and its Driver Development Track that Goodman designed for the school, also owns Van Diemen, one of the world’s leading Formula car manufacturers. As part of their new 13-year lease agreement to continue running the Academy at Mosport, financing was also put in place to allow the school to acquire ten new Van Diemen Formula SCCA machines with 2.3-liter 170 horsepower Mazda engines. The Van Diemen’s not only have a bigger and more powerful engine, they also have more downforce thanks to larger front and rear wings, 5-speed sequential gearboxes (push the shift lever forward to downshift and pull it back to upshift), hugely powerful AP Racing brakes, and a very cool digital dash built into the steering wheel that gives the cockpit a real F1 look and feel.
The ‘Thrill of a Lifetime 3’ course I was taking with a few other lucky journalists began with about an hour long classroom session where Mr. Goodman (a very accomplished racing driver as well as an astute businessman) and Chief Instructor Jamie Fitzmaurice made sure everyone understood the basics of car control, with special emphasis being placed on safety (clearly the Academy is keen to keep its 24-year injury-free record intact). The group was then suited up in the Academy’s racing suits, gloves, shoes, and helmets, to insure everyone was properly protected in the unlikely event of a crash or fire. Once suited up, we moved to pit lane, where we were each fitted into a Van Diemen with the help of the Academy’s Mechanic/Race Training program recruits, a group of young and enthusiastic students from all over the world looking to gain valuable experience maintaining and racing the school’s fleet of Formula cars.
Strapped in snuggly by the six-point racing harness, the engine jumps to life with the flick of a switch and push of a button. With the 4-cylinder Mazda lump mounted directly behind me, the overall sensation is that of being strapped to a rocket that’s ready for lift off. Rev the motor up to 2500 rpm and release the clutch and I’m rolling out onto the track behind an instructor in one of the old Reynards. The gearing is incredibly short, so we’re quickly into 2nd and then 3rd gear as we accelerate toward the first few turns.
Sitting just 3-inches off the ground and being able to watch the front tires turn left and right as we drive through a twisty section of the track, the sense of connection between man, machine and road is intensely physical and like nothing you’ll ever feel in a street-legal production vehicle.
We slowly build speed lap after lap, session after session. Keep up with the instructor and he’ll push harder so that you’re able to do the same.
By the third 20-minute session of the day, we were really hustling, the rear tires breaking loose in a few turns, the lightning quick steering response of the chassis allowing me to quickly tuck the tail back in line. Charging down the back straight into the braking zone, stomp on the brake pedal and the stopping power is almost otherworldly. We scrub off speed over such a short distance that my mind can’t fully grasp the physics behind it. The grip provided by the Bridgestone RE-11 extreme performance summer tires, rubber designed for high performance street cars rather than purpose-built Formula cars like these, cling to the asphalt incredibly well, never once protesting as we torture them lap after adrenaline-pumping lap.
The Bridgestone Racing Academy’s ‘Thrill of a Lifetime 3’ course is aptly named. The experience is first-class from the moment you park your car and enter the classroom to the last few laps of the final 20-minute track session of the day. The new Van Diemen Formula SCCA racing machines are totally engaging to drive, challenging both mind and body while offering you a glimpse into what it might be like to race in a series like Formula 1 or IRL. You really do feel like a racing hero, if just for an afternoon. But be warned, these are serious race cars capable of pulling serious g-forces in the corners and while accelerating and braking, so if you’re not as physically fit as Lewis Hamilton or Jenson Button, chances are you’ll wake up the next morning with a stiff neck and some sore muscles, just like I did.
Not a racing tire, but darn close!
The first time I went to the Bridgestone Racing Academy about five years ago, I was disappointed to see a street tire equipped on a Formula racing car. I thought this would greatly limit traction and therefore cornering speeds, but once I got out on the track and felt the phenomenal grip of the RE-01R tires, all notions of a street tire limiting the fun factor quickly vanished. So when I arrived at the Academy this year, I was excited to feel how the new RE-11, a tire reported to be an evolutionary improvement on the RE-01R, would perform on the more powerful Van Dieman Formula SCCA cars the school recently acquired.
“The RE-11 offers consumers a product that will perform well both on the street and on the track,” said Phil Pacsi, Vice President, Consumer Marketing, U.S. & Canada Consumer Tire Sales Division, Bridgestone Americas Tire Operations (BATO). “We took the best and made it better. In our testing, the new RE-11 offered faster lap times, less under steer and better grip than our RE-01R, which has been dominating the field in Sports Club Car of America (SCCA) Autocross events over the last two years,” Pacsi added.
On the Racing Academy’s Van Diemen’s, the RE-11’s performed remarkably well, thanks in part to its unique new sidewall shape and radical new "stealth" block, which was derived from Bridgestone’s Formula One race tires, promoting higher tread stiffness while enhancing water evacuation. The tread’s asymmetric cavity shape also offered improved handling and the large outer tread blocks gave the Van Diemen chassis plenty of grip in the corners.
Available in V- and W-speed rated sizes, the Bridgestone Potenza RE-11 has a UTQG of 180 A A and will be offered in 31 different sizes ranging from 15” -19” inch, specially targeting the sports car and sports sedan market segment, including vehicles like the Nissan 350Z, Honda S2000, BMW 3 Series and Mini Cooper S. I was personally so impressed by the RE-11’s performance that I’ve ordered a set for my father’s 2006 Chevrolet C6 Corvette, which we take to the track for the occasional lapping day and Time Trials competition.