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SRT at the Skip Barber Racing School (2006)

by Ray Alexander

With the purchase of any Chrysler SRT vehicle [in 2006], you can sign up for one day of Skip Barber Racing School. The SRT comes in several flavors: SRT4, SRT6, 3 styles of SRT8, and 2 styles of SRT10. Chrysler somewhat believes that SRT is an acronym for Street and Racing Technology. After beating a new Mustang on the 56 Freeway, I firmly believe that those letters stand for Short Rocket Trip.

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I could have gone to the California Speedway in October but I wanted a real road course. Laguna Seca meets that requirement.

After detouring through Livermore and Fremont then coming back south on 101, I pulled off in Salinas and stopped in front of a Marriott Courtyard that I was certain had a room available. I get out of the car just in time to hear a Hemi burnout coming from a dark corner of the parking lot. I waited and three people walked up, a man, his wife, and her brother. I asked, "was that a Hemi burnout that I just heard?" The brother shrugged his shoulders and says "maybe."

To make a long story somewhat shorter, they are from Valley Center and own VW Paradise in San Marcos. The woman drives a Viper and her brother had a Dodge Magnum.

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The next morning, there was a bad traffic jam getting to the racetrack. This was not caused by the SRT event. I can't imagine how bad the traffic would be for getting 100,000 people in and out of this track. It is much higher than the highway, and some vehicles would be challenged in just getting to the parking areas. This area was part of Fort Ord and now is a county park with camping and RV sites. The rates are very reasonable when the track is idle.

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It is cold and there is a brisk wind, the last time I looked at the temperature from the car it was 37°. At the track there were an unbelievable number of Chrysler vehicles including two Jeeps, five each Chrysler Crossfires, Dodge Chargers, Chrysler 300s, three Magnums, three Vipers and two V10 pickup trucks, but no SRT4. I didn't want to drive an SRT4 but people owning them really like them.

After a brief hour of instructions we are divided into 3 groups of about 20 each. Basically, the classroom instructor said if you do not already know to steer into a skid, I can't help you now.

They had set up three cones at each turn of the racecourse. One to mark the entry point, the second at the apex, and then the exit cone takes you into the next straightaway, maybe. As I drive on any two lane road I use my entire lane by starting a left turn from near the shoulder, then drive toward the centerline trying to touch that in the middle of the turn, and then back to the shoulder. Turns with a decreasing or increasing radius will force you to make corrections to your chosen line. This practice serves to decreases the radius and shortens the distance through a turn.

The apex for a racing turn is slightly beyond center resulting in an elliptical shape that allows for earlier acceleration. On public roads I am usually about 30 MPH over the speed limit making it unwise to accelerate so I am perfectly happy with my symmetrical arc. If you meet a driver following the same discipline when you are closest to the centerline they are closest to the shoulder. Drivers returning from church at 1:30 A.M. have been known to defeat the system.

We all know that the tires and springs on the outside of the turn accumulate load during the turn and just like humans they get pissed when they see their co-worker is carrying only 15% of the weight. The outside components get busy and push that poopies back to the other side plus a little bit. During normal driving this unloading is not an issue and I had not considered it. Sometimes those guys returning from church do go from turn to turn very quickly and should set up their suspension accordingly.

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The instruction concludes with, "This is a long course with lots of turns, some have decreasing radius but we have done the hard work, the cones are set up." No map is shown, no turn-by-turn description is given.

I am in the group that drives the track first. For the track there are 3 Crossfires, 3 Chrysler 300s, and 3 Chargers. The instructors each have a Dodge Magnum which is that thing on TV that has twelve 2x4s and a guitar in it.

The instructor in charge does not drive, but gives more instructions:

Stay three car lengths back from the car in front of you. When you complete a lap, the car immediately behind the instructor pulls over and lets the other two cars pass, thus in three laps each driver is the first car behind the instructor. A few words about the "Corkscrew:" do not stop at the top and look because someone will hit you. You will want to stop but please don't. No other racecourse in the world has anything that can compare. One of the cones is about 40 feet up in an oak tree, drive directly toward it, don't worry, you will not hit it. If the cone was placed where it should be, you couldn't see it. There are three turns in the corkscrew and if you don't make the middle turn you will end up about 70 feet above the ground in an oak tree.
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Vipers are not used in track driving because in 2005 three were totaled and one engine was blown by missing a shift. I was a young man when I learned that running the fan very fast will not pull the car.

Now we are ready to go. I am assigned to a Crossfire; I grab a helmet and get in. By the time I get the seat belt on I was 200 yards behind the car in front of me and the driver's right foot was on the floor.

