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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…

Jean Argetsinger, pillar of U.S. road racing, dies at 97

WATKINS GLEN, NY - AUGUST 08:  (EDITOR'S NOTE: Image was processed using digital filters.)  A general view of the track prior to qualifying for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Cheez-It 355 at Watkins Glen International on August 8, 2015 in Watkins Glen, New York.  (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)
Watkins Glen International. Photo: Getty Images
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WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. (AP) Jean Argetsinger, the matriarch of early American road racing and a leader in the creation of the International Motor Racing Research Center, has died at 97.

Argetsinger died Monday of natural causes at her home in Burdett, New York, according to Glenda Gephart, director of administration and communications for the research center in Watkins Glen. Argetsinger was predeceased by her husband, Cameron, in 2008.

The Argetsingers are credited with the rebirth of road racing in the United States after World War II. In establishing Watkins Glen as one of the most important racing venues in the world, Jean Argetsinger was at the forefront in hospitality, publicity and community involvement. She was a founder of the IMRRC, an archival and research library that’s dedicated to the preservation and sharing of the history of motorsports, all venues and all series worldwide. She served on the IMRRC governing council since the center opened in 1999.

“It was Jean’s vision, quiet determination and relentless pursuit that made it all a reality,” John Saunders, president of International Speedway Corp., said Wednesday. “While her spirit lives on, I truly will miss the first lady of American road racing.”

In the first years of racing in Watkins Glen, Argetsinger was at the side of her husband, welcoming drivers from around the world to parties at her house and putting together race event programs. In 1958, she established the Paddock Club, now known as the Glen Club, as “a civilized retreat for drivers’ wives and visiting celebrities.”

“I never thought racing would be my life. I don’t know much about cars, but I do know about the people who drive them,” Argetsinger said in 1999 when introducing a film documentary about the history of Watkins Glen racing. “When Cameron presented the idea of a road race to SCCA (Sports Car Club of America) at a cocktail party in Indianapolis, a distinguished member of the group put a fatherly arm around my shoulder and said, `Don’t do it. You’ll work hard, and nobody will come.’ ”

The Argetsingers were honored in 2009 with a Watkins Glen International Legend of the Glen Award.

“Jean will be missed by the entire racing industry, as the matriarch of racing at Watkins Glen and for her support of the racing community as a whole,” Watkins Glen International president Michael Printup said. “What Jean and Cameron accomplished in our small town will always be relished.”

Argetsinger, who raised nine children, was a founder of the League of Women Voters of Schuyler County and the Burdett Players theatrical group. She also was an 11-year member of the Watkins Glen Central School District board and led the Watkins Glen Public Library board for 24 years.

The New York State Legislature named Argetsinger a Woman of Distinction in 1999, the first class of honorees. She also was a columnist for The Watkins Review, a local weekly newspaper, and wrote a history of St. Mary’s of the Lake Catholic Church as well as several books on county history.

A funeral Mass will be held Saturday at St. Mary’s of the Lake Catholic Church in Watkins Glen.

Josef Newgarden already fitting in quite nicely with Team Penske

FORT WORTH, TX - JUNE 10:  Josef Newgarden, driver of the #21 Fuzzy's Vodka Chevrolet, prepares to drive during practice for the Verizon IndyCar Series Firestone 600 at Texas Motor Speedway on June 10, 2016 in Fort Worth, Texas.  (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images for Texas Motor Speedway)
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Josef Newgarden is like a boy with a new toy.

The newest addition to the Team Penske IndyCar lineup – he replaces Juan Pablo Montoya in the No. 2 Chevrolet – is acting like a kid in a candy store: he has arguably the best and winningest team in the sport, three of the best teammates, the best equipment and the best support personnel.

“Dude, it’s all cool, every day is cool with this group,” Newgarden said Wednesday during IndyCar Media Day at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

“Every day there’s something cool that goes on. When I first went down there and got to meet the whole team and I got introduced to the shop, it was very overwhelming because most of the shop was there for the introduction, and they have 425-plus employees. So it’s just very overwhelming and kind of emotional just because of the magnitude of it.”

The biggest change from the 26-year-old Newgarden’s previous tenure with Ed Carpenter Racing to Team Penske is indeed the personnel and available resources. With those kinds of numbers comes great strength.

“Every day, they’re like, ‘Oh, no, we do it like this’ or ‘We’ll sort that out for you, we’ll get this done,’” Newgarden said. “It’s literally every day they’re doing something that I might need or was thinking of, and it just happens, and you’re like, wow, that is so cool the way this works out here.”

Like pretty much every other full-time driver on the Verizon IndyCar Series circuit, Newgarden, who earned his three IndyCar career wins over the last two seasons, has two goals for 2017: winning the series championship and the Indianapolis 500.

Given that the Hendersonville, Tenn., native, who just moved to Penske headquarters in Charlotte from Indianapolis, is racing for the team that has won the 500 the most – 16 times – Newgarden can’t wait for the month of May.

“Yeah, the 500 is going to be very special, but I’m already like feeling that every month and every day,” he said. “Like that just has never been a moment where it’s not been cool with what we do and how we do it.

“Yeah, I’m sure it’s going to be super special for the 500, but I don’t think I’m going to feel that until we get inside the gates in May.”

