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Hagerty Driving Academy is a devil of a good time
I was a kid the first time I heard “skip barber,” and that phrase meant my hair had just received a stay of execution. As I learned last week, however, the adult version of Skip Barber—that’s capital S, capital B—is a whole lot more fun than the childhood pleasure of avoiding the chair. This Barber chair comes with a steering wheel, engine, chassis, four wheels, expert instruction, and a directive to push yourself, all in the name of becoming a better, safer driver.
Sign me up for that.
Off to school
First a disclaimer: While Skip Barber is officially called the Skip Barber Racing School, the session I attended didn’t have as much actual racing as the name would suggest. (I saw more race time when I drove a lawn mower in anger some years ago—here’s video proof). That’s because I participated in the one-day course offered through the Hagerty Driving Academy. Skip Barber does also have longer, more rigorous courses: its “signature product” is a three-day racing school that serves as a prerequisite for earning a racing license, and there’s also a two-day advanced racing school that builds on the three-day course. Nevertheless, the one-day class was far from boring.
As one of 44 lucky Hagerty team members chosen to take the academy for a spin (pun intended), I wasn’t sure what I was getting myself into, but like a lunch invitation from Charlize Theron or George Clooney, I knew to say yes. So, after making sure we were wearing our Hagerty “Enjoy the Ride” t-shirts and athletic shoes—the only prerequisites specified in the itinerary—our group traveled four hours by bus from Hagerty’s Traverse City headquarters to Detroit’s Willow Run Airport. Once the home of Ford’s historic World War II bomber plant, much of Willow Run is now a wonderland of paved service roads and parking lots. Perfect place for a driving school.
Our day began in a classroom, and the first indication of the fun we were about to experience came via the fast-paced, enthusiastic words of one Don Kutchall. The one-time race driver has served as a Skip Barber instructor for more than three decades, and although he has to take a seat now and again to rest his aching back, his youthful exuberance is contagious, his wisecracks welcome.
“We may not be able to perfect your racing skills, but we’ll be able to give you a taste of it,” Kutchall told us. “Most people aren’t accustomed to using the car as aggressively as you will be today, but we’ll be right by your side… the highlight of our careers.”
After previewing the four modules of the course—manual transmission, emergency braking, avoiding a collision, and recovering from a skid—Kutchall attempted to calm any possible anxiety by promising, “The most danger you’ll experience today will be in here with me.”
We were split into four teams organized by color, and our education began immediately. As a member of Team White, I was instructed to remain in the classroom, which seemed like a perfectly logical place to start. I wondered what it would be like for the others, who were heading directly into cars without any of the classroom knowledge I was about to receive. Then I remembered something about an end-of-the-day autocross competition, and I was immediately thankful for what seemed like a distinct advantage for our team of 11 would-be race drivers.
Hey, I thought, we’re already in the lead and we haven’t even driven a car yet. Not so fast, Mario Andretti.
Open your books to page…
Nope, there are no text books at Skip Barber. The instruction is verbal, the education is experiential. I noticed immediately that I was the only one taking notes—Kutchall was sharing his wisdom and I didn’t want to miss any of it.
He explained that most people use only 60 percent of a car’s capability before succumbing to an accident; today we would be exploring that other 40 percent, which would give us options and the ability to avoid a collision altogether. Since I work for a car insurance agency, I considered that a very good thing indeed.
“Our job as race car drivers is to push the car to the limit,” he said, encouraging us to do just that. I couldn’t wait.
Kutchall explained how the ABS (Antilock Braking System) in modern cars allows each wheel to brake at a different rate, helping to prevent a skid. He warned that the pulsating of the ABS often causes drivers to pump the brakes—a very bad idea. “Instead, breathe back on the brake (pedal) just enough to get the tires rotating again. If your front tires aren’t rotating, it’s impossible to steer.”
