Skip Barber’s Racing School in Atlanta gave me a full day of race instruction in exchange for some photographs and a write-up. This is part of the write-up:
[Part 1: The Calling]
Like most boys of the 80s, I understood that owning a cool car ensured the love of women and the envy of men. In my Michael Jackson Thriller jacket, I’d stare with Rain-Man focus at my poster of a red Lamborghini. Recruiting adolescent imagination, I smelled the leather interior, felt the purr of the motor, winked at Olivia Newton-John in the passenger seat, and heard “Mr. Roboto” pounding on the stereo from my best mix-tape.
(I gave said mix-tape to Tawnya Rose. When I asked her to go with me via a note that cleverly read, “Will you go with me?” Her affirmative reply had a bubbly penned contingency: “As long as you don’t tell anyone.” My heart soared.)
As an adult, I’m learning that laughter is a surer route to a woman’s heart and men are too preoccupied with being Masters of the Universe to envy another man. My taste in cars has matured beyond the desperately obvious Lamborghini. My humble 2011 Ford Flex is a boxy family hauler; but inside lies a tuned, 420 HP twin-turbo that gets her from 0-60 in a tidy 5.3 seconds—faster than the Porsche Cayenne S. I am intrigued by subtle design and surprise power; so It’s no wonder that my attention has drifted to the legendary BMW M3.
Though I’d owned a couple of Bimmers over the years, I’d never driven the pinnacle M. Still, like a stalker knows his obsession, I knew her. BMW’s M3 has long been the high-water mark for performance sedans (aka racers posing as commuters), and despite haughty claims by lesser manufacturers, she’s never been dethroned.
When friends told me of a magical place called Skip’s Driving School that allowed students to drive new M3s, full-out, on the famous Road Atlanta race track, I called immediately. Kelly, the good fairy at Skip’s, told me about their 1-Day Performance Driving School with two openings only five days away. I hung up, called my equally car-crazed comrade, Shaun, and told him we were going to Georgia. When I picked him up for the airport, his wife waved cheerily and said, “Be careful… kinda!”
[Part 2: The Classroom]
We did minimal reconnaissance. There was little time—the courses fill up fast. So it was with few expectations that Shaun and I arrived at Road Atlanta, Georgia. As we walked to the classroom by the track, we passed a neat row of new Lotus Evoras, BMW M3s, Lexus IS Fs, and Porsche 911s. We wondered giddily: would we get to play with all of these? It turned out we would.
In the classroom, our lead instructor invited the 16 students to introduce ourselves by telling our names, origins, vehicles, and the best tickets or wrecks we’d had. It was an amusing way of getting to know our fellow speed junkies. We were then presented with the instructors. They all raced professionally and secreted confidence. One scared me in a Clint Eastwood way. One was a part-time voice actor. To prove it, with dulcet confidence, he said, “You might recognize this one: What’s different about Bob? He asked his doctor about Viagra.” Applause erupted.
We broke into three groups. The group to which Shaun and I were assigned started in the classroom for an introduction to driving. We learned about understeering, oversteering, arm positions, physics, breaking, turning, and other such fun. Studying was difficult; engines kept screaming by the windows, and we were like teens with Senioritis. Fortunately, we didn’t have to wait long to graduate.
One of the other groups came in for their stint in the classroom. Our group was piled into a van that took us through the beautiful Road Atlanta infield.
“Where are we headed?” Shaun asked.
“The Skidpad,” quipped Clint Eastwood from behind the van’s wheel.
As we approached, I saw a parking lot the size of a football field. A giant, rotating sprinkler marked the center of the lot, keeping a 200-square-foot circle of pavement slip-sliding wet. At the heart of this tableau, a single Mazda RX8 could be seen sliding sideways, its rear wheels throwing water high into the air.
[Part 3: The Skid Pad]
It is scientifically documented that every man fantasizes about confirming their God-endowed dominance over the physical world by calmly wrestling a speeding, spinning car to submission while their lingerie-clad female passenger watches with trembling reverence. Despite the instructors being men and (thankfully) not in lingerie, I resolved to do my level best, knowing I represented millions of less fortunate men—men unable to attend Skip’s.
After brief instructions, I piloted the RX8 around the sprinkler with the instructor riding shotgun. I’d get up to speed, and he’d alternate between pulling the emergency brake or telling me to floor it, both causing spins I learned to correct.