While Newgarden — who has defending series champion Simon Pagenaud and veterans Will Power and Helio Castroneves as both teammates and mentors — is the envy of many of his young peers in the IndyCar series, he hasn’t forgotten where he came from, namely, Ed Carpenter Racing, where he and his innate driving talent were able to flourish.

‘We had a really great 2016 season, and it’s going to be an interesting transition for me going to Team Penske now,” said Newgarden, who finished fourth in last season’s standings. “I think in some aspects, it’s a difficult move because I really enjoyed my time and I’m going to miss my time at ECR.

“I built a really strong foundation there with the people and with Ed, and even in the past with (former team owners) Sarah (Fisher) and Andy (O’Gara) and Wink (Hartman) and Libba (Hartman). It’s a tough transition, but at the same time, I’m excited about it because from what I’ve seen over the last four or five months at Team Penske, I think it’s going to be a really, really fun experience to try something new to work in a different environment, to learn a different environment, and then try and make the most of that.

“I’m very excited about 2017. I’m not sure how it’s going to pan out yet. I think it’s hard to predict, but I think we’re going to have a pretty good going.”

Given that he’s entering his sixth season in IndyCar and his first with the best team in the series, Newgarden knows what the expectations for him are.

“I’ve got no excuses,” he said of 2017. “I’ve been around quite a while. I’m not a rookie by any stretch. You know, I’ll be in the best equipment from what everyone considers, and I’ve got a good team.

“… But on the whole, I should be pretty much ready to rock and go. If I’m not getting the job done, then I’ll have to figure it out pretty quick. So I think there’s pressure there, yeah, which is okay. That’s how it works.”

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NHRA: Sponsorship woes sideline former Top Fuel champ Shawn Langdon

shawn langdon AP
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As the NHRA prepares to begin its new season in three weeks, a bit of distressing news has emerged.

According to Bobby Bennett of CompetitionPlus.com, former champion Shawn Langdon and his Top Fuel dragster have been parked by team owner Don Schumacher due to lack of sponsorship to start the season.

Langdon’s car was one of four Top Fuel dragsters that Don Schumacher Racing fielded last season. The other three – Tony Schumacher, two-time defending champ Antron Brown and Leah Pritchett – will start the season as planned.

But because enough sponsorship for the entire 24-race NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series has not materialized, Langdon will be parked until more funding is found.

“I am working on some things that will hopefully work out and give me the funding to run the car as soon as possible,” Don Schumacher told Bennett.

This is the second time in a year and a half that Langdon has been sidelined due to a lack of funding. He raced through the 18-race 2015 regular season, but team owner Alan Johnson parked Langdon when the six-race Countdown to the Championship playoffs began because money ran out.

Langdon almost immediately hooked up with DSR to finish out the 2015 season, and then raced the full season in 2016, winning three races and finishing fifth in the final standings.

“At this point, there’s really no other option than just to get back at it and just start talking with companies that we feel would be a good fit over here at Don Schumacher Racing,” Langdon told Bennett.

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Handful of changes identified on Rolex 24 entry list

No. 29 Montaplast by Land-Motorsport Audi R8 LMS, No. 51 Spirit of Race Ferrari 488 GT3. Photo courtesy of IMSA
No. 29 Montaplast by Land-Motorsport Audi R8 LMS, No. 51 Spirit of Race Ferrari 488 GT3. Photo courtesy of IMSA
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The entry lists for both the Rolex 24 at Daytona and BMW Performance 200, the respective curtain-raisers for the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship and Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge (Jan. 28-29), have been released on Wednesday and there’s not too many changes compared to the ones released for the Roar Before the Rolex 24 test earlier this month.

Within Prototype, Brendon Hartley has now been listed as fourth driver for both of the Tequila Patron ESM Nissan Onroak DPis. The New Zealander has driven in a couple Rolex 24s before, last year with Chip Ganassi Racing, and will saddle up with ESM this year despite missing the Roar test.

GT Daytona includes a number of additions, with Turner Motorsport confirming its full race lineup of BMW factory shoes Jens Klingmann, Maxime Martin, Jesse Krohn and sports car/NASCAR veteran Justin Marks in the No. 96 BMW M6 GT3 as the biggest change.

Maro Engel (No. 75 SunEnergy1 Racing Mercedes-AMG GT3), Tim Pappas (No. 991 TRG Porsche 911 GT3 R), Sven Mueller (No. 59 Manthey Racing Porsche 911 GT3 R), and Dion von Moltke (No. 48 Paul Miller Racing Lamborghini Huracán GT3) are among the key drivers added, though some teams have not yet confirmed those signings outright. Pappas’ confirmation brings together the principal of Black Swan Racing with Kevin Buckler’s TRG program in an interesting partnership.

Most of the Prototype Challenge field has been confirmed. Nick Boulle switches to Performance Tech Motorsports after being initially listed at BAR1 Motorsports. Starworks Motorsport’s lineup is set to include Sebastian Saavedra, Remo Ruscitti, Robert Wickens and the at-the-moment unlisted Sean Rayhall as its pro drivers.

Spencer Pumpelly, Guy Cosmo, Marc Miller, Damien Faulkner, Kenton Koch and Cameron Lawrence are among the notables still without a ride at the moment, and judging by the entry list, there’s still a number of TBDs and vacancies still within the GTD class.

The Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge entry list, meanwhile, features an even balance of 20 GS and 20 ST cars for the four-hour season opener.

Entry lists are linked below:

WeatherTech Championship
Continental Tire Challenge