That doesn’t mean, however, that you’ll never skid. The key, Kutchall said, is where you’re looking. “If you’re going to hit the wall, don’t look at the wall, look where you want to go. You will drive where you’re looking, so look where you’re driving.” That advice was repeated over and over throughout the day: The eyes have it. Always.
“When you discipline yourself to do that one thing,” Kutchall said, “that’s when the magic happens.”
Some of what we heard simply reinforced what most of us already knew. Oversteer (when the back end slides out) can be corrected by turning into the skid. “As counterintuitive as it may be, it works.”
Understeer occurs when the car doesn’t steer precisely where the driver is asking it to go, causing it to veer off course, nose first. “To quote (Sir Isaac) Newton, ‘Mass in motion wants to stay in motion,’” Kutchall said. “Our first reaction is to step on the brake, but 100-percent brake means 0-percent steering. You have to give up some of the brake in order to steer.” That’s where ESC (Electronic Stability Control) on a modern car comes into play. Kutchall likens it to maneuvering a canoe. “It’s like putting an oar in the water to assist the turn.”
Finally, Kutchall dispelled the common practice of downshifting a manual-transmission automobile to slow the car down. “You downshift to prepare for the gear you want to use when coming out of the corner. That’s it. Use your brake to slow your car—that’s what it’s for.”
Before sending us onto the course to put his instruction to use, Kutchall had one last bit of advice: Good tires, properly inflated, aren’t just important—they’re vital.
“Your tires are the one thing that connects you to the world,” he said. The skid pad quickly proved his point.
Hitting the skids
Of all the hours I spent on an elementary school playground—playing kickball and basketball and (as I got a little older) chasing girls—I don’t remember ever having as much fun at school as I did in my way-too-short time behind the wheel of a Nissan Altima on the skid pad.
Exhilarating. Eye opening. Exhilarating. Educational. And exhilarating. I could have spent the entire day out there. Alas, with our large group, I enjoyed a total of about 10 minutes of accelerating, turning, losing control, and regaining control—and one time not regaining control until the car had completed a full 360. What a joy ride.
Of course, a 360 is absolutely not what you want to do, but what better place to push your skills to the limit? That was my reasoning anyway. I’m pretty sure my co-worker David Zalucha agrees. Wholeheartedly. More about that later.
Designed to teach drivers how to recover from a skid, the exercise wouldn’t be nearly as effective if it weren’t for a special tread-less, grip-less slug of a tire mounted on the rear wheel opposite the direction of the turn. Without a decent tire to grip the road and complete the turn, the rear swings around like a carnival ride. Our job was to regain control and straighten the car quickly enough to guide it through a set of cones and drive back in the opposite direction—so we could do it all over again at the other end.
Our skid pad instructors, Bob Green and Derek Ware, each took the passenger seat of an Altima and cut us loose. Those brave enough—and confident enough not to puke their guts out—were welcome to sit in the back seat and enjoy the ride while a classmate drove. I was not one of those people. And I was especially thankful for making that decision when Zalucha got behind the wheel. Clearly taking the “push yourself” directive to heart, he wiped out 17 cones throughout the day before we eventually lost count. He earned a new nickname in the process—Coneman the Barbarian—and provided plenty of laughter for the rest of us. Actually, no one was spared; we all had our share of poor decisions and humorous moments.
Give me a brake
Next stop was the braking station, where former New York Police Department Detective Dan Donza and Porsche GT3 Cup driver Carter Fartuch put us through the paces. Donza, who teaches Secret Service Agents the art of defensive driving, explained the nuances of the panic/emergency stop and the panic stop and steer.
Repeating something Kutchall had said earlier, Donza emphasized the importance of properly inflated tires. “Underinflated tires make stopping more difficult. Don’t gamble with your tire pressure.”
Once inside a Toyota Corolla, we accelerated quickly and maintained our speed until Donza (or Fartuch) signaled us to stop—and stop meant standing on the brake pedal so we could fully comprehend the car’s ability to stop, while keeping the car between the cones. Same acceleration for the stop and steer, but slightly less brake so the car could steer—along with a reminder to look where you want to go, not stare down the cones you might take out.
