PONTYPOOL, Ontario—Since the fall of 1991, the Bridgestone Racing Academy has been giving would-be speed demons a taste of the real motor racing experience.
The idea behind the academy, according to founder Brett Goodman, was to provide amateur drivers with a taste of wheel-to-wheel auto racing competition in a completely safe, controlled environment.
“The schools that existed before ours were reluctant to do real, wheel-to-wheel training because of concerns about safety,” said Mr. Goodman, a ski racing instructor as well as a one-time professional race car driver. And understandably so, he said, adding, “Would you take a rookie on a professional track?”
His idea was to combine his experience as a race car driver and a ski instructor to create a dedicated facility for the express purpose of training amateur drivers in what he calls “a thrill-of-a-lifetime program.”
The success of the program can be judged by the sheer numbers: Some 15,000 drivers have roared down the track at the Mosport International Raceway, about an hour northeast of Toronto, since the academy's inception, noted Mike Sigillito, director of commercial tire marketing for Bridgestone/Firestone Canada Inc.
Mr. Goodman had had Bridgestone sponsorship when he operated a street car driving school in the 1980s, and he also was the 1989 Canadian champion in the Firestone Firehawk racing series. It was natural for him to seek Bridgestone sponsorship for the Racing Academy, and the tire maker has been its enthusiastic sponsor ever since, signing a renewal contract with Mr. Goodman in 2003.
Bridgestone doesn't discuss how much it contributes to the Racing Academy financially, Mr. Sigillito said, but the tire maker feels the marketing synergies, media connections and goodwill it gets in return is worth many times the price.
That includes the excitement—and competition—it has created among the many tire dealers who've taken a crack at the action-packed driving experience.
There are 18 different course packages for prospective racers to choose from, at a wide range of prices, Mr. Goodman said. According to the Racing Academy's Web site, www.race2000.com, these range from the “Done in a Day” packages ($565 Can. to $1,290 Can.) to the three-day race license course ($3,990 Can.). There also are corporate packages for 12, 16 or 24 drivers, beginning at $7,490 Can. for 12 drivers for a half-day course, the Web site said.
At the Racing Academy, the standard vehicles are Reynard Formula 2000 open-wheel racing cars, equipped with street-legal Bridgestone Potenza RE-01R tires. The 130-hp cars go from 0 to 60 mph in 5.3 seconds and have a top speed of about 116 mph.
The pace car at the academy is the Chrysler Crossfire SRT6, whose 3.2-liter V6 engine produces 330 hp. Only instructors drive the Crossfire SRT6, but participants chase the pace car around the track and also get a lap around the course as the instructors' passengers.
Mosport International Raceway is designed for 24 different track configurations, and the course can be changed to challenge the driving students progressively as they gain in skill and confidence, Mr. Goodman said. But safety is always the key: The track is surrounded with wide grassy areas, with very few concrete walls, so that spinouts are generally crash-free events. Mr. Goodman said no student of his has ever suffered an injury in the 21 years he has operated racing schools.
In addition to driving students, the Racing Academy trains five full-time mechanics during each annual eight-month season, according to Mr. Goodman.
“These are mechanics trying to gain experience in a racing-type environment,” he said.
Working on chassis, engines, tires and other aspects of racing vehicles, the young technicians work toward gaining eventual positions on pit crews in the professional racing circuit. Tuition for this training costs about $1,000 Can., Mr. Goodman said.
Naturally, Bridgestone uses the Racing Academy as an unusual and fun place to take dealers and customers on outings.
“We host at least a couple of events a year there, sometimes more,” Mr. Sigillito said. “These can be half-day or full-day courses. Sales groups from the U.S. might even come up for three-day events.”
Darryl Croft, owner-operator of OK Tire & Auto Service store in Etobicoke, Ontario, was part of a Bridgestone-sponsored one-day event at the Racing Academy earlier this year.
The first half of the day was spent with experienced driver-instructors who taught the basics of race driving, Mr. Croft told Tire Business.
“They taught us all the skills you need on the professional race track, on a beginner's level,” he said. “They told us about vehicle dynamics, traction, timing, road conditions, and of course all the common errors and how to avoid them.”
In the day's second half, the dealer-students were divided into groups and spent the rest of the day driving. Between the thrill of being behind the wheel of the Formula 2000 cars and the attention from the pit crew, Mr. Croft said, he felt like a real race driver.
“All of us were a little nervous at first about remembering what we were taught and avoiding the pitfalls,” he said. “But after a while, we gained confidence and started pushing our limits. We could have fun and still not crash into anything.
“And because there were other dealers there, you had the competitive edge going on,” he added. “Nobody wanted to look bad!”
Eric Latino, owner of Redline Automotive Inc. in Scarborough, Ontario, first attended the academy in a two-day, Bridgestone-sponsored outing in 1993. He's been back twice since—once representing the tire maker at a media event, and once on his own dime.
“I just love it,” Mr. Latino said. “It's an unbelievable experience. If I had to pay $700 or $800 to go there myself, I'd say it's worth every penny. Everyone I know who has been through the academy feels exactly the same way I do about it.”
The best thing about the academy, according to Mr. Latino, is how the instructors teach “heel-and-toe” driving, a technique every professional driver uses but which regular drivers know little or nothing about.
“You get an education on how to apply the brakes so that the tires stay on the pavement,” he said. “They ex¬plain how race drivers downshift without using the clutch. Most people use the clutch, which locks the back tire and spins the car out. As long as the tire never locks, it's never going to break loose. I've learned so much about doing this that I've applied it to my regular driving, and that makes me a safer driver.”