* Editor’s note: Watch for our reports next week from the new Bridgestone Racing Academy as we will be at TestFest to determine winners of the Automotive Journalists Association of Canada (AJAC) Canadian Car of the Year, Canadian Utility Vehicle of the Year, Canadian Green Car of the Year, and Canadian Green Utility Vehicle of the Year.
In life, there are things that each of us is required to do. Breathe, eat, work and pay our taxes are four that come to mind. There are also things that we should do, such as get an education, pay bills on time and take out the garbage.
But, more importantly, there are those things in life we desire to do. Some people call this their “bucket list”, those 10 outrageous things you hope to do before you die.
For me, my list includes photographing wild Cheetah’s from the back of an SUV in South Africa, fishing for Arctic Char and Salmon in the frigid waters of northern Canada and driving Australia’s Great Ocean Road in a worthy sports car.
With this in mind, it was with a great sense of satisfaction that back in 2005 I crossed off one important item on my personal wish list.
Over the past two decades, it has been my privilege to attend several high performance driving schools. Each event played a part in honing my skills as an accomplished driver, but none has ever truly satisfied my inner need for speed.
Consequently, it has always been my desire to sit in the driver’s seat of an open wheel race car at a world-class driving school. To be able to challenge myself on a high-speed race track, with nothing but a thin slice of sheet metal and a professional driving instructor separating me from the perils of a concrete wall, seemed like the perfect way to enjoy a day away from the office.
Quite honestly, however, I never thought it would happen. So imagine my surprise when I was invited by Bridgestone Canada to attend the “Thrill of a Lifetime” one day session at the Bridgestone Racing Academy in Mosport, Ontario.
To make the trip even more extraordinary, Andrew Firestone, (great grandson of tire baron Harvey Firestone and formerly of “The Bachelor- Season 2”) would also be attending the school on the same day. Surprisingly he was also looking forward to crossing off one item on his personal wish list.
Arriving at the evening prior to “race day”, Andrew treated several journalists, including me, to a Firestone Vineyard wine tasting session. Though some may disagree, personally I say there is nothing like sampling the latest Chardonnay and Pinot wines from California, the day before to driving on a race track at speeds exceeding 250 kph. It helps relax both mind and body. On the event day, however, nothing but water.
Race day dawned sunny and bright, but the threat of thunderstorms promised to make things interesting during the afternoon practice session.
The Bridgestone Racing Academy is located one hour east of Toronto at the Mosport Driver Development Center. The purpose built track is specifically designed with the novice racer in mind. Brett Goodman and his team of professionals run a world-class racing school, offering classroom facilities, a 10,000 sq. ft. racing shop, racing tower and trackside pit lane.
The Academy has trained numerous celebrities, notably Prince Edward and Princess Sophie, (the Earl and Countess of Wessex). It was also the original F2000 racing school for famous Canadian racers Jacques Villeneuve and Patrick Carpentier.
The first morning session was spent learning the basics of high speed driving in an open wheeled car from the confines of a comfortable chair in the classroom. Before letting anyone on the track in a F2000 race car, the instructors take their time to ensure each student thoroughly understands the differences between driving open wheeled cars and street cars. One mistake on the track at high speed can lead to serious ego damage, or worse. With a 20 year safety record at the facility, the time spent in the classroom is well worth it.
Anxious to get out on the track, racing suits, helmets, gloves and shoes were chosen with each driver in mind. Finally, the words we longed to hear were spoken; “Ladies and gentlemen, let’s go racing!”
A brief walkaround of an F2000 race car and team picture were required before heading out to our individual cars for the day. Suited up, strapped in and sweating profusely inside the cockpit, I couldn’t decide if I wanted to hyperventilate from the excitement, scream for joy at what was about to happen, or lose control of certain bodily functions in anticipation of spinning out wildly in a corner. I choose instead to absorb the moment, smiling wildly from ear to ear as I waited to leave the pit area and test my skill on the track.
When driving the circuit, one instructor is assigned to a group of 3-4 students. Initially, groups are selected based on individual driver experience. My group had some expertise at driving high performance cars, but we soon learned just how unfamiliar we were with open wheeled race cars such as the F2000.
Everything about it is a new challenge. Turning into a corner, the F2000 is much quicker than most sports cars. Braking points are critical for a successful fast lap. Squeezing the gas pedal like a sponge, while keeping your eyes focused well down the track, is often the difference between going fast or spinning out.
After fifteen minutes behind the wheel, I started to feel comfortable and increased my speed to match that of our instructor. This was a day to test my limits and the professionals instructors at the Bridgestone Racing Academy were more than happy to oblige.
Lap times started to improve, as I learned the subtle nuances of the track. Thoughts of danger left me and I began to enjoy the uniqueness of sitting low to the ground while driving at incredibly high speeds. Just when I started to think I had it all figured out, the skies opened up and it started to pour.
Driving fast on a dry track is one thing, but maintaining control of an F2000 race car in the rain is something entirely different. Every movement becomes critical and several drivers quickly found themselves on the outside looking in.
Braking points change, exiting a corner feels like a high wire balancing act and pressing on the accelerator sends large rooster tails into the cockpit of the racer behind. Changing gears while wiping away excess water from my helmet visor was a particularly fun part of the experience. Of course, our instructor wasn’t at all fazed by the rain, so he continued to increase speed as we became more comfortable.
The rest of the day was spent driving on a wet race track. At one point, the distant sound of thunder was heard and we were immediately directed to the pits. A lightning storm is not something you want to experience while driving an open wheeled race car, so at the first sound of thunder, all driving stops.
The final session was optional, with the rain continuing to fall. Driving was even more challenging in sections, but by the end, I was feeling equally as comfortable at the wheel of the F2000 race car on the wet track, as I had in the morning dry session.
At the finale to our day at the track, we were all presented with certificates of achievement and our very own, Bridgestone Racing Academy polo style racing shirt. More importantly, I had achieved my goal of attending a world-class racing school and enjoyed the satisfaction of knowing that one more item on my “wish list” was accomplished.
If you or someone you know would be thrilled at the idea of driving an open wheeled race car, it doesn’t get much better that this.