In the morning of 25th of August it was finally time to start the “adventure” which I had been looking forward to for quite some time. The first time I heard about the chance to try out a real race car was at the end of 2009 when Top Gear magazine contacted me and asked if I was interested in doing something like this. Around the same time iRacing contacted me and told me that they’d be interested in putting me in a Skip Barber formula car and the 3-day school. I was of course interested! The first plan was to do this in the spring at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca but that didn’t work out due to various reasons so in the end the plan changed to Skip Barber school at the end of August at Road Atlanta and a day in a Star Mazda on the 9th of September at the same track.
In the morning of 25th of August it was finally time to start the “adventure” which I had been looking forward to for quite some time.
Finally the morning came to begin my trip. It was the first time I’d be flying and of course the first trip to the US so I was naturally a little nervous but also excited. I thought I’d be even more nervous but I was feeling pretty good. I had taken care of all the necessary preparations the weeks before, although I did my final shopping and packing only the evening before. I got a ride to the airport in Vaasa and when checking in I found out that I needed the address of the hotel I’d be staying so I had to call iRacing’s director of communications Steve Potter and wake him up to get the information. Sorry Steve!
A while later I was in the plane with about 20 other passengers waiting for my first take off. It was pretty cool but flying became quite boring after about five minutes! The flight to Helsinki took less than an hour so that wasn’t too bad. In the Helsinki-Vantaa airport I exchanged some money and waited to board the Finnair flight to JFK. This time the plane was bigger and with a few more passengers, too! The flight wasn’t completely packed and I had a good seat with plenty of space so the long flight wasn’t too painful. I didn’t enjoy the food much, however. I listened to some music and tried to watch some bad movies. So I mostly listened to music.
Nine hours later I arrived at JFK and went through immigration and customs to Terminal 3 for my next and final flight of the day to Atlanta. I was feeling a little tired at this point and the terminal was absolutely packed with lines going all over the place. After a while I managed to check in, find the right lines and drop off my bag and go through security. The flight to Atlanta was full so it wasn’t as comfortable as the previous one and it seemed to take forever to take off from JFK, but finally I was in Atlanta at around 10 pm after about 20 hours of travelling. Walking through the airport I noticed the hot air in places and stepping out of the airport confirmed it; it was still pretty warm outside! At this point I was ready to get some sleep. Steve came to pick me up and we headed to our hotel near the track. That was the end of day one.
The following day we went to race equipment stores all around Atlanta to find a helmet for me, which turned out to be a bit more difficult than we thought as it seems I have a large head, or maybe an oddly shaped one. Finally we went to the Skip Barber school where they had the proper helmet size. It was a great feeling to see the track for the first time. Arriving at the track I first saw the last turn and the bridge and of course immediately recognized it. That hill is really steep! It was also cool to see the small Lanier Raceway oval on the other side of the road from Road Atlanta. We also went to meet Jim Downing (whom Steve knows well) at his office to get a HANS device which he was nice enough to loan me. He showed us quite a few interesting cars and things! After a day of driving around, it was time for dinner and to get some sleep before starting the Skip Barber school on the following day.
After an early wake up and breakfast we headed to the track and I was naturally excited to finally get down to business. We arrived at the track, signed into the school and, after the personal introductions, started the day in the classroom. It seemed most people had some kind of driving experience either in karting or other smaller race cars but nothing major. One of the instructors (Chris Meredith) is also an iRacing member which was good because he understood where I was coming from. After going through some things we suited up and got ready to get into the cars. We were split up in two groups for the weekend, two drivers for each car. I got into the car first and fired it up! We headed out of the garage and using the access roads we drove to the small autocross track between the straights at the other side of the track, near Turns 6 and 7. We drove around the autocross track for some laps just to get the feel for the car, and that was actually more physical than driving the proper track because you were turning all the time. I didn’t even get into second gear but it was good enough to get a feel for the car and tyres. I had one half a spin onto the grass when a guy went off in front of me. I guess I got on the brakes a little too hard there.
