Following in Perez's wheeltracks at America's most famous racing school
The Skip Barber Racing School claims to have trained more winners than any other organisation, including the driver currently second in the 2022 Formula 1 standings. Where better for a single-seater novice to learn the ropes?
Driving through the heavily tree-lined gates of Virginia International Raceway, there’s a real mixture of emotions churning inside me. Firstly, of awe.
If you’ve never been to VIR, you may not know what a truly special racetrack it is. It sits inside an expansive 1300-acre estate located on the Virginia-North Carolina border. With an ‘old-school’ quality, almost Spa-esque, it’s surrounded by forest. But unlike the depths of the Ardennes, VIR’s complex has a hotel, a pub set in the original property owner’s house, and luxury private lodges with views of the famous Esses – people don’t just want to drive here, they want to live here.
It’s mid-July, which means early morning mists give way to thunderstorms in the afternoon, adding to the drama of the place. It’s through that first-light mist that I get sight of the pitlane lined with Formula 4 cars, and my awe for the place gives way to anxious excitement; today I’m here to learn how to drive a single-seater racing car for the first time.
I’ve been invited by the legendary Skip Barber Racing School to try out their three-day race school programme. As someone who has made a living commenting on the skill of Formula 1 drivers, the feeling of the shoe being on the other foot is one that does slightly daunt me. No longer will I be protected by the desk chair from which I usually operate, this time it’s me stepping into the driving seat and opening myself up to (constructive) criticism.
If you’ve never heard of the Skip Barber Racing School, you’ve most likely heard of its alumni. Current Red Bull F1 driver Sergio Perez competed in the Skip Barber Formula Race Series in 2004 before a move to Europe. Seven-time F1 winner Juan Pablo Montoya took a version of the same course I’m about to enrol in. IndyCar stars Danica Patrick, Josef Newgarden, Alexander Rossi… in fact, more than a third of the starting grid for the 2018 Indy 500 were Skip Barber graduates. They’ve trained nearly half a million drivers in total and, according to the website, claim to have “developed more winning racers than any other institute in the world”.
Established in 1975 by ex-F1 driver John ‘Skip’ Barber, the school has always aimed to provide affordable, best-in-class tuition and a clear ladder for young drivers in the US and the Americas into top-tier racing series. The latter is something that they are chasing hard, most recently becoming the official racing school for the Indy Pro 2000 Championship.
Picturesque ViR circuit is the base for the Skip Barber Racing School where McFadyen got to sample an F4 single-seater
Photo by: Drone View
In my cohort, the students are a mixture of middle-aged men wanting to live out the ‘racing driver experience’, and teenagers targeting the advanced training programme before entering the Skip Barber Formula Race Series, their TC America ‘Arrive and Drive’ team, or other junior categories.
I know that many Autosport readers are avid trackday enthusiasts, but my experience of racing starts and ends with casual karting. So, you’d be correct in calling me a rookie. I am, however, fiercely competitive and have something that my parents have often referred to as a “regressive inferiority complex”, where I shy away from anything I think I won’t be good at.
But my nerves aren’t just down to my novice standing and fear of failure. As a female, I often feel that I will be judged on the stereotype that women aren’t as accomplished as men when it comes to racing, and that there will be the expectation for me to be uncompetitive. Whether or not that’s down to my experiences of operating in what is still a very heavily male-dominated sport, or just a personal insecurity, I often feel the need to outperform my male counterparts to be considered equally as good or deserving of my place alongside them.
Turns 4 and 5 – a short run into a heavy braking zone for a sharp left/right – become my Achilles’ heel. I need to hit a later, tighter apex at 4 to open up the entry to 5 and be able to get on the power earlier
My fear of being stereotyped is almost immediately validated at the registration desk, where the administrator – also female – assumes I am just a spectator for my fiance who is also a student, rather than to take part in the school myself. Although she quickly shows excited encouragement once I clarify my reason for being there, this does suggest to me that they probably don’t get a lot of female participants. And of our cohort of around 30 students, just two of us are women.
Fortunately, the kitting-out process aside – where, partially due to a lorry fire destroying some of their equipment, there aren’t any helmets or race shoes small enough to fit me – I’m happy to say that this is where any feeling of being singled out as a female ends.
One of my first observations about the course is the balance between classroom learning and hands-on experience. Day one begins with learning what Eric Powell – a TC America driver, and our course leader – refers to as the “Four Fundamentals of Racing”: racing line, vehicle dynamics and inputs (or the limit of grip), communication, and the often-overlooked mental aspect.
Each morning starts with a presentation, with day one introducing us to these concepts before we head out for initial exercises in more familiar road cars. Here, ex-W Series driver Sabre Cook takes us through understeer and oversteer simulations, threshold braking, and good racing line.
This is where I have my first lightbulb moment. I’m obviously aware of racing lines, but something that had never clicked with me when karting before is to what extent you sometimes need to sacrifice earlier turns to get the best line out of the final corner in a sequence, and to always prioritise that final exit. It’s only when having the instructors point out where I turn in too early and lose time further down the road that this really begins to sink in, and it isn’t long before my approach improves.
Nervous fleet of rookies prepare to get their first taster of the track - McFadyen happy with car #1
Photo by: Drone View
After a quick lunch, it’s time to take the 2016 Mygale F4 cars out on track. While basic, these cars are daunting to jump into for the first time. Our introduction to the car is short – how to power it up, how to get in and out, and how the steering wheel works, which a lot of people forget when it comes to their first turn. One member from each group shares a car for the three days and I am, aptly or otherwise, given the number 1 car. Better than my fiance’s number 9…
Being one of the shorter drivers, I’m given a makeshift booster seat made of gaffer-taped foam to be able to reach the pedals. Agricultural, but a positive is that I feel very cocooned into the cockpit and protected from the tub as my untrained body is subjected to its first real experience of g-forces.
