A fast course in race driving on fast courses

Walter Mitty I'm not, but only because he was smart enough to think of it first! What I am, I guess, is one of Mitty's millions of feel- alikes (man or woman, it doesn't matter) who has fantasized about everything from climbing into the ring with Muhammad Ali to winning the Miss America pageant at Atlantic City.

The problem is that feats considered athletic, difficult, newsworthy, dangerous, or simply impossible are rarely available to us folks with ordinary coordination and dreams for trophies.

But now, because of an organization called the British School of Motor Racing in Ontario, Calif., you too can climb into an $18,000 Formula Ford (capable of 116 m.p.h.) that would even put a knowing smile on the lips of Mario Andretti.

What you get for your money is a highly intensified three-day course that teaches you not only a great deal about racing cars, but also that a good driver never relinquishes control of his vehicle.

The cost, in terms of what most people earn, is slightly ridiculous. But the nine Walter Mittys who took this course with me considered the total price of $ 775 per person quite reasonable, if not actually a bargain.

Among the group were two engineers, two recent high school graduates, a dentist, a lawyer, a college student, and a recreational-vehicle dealer, plus an accountant who was also the only woman.

Instructor Jacques Couture, a former Canadian National champion who conducts the course, said they were typical of the cross section of students he gets every week. They ranged in age from 18 to maybe 55 and they seemed like people you could have met just as easily at the supermarket or the opera.

I got my biggest kick out of the RV dealer who said that he had wanted to get behind the wheel of a racing car for years, only before when he had the time he never had the money, and vice versa.

"I'm here because my own business is so bad," he told me. "Actually right now, while I'm sitting in this car, my lawyers are in court filing bankruptcy on my behalf. but I can tell you this: Nothing is going to spoil these three days for me."

Lessons start each Wednesday at 8:30 a.m. and last until about 5 p.m. There is heavy emphasis on the classtoom the firsy day, but after that your hands are hardly ever off the steering wheel.

When students arrive, they are equipped with blue, fire-resistant coveralls with all the standard racing patches and company logos that are so familiar at Indianapolis. Although the patches won't make you a better driver, it's pretty good theater and seems to create a mood.

After the crash helmet with full-face visor is fitted (this takes a little longer), everybody goes to the movies for a short film, in which the camera zeroes in on the car's cockpit, dashboard, pedal arrangement, and four-speed shift.

Then it's a sardine ride in the back of a station wagon out onto the Ontario track area, where the Formula Fords are lined up single file. This is also where Couture, in a very professional but pleasant way, begins his instruction.

The Formula Fords are built in England, have fiberglass bodies, weigh only 800 pounds, and are powered by slightly modified four-cylinder Pinto engines. They come equipped with disk brakes, racing tires, roll bars, four- speed gearboxes -- and a ground clearance of barely four inches.

Climbing into the cockpit feet first is like sliding into an old-fashioned bathtub that has been narrowed several inches on both sides. It's a tight fit even for a small person and feels even more cramped when the seat belt and shoulder harness are cinched up and locked into position.

Your legs, in order to reach the gas, clutch, and brake pedals, remain almost constantly at a 90-degree angle to the rest of your body. Behind the driver is the engine, roll bar, and spring-loaded ignition switch.

The four-speed gearshift (actually five speeds, since, surprisingly, there is a reverse) is steering-wheel high on the right side of the car and moves only an inch and a half between each position. There is also a tachometer, but no speedometer, and the engine runs on regular gas. The steering wheel is maybe three-quarters the size of that on a conventional car.

Couture, who has the ability to make even uptight newcomers feel confident and relaxed, is as consumed with the importance of fundamentals as Woody Hayes.

Asked what problems most pupils share, Couture replied: "Mostly a lack of concentration and judgment the first time out. That's why we start so slowly and why we keep going over and over the same things. Yet by the afternoon of the third day most people can take a car at maximum speed through the tight turns and two long straightways of Ontario's 3.2-mile track."

What does it actually feel like to drive one of these cars down a straightway at 116 m.p.h. or downshift to 60 when going through a turn?

Frankly, with my instruction limited to half a day, I never reached those lofty speeds. But you do feel some body pressure (even at 50 m.p.h.), and there is a great sense of speed because of the car's low center of gravity. But the ability to downshift well in the turns, which requires heel and toe action involving both the gas and brake pedal, is probably the biggest ego builder of all.

Once this three-day course is completed, most students simply slip back into their regular life style, never to put on racing togs again. but an extremely small percentage, who are either serious about making racing a career or have unlimited funds, become weekend drivers.

For a $500 fee they can rent a Formula Ford and whatever other equipment they need (including mechanic service) for two days of time trials and two eight-lap races at Ontario. And they race knowing that all cars are virtually the same mechanically, meaning that how well one drives almost always determines how high up one finishes.

There are currently two British Motor Racing Schools (Ontario and a facility near Monterey) in California. But there are also two more (under the Jim Russell banner) in St. Jovite, Quebec, Canada and in Bridgehampton, N.Y.

Actually the British schools are subsidiaries of the Russell operation, which pioneered the whole thing and has been turning out Walter Mitty race drivers for more than 11 years.

So far these schools have attracted only two well- known professional athletes, center Guy Lafleur of the Montreal Canadiens and wide receiver Lynn Swann of the Pittsburgh Steelers.And, oh yes, one sports columnist with two left feet!

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