When I received that e-mail, I was ecstatic, surprised, and a little intimidated. As a thirty-year-old who’d only been karting seriously for a few years, I felt my chances of being chosen for the inaugural Lucas Oil Karting Scholarship Shootout were slim. Nonetheless I was selected as one of the twenty-nine lucky racers. In a few months’ time, we would face off at Sebring International Raceway, where the top five would win a slew of incredible prizes, including a paid season for the overall champion.
To put it mildly, getting accepted was a big ego boost—even though they’d accidentally addressed me at first in the e-mail as Giovanni. Still, for all the pride I was feeling at the moment, the prevailing emotion was fear. I was concerned about the costs, the risks with all the walls so close, and the level of competition. I had to go for a walk to try to think lucidly.
With my head clear, I decided to commit. It would entail scrimping, selling, even fundraising if possible. It also meