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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…

CJ Wilson completes first test in Porsche GT3 Cup car

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Photo courtesy of CJ Wilson Racing
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CJ Wilson’s new career is officially underway, following his retirement from professional baseball and now having completed his first test last week at Texas World Speedway in his new 2017 Porsche 911 GT3 Cup car.

Wilson, who formally announced the news he’d be transitioning into racing full-time during Rolex 24 at Daytona race week, did a two-day test at the still active oval/road course combo track in College Station, Texas. Wilson tested one of the team’s Porsche Cayman GT4 Clubsports (the team runs two in IMSA’s Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge) and then advanced into the Cup car.

Wilson got fairly close to teammate Marc Miller’s times during the test as he acclimated to both the Cup car and the Yokohama tires.

“It’s great to take another step towards my goals,” Wilson said. “We had a chance to burn through two sets of tires today and I made a lot of progress. Having Marc as my coach was incredibly helpful because we have a lot of faith in each other and communicate using the same terms. Having sat in driver debriefings for the past six years with the race team, I was able to take all the input logically and make progress each session.

“The only odd thing about the test is that nobody else was here, which was the first time I have ever been on a track completely alone, so when we did a race simulation I had to use my imagination. TWS is a really fast and bumpy track. Looking forward to getting back in the car in ten days and pick up where I left off.”

Miller added, “CJ did great job, but I expected as much. He is logical and methodical which makes him easy to help and that translated into a very quick progression along the learning curve. Like any professional athlete though he is never truly satisfied because he wants to be perfect. He took quickly to the new Porsche 911 GT3 Cup car. It is confidence inspiring and such a capable platform so that suited him well in getting up to speed. Overall, it was a successful first outing and I look forward to working with CJ this season. I expect he will have a solid debut at Sebring. He better or I’m likely fired.”

A teaser of on-board footage is below, along with a couple other social posts from the test:

Danny Watts: ‘Staying hidden was nothing but torture and pain’

LONDON, ENGLAND - MARCH 22:  (l to r) Strakka Racing drivers Danny Watts, Nick Leventis and Jonny Kane pose during the 2013 FIA World Endurance Championship Photo Call on March 22, 2013 at Potters Fields in London, England.  (Photo by Bryn Lennon/Getty Images)
Watts (left) with Leventis and Kane in 2013. Photo: Getty Images
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Sports car veteran driver Danny Watts has announced his retirement from active competition, but is in the news for an entirely different reason on Monday.

The 37-year-old Brit has announced he’s gay, penning a first-person piece for the Huffington Post and also doing interviews with both Daily Sportscar and Autosport. The latter article features a well-written op-ed from author Matt Beer.

In the Huffington Post piece, Watts, an eight-time starter and 2010 LMP2 class winner at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, wrote that hiding his sexuality in the heavily white male heterosexual world of motorsport was simply becoming too much to keep under wraps.

“There isn’t any one moment that stands out in my mind as the moment I realized I would need to live in the closet if I wanted my motorsport career to go anywhere; it was just a general feeling I got,” Watts wrote.

“All the other guys in the paddock had girlfriends, so I got one to blend in. When that relationship ended, I got another one, and so I continued pretending to be straight for seventeen years.

“Staying hidden was nothing but torture and pain.

“I hope that there are a few people who are supportive. If the response I’ve had from the queer motorsport community thus far is any gauge, I feel hopeful that I’ll find a supportive group to start driving change for my queer siblings in the sport I love.”

Within the motorsports world, Watts’ name is best known to the sports car paddock, and he was a regular with the Strakka Racing team alongside co-drivers Jonny Kane and Nick Leventis. But he isn’t particularly known to the racing world at large.

This announcement comes as Watts has opted to call time on his full-time driving career and instead will focus on coaching for the future. It also represents one of the higher profile names in racing announcing his sexual orientation, which makes it newsworthy.

