And we attended their first event.
If you haven’t heard the bad news already, here it is: The assets of the Skip Barber Racing School have been acquired by an asset management company that intends to sell the school cars, spare parts, and the infamous vomit-comet vans to interested bidders later this month. One of the longest and most storied histories in the driving-instruction game has come to a decisive end.
Ask any graduate of the SBRS, however, and they will tell you that it wasn’t the cars, the tattered old loaner racing suits, or even those crazy four-row vans that made their experience special. Rather, it was the people who worked and taught under the red-and-black banner that turned casual automotive enthusiasts into dedicated racers and Skip Barber evangelists. Those people haven’t gone away–they’ve just lost the forum and the medium by which they imparted their knowledge and enthusiasm to their students.
Now a group of former SBRS coaches have banded together to start a new school that continues the Skip Barber tradition while addressing some of the concerns that long-time participants have been voicing for most of the past decade. Headed by former Skip Barber Master Instructor Peter Stolz, the LevelUp Racing School just held its maiden event a few hours north of Chicago at Blackhawk Farms Raceway.
Road & Track received an invitation to LevelUp’s two-day race-license program with my name on it, and although I have a couple of podiums in the old Skip Barber Mazdaspeed Western Series, I thought it would be more relevant to send a recent graduate of SBRS to see what’s changed between the old school and the new. So I kidnapped my wife, the infamous Danger Girl, away from her daily grind of financial oversight and sent her to Blackhawk Farms. DG attended both the three-day Racing School and the two-day Advanced School with Skip Barber last year and was thoroughly satisfied with both events. She had a particular fondness for two instructors: Ray Scott and Steve DeBrecht.
Imagine her surprise when DeBrecht greeted her in the classroom at Blackhawk Farms. “OMG, it’s Stevie D-B!” she squealed. A former IMSA driver with multiple wins under his belt, DeBrecht is well-known among Skip Barber veterans for his classroom instruction and his laconic, but effective, corner-station coaching.
In addition to DeBrecht and Stolz, LevelUp brought Jim Pace and Keith Watts to teach the event. Jim Pace is a Daytona and Sebring winner and Watts is a multiple WKA champion. Together, they’ve created a curriculum that retains most of the Skip Barber classroom sessions while adding additional drive time.
Several former Skip Barber instructors have privately told me that they were regularly expected to put on massive events on marquee racetracks with a shortage of equipment, personnel, and ready cash. LevelUp, by contrast, is starting in a small but focused fashion. The fleet of NC-generation MX-5 cars, donated by Mazda a decade ago, has been replaced by an outsourcing arrangement with well-respected Spec Miata preparer Advanced Autosports. The big-name venues like Road Atlanta and Laguna Seca may come in the future, but this first event happened at a small, privately-held course in the middle of Illinois farm country.
Stolz is forthright but rueful about the implosion of his former employer: “It was really sad to see that program go away. But what we are doing now is going to be fun and it is going to be a success.” This first event was a “soft start” with seven invited drivers, including Danger Girl and a fourteen-year-old kart racer who had never driven a street car. Ralph LaMacchia, the charismatic and colorful principal of a Milwaukee firm specializing in financial-industry construction work, arrived with a stunning custom-painted helmet and a few of his favorite executives for what he saw as a sort of impromptu team-building exercise.
All of the traditional elements of a Skip Barber school were present: the morning classroom talk given by Jim Pace, the reliance on “stop box” coaching in which drivers are observed from corner stations, and the high number of minutes spent watching, and evaluating, fellow would-be racers at speed. To my amusement, there was even a white Ford twelve-passenger van with a hastily-applied LevelUp logo. Riding out to a corner station with DeBrecht behind the wheel, it was easy to believe that nothing had changed in the past four decades.
Given a free hand to deviate from the Skip Barber canon, however, the LevelUp crew has seen fit to make some significant changes in the way the school runs. There was more track time, and the Spec Miatas used for the school were in generally better repair than the patchwork-quilt MX-5s of old. The cars were supplied with Hoosier SM7 tires, which offer far more grip than the venerable BFGoodrich street tires used by Skip Barber. Danger Girl’s verdict on the switch to Hoosiers was enthusiastic: “I much prefer being coached and observed while I’m driving on the kind of tires that I use for racing.”
Under the patient eye of Stevie D-B and the rest of the crew, all seven drivers picked up pace quickly, with the young kart driver showing the most improvement despite a few off-track excursions. It has to be said that Blackhawk Farms is approximately a thousand times better for this sort of school than Laguna Seca or Road Atlanta used to be; there’s much more runoff space and the course is designed around the needs of club-level drivers rather than IMSA spectators.
On Day Two, the curriculum advanced to doing high-speed threshold braking. Several sets of Hoosier tires were sacrificed in the process, but it was possible to see just how quickly the students picked up the idea of releasing a locked wheel under braking. “To do this in a car without ABS, with sticky tires, is a big deal,” one driver mused aloud, to a chorus of agreement.
After that, it was time to practice rolling starts. Skip Barber rarely offered this to its students, even as part of the Advanced Two-Day School, but it’s immensely valuable to people who expect to start racing immediately afterwards. In the sessions between track time, Jim Pace used videos from his stints in various historic race cars to detail the finer points of heel-and-toe work. Nearly all the drivers got that figured out by the end of Day Two, even the fellows who started the weekend by holding the clutch in around every turn.
Finally, there was a practice race. Danger Girl was pitted against two older fellows and the fourteen-year-old kart star. At the start, the kid ran away from her while she in turn managed to drop her pursuers through Turn One. “I really think I improved in how I release the brakes and enter fast corners,” she noted, something that was borne out as she increased the gap between her and the cars behind. After about ten laps, it looked like the order of the race was irrevocably fixed–but then the young fellow managed to exit the fast final turn into the grass. He was permitted to rejoin the race and he started battling with the two senior drivers ahead. In the meantime, however, DG crossed the line in her vintage-BRE-liveried Spec Miata.
“It was just practice, so don’t make a big deal,” she chided me. I still thought it was a big deal. Ralph LaMacchia offered her his congratulations with an accent, and attitude, that took me back to my youth on the East Coast with my father’s Italian friends. “It’s been a great school and a great time,” he said, and everybody agreed.
After watching LevelUp in operation for two days, I think it’s safe to say that they’ve gone a long way to bring the Skip Barber curriculum into the present day while still retaining the traditional touch. For drivers who are in the habit of using data for coaching, or for drivers who thrive with an instructor in the right seat, LevelUp isn’t going to satisfy–but for the vast majority of people who want to dip a toe into racing, the school’s reliance on a tried-and-true instructional method should help them get the results they want. There’s something to be said for attending a school where the least-experienced of the instructors has been working in the profession for two decades, and that is particularly true in an era where more and more scrutiny is being placed on the interaction between inexperienced volunteer trackday coaches and affordable, attainable track cars that approach or exceed the performance of racing prototypes from a few decades ago.
“A brilliant proof of concept”, DeBrecht said of the first weekend, and the students appeared to agree. There are certainly challenges ahead for LevelUp–I, for one, wonder about the long-term prospects of using expensive and comprehensively-prepped Spec Miatas in a venue where history suggests that a certain percentage of participants will crash in spectacular fashion–but I think the future is bright. If you missed the chance to go to Skip Barber, or if you’re a loyal customer who wants a familiar experience, this school might be very good news indeed.