Once we’ve tackled our first challenge, getting out of the pitlane without stalling (which I’m happy to say I manage to do every time bar one), the first afternoon on track has us in a lead-follow exercise where we drive behind a pace car to get a feel for the circuit.
Turns 4 and 5 – a short run into a heavy braking zone for a sharp left/right – become my Achilles’ heel. I need to hit a later, tighter apex at 4 to open up the entry to 5 and be able to get on the power earlier. With a couple of track sessions successfully navigated, by the end of our running I’m relieved to find I’ve taken to the car with more confidence than I’d anticipated.
I awake the next day feeling the effects of no power steering, but eager to get more track time. Day two is all about confidence building and feedback, which comes in the form of an exercise where we are made to stop in a box at the end of every lap to receive feedback from instructors located at various spots around the track. At least, that’s the intention. Unfortunately, our running is cut short by several incidents.
Two of the younger drivers on the course, brothers, end up heavily damaging their cars and a barrier, causing delays. Despite the hefty fee needing to be paid by their father, this pair seemingly have no patience to find the limit slowly, as they each have multiple offs over the three days.
By the time we get some proper running on day two, thunderstorms mean we have to abandon school early. Still, at least the final day provides the meat of the course. On the agenda is racecraft, overtaking, and rolling starts before an afternoon of open lapping. Cones laid out in two braking zones act as our overtaking targets, rolling start simulations train us in reacting to flags and our fellow drivers, and that all feeds into our free practice, in which I pull off my first overtake into my nemesis, Turn 4.
By now I really feel at one with the #1 car. I’ve learned its behaviours and quirks, and I trust it (and me) to take the Esses flat out, only lifting slightly at the blind crest of Turn 10, kissing the outer kerb and allowing me to get back on the power towards the tricky Oak Tree right-hander without throwing me onto the grass.
Staff’s support and feedback is big confidence booster
Photo by: Drone View
Our last session is, however, by far our sloppiest. The President of Series and Racing Schools, Gerardo Bonilla, with his wisdom and experience, warned us that it was this session where the track was at its hottest and most polished, meaning the grip levels we’d found previously were likely not going to be the same. Adrenalin stops us from feeling how tired our bodies and brains are, but with our confidence at its highest we are more likely to push beyond our limits while struggling to keep concentration. It’s now that I truly understand fundamental number four – the mental side of racing.
The experience has been eye-opening and, thanks to the support and feedback from the instructors, I graduate with a newfound confidence and knowledge of what it means to race
In previous sessions, I knew when I’d had a good lap. It played out almost like a song, the corners flowing one into the next. I felt what I can only liken to the “rhythm” that a lot of drivers talk about on a great qualifying lap (only nowhere near as impressive). But now I find corners coming at me more unexpectedly, causing me to have to overcorrect.
Knowing it’s the last run I’ll get in the car, I find myself chasing perfection but not having the focus to do it. As a result, I have my first lock-up and almost go off, which is a scary experience knowing the bill for the young brothers’ cars…
But, despite ending on my worst laps of the three days, I feel incredibly sad unstrapping my belts for the last time. The experience has been eye-opening and, thanks to the support and feedback from the instructors, I graduate with a newfound confidence and knowledge of what it means to race. I’ve never felt a thrill, or a comedown, quite like it.
McFadyen left the Skip Barber Racing school with new confidence and knowledge
Photo by: Drone View
Beating a young Perez
There exists a photo of a young Sergio Perez standing on the podium at Road America during the penultimate round of the 2004 Skip Barber National Championship. Holding the glass-plate trophy above his head, the 14-year-old Perez is smiling proudly even though he’s not made it onto the top step. An arm is wrapped around the young Mexican’s shoulders belonging to race winner Gerardo Bonilla.
Perez has finished third, his only podium of the season, which places him 11th in the standings. Bonilla will go on to finish second, just 10 points behind that year’s champion, Marco Andretti. Eighteen years later, Bonilla is now President of Series and Racing Schools at Skip Barber Racing School, while Perez is a four-time Formula 1 winner. Bonilla remembers racing with Perez fondly.
“At the time he was not very quick,” recalls Bonilla. “He was a fast learner though, so he started the season a bit off the pace but by the end of the year he was a podium finisher.”
Like many of the instructors at the Skip Barber Racing School, Bonilla is an active racing driver while also taking on an instructor role. In his career he has taken on a plethora of racing tasks, with race directing, stewarding, coaching and team management under his belt: “Everyone who works here is extremely passionate about the sport and uses the school, or sees the school as the family that takes care of the motorsports world.”
That wealth of experience in the instructors means the school not only teaches drivers, but also areas such as crew, engineers, team management and administration. While Bonilla clearly cares about all of those roles, the pride is obvious when he looks at a career that has taken Perez from Elkhart, Lake Wisconsin to the top step in Monte Carlo.
“That photo, actually, is so much more special now,” he says. “After all these years and watching everything he’s accomplished, especially in Formula 1, of course, but the kind of man that he is and the way he wishes to treat people and expects to be treated in return, that makes him a superstar in my eyes.”
Skip Barber manager Bonilla raced against and beat Perez when the Red Bull man was a teen
Photo by: Steven Tee / Motorsport Images
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