From Novice to Pro, it puts you in the know
There are two types of motoring enthusiasts in this world – those who are fast, and those who want to go fast. Really, it doesn’t matter which category you belong to, but there comes a point when those who ‘want’ must make a decision between wanting and actually doing. Luckily, there are a number of avenues that allow you to get involved, whether it’s at the hobby level, or a step toward becoming an amateur or professional driver. The Bridgestone Racing Academy is one of the few options that offer you the chance to do both. You can whet your appetite, or dive in for the full experience.
Located at the world-class Canadian Tire Motorsport Park, the Bridgestone Racing Academy operates out of the facility’s Driver Development Track (DDT) that sits adjacent to the Grand Prix circuit, and home to numerous events throughout the year. With many different layouts, the track is highly-configurable suited to just about any car or driving experience – the most popular being time trials and, more recently, drifting.
My experience on the circuit has been in road-going sports cars that include a Ferrari 355, Mini Cooper S and Subaru WRX. This time, I have the opportunity to drive my first open-wheel car as part of the Bridgestone Racing Academy’s Thrill of a Lifetime 3 program, a single-day program aimed at open-wheel or track “newbies” to give the full experience of a Formula car with minimal risk.
Getting us around the track is the Van Diemen DP08 F2000 Formula car, a $72,000 fully-prepped, 450 kg (1,000 lb.) race car complete with a lightweight flywheel and five-speed sequential dogbox. It's powered by a 2.3-litre, 170-horsepower Mazda engine – the same version under the hoods of the mid-size Mazda3. The only difference compared to the majority of Mazda3 engines out there is the fuel it runs on – super-clean Ultra 94. Available only at certain race tracks and select Petro-Canada stations nationwide, it’s the highest quality pump fuel in the country and ensures maximum power, fuel efficiency and engine performance with minimal gunk. No regular stuff here.
The Academy has operated out of the DDT since it was designed by school owner Brett Goodman and ALMS founder (and former Mosport owner) Don Panoz. Heading a number of schools in his career, Goodman prides himself on a 28-year injury-free record. His program involves rigorous in-class training that goes over everything from braking to proper gear changes, flags, balance and cornering techniques. The focus is on safety in the cockpit as much as it is out of it, and everything is held to strict standards, as every school should be. It’s three warnings and you’re out, although with the safety and teaching measures in place, it’s hard to imagine getting booted unless you’re trying to.
Prior to each session, our instructor Jamie was there to answer any questions and provide useful feedback. After all, more than 50% of the participants that attend the Racing Academy every year are either novice drivers or corporate clients.
Our day is split equally between novices and advanced drivers, allowing us that can go moderately fast to take greater advantage of the DP08s. When we hop in, it’s hard not to feel like Senna, Prost or Schumacher back in his Benetton days. You’re strapped tight into a cockpit with little more than the steel roll cage, ignition switch on the left, tiny sequential shifter on the right, and throwback Momo steering wheel complete with digital readouts. Oh, and an emergency fire extinguisher you want to be sure not to hit. It’s too cool not to be excited!
The advanced group is rolled out in the first of three sessions that get progressively faster, primarily to get a feel for the car and the track. I haven’t had a day when the DDT isn’t challenging, but I’m hoping this will be the fastest I will have travelled it yet. On the first lap, it’s by far the most connected I’ve been to it, due in part to the incredibly responsive Bridgestone RE-11s.
As we go on, the immediate feedback from the car is exhilarating; you learn how far you can push the car and when to take caution while maximizing your speed. This is especially important considering the cars are not equipped with ABS – you want to hit your points and not over compensate. The three-strike rule applies for spins too, after all. Each of the “Thrill” programs requires participants to stay behind the instructor’s car to ensure safe driving and, rest assured, for many people that’s more than enough.
Come session three, my group is given a little more freedom, principally because our instructor sees that we’re comfortable and he can spread his wings a little bit. Slamming through the gears is a total joy in the Van Diemen. When the final white flag waves, there are equal feelings of contentment and melancholy.
But, that’s the great thing about the Bridgestone Racing Academy. The care and determination to create a program that’s extremely fun and perhaps even more educational is what makes it such a draw and keeps you wanting more. If you’re a novice, take the half- or full-day Thrill program. If you are an advanced lapper, take a half- or full-day Lapping course, or step up your game and try the Advance to Racing program for your CASC or SCCA racing license – chances are the experience in an open-wheel car is going to give you a whole new set of skills to advance your driving repertoire.
Another great opportunity for those on the younger end of the age spectrum is the 3.5- or six-month Mechanic program, where students can obtain their racing license, participate in lapping and competitions and learn the ins and outs of open-wheel race cars. It’s a truly unique program for anyone looking at making racing and automotive a career.
With support from clients like James Hinchcliffe, Danica Patrick and Canadian DTM and Mercedes Junior driver Robert Wickens, and programs for even the least experienced drivers, it’s hard to deny the Academy doesn’t offer something unique and fun for everyone.