We graduated to higher speeds, starting our approach on dry pavement, coming in straight and fast toward the sprinkler, then performing a tight 180-degree turn through the wet pavement to exit again on the dry. During my last round, I came in too hot for the turn. The rear-wheel-powered Mazda started to understeer, putting us into a slight sideways drift. I overcorrected, and the backend broke completely free. We began to spin. Instead of properly braking and turning out of the spin, I impishly gave more gas and turned tighter (admit it, you always wanted to do it). During the second or third 360, I dimly heard the Viagra instructor saying (in a bored but beautiful monotone), “Let off the gas. Please let—just let off the gas.” Finally, I jacked both the clutch and brake, bringing the car to a skidded stop. He regarded me cooly. “That was amusing,” he said through a thin-lipped smile, but his eyes weren’t happy. Or approving. Or loving.
I let you down, men. It will take more practice before I’m ready to ask my wife to wear lingerie during a high-speed Sunday drive in the rain.
[Part 4: The Lane Change]
The van reappeared with the next group of eager beavers ready to face the Skid Pad. We were shuttled to the Emergency Lane-Change course.
Waiting on a straight quarter-mile of track were three Lexus IS Fs and three BMW M3s lined up as if at a stoplight. 30 yards from the first car were two lines of cones that defined 40 yards of lanes. At its end, there was a car-length gap, and then the cones continued, with an outer set on each side, creating three lanes. It looked like this:
The instructor started, “Each of you pick a c—” I casually sprinted to a magnificent white M3 while the other students stood, absorbing directions. The leather seat curled around me as I buckled up, settled in, and pressed “START.” The V8 must have been expecting me because the tach needle (and my heart) jumped eagerly as it revved up, then dropped as the car relaxed into a soothing idle.
The cockpit was similar to BMWs I’d owned, so I intuitively discovered how to use the controls to set the suspension and transmission to “M,” which I pronounced “Mmmmmh” as I clicked “accept.” I fleetingly considered disabling the traction control system—I frequently drove my 330i without it—but this car had nearly double the power with less weight, so I left it on. Though we weren’t told to leave car settings alone, I assumed Skip’s intended us to be driving these $70,000 rockets with every computer aid engaged.
In the cup holder, a two-way radio relayed the instructor’s commands. We were to accelerate through the single lane, and as we approached the small opening, pick either the right or left lane to pull an emergency lane change.
I didn’t know how far they wanted us to push the cars, and I’d never driven the M3, so I was a little shy my first time through. I accelerated, let up, swapped lanes, and stopped successfully. I recognized the Viagra instructor’s voice, “Nice job, but next time, keep it floored until the opening, then really pull the car. We want you guys to see what these things can do!” I don’t need to be told twice.
Next round, I floored it and reached the opening doing 60 MPH. The M3 gets there in 4.3 seconds—only a second faster than my Flex, but had I tried what follows in my SUV, we’d have rolled and slaughtered many cones. Without braking, I steered sharply right. My left tires compressed, grabbed hard, and the pavement whimpered. Traction control engaged, deftly keeping me from spinning as we jettisoned from the center lane. I wrenched the wheel back in the opposite direction, and the M gaily shifted her weight from left to right. I straightened into the outer lane and stomped the brakes. The hood dove, and the anti-lock system stuttered the car to a sudden stop. I hadn’t touched a single cone.
This time, the “Nice job!” was in earnest. The car yawned.
When it was time to switch vehicles, I reluctantly gave up the M and climbed into a blue IS-F. After the BMW, the Lexus interior seemed sparse. The seat didn’t hug. The spartanly designed controls weren’t as smartly arranged. But my depression eased when I turned the 5.0 liter, 416 HP V8 over. The Lexus sounded rich and throatier than the M. The rumble commanded respect. I worried, did the BMW have a threat? After one run, it was clearly settled that it did not. The Lexus was fun, and the satisfying roar it gave when you lead-footed made it hard to drive slowly but compared to the M3, it felt heavier.
On the last lane-change exercise, they rearranged the cones so the single lane split into a Y. We were to speed down the lane, and as we approached the Y, the instructor would call out “left!” or “right!” on the radio, letting us know which way to go at the last second. We had to heave the car to that lane and quickly stop before the cones ended.