Given the weather and the fact that one instructor from Phoenix showed up in shorts, the heater is set on Chernobyl meltdown. I am catching up nicely but when I top the hill I am immediately confronted with a very ugly left turn. I immediately snap the car hard left. I am now skidding sideways toward a fancy little number that is slightly more than 180 degrees downhill, off camber, and decreasing radius.

My mind gets very busy considering items such as; my total driving experience in this car is about one half mile, I don't think there is going to be a slow lap to show us the track and the cones, how do you turn the heater off, I hate that sickening screech made by tires that are traveling sideways, I smell rubber burning but that is probably from the car in front of me, and the number one thing - I am going to wreck this car in the first turn.

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Still sliding sideways, I have done all of turning into this skid that is going to do me any good. The apex cone came and went some time ago and to say that I was not close to it is an understatement. Still turning right, I apply power trying to get the little car to behave. The car responds to the power and comes out of the smoking skid heading straight for turn two and after that they just keep on coming. This turn is the Andretti Hairpin. I knew that he had a lot of hair but I was unaware that he used that particular piece of hardware.

I was never able to look at the speedometer but one guy in my group of three said we were doing over 100 MPH before we got to turn 1.

On the Rahal straightaway I get some of the heat off of me. Now I am looking for cones and actually getting close to some of them. The cones are good things but they give me no idea as to how much braking I will need or in racer speak "how much speed to carry into the turn."

I am in a very sharp left turn followed by 10 yards of uphill where the track completely disappears. To the right I can see all the way to the Golden Gate Bridge and I never looked to the left because there ain't no way in Hell I could get the car to go there. There is an air gap of maybe 20 yards to the tops of some oak trees. I think that I know what this is! I do not see a cone in a tree and I never saw that cone. Here is where the instructions take a real beating; look ahead, I wish I could but even these super eyes will not bend the light rays, think ahead, look where you want the car to go, I don't want the car in the oak trees but that is all I can see.

The car catches some air then comes into very hard contact with the track. Now you must make an extremely sharp right but there is a lot of banking and a load of oak trees that help you with this turn. This corkscrew is badly bent and just as if it were a real corkscrew the bent part is the problem. Another sharp left a little off camber then you come out of the oaks and can see the pits. Two more turns then you can get a new set of tires or clean underwear, the choice is yours.

Road Race track Motor vehicle Mode of transport Highway

The Corkscrew is the sharpest descent that I have seen a car negotiate. I read a motorcycle racer's account and he refers to it as a four story drop. We were told the descent was about 700 feet, not an impressive number. The fact that you get down about 500' while making two turns and only 400' of forward progress is tastefully omitted.

Here is how the instructor gets down that hill, with three passengers, while talking on a walkie talkie. There is a ridge in that first descent; he comes toward the descent way off line. He jumps off where his left wheels will hit the ridge and that bounces him into the last left turn.

There has got to be a reason why no other track has anything like the Corkscrew.

I now have a deep respect for the Charger. I read that all of the suspension, braking, and steering was built using racing components and believed maybe half of it. The Charger beats the Crossfire around the track but I like driving the Crossfire better. In a 0 to 60 drag race the Charger beats the V10 pickup. I hate to say this, but the Jeep beats the Charger. Even when I see it I can't believe that a Jeep has that much acceleration.

When we crawled into the Chrysler 300C that had been up and down the drag strip all day long, the average MPG for this trip read 4.3. This Chrysler had a cat back exhaust system that sounded awesome. I went online and found that I can get one for my Charger for less than $900. After factoring in the probable extra driving awards I am going to leave it alone. I had my front wheels balanced just before leaving and saw that the struts were made by Bilstein.

When I see the Chargers come down the racetrack I see a real racecar that takes on the appearance of a two door. When the Chrysler 300Cs come by, I see a big sedan going really fast. The Crossfire handles great but on every straightaway I was begging it for more power.

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We were told that these cars do not break. They change tires and brakes and burn a lot of gas. The season ends at Sears Point in mid-December and after that, these cars will be detailed and sold to the public.

The only disappointment was that the tight, cone-defined track is the only place where you can drive the Viper, so you can only go up to second gear. The Viper sounds like the one to buy when it's retired, but it might not shift into third gear.

The drag strip was between the other two venues so all day long you heard Hemis or V10s hustling down the strip.

Now that the adrenaline rush has subsided, this was the best day of my life.

I later found out from the Valley Center folks that the tires and brake pads are changed after every school day. They had pallets loaded with brake pads and a semi trailer full of tires. One tire for my car costs $200 because of the Z speed rating.

I can get another day for $500 when the class is not full of first timers. I do want to do that again and at the same track.

In 2007 and 2008 the track experience was done by Richard Petty, and I received a notice then that I could attend free of charge. It was a completely different program. Richard Petty's program did not include Laguna Seca so I went to Phoenix International Raceway.

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