The Roads Would Be Safer if Everyone Went to Skip Barber Racing School
How to get a master’s degree in going fast.
Students start rolling in at dawn. Lime Rock Park is breathtaking at that hour; a ring of fog-dappled hills surround the 1.54 mile circuit, looking just as they did some sixty years ago when the track was bulldozed out of Connecticut's Litchfield Hills. Braking, turn-in, apex, and track-out points are still exactly as Mario Andretti, Dan Gurney, Sam Posey, and Danika Patrick once navigated them. They're the very same ones a new racing driver will learn at Skip Barber Racing School's three-day course.
Not everyone cares about driving. Most of us do it out of convenience or obligation as something to be endured. Then, there are those who really love driving, many of whom, ironically, never learn how to do it well. Everyone on the road has a baseline of driving ability; call it grade school. But there is an equivalent to a master’s degree in driving, obtainable at a performance driving school like Skip Barber.
Twelve Ford Mustang GTs are lined up in front of the Lime Rock clubhouse. Each car has been modified with a roll cage, racing seats, and a raft of safety equipment. As students arrive—myself included—they are issued five items that will stay with them for the duration of the course: a Roux R-1C helmet, a Stand 21 Racewear fire suit, a Race Keeper HDX2 data drive, insurance coverage courtesy of Hagerty, and, most importantly, one of those Mustangs.
Most people familiar with motorsports know the name Skip Barber. For decades, the former SCCA national champion racer operated one of the two most recognized names in racing schools (along with competitor Bob Bondurant). The Skip Barber Racing School was founded in 1976 at Lime Rock Park, which Skip still owns and operates. Recently, Anthony and Dan DeMonte of DeMonte Brothers Motorsports acquired the school, updated its fleet of racing cars, added more instructors, and rolled out a selection of both standard and custom-tailored courses. Its driving school slots were sold out by early summer.
Racecraft is taught like a language—individually developed, strung together in combination, and then practiced in controlled, open lapping. Students spend most of the first day in the classroom, although they'll get some introductory track time during the seven-hour session. In class, they'll learn the textbook basics of high-performance driving, from managing traction in acceleration, deceleration, and turning, to choosing racing lines, to understanding and memorizing the flags officials use to communicate track conditions to drivers. Day two is split evenly between classroom studies and track time, and day three is spent almost entirely on track.
The driving sessions are largely one car at a time. Single laps end at a stop box after turn seven (The Downhill), where three instructors stationed at different parts of the track critique drivers' skills via walkie talkie. For me, with no prior racing experience, the slow, methodical instruction was exactly what I needed.
By the middle of day three, instructors begin incorporating multi-car race scenarios to teach the deeper intricacies of racecraft. I'm still craving more individual laps to tighten up my skills, while more confident students are pushing to amp up the complexity. The day is nearly over when I miss a heel-toe downshift from fourth to third gear at turn one. Upsetting the car's balance sends me into oversteer, as the rear tires lose traction before the fronts, and the car begins to swap ends. I hammer the clutch and brake to the floor and wait out the inevitable spin. As I wind to a stop, the instructors approach to discuss how I might have recovered control (like, countersteering quicker), and how I can modify my approach by staying in fourth gear on the straight so I won't have to double downshift from fifth to third. Instructor Stephan Bastrzycki also uses my spin as a teachable moment to discuss how other drivers are expected to maneuver safely during a race when trouble occurs on track, read the flags correctly, and continue the race. “Do you need new pants?” another instructor jokes. Thankfully, I don't.
"A lot of people think going to racing school means they have to be a race car driver," Colin Chambers, the school's head of marketing, tells me. "That’s not true. We've trained champions, and this year we have 15 drivers at NASCAR, but we've also trained 300,000 individuals who apply their skills in a wide range of driving activities. The skills we teach will make you a better and safer driver—and those skills can be applied on any road, not just a race track.”
What Chambers said becomes even clearer in the days after the school ended. After feeling what real power, grip, and weight control are like, there’s no thrill for me in driving recklessly on the highway. Moreover, Skip Barber completely altered my perspective on driver education and licensure requirements in America. The standards now feel woefully inadequate after learning proper car control. In a country with double the rate of driving-related deaths as in the European Union, grade school level driving just doesn't seem like enough anymore.
Skip Barber's courses vary from one-day to multi-day programs. Each option offering different price points and areas of focus, tuned to everyone on the driving spectrum.
One-Day Driving School
Hagerty teamed up with Skip Barber to offer a comprehensive one-day driving school. The Hagerty Driving Academy focuses on safety, competency, the art of manual shifting, and applications of motorsport skill into everyday car control scenarios. Instruction is split between in-classroom and on-track sessions in a workaday fleet that includes an array of classic standard-shift cars from the ’60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s curated by Hagerty.
- Level: All licensed drivers welcome
- Cars: Assorted passenger vehicles, including Hagerty curated classic standard shifts.
- Cost: $995 (Hagerty Driver Club members receive a 20% discount)
One-Day Racing School
Skip Barber’s single day racing school features in-depth expert instruction split between the classroom and the track. Students sit down to learn about racing lines and vehicle dynamics before heading to the track for lead-follow laps in Skip Barber’s fleet of track-prepped Mustang GTs.
Half-Day Racing School
Everything about the one-day school, condensed into four hours and less than half the price.
Three-Day Racing School
The three-day racing school is an extension of the subject matter taught in the one-day program, primarily distinguished by the sheer volume of hours on the track. Here, students get more in-depth class and track sessions, including training on heel-toe downshifting, passing drills, racecraft components, and the rules and regulations of a real race scenario. It's an accredited program that fulfills the prerequisite for racers interested in obtaining a club, professional, or international racing license.
- Level: Karting license (if under 16) or driver’s license required. Proficiency in manual shift required.
- Cars: Ford Mustang GT
- Cost: $4,795
Note: Those who think themselves the next Senna or Schumacher can sign up for Van Diemen SCCA Formula E variants of the one-day and three-day schools that Skip Barber offers.
Two-Day Advanced Racing School
Skip Barber’s two-day advanced program further hones the racecraft skills acquired in the three-day school, offering students high speed and race-focused scenarios on track. Fulfillment of this course qualifies students for a full SCCA license, but a desire to race is not necessary. As one student told me, “I just want to get my Lime Rock lap time under one minute.” (Me too, buddy.)
- Level: Students must have successfully completed the three-day racing school, or show similar experience in order to enroll.
- Cars: Ford Mustang GT
- Cost: $3,995