Next we did some heel and toe practice in the main paddock area. It wasn’t as difficult as I had thought, although it took some practice for me to get enough of a blip on the throttle. My regular shoes probably didn’t help with that. Getting into a lower gear wasn’t a problem, but doing it smoothly every time was harder. I actually got a bit too eager and wanted to get a feel for the brakes by braking on the limit. But an instructor told me to slow it down a bit, which I did!
After some time in the classroom it was time to head to the proper track. We didn’t get to drive around doing continuous laps, instead we did “stop box” sessions for most of the weekend where each lap we had to stop in the middle of the backstraight and the instructors around the track would give us feedback with a radio. As I was doing my first out-lap, it was funny how familiar everything looked from the cockpit. The track felt identical to the virtual one in iRacing, except for maybe some of the kerbs which shook the car around. I didn’t have a problem knowing where to put the car and where the apexes were in the corners. Even places where you don’t see too far ahead, like the hill before the last turn weren’t a problem because I knew what to expect and what the line was. That last hill is really steep but when I was in the car I didn’t think about it even once.
The car itself was certainly different from anything I’ve ever driven before. The performance surprised me a little and it took a while to get used to the feeling of taking the corners at speed, the things you feel in the car and looking far enough up the track. I had done some laps in iRacing before my trip to check out the braking points and basic things like that. That was obviously a big help as I knew where the limits were and I made sure not to try anything silly as we were getting up to speed. We also had an RPM limit which we were not supposed to exceed. I might have gone over the limit accidentally just slightly a few times during the weekend.
The following day I was curious to see how ‘different’ I would feel in the car. And actually I felt much better and confident so I guess a good night’s sleep did its trick. We did more stop box sessions and while the one group was driving the other group was either in the classroom or watching alongside the track in corners like Turn 5, Turn 7 and Turn 10a. The RPM limit was also increased little by little during the weekend as everyone did a good job not wrecking their car.
I believe it was during the second day when we did a braking exercise in Turn 10a. They told us to start from the stop box on the backstraight and accelerate at full speed and brake hard enough to lock-up the wheels. I guess my little experiment on the first morning while practicing heel and toe helped because I was able to lock them up on the first try and then ease off of the brake. I think my sim racing experience helped as well. Many other people were more cautious in this exercise. Steve also mentioned that I looked faster around the track and many of the other guys were being more careful. No lap times were recorded during the weekend so it’s hard to compare to anything but I felt like I was starting to push the car a bit more. I was still taking it easy into many corners because I wasn’t totally comfortable with the heel and toe.
On the third day we started again with more stop box sessions with increased RPM limit. We also did a start and restart exercise where we lined up with all cars and took the green flag and “raced” into Turn 1.
During one of my out laps (which the instructors said to take easy) I got a bit carried away and went into Turn 7 too hot. I held a drift through the corner and thought for a while that I’d hit the grass. The car hit the exit kerb a little sideways which straightened it out. That felt like a nice moment in the car but unfortunately there were some instructors observing in that corner. They reported it back and I was told to take it a little easier the next time! I was apparently pretty fast in that corner but usually carrying too much speed into it. I was braking earlier and earlier and feeling like I was slowing down too early but according to an instructor I was still too fast in the entry phase.
At the end of the day we finally got to do full laps with no RPM limit. We did two runs with about seven or eight laps each time. We weren’t allowed to overtake without the person in front giving a signal and there were only a couple of places where overtaking was allowed so I ended up wasting a few laps after catching up to a car or two in front of me as it sometimes took some time to get a signal.