Despite some detractors (as you might expect), a number of other drivers and key motorsports figures have revealed their support for Watts, and why this news matters, on social media today:

Marino Franchitti returns to Mazda at Sebring

SEBRING, FL - MARCH 15:  Left to right, Marino Franchitti, Memo Rojas and Scott Pruett celebrate after winning the 12 Hours of Sebring at Sebring International Raceway on March 15, 2014 in Sebring, Florida.  (Photo by Brian Cleary/Getty Images)
Franchitti (left) won at Sebring in 2014. Photo: Getty Images
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Marino Franchitti will make his return to a Mazda entry for next month’s Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring, to be run March 18, as third driver in the team’s No. 70 Mazda RT24-P with Joel Miller and Tom Long.

The Scotsman competed in the team’s RX-8 and 6 models in the GT ranks but has been out of a drive since his role with Ford Chip Ganassi Racing last season in one of the team’s Ford GTs in the FIA World Endurance Championship.

Franchitti replaces James Hinchcliffe, who was the third driver in the No. 70 car at the Rolex 24 at Daytona. He’ll test for the team later this week at Sebring prior to the race run in the second IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship race of the year.

“A big part of those results are being with great teams and having great teammates. I’ve been fortunate in that regard,” said Franchitti, who co-drove to win overall at Sebring in 2014. “I love driving there, I always have since the first laps I did. It’s a proper old-school track. If you go over the limit, you crash, simple as that, rather than going onto some tarmac run-off like many tracks. I love the challenge of walking that tightrope. Of course, there’s the challenge of the bumps too, trying to get the car to handle over them and the beating the car and driver takes. There’s a reason people come from all over the world to endurance test their cars here, it’s the ultimate test of a vehicle and its durability.

No. 70 Mazda RT24-P. Photo courtesy of IMSA
No. 70 Mazda RT24-P. Photo courtesy of IMSA

“It’s so cool to be coming back into the Mazda family,” said Franchitti. “Like everyone else, I was blown away when I saw the first shots of the RT24-P and how incredible it looks, so there’s a lot of excitement at getting to drive it. I’m relieved I get a chance to test the car, as many times I’ve just jumped in and raced, so this is a bit of a luxury! Being a part of the development process of a car is something I’ve been lucky enough to do several times and it’s something I really love.”

Mazda Motorsports director John Doonan added, “He’s a proven winner there, and he’s been a part of the Mazda family for years. Just look at his record at Sebring! He has the experience that can really help our team. Because he’s driven with Mazda before, we know his personality is a great fit. That’s important to us, and it goes a long way in helping the team chemistry remain strong. He’s a great fit with Tom [Long] and Joel [Miller], just as Spencer Pigot has been great with Nunez and Bomarito.”

Pipo Derani set for IndyCar test with SPM at Sebring

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Photo courtesy of IMSA
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Pipo Derani has become a star in the sports car world the last couple years, courtesy of his drives primarily with Tequila Patron ESM.

Meanwhile for at least a day, the 23-year-old Brazilian will be returning to his open-wheel roots in a big way.

NBC Sports has learned Derani will test for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports on March 1 in a rookie test for the Verizon IndyCar Series. Derani joins Mexican driver Luis Michael Dorrbecker, who will also make his test debut that day at that test at Sebring International Raceway’s 1.5-mile short course.

Derani raced a partial season in the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires series in 2014 with Team Pelfrey, before shifting to sports cars later that fall, starting with Murphy Prototypes.

Derani excelled with G-Drive in 2015 before his star turn with ESM last year. This year, his schedule grows even greater, as he’s been confirmed with Ford Chip Ganassi Racing for the first three races of the FIA World Endurance Championship season, including the 24 Hours of Le Mans, sharing the No. 67 Ford GT with Andy Priaulx and Harry Tincknell.

It’ll be interesting to see what Derani does on the Sebring short course in one of SPM’s Honda-powered entries. He’ll be back at Sebring a couple weeks after his IndyCar test, as he prepares to defend his win in the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring with ESM.