On my first run, the radio fell on the floor of the Lexus, so I couldn’t hear the instructor. I used my natural racing intuition (it’s a gift, I don’t talk about it much), pulled right, and skidded to a dexterous stop. I nodded my approval to no one in particular. The radio laughed at me. Viagra quipped, “Your -other- left.” On the second run, I’d prove my worth at Skip’s. I held the pedal down until I heard, “Right!” I yanked the wheel but had too much speed to stay in the lane. The BMW’s front end inhaled six cones before I was able to stop. It took an instructor a few minutes to pull the last cone out of the Bimmer’s undercarriage.
I was in danger of being voted off the island.
[Part 5: The Small Intestine]
Before playing on the Big Boy Track, we had to prove our mettle on a small, 1-mile, curvealicious bit of fun they’d assembled on Road Atlanta’s infield.
An asphalt version of your small intestine, the single-lane track wriggled around with the only straight-away being 30 yards.“You won’t need to get out of second gear,” my instructor drawled as he whipped me violently through the course, demonstrating his terrifying and flawless skill. He lazily gave pointers about looking through the turn, apexes, brake points, and other things I couldn’t pay attention to because he was flipping the Porsche 911 through the turns so. bloody. fast. I tried to make light conversation, but my face was plastered either to his shoulder or my window; I left spittle on both.
I emulated the instructor flawlessly, even beautifully. I floored a surprisingly nimble Lotus Evon to accelerate, revved before downshifting, pummeled the breaks as I entered hairpins—tapped them to drift into light turns, hugged inside curves, and rolled out with uncanny precision to the apex cones.
The instructor failed to notice my artistry.
“Relax!” he yelled, and I saw my arms locked out, veins bulging from my merciless grip on the wheel. “You let off the gas too early!” “Don’t turn too late!” “Quit braking so soon!” “The track is over there on the asphalt; get off the dirt!” “Relax!” And on and on and on.
When we completed the circuit, I fled from the driver’s seat and mumbled an apology to his spur-studded boots.
Clint Eastwood wilted me with his omniscient squint. “For what?”
Bewilderment overcame fear, and I spoke to him directly, “For what? I sucked at everything! You yelled at me the whole time!” My wits returned, and I added, “Sir.” Tears welled, lower lip quivered.
“You were the best driver on the course today.”
Even though part of me knew he said that to every student, the rest of me swelled with secret pride. I wiped my tears, faced into the Northern wind, and steeled my gaze at Road Atlanta. In the distance, a lone flutist played a haunting melody. A hawk cried as it soared above the meandering track.
[Part 6: The Track]
We were at last escorted to Road Atlanta’s pit row. There, the cars that we’d been training with all day stood like horses, waiting for riders. We donned hoods and helmets before we were told to find a car. I was late finding a helmet to fit, which left me without a vehicle, so I rode with an instructor in his supped-up Mazda.
There were four teams of four cars. Each team would follow an instructor’s lead car through the track, like ducklings behind their turbo-charged momma-duck. We would each experience four 20-minute sessions, one of which we were to be a passenger. For the other three sessions, we could choose our weapon to drive.
My instructor, Clint Eastwood, led the last team onto the track, so I sat in the passenger seat, watching the other three groups exit the pits, climbing the hill from Turn One.
Clint told me that the instructors rarely ran at more than 80% of their driving ability on the track, depending on the group’s confidence. After each lap, on the back straight-away, whoever was directly behind the instructor would move out, let the other three cars pass, then fall in line in last place. This way, we all got to follow the instructor directly and see the lines he’d take. It also meant the instructor would speed up if you were right on his bumper, forcing the rest of the ducklings to push past their comfort zones to keep up.
On our second lap, Eastwood put on his turn signal to let the guy behind us know it was time for him to move out of line and fall back. The driver misunderstood and shot past us instead. It was great fun for me as Clint cursed into the walkie-talkie and said, “I just lost one; he’s blown by me, heading for turn 13.” He downshifted, and I was pushed back into my seat as he switched from 70% to 100% mode.
I admired the rogue Lexus IS-F driver, who gave the instructor a run. As we shot past the pits, I could envision the lead instructor shouting, “MAVRRIIICK…!” On the straights, the Mazda would lose ground to the more powerful Lexus, but Clint’s deft skill closed the gap in the turns. Eventually, with much headlight flashing, walkie-talking, and employment of the other lead cars, we reigned the duckling in. The last few laps were completed without incident.