I was pushing the car harder than ever before during the weekend at this point and had some little moments in some turns. I felt the back-end of the car moving around some a couple of times in Turn 1. Also, I missed my turn-in slightly in Turn 3 and got the rear end loose while trying to brake and get the car to the left side of the track for entering the turn. Making corrections and all that felt pretty natural and familiar from driving the Skip Barber in iRacing. In Turn 5 I was told to brake a little earlier and get back on the throttle more slowly as that is a corner where it’s easy to take too much kerb on the exit and hook it into the inside wall. They kept warning us about that corner all weekend.
In the end I was really happy with the way the whole weekend went. The first day was the toughest but the second and third day went very well. I wasn’t putting the car on the limit all the time or taking any risks as there was no point in doing that but I felt like I got to push the car pretty well during the last day. Sim racing and iRacing prepared me really well for the weekend and I was actually a little surprised how confident I felt in the car with no prior experience. I think that confidence came from knowing where the basic limits are and knowing that as long as I don’t go over those limits I’ll be fine.
The real car definitely felt more stable approaching the limit and while braking/turning in. It wasn’t a problem to right foot brake (which you must do) and the car didn’t get loose unless you tried to trailbrake too much. I have a feeling the new iRacing tyre model should help with this. The way the car/tyres lost grip and the small corrections with the wheel you had to make felt really similar to the iRacing Skip Barber car.
I had a blast and driving the car wasn’t as physical as I thought it might be. It was really hot but while driving I didn’t notice that and when we eventually got to do free laps I just would have liked to have kept going! The weekend was a success, nobody wrecked a car and everyone passed the school. I have to mention that for lunch I made a mistake of ordering a taco plate (I think) which was just enormous. Guys around me were laughing but I was just shocked. I finished about 1/10th of that plate.
From the track we drove straight to the airport. My destination was Houston and Steve was flying back home to Boston. I arrived in Houston Hobby Airport at around 10pm and Frosty St Clair (whom you may know from the OpinionNation show and iRacing World Championship Road Racing broadcasts among other things) was there to pick me up. I was staying at his place for about a week before going back to Atlanta for the Star Mazda test. It was great to meet him after knowing him and chatting with him online for a few years. It was also nice to get a chance to relax a little after a few busy days. The whole week went by pretty quickly and I had a great time. I met a few of Frosty’s friends and also a couple of sim racers, Ray Pulido and Adam Haufrect who were both cool and I ended-up doing an iWCRR race at Adam’s place on Saturday.
On Thursday we went to the MSR Houston track. Frosty knows a couple of guys who work there and he’s done two LeMons events and driven a Miata there. They were nice enough to let us drive a Spec Miata and Frosty’s friend Mike was there to give some tips and check out our telemetry. I started out doing 2:00 laps on my first two runs (I did about 5+ laps on each run) trying to get used to the car, memorizing which way the track goes and finding some brake markers! The car was a lot of fun to drive, really different from the Skip Barber of course. Everything felt “softer” and there was more movement with the suspension over bumps. It was probably harder to heel and toe than in the Skip Barber and I was being a little careful with it although Mike said I was doing it fine after looking at the telemetry. The track was fun with different kind of corners and more of a technical section, too. The lap is pretty long . . . at least in a Spec Miata.
After lunch we did two more runs and I first improved to 1:57 and then did a 1:55.5 on my last run. I messed up Turn 1 on my fastest lap and lost about 0.4s there but decided to push a bit harder for the rest of the lap anyway and ended up doing my fastest lap. Checking the telemetry my optimal lap time was a 1:53.8. Frosty improved to 1:56 and then did a 1:54.6 on his last run.
Sim racing and iRacing prepared me really well for the weekend and I was actually a little surprised how confident I felt in the car with no prior experience.
We were running the track clockwise and I think one place where I was faster was the kink at the end of the backstraight. I was losing the most time in a turn called the ‘Launch’ which is a right/left preceded by a crest, so you can’t see the corner behind it. Mike told me that it’s possible to carry more speed through there over the crest. I tried doing that a few times but just ended going way wide and being totally off line for the following left. While driving back from the track and talking about it with Frosty, it seems I was just taking too wide of a line and turning in too late. I think that was a spot where I was losing easily half a second. That’s when I also realised how useful it is to learn a track in a sim because I never felt lost at Road Atlanta because I knew the track so well.