Since every member of my group already knew how to drive a manual transmission—that’s not normal in the real world, by the way—we simply looked at this station as an opportunity to drive a car we’d never driven before. Our choices included a modern Ford Mustang, a classic Chevrolet Camaro, and a classic MG TD.
I own a Triumph Spitfire Mk3, so I decided to compare it to the MG. As rain began to fall, the first thing I noticed was just how much I appreciate side windows, something the TD does not possess. And the pedals seemed so much closer together than those in the Spit; I couldn’t imagine wearing anything bulkier than athletic shoes without having a problem. I did, however, enjoy figuring out how to get myself out of the car—I finally found that a sneaky little rope line hiding beneath the window sill that operated the door latch.
Following a well-timed lunch, which allowed us to wait out the rain, the precipitation stopped and all outdoor activities continued—for three of the teams anyway. Team White was back in the classroom to start the afternoon session.
Kutchall’s objective: Dispel myths and teach proper cornering techniques. First off, we learned that the wide-tight-wide method makes way more sense and is clearly more effective than hugging a corner.
“All human beings want to turn early into a corner,” Kutchall said. “And that is the single biggest cause of accidents on the highway and the race course.”
He used numbers and math and speed and trajectory to prove why wide-tight-wide (easing into and out of a corner) is the way to go. Don’t ask me to repeat it though. I wrote down a bunch of stuff that I can’t make sense of, but trust me, it works. That knowledge came in handy when we headed back onto the course.
After another round on the skid pad—heading in the opposite direction—we were tested on our ability to make a quick decision when faced with an obstacle. Accelerating straight ahead, much like in the braking session, we quickly approached a three-lane split. Just as we reached the point of no return, a green light flashed in either the far left lane or far right lane. The first two rounds we were instructed to brake and turn into the appropriate lane without hitting a cone; the next two times we had to turn without braking, then come to a complete stop as quickly as possible.
It wasn’t as easy as it looked. Despite being encouraged to consider each cone “a child or puppy dashing into the street,” unfortunately we took some cones down. It was an eye opener, to be sure—a reminder to lower your speed, keep distractions to a minimum, and keep your eyes moving.
The last portion of the academy, for my group anyway, was putting everything together on a simple autocross course. Fartuch was in the passenger seat, and he was the perfect teacher: “Hard brake… turn and accelerate… find your line… hug the right edge… touch the brake… hard turn… accelerate, accelerate!” After three laps, I really started feeling comfortable, but four laps later it was over.
We enjoyed timing each other, critiquing our technique, and giving each other advice. We’d need all the help we could get, since as soon as the session ended, the competition began.
Unfortunately, we were first up in the team autocross. Each person would complete one lap as quickly as possible, braking hard to finish in a designated area, and exit the car as fast as possible so a teammate could run out—Le Mans style—and take their turn. The problem was, the doors locked automatically as soon as we reached a certain speed (like they do in many modern cars), so after stopping each of us struggled several times to first get the door open and then buckle the seat belt. The other teams took note of our troubles and devised ways to make the transition smoother. Not that it made much of a difference. We finished fourth out of four, and it wasn’t close.
Then came the cherry on the sundae, when we encouraged the instructors to compete as a team, along with members of Hagerty’s Car Culture team, just as we had done. I must say, those Skip Barber guys have impressive driving skills.
Upon completion of the course we each received a certificate and left with the desire to return for more. I think about the school every time I brake hard or make a sharp turn… while also resisting the urge to drive like I’m in a vacant parking lot behind the wheel of an overworked Nissan Altima.
Now I know what Kutchall meant when he delivered these parting words: “Use your new-found skills for good, not evil.” Dang, that was a devil of a good time.
Want to know more? Join the Hagerty Drivers Club for a chance to take part in exclusive members-only events like the Hagerty Driving Academy. HDC members receive a 20-percent discount on most Skip Barber Racing School programs.