By on December 23, 2009

Down in it.

As far as publicity stunts go, it was an outstanding one. No doubt inspired by the many stories of “10/10ths driving” out there in the motoring press, Skip Barber decided to hold a media-only round of its MAZDASPEED Challenge, dubbing said race the “Skip Barber Media Challenge”. The purpose of this event would be to determine the fastest journalist in North America. Unfortunately, it didn’t really happen that way.

Why not? Consider this. Imagine a stadium containing every self-styled “motoring journalist” on the continent. There would be at least ten thousand people in that stadium. Now imagine that you ask everybody without a valid major-sanction racing license to leave. After the Who-concert-style trampling subsides, you will be left with thirty or so people. Ask those thirty people to accept a $7500 damage liability, a fairly rigorous travel schedule, and post-race publication of the results. Now there will be just one person left, and that person was me. To keep from feeling completely alone, I suggested that Skip Barber invite SHARP magazine’s occasional motoring editor, Brian Makse. I know Brian well, as he was my One Lap of America co-driver in 2005 and 2006.

Two journos does not a race make, so we were given the chance to participate in a regular-season MAZDASPEED Challenge at Laguna Seca Raceway. The race weekend was scheduled to start approximately 36 hours after the conclusion of CTS-V Challenge. I drove home from Monticello to Ohio and then flew from Ohio to California, which left me four hours to sleep. At the conclusion of that four hours, Brian picked me up at the hotel and drove to Laguna Seca, where we were packed into a Ford Econoline van with the rest of the MX-5 racers.

Don’t say “Miata”, by the way. These are modern 2007-vintage MX-5s, not Miatas, and they are worth about fifty grand each thanks to a comprehensive package of safety and performance upgrades. Skip Barber fits the MX-5s with two different types of seats to accommodate drivers from petit to point guard; at 6’2” and a 48” chest I fit easily into the “regular” seat. In terms of performance, these cars are considerably faster than a garden-variety Spec Miata but not quite up to a full Playboy MX-5 Car, largely due to the super-slippery G-Force Sport street tires. Hustling the Barber MX-5s requires putting them fairly sideways at the exit of every turn and the entrance of some.

Having prepared for this “track walk” with a strenuous two-week program of videos, pace notes, and coaching from top-level professionals, Brian cheerfully anticipated each corner and chattered endlessly with the SB instructors. I fell asleep on the Econoline’s vinyl seat, because I was dead-tired, stressed-out from the aforementioned CTS-V Challenge, and I’d never so much as watched a TV race at Laguna Seca.

Eunos better than to call me a Miata

Our first practice session revealed the true superstars in the race group. Two young drivers, improbably named Tyler and Coulter and each attended by a retinue of handsome, California-esque family members, were clear of the field by approximately a second or so. Behind them, a couple of older drivers vied with my pal Brian for mid-pack honors. At the back of the pack was Jack Baruth, who was still trying to figure out which way the racetrack went. It takes me a while to learn tracks, you see. I’m still learning Mid-Ohio, and I’ve been racing there for years.

Unlike at my Mid-Ohio club races, however, here at Seca I had some help available. At the conclusion of every on-track session, each Skip Barber racer receives detailed, individualized feedback from the corner observers who watch more or less every inch of the track. These observers are successful racers in their own right and have been thoroughly trained in the absolutely perfect MX-5 line around Laguna Seca. After speaking to each of the corner observers, I had a much better idea about what I would need to do in order to avoid finishing dead last in the non-Media Challenge.

I will readily admit to being a lousy qualifier. I simply don’t drive well on a timed-lap basis. (See: CTS-V Challenge). Racing is what I do. I love to bang fenders and make dramatic passes, neither of which leads to good qualifying results. Still, I was depressed to see that I had qualified no better than sixth out of thirteen. Luckily for me, however, Brian had broken a swaybar in qualifying and only managed a single lap, which landed him in seventh. Woo-hoo! Still fastest journalist!

It’s worth noting that when Brian came in to the pits, the Skip Barber people had a replacement MX-5 ready to go. They take the availability, and equality, of their cars seriously. I never heard an allegation that any of the cars were “ringers”, nor would I have believed it. The cars were so equal that differences in driver weight were readily apparent going up the hill towards Laguna Seca’s famous Corkscrew.

As I expected, Tyler and Coulter were qualified at the sharp end of the grid. Given that I would be starting seventh, I didn’t expect to make their acquaintance during the race. But I did expect to finish better than sixth, particularly after getting a solid night’s sleep for the first time in a week. I was so interested in doing well, I even agreed to watch a couple of MX-5 Cup races with Brian before calling it a night.

Race results and more MX-5 Cup impressions in Part Two.

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16 Comments on “Racing With Skip Barber, Part I: The “Media Challenge” That Wasn’t...”

  • avatar

    Caution: Spoiler Alert!

  • avatar

    Mr. Baruth,
    Perhaps you really are as good a driver as you imply you are; you are certainly good.  But I cannot escape the impression that you are the smoothest braggart I’ve ever read.

