Photo courtesy Lucas Oil School of Racing

DiZinno: Two days of driving bliss at Lucas Oil School of Racing

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The old adage in sports writing is that the reason sportswriters are sportswriters, is because they’re failed athletes. In motorsports journalism, the same is true.

My racing career as a driver ended before it ever began, following a go-kart incident in a church parking lot in Arizona as an eight-year-old. The natural follow-up question is, “why are you driving a go-kart in a church parking lot?” but that’s neither here nor there.

The bottom line is, like most youngsters, my interest in the sport was founded by my parents’ interest. Because interest, talent and funding wasn’t there for me to make it as a driver, it became obvious there had to be another way.

Luckily, putting pen to paper – or fingers to keyboard now – was the next best and most cost-effective option of figuring out how to stay involved with this sport I love.

But in the back of my mind, there was always a small hope that one day I’d actually be behind the wheel of a proper racecar. Even for just a day or two.

In early November, that opportunity arose.

It was time to go back to school: in this case, the Lucas Oil School of Racing.

Sebring International Raceway’s short course is where champions are born. It is the single most unsung circuit layout in this country, because teams and drivers in open-wheel and sports car racing spend so many days and hours stuck in the usual Orlando-to-Sebring drive down Highway 27, then pounding around the track’s 1.53 miles in the pursuit of ultimate performance and reliability. Indianapolis may be the “racing capital of the world” and Daytona may feature “the great American race,” but Sebring is undoubtedly the “winter home of motorsports.”

Once you arrive at the Lucas Oil School of Racing, founded by Neil Enerson in late 2015, it’s apparent that the preparation and dedication to the customer is such that you feel as though it’s the first step in your racing career for however far you go.

And for two days, we’re going to be pounding around in the school cars on the short course, forgetting everything else in the world around us in that same pursuit of perfection.

INTRO

Transporter setup. Photo: Tony DiZinno
Transporter setup. Photo: Tony DiZinno

The first thing of note is the cars themselves. The Lucas Oil School has three fully loaded transporters with 20 of the Ray Formula Cars GR11, powered by an Elite Engines 2.0L 4-cylinder (produces about 140hp), Sadev sequential gearbox that has paddle shifters (this will come in handy) and runs on street Cooper Tires.

All those bits work in unison to create a fun driving experience that gives the driver all the comfort in the world without worrying about the shifting and much clutching, and the grip level in the tires is such that they force you to go deeper in the corners on braking as you build confidence. They want you to work hard.

The setup is also first class. You feel as though you’re walking into an IndyCar-team level setup, as the crew puts together the two awnings from two of the transporters, and houses all the cars there. The crew ensures you’re all good to go with the cars once you get going.

And then there’s the feedback, which is off the hook. More on this will come throughout, but the dedicated one-on-one time from the instructors will only force you to be better as the time goes on.

With this also only a two-day school rather than a three-day one, it’s also more cost effective for those customers or business folk who now need less time to take off work. You’ll go through a laundry list of items in the two days, but there is not a moment that is not well spent.

LEARN THE CAR, THEN GET GOING

Cockpit. Photo: Tony DiZinno
Cockpit. Photo: Tony DiZinno

Todd Snyder, a past Barber Dodge series champion and veteran driver in the Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge, had long been an instructor at Skip Barber. Snyder serves now as the Lucas Oil School’s Chief Operating Officer and for our school, was lead instructor.

So on the morning of the first day, you’re given the whole lowdown on the car itself, where all the various switches and gauges are and how you’ll feel once on board.

And then, boom. You’re into the car for the first time. The first running is done on a modified version of the short course, using the short course pit lane before coming onto the track at Cunningham Corner (Turn 10), through the left-hand sweeper and back into the pits. This exercise is done specifically to get you comfortable with the car, and start to get a feel with it.

Naturally, nerves took over for me at this point. But once going, it only took a couple laps for the crew guys to be putting their hands down as I was coming through a right-hand kink to say “slow down!” This was already fun and only going to get better.

The first classroom session followed. A number of driving tips are applied here, but we’re taught to spend a lot of time thinking about braking. Passing instructions, meanwhile, for the purposes of the school are to let drivers by on the right first.