We came to a stop in the pits. When I exited Clint’s Mazda, I made sure I hung out near the white BMW M3—I didn’t want to be snookered out of her. After we all pledged that the instructor’s turn signals did NOT mean “Pass me and go for it with reckless abandon!” we were encouraged to select a car.
As I slipped into my 2011 M, the lead instructor came by, leaned his head into my window, put his hand firmly on my shoulder, and said quietly, “Do NOT crash my BMW.” I smiled and pressed the “START” button without taking my eyes off his. The M3 purred and twitched with eagerness. No walkie-talkies, no instructor sitting shotgun; just me, the M, and Road Atlanta, which beckoned me in the setting sun.
[Part 7: The M]
I expected the instructor to start a little easy, but he zipped out of pit row without any hesitation. I put my foot on the brake, pulled the right shift paddle toward me, nodded at my helmeted visage in the rearview, and punched the accelerator. The M3 bucked forward with a chirp, and we were immediately upon the instructor’s Mazda. My heart raced to catch up.
I had no idea how the 2.5-mile loop was laid out, so my first lap was filled with adrenaline-fueled laughter. I stayed tucked in behind the instructor, dialed in the BMW’s settings, and got a general feel for Road Atlanta.
It is a beautiful track. Even though it was November, there was still color in the woods that comprised much of the 750-acre property. The course is well-featured in most racing video games but looks more spectacular in real life.
The course is famous for its “Esses,” more properly named Turns 2-5, which snake gently back and forth up an incline; and for the exciting turn 10, a quick dogleg occurring after the back straight away, at the bottom of a sharp drop.
After the first-date lap, I was pining for second base. We passed the pits at 90 MPH and headed into Turn 1, a gentle, 90-degree arc that led back up the hill into the Esses. I downshifted into 2nd and pushed the gas. I was concentrating on getting as close to the instructor as possible and hoped the staff at the pits didn’t hear the rev-limiter yelling at me as the V8 hit the 8500 RPM line. I was cutting corners like I remembered the instructor doing it as we chased the lost duckling, going to the inside edges of the turns, hitting the rumble strips, and driving straight up the snake. I let up on the gas a bit to bring the RPMs down but noticed the instructor pulling away much faster than he did the first lap.
”Fine,” I thought.
I floored it coming out of the last Ess, paddled into 3rd, and was close enough to the Mazda to see rubber flinging off his rear tires. I held tight in that position into Turn 6, a quick right-90. I didn’t brake until he did, which was much later than I was comfortable with, but the M3 was more sure of her footing than I was, and she only stuttered a bit as I hammered the brake pedal. The four big disc brakes caught and glowed as the friction heated the metal. I pulled the wheel hard right as I let the brake go, wondering if I had too much speed. The car didn’t complain as we hugged the curve. The M was asking me to trust her, and (since I’d paid for the extra insurance) I decided I would.
The instructor was still pulling away as we went through the short straight before Turn 7, another quick right-90. This time, I braked later than him and hit the inside rumble strip perfectly as I pulled through the right-hand turn. I grabbed the accelerator quickly and let my left wheels roll out to the left edge of the track. I was right behind him as we came into the back straight away. He gunned it, and I stayed within four feet of his bumper. I had to keep remembering to relax my arms—I think I’ve seen too many movies where the drivers are racing with their elbows locked, looking tough.
The back straight is about 3/4 of a mile. Technically, it contains Turns 8 and 9, but they’re slight enough that you don’t notice them in the car. The instructor knew I wanted to play and pushed his modified Mazda hard. We hit a smooth 130 MPH before coming over the hill to the quick drop that ended in a sharp left, sharp right: Turns 10a and 10b. As I crested the hill, I had a brief sensation of weightlessness before dropping toward the dogleg. I watched his brake lights carefully to know how deep I could take the car into the turn. About 100 feet from the first 90, he braked hard. I stuck my brake to the floor, trusting the smarter-than-me ABS, and the familiar creaking and stuttering spoke to me as the four wheels barked on and off in short protests. My seatbelt locked and held me tight. I downshifted rapidly: 5th, 4th, 3rd, 2nd, and all the way down to 1st for the sharpest turns on the track. The instructor pulled from 10a to 10b, flipping back to the right. I followed his line, swinging wide to the right side of the straight, cutting into the inside rumble strip (and a little dirt!) on the left wheels, then popping immediately over to the right rumble strip, giving me the best exit angle from the turn.
A soft right followed, swinging in front of the grandstand and, eventually, the pits where we’d started.
(To be continued…)