    Every detail is carefully set up.  There’s the tone of the casual, even modest, hero.  There’s the gentle carving off of inferiors.  The stage is once again set with careful obstacles that  show that even when you lose, you saw it coming, and could easily have won…

    I don’t even need to read part 2 to know what happens.  But I will, just as I look forward to all the rest of your articles, because this degree of glibness is simply not matched in the rest of automotive journalism.   You may or may not be a driver, but your grandiloquence is truly on a level all its own.

    • 0 avatar

      I just got the same feeling that I would in high-school when the office called me to come down and I didn’t remember doing anything wrong.

    • 0 avatar

      If I was truly so uncharitable, I apologize.  I was trying to think of a less offensive word than braggart, but my internal thesaurus failed me.  I had hoped my note was tempered by my admission of compulsion to read Jack’s latest articles.    I do know they all write these articles for free, and I will freely admit that his writing here was the reason I started checking out S:S:L, which has had some fantastic stuff on it.

      In any case, the last thing I want to be is a school’s office.  Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good drive!

  • avatar

    This sounds like a lot of fun.  I am looking forward to the rest and wishing I had the finances and time to at least take the classes.

    While I do agree that Baruth is something of a braggart,  I don’t have a problem with it.  Even if their public personas don’t show it, I expect the vast majority of racers/athletes/etc… who excel (or even just believe they excel) at their sport think the same things.  The thing about people like  Baruth (and others like T.O. and A.I.)  is they actually say it. 

    • 0 avatar

      I should say I don’t have a problem with it either; I did say it’s actually one of the reasons I enjoy his articles.  Whether it’s bragging or just good storytelling, it’s well (and carefully) done…

      …and if you are that good at something, I suppose it’s hard to beat around the bush about it.  I had to call him on it though, because I think he does it on purpose ;).

  • avatar

    IMAG: …But I cannot escape the impression that you are the smoothest braggart I’ve ever read.

    …Imag… you must be (relatively) new to these parts.  This article is downright humble compared to past stories of trackside heroics. 

    • 0 avatar

      I’m not (that new), which is what spurred me to write.

      You have to admit there’s an art to it though… Baruth, the American Driving Hero.  With one hand tied behind his back, he will still see the odds, look through the situation with cold, piercing eyes… and afterward slam out some of the best autophilic (not related to antibodies or surfactants) prose on the ‘net.

  • avatar

    I feel your pain, Jack. I cant even wax floors right after four hours sleep. In fact a late night and I’m ruined for the next two days. I left pocono on my CBR 600 a few years ago because of a similar situation. On the warmup laps coming off the straightaway to the in field turns I got tunnel vision and got nowhere near  knee dragging speed. It was scary. I loaded ‘er up and went home. Better than causing a fellow rider or myself an asphalt massage.

  • avatar

    Ho-hum, another set-up for an excuse based on too full schedule, too much travel, too little sleep, not enough preparation, too few groupies and inadequate tan, despite super-natural qualification…  (Disclaimer:  I am kinda looking forward to Pt. II, and sure prefer stories of Jack’s on-track performance, successful or otherwise, to the psycho(!)-fantasy(?) stories of “Cojones on the Interstate.”)

    • 0 avatar

      “…too full schedule, too much travel, too little sleep, not enough preparation, too few groupies and inadequate tan, despite super-natural qualification…” and yada yada yada…

      Excuses, excuses, excuses… The only thing that does matter is, who won the race? Everything else is really not that interesting…

  • avatar

    @Ingvar:  I forgot the “yada, yada, yada…” part!

  • avatar

    Sorry to see you get such a bashing, Jack. You beat Lutzie this year, thats a +1 in my book! You and yours have a great Christmas.

    • 0 avatar
      Jack Baruth

      I think it’s a strong part of the TTAC tradition for readers to kick the contributors squarely in the hindquarters; if it isn’t, it should be. The era of automotive journalism — or journalism of any kind — being a one-way communication with consumers of that journalism is dead and gone.
      Between this and the CTS-V piece, there does seem to be what the Barenaked Ladies called “an overwhelming stench of alibi”. But I think that the most interesting stories we can tell are stories of failure or difficulty. For example, this is the story of the NASA Performance Touring race that closed out Putnam Park’s season:
      I won it, the whole thing, from flag to flag. We even beat the cars in the faster classes, because they weren’t reliable.
      Boooo-ring! I hear a foghorn! Booooo-ring! A friend of mine once said to me, “You will remember the races you lose far longer than the ones you win.” He was right. Luckily, my personal racing career still provides me with many moments that are memorable in that way.
      I think Part 2 will amuse the readers a bit more. I’m trying to simultaneously tell a story about the race, explain the Skip Barber system, and describe the experience of racing the MX-5s all in two 800-word stories. Maybe there just isn’t room for humility!

  • avatar

    For anyone who’s ever joined a timed competition, two things are necessary:
    1.) Racer’s Excuses as to why you’re slower than the guy who won.
    2.) Proper Gloating when you’re faster than someone else.
    I’ve got part one down pat, I hope Mr. Baruth can help me do part two properly.

    But seriously… I’d love to hear about this race… from the precis given by the Skip Barber release, it sounds like you had a helluva fight on your hands.

  • avatar

    Bah — I’ll call the freaking Miata a freaking Miata all I want, and you ain’t gonna stop me.

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