I also had a few spins, one in Diamond’s Edge after getting the heel and toe wrong, one in Carousel entering it a little too fast and one after the Launch again pushing a bit too hard or not being quick enough to correct the car. There was also a puddle in the braking zone for the first turn so we had to take a line from the middle of the track for that turn. I tried running over the puddle a couple of times but that didn’t really work because I just missed the apex of the first turn completely. That line meant we lost quite a bit of time in the first turn and the following straight, more than half a second according to Frosty. Whenever I tried to really floor it out of the first turn, the car would just understeer wide in the exit.
It was a great day and the Miata was a lot of fun to drive. Mike said that if we would come back another day we would be in the 53s and I’d agree because the second day in the Skip Barber school was a lot easier for me. It just helps a lot when you have some time to think about things, gather your thoughts and get a good night’s sleep.
On Saturday we drove to Adam’s place where I did the iWCRR race at Indianapolis. Frosty was off to a birthday party and Adam went to pick up Dom Duhan from the airport while I was racing. I’ve been in the same sim racing team with Dom for 10 years and chatted with him a lot online but never met him in person! It was finally great to meet him and also pretty strange that it happened so far away from home.
There was a slight change of plans as I originally meant to stay in Houston until the Mazda test. Instead, I had to fly to Tampa and go to the Andersen Racing team factory in Palmetto to try out a seat and get everything sorted. On Monday morning I flew to Tampa via Atlanta and met with Geoff Fickling who’s the team manager. I spent the day at the factory watching the team prepare the cars for the test. Alan Oppel (lead mechanic) also prepared the car I’d be driving which meant finding a good seat, and adjusting the pedals and the steering wheel for me. We also went through the controls in the cockpit. Once everything was set up I actually felt pretty comfortable sitting in the car, more so than in the Skip Barber which was more of a ‘get in and drive’ type of deal. The preparations and loading the cars and equipment onto the truck took the whole day. It was interesting to see some of the work that went to putting the cars together.
I’ve been in the same sim racing team with Dom for 10 years and chatted with him a lot online but never met him in person!
The next day I took the trip from Palmetto to Atlanta with some of the team members in the team van. It was quite a long drive, about 9 hours, with a few stops in between. At Road Atlanta I met up with Dom and Steve and also the guys from Top Gear. We went to dinner with Dom and Steve and at that point I felt a bit of the flu coming on. I was just hoping it wouldn’t be too bad the following day.
The next morning I felt pretty good and didn’t think it would be a problem to drive the car. We headed to the track where I learned I needed racing boots to drive the Star Mazda; there was no way the team was going to let me drive their race car in tennis shoes. Luckily, there is a racing gear shop at the track, so Steve went over and got me a pair of driving shoes but this episode reminded me for sure that the Star Mazda is a serious race car.
After that little drama, we went through the plan for the day and also did a couple of laps in a road car around the track. Finally it was time to get in the car. Before going out on the track we checked the cockpit controls once again and made sure that the radio worked. I was naturally pretty nervous to get out there because I was expecting a huge jump from the Skip Barber car. I also wasn’t sure if I should left or right foot brake because I’ve only right foot braked in a real car before. The position of the pedals and my feet meant that it was much easier to left foot brake so I went with that.
Taking off from the pit lane for the first time, and I didn’t stall it!
I did just one lap to check that everything worked and returned to the pits. The car was of course a huge jump up from the Skip Barber car but maybe not as much as I had thought. The biggest difference was just the amount of grip available in the corners. The braking and downshifting didn’t feel difficult at all, as it was easy to blip the throttle with the right foot. Soon enough I went out for another short run, I actually ended up doing a couple of laps more than intended because the radio wasn’t working properly. I was just trying to get used to the car and taking it pretty easy in order not to do anything silly. But it was actually during this run that I set my best time. I was feeling good in the car at this point and it wasn’t as physical to drive as I had imagined at the pace I was going. Alan, the mechanic for my car, said that I went faster than he had thought I would this early on.