For the second session, we did a lead-follow with RC Enerson in one of the school cars. That allowed us to get a sense of the racing line and where to optimally brake. As you get the car up to speed, you then progressively learn how to brake later and later as you grow more confident.

The key, of course, is not making too big a leap at any one time.

THE FIRST AND ONLY “HANG ON, BROTHER” MOMENT

Smiling at the start. Photo courtesy Lucas Oil School of Racing
Smiling at the start. Photo courtesy Lucas Oil School of Racing

Radio feedback is applied from the coaches – in this case, Snyder, Enerson or Jonatan “JJ” Jorge of JJRD, Inc. – telling you where you’re struggling and where you need to improve.

One of the challenges here is when you’re starting to get in a rhythm behind the wheel, you don’t want to break your habits because you’re comfortable. The drive to be better and brake later comes once you know how hard you have to mash the brakes, at a certain psi amount. The preferred psi amount is 400psi.

Cunningham Corner, mentioned earlier, is a 90-degree, right-hand, third gear corner that comes after the second longest straight on the short course. Ideally, you’re at about 105-110 mph entering it here before braking. As part of the braking technique, cones are outlined from four cones at the first braking point to three, two and one respectively.

The feedback I’d received to that point was that I wasn’t hard enough on the brakes, and was easing into the corner. So I’d been giving up a lot of time as a result.

What should have followed was a gradual step of moving from the four cones to the three cones. My inner Italian side came out as I went from four to two… and naturally, the heavy lockup and avalanche of expletives came along with it.

Fortunately there’s a pavement runoff area, and I slid off. Even more fortunately, I got the thing stopped before hitting the tire barrier. So you’re helpless at this point, with a local yellow out and RC needing to come over to assist, to get the car back in gear and allow you to get going.

USF2000 shootout featured Lucas Oil School of Racing cars. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
USF2000 shootout featured Lucas Oil School of Racing cars. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

It’s perhaps even most fortunate lunch followed shortly thereafter, with Coney dogs a highlight of the experience. The hospitality is great, as Neil came through to check in with everyone to see how it was going and offer insights about the school, the program and the future goals. Already, the school has a successful race series that runs at a number of tracks (2017 schedule out late Tuesday night) and had its cars showcased at December’s Mazda Road to Indy $200,000 scholarship shootout for the USF2000 series in 2017 (right).

In the background, we’d heard a thud and then saw track safety vehicles dispatched. One of the school’s lapping drivers had binned it at Cunningham, as he hadn’t downshifted correctly upon braking, and backed it in. He was OK, but his confidence was as dented as the left rear suspension.

I will say that having that moment I had was good, because getting back on the horse and back behind the wheel for the afternoon sessions was vital to ensuring my own confidence wasn’t sapped.

A DEVILISH 1.53 MILES TO MASTER

Photo courtesy of Lucas Oil School of Racing
Photo courtesy of Lucas Oil School of Racing

Sebring’s short course is fascinating, again, because even if you excel at certain parts of the track, there’s others you’re missing.

Starting from pit out, you head into a right-hand kink, then into Water Tower, the first of consecutive 90-degree right-handers. The following right-hander, I loved, and felt most at ease. But winding it back up and then rejoining the full course, at the right-handed kink into the left-handed sweeper called the Carousel, proved a challenge throughout the two days. The Carousel then launches you onto the fastest part of the short course, the following right-hand sweeper down the straight and into the Hotel hairpin – the hardest braking point on the circuit. You then hit the apex there on the 45-degree right-hander and accelerate hard out, right, then left, back onto the straight before braking at Cunningham. You hit that right-hander hard, then accelerate through the left-hand sweeper back to the right-hand kink, and you’re at Water Tower again.

Snyder’s instruction was great because he gave us specific reference points to aim for. Water Tower, for instance, has a “T” in the center of the road. Ensuring you’re putting your right front tire on that “T” guarantees the ideal apex for the corner and sets you up for a faster exit. The Carousel, however, I couldn’t get right to save my life.

The feedback from JJ and RC was consistent about my braking, but once they noted how you want the front tires to “squeal” – the ideal braking pressure before locking up – I searched harder for that and felt that I got there. What was great about all three of them was their calmness and gentle pushing it took to get better. It’s not “in your face” at all; it’s designed purely to help, and the way they expressed it built my determination.

