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Motor Sports


by Larry Roberts

March 9, 1997

Every race fan who has watched TV and seen the IRL cars go through the third turn at the Indy 500 or Formula One racers flash through the tunnel at the Monaco Grand Prix has dreamed of being behind the wheel.

This leads to the obvious question: how does one get into that profession? It isn't easy and there's very little room at the top. Most world-class drivers got their start behind the wheel of some sort of racing kart long before they were old enough to get a license to drive on the street. If you're too old to fit this category, don't go into a fit of depression if you don't eventually get an invitation to try out for the Penske CART or Williams F-1 teams - but it does happen.

It's possible for beginners to get into single-seater racing - but they have to go back to school to start with the basics. There's half a dozen schools available to beginners and advanced drivers too, and during the year, we'll critique each of them. We'll give a rundown on the types of race cars that the schools use, where they're located and how students can go on to bigger and better things.

The first in the in the spotlight is the Skip Barber Racing Schools which are located at various tracks around the country as well as in Hawaii. Like all the other schools (Jim Russell, Bob Bondurant, Bridgestone, etc.), the Russell school system uses single-seaters that are true race cars and built to a very specific formula. But Barber did it with a difference: he had his 80 cars built to his own specification and they're not available to the buying public.

In years past, the Barber cars were powered by turbocharged Saab engines and Saab was the corporate underwriter but in '95, Barber switched over to Dodge power and acquired the new name. They're now labeled Formula Dodge and are underwritten by Chrysler. For this year, power is being supplied by a non-turboed, all-aluminum 24-valve Chrysler V6 unit that is very light and more powerful.

The chassis are produced by Mondiale Race Cars in Ireland and has remained pretty much the same since the inception of the program. The car is simple, straightforward, sturdy and the handling is predictable - just what the doctor ordered for beginners. Driving skill is the determining factor since all of the cars are identical and receive the same maintenance and service by Barber's own crew of technicians.

The Barber program starts beginners from scratch with a three-day school that begins with classroom "chalk-talk" and quickly gets them out on the track and into the cockpit. Each student has a professional coach who evaluates his charge on performance and gives instruction on the correct and hence the quickest way around the track and how to stay out of trouble. On the third day, students are divided into groups and race against each other. But nothing in life is free and if a Barber car is bent, the driver has limited liability in all the advanced activities.

Students who want to take a step up can sign up for Formula Dodge Race Series events. These are amateur races and open not only to Barber school participants but graduates of other recognized schools too. The races are held on nearly 20 tracks around the country. Every year more than 700 contestants compete in four regional championships and all that a driver has to do is show up at the track, pay for his or her "ride" and then go home. At season's end, regional champs and other top Barber drivers are invited to the Big Scholarship Run-Off at Sebring. The Big Scholarship award is a year of paid racing in Barber's Dodge Pro Series.

As the name implies, the Pro Series are support races for other more prestigious pro events and the goal is to have professional teams that are in attendance be impressed and sign up the Barber contestants. This was the route taken by Indy car racers Robbie Buhl and Richie Herta.

Barber also has a Masters Division for drivers over the age of 40. How far over? AutoWeek recently did a feature on nationally famous water and snow skier George Blair who has just gone through the Barber school at the age of 82. You can contact the Barber school at 1-800-221-1131.