Chris Meredith, my Skip Barber instructor, had come to help out with this test. He said that I was looking pretty good out there but I should make sure to get my braking and downshifting done before turning in, as I was apparently leaving that a bit late in some corners. The other guys also said I should just take my time in getting up to speed and also shift up earlier. I took that advice and took it a little bit more easily on the next run. I was still feeling ok but once I slowed down on my in-lap I suddenly realised that I don’t feel so good. I tried to make it back to the pits but couldn’t do it in time and did a Mark Webber.
I was feeling pretty lousy after that so I took a break and tried to cool down. I still wasn’t feeling good but I went back and did some more laps at a reduced pace in the afternoon. I tried some different things and was braking later into the chicane at the end of the backstraight than I did earlier on. That was actually a nice feeling, braking hard and feeling your body press against the belts. I also planned to try one faster lap at the end of my last run no matter what happened but both times I tried that there were yellow flags and I had to slow down. One of them was a car spun out of Turn 7. Then the session was stopped and that was the end of my test day.
We checked the telemetry after the test and my braking seemed quite good. I was slower in the fast turns, like Turn 1 by about 10 mph but I already knew that because I was taking it really easy there in the entry and also getting on the throttle carefully. I actually did that pretty much in every corner. In Turn 7 my mid-corner speed was higher than the lap we were comparing to so that was something at least! It’s hard to say what kind of a lap time I could have done later in the day if I was feeling 100% and with more laps under my belt, but I think 1:22 would have been a realistic and achievable goal during that day.
In general, the car was a huge jump up from the Skip Barber. It wasn’t maybe as big of a change as I had imagined, but things definitely happen a lot more quickly and you seem to get through the corners before you have a chance to think about it. That’s something where more laps and experience, along with another day of testing, would have helped I’m sure. The car itself felt great to drive and the grip was awesome. The car went where you pointed it. Braking was really good, too, but nothing insane and the same can be said about the acceleration.
Compared to iRacing, the same things can be said as with the Skip Barber. Under the limit, the car feels more stable under braking and entering the turns. Otherwise it’s hard to do any comparisons without pushing the car harder. The steering was really sensitive: Every time I looked in the mirrors I’d move my hands a little and the car would twitch left or right slightly. That feels very similar to the way the steering feels in iRacing.
In the end, it was a hard day and I would have liked to have done a lot more laps but at the same time I was surprised that I went even that fast so early on. I thought it would take more time to start getting used to the speed.
So, it was time to say goodbye to everyone at the track as Dom had to rush to catch a flight. We dropped him off and also got the HANS back to Jim Downing and then headed to dinner and hotel near the airport.
The next day Steve caught an early flight back home and I took off later in the morning. The return trip was really awful because the flu had hit and I probably had some fever. I felt like a zombie wandering around the airports. I also had over an 5-hour wait at JFK and the flight was delayed by almost an hour on top of that, which didn’t make me feel any better!
I tried to get some sleep in the plane which didn’t really work out but I was finally home after another flight from Helsinki to Vaasa. I got a ride home and, after staying up for almost 24 hours and being sick, I jumped straight into my bed and it didn’t take long to fall asleep.
I’d like to thank everyone at iRacing and Top Gear again for giving me this opportunity. Thanks also to people at the Skip Barber school; the whole weekend was fantastic. Thanks to Andersen Racing team for doing a great job organizing the Star Mazda test. Thanks to 3 Wide Life for doing an excellent job with the documentary. It was also awesome to meet some of my sim racing friends and hang out with them.
Everyone I met was really friendly and that made the whole trip perfect.