Trail braking is a good thing to master and that was one of the key takeaways.

GOOD DAY ONE FEATURES MOTIVATION FOR DAY TWO

In the morning of day two, you get the data and telemetry from your first day at the office. This was the real eye opener. Tracing your data up against sports car veteran, Lucas Oil School coach and general good dude Gerardo Bonilla shows just how and where you’re losing time. With my best time a pedestrian 1:25 and change to Bonilla’s 1:17, there was plenty of time to be gained.

Understanding and interpreting data is one of the keys to success in modern motorsport, and using that data can fuel your performance to get better. The fact this is offered to you out of the gate shows the school’s dedication to your understanding of all facets of racing.

RACE PREP!

The morning sessions featured two lapping runs, and with the data at hand I immediately located where I needed to be better. With each passing lap, I felt more confident, and I started to see how with preparation and feedback, I could get better.

One of the day two elements is a “mock race,” where RC or JJ drove their street car as a pace car and you line up alongside your fellow school drivers in the cars to practice a two-by-two start, then run down to the first turn (again, Cunningham in this case).

We get two cracks at it. I took both cautiously on purpose, first lining up from pole and the second from third on row two.

A single-file restart then produced another element of learning for yours truly: how to avoid a collision.

Following the single-file restart I intentionally let a couple cars past, because I wanted to go at my own pace and avoid being too close to others. As it turned out, one driver made a dive-bomb attempt at the hairpin and consequently took another car out, and I had a front row seat to all of it. That brought out a yellow flag to end that session.

GETTING BETTER ALL THE TIME

With a 1:23 and change done in the morning, by the two final afternoon lap sessions, I’d got down to a 1:21.07 (best on video is a 1:21.23, shown above), so had shaved more than four seconds off compared to day one. I still couldn’t quite get the Carousel right. You have to enter at driver’s left, come across at the kink and then stay right at corner entry before powering through and getting back on the gas. Corner exit speed is everything, because it sets up the straightaway terminal velocity.

The final session, fatigue began to set in. And rather than keep going, I parked it a few minutes early. Better to end on a high note with everything still in one piece. A graduation process follows at day’s end. All the while, I also began to bond with the other drivers who took this school. Fellow writer Miles Branman was a natural and seriously impressive, the true standout among our peers.

A LEGEND I MISSED

Byrne coaching at Lime Rock. Photo courtesy Lucas Oil School of Racing
Byrne coaching at Lime Rock. Photo courtesy Lucas Oil School of Racing

Irishman Tommy Byrne’s junior career marked him as a standout to watch on his path to Formula 1, with pure talent and no cash helping to carry him up the ladder. But his intense partying lifestyle away from the track didn’t mesh with the largely corporate world of F1 and outside of a pair of starts with the Theodore Racing team in 1982, his flameout from that world followed.

Byrne reinvented both his life and his career as a racing instructor, with longtime work at the Mid-Ohio School and now joining the Lucas Oil School. At the Sebring full course, where the final race series event of 2016 took place in mid-December, competitors were treated to not just Byrne’s instruction but a viewing of the all-too-real, outstanding Crash and Burn documentary that’s the film version of his “Crashed and Byrned” autobiography. Yes, it’s a racing film but it’s just as much a film about life.

SUMMING IT ALL UP

The school is two days that features eight on-track sessions (roughly 2.5 hours per day on track), four classroom sessions, two breakfasts and lunch, and countless tips of advise.

It was hard to describe then, and even reflecting back on it a month or so later now, how much these two days meant to me.

As someone who has lived this sport for the better part of 20 of my 27 years, to have the chance to drive a racecar and temporarily be a race driver was something I could have only dreamed of.

Photo courtesy Lucas Oil School of Racing
Photo courtesy Lucas Oil School of Racing

It also taught me a ton. You think you know a lot about what drivers and teams go through on a race weekend. But the amount of information these drivers have to retain and be ready for at a single moment’s notice is unreal. These cars are simple enough to where it’s not overwhelming, but they’re also sophisticated enough to give you a sense of a proper formula car at a bargain rate.

The feedback is sensational. The fact coaches take such a hands-on role with you over the course of the two days shows how committed they are to seeing you improve at your craft. Four seconds improvement day-to-day on my end is statistical proof of that.

And then there’s the emotional and spiritual side of it. When you’re in a racecar, nothing else matters. That desire to push for that extra tenth or hundredth, that thrill of clicking off another flier, or the relief of saving the car from a big accident all sends chills down your spine. You get out and of course you’re smiling.

For two days, pounding around Sebring, I had that feeling that perhaps I could be driving for real. I loved every second of it.

And then I remembered why I got into writing in the first place, because it’s cheaper, and I love the sensation of capturing the moment just a little bit more…

Justin Timberlake to play this year’s U.S. Grand Prix at COTA

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Taylor Swift playing last year’s U.S. Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas in Austin was always going to be a hard act to match, or perhaps top.

Yet COTA has pulled it off with confirmation Wednesday that Justin Timberlake will be playing on the Saturday before this year’s race, on October 21.

Timberlake will play at the conclusion of track activity on Saturday for a full show. Tickets go on sale this Friday at 10 a.m. CT, with more info via COTA’s website. Here’s the pertinent details:

  • The concert will take place at COTA’s Super Stage Festival Lawn, not Austin360 Amphitheater
  • Seating is general admission, first come first served
  • All holders of a Saturday ticket for USGP weekend, including the 3-day GA wristband, will have access to the show

Circuit of The Americas announced a crowd of more than 80,000 last year for T-Swift, for her first and only planned concert of the year.

Timberlake is on par from a stratospheric level as Swift is. And half the draw of the COTA weekend, it seems, is ensuring you can get concertgoers to the track as well.

This should make for a fun end-of-day on Saturday.

IMS Museum to reveal A.J. Foyt exhibit in April

Photo: IMS Archives
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It’s been 40 years since A.J. Foyt won his fourth and final Indianapolis 500 as a driver in 1977. Perfect timing, then, for a special Foyt exhibit to grace the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, which will premiere next month.

The release from the museum is below:

In celebration of the 40th anniversary of his record-setting fourth Indianapolis 500 win, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum is proud to present a once-in-a-lifetime exhibit honoring auto racing icon A.J. Foyt, opening April 14.

A.J. Foyt: A Legendary Exhibition, presented by ABC Supply is a limited-run celebration that traces the superstar’s rise from the dirt tracks of Texas to the pinnacle of auto racing history.

Nearly three dozen cars that Foyt drove in competition will be on display, including all four of his Indianapolis 500 winning machines, the 1961 Bowes Seal Fast Special, 1964 & 1967 Sheraton-Thompson Specials, and the 1977 Gilmore Coyote.

Photo: IMS Archives

“Everyone knows that the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is my favorite track and that people wouldn’t know me if it weren’t for the Indy 500, but to have the Museum put on this exhibit there, well I feel truly honored,” said the legendary Foyt. “This exhibit will give people a chance to see my winning Indy cars but also some of the other race cars I drove and won in over the years.”

In addition to several of Foyt’s IndyCars, many incredible machines representing Foyt’s career in NASCAR, USAC and road racing will be on display, many for the first time, and visitors will also have the chance to see rare memorabilia from Foyt’s personal collection.

“Based on the stuff we shipped to Indy, I think the Museum has a lot of personal memorabilia and photos that their visitors will like seeing” Foyt said. “I haven’t seen some of the cars in many, many years so to be truthful, I’m looking forward to the exhibit too!”

“A.J. Foyt is perhaps the most iconic driver in the 108-year history of the Brickyard” said Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum Director & Curator Ellen Bireley. “We are proud to honor this incredible champion with an exhibit of memories and memorabilia that pays tribute to one of the most diverse and successful careers in auto racing history.”

A.J. Foyt: A Legendary Exhibition is presented by ABC Supply, with additional support from Chevrolet and Al-Fe Heat Treating. The exhibit runs until October 31.

Social roundup: Media day at Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach

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The Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach is still more than a week away, but Media Day was in full swing on Tuesday with a number of attractions for fans and media in attendance.

That being said, it’s easier to get all the pre-advance work done before cars from six different series hit the track starting on Friday, April 7. The Long Beach IndyCar race airs on April 9 at 4 p.m. ET on NBCSN.

The day began with Team Penske’s Josef Newgarden fielding interviews with the local L.A. affiliates for NBC, Fox, and ABC before being a attending a midday luncheon. He also did various interviews with other outlets.

There were also a number of opportunities for rides around the 1.968-mile street circuit. IndyCar drivers Zach Veach and Gabby Chaves were in charge of the Verizon IndyCar Series two-seater while Scott Pruett manned driving duties in a two-seat version of his Lexus RC F GT3. Rocky Moran Sr. and Jr. also held demo rides of their own around the circuit in a Camry; James Sofronas took folks for rides in a GMG Racing Porsche 911 GT3 R.

Formula Drift was on hand as well, though their days were spent preparing for the event. Several cars made practice runs along Seaside Way and through turns 9, 10, and 11 of the circuit.

The Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach is slated for April 7-9, with first practice for the Verizon IndyCar Series rolling off at 1:00 p.m. local time on Friday April 7.

INDYCAR reveals next round of design for 2018 common aero kit

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After the initial renderings of the 2018 common aero kit were released in January at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, questions then turned to when INDYCAR would release the next round of what the future of the single kit would look like.

The date was something of a moving target, without a set time piece either just before or just after the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season began with the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on March 12.

That being said, today marks the arrival of round two of what the new kit will look like, revealed first on IndyCar.com. The timing works well as it’s just after St. Petersburg but before Round 2, the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, which runs April 9 at 4 p.m. ET on NBCSN to kick off the NBC Sports Group’s coverage portion of the season.

In today’s release, INDYCAR is still yet to confirm the supplier of the new common aero kit. But the car’s development remains on track to be revealed in the flesh this summer before a mid-summer testing debut.

Rendering courtesy of INDYCAR

“While this remains a work in progress, we are encouraged with where the development of the 2018 car stands,” Jay Frye, INDYCAR president of competition and operations, said in the release. “The look of the car is bold, the performance data from simulations is meeting targeted goals and safety enhancements built into the design will be substantial.”

Tino Belli, INDYCAR director of aerodynamic development, explained the design process with a focus on producing more downforce from the underside of the car rather than on top, addressing driver feedback.

“We’ve been working on the aerodynamics to suit the look, rather than the other way around,” Belli said in the release.

“We’re working on creating more of the downforce from the underwing,” Belli said. “The hole in the floor (of the undertray on this year’s car) will be sealed for the road courses and short ovals, but will still be open for the superspeedways.”

While aerodynamic targets and additional safety enhancements are set to include side impact structures in the sidepods and repositioned radiators, with turbocharger inlets moving to the inside of the radiator inlet ducts, no word was given today in terms of a windscreen or other cockpit protection enhancement device which has been rumored but not officially confirmed to be part of the 2018 kit. Belli said in the release that INDYCAR has achieved “97 percent” of its goals from developing the new car’s look and efficiency.

Of note, INDYCAR announced long-term contract extensions with four key partners, Dallara, Chevrolet, Honda and Firestone, at St. Petersburg, which was great news for the series but perhaps overshadowed in the kickoff to the new season. It further pushed the development of Frye’s much-mentioned “five-year plan” for the series.

Just because the base Dallara DW12 chassis remains as the tub does not necessarily mean it will be Dallara as the common kit supplier. Dallara’s Stefano De Ponti, director of the company’s U.S. operations, did say how much it has meant to the company to be celebrating its 20th year with INDYCAR during the St. Petersburg announcement.

“Dallara came here in 1997. That has marked the Dallara presence in North American motorsports. It was an important step,” De Ponti said at St. Petersburg.

“Obviously the plant, facility, engineering center we built in Indianapolis was, for the most part of it, obviously to support our program here as a partner with IndyCar.

“I personally wish, yes, that the extension will go beyond the set extension we have so far. We would like to be very, very clear, to be trustful and a supported partner of IndyCar as a manufacturer.

“Obviously, as an engineering company, we like competition, of course. We welcome everything that IndyCar decides to do with us for the future.

“At the end of the day, we want to be, and we are committed, to work with IndyCar for the benefit of the series. That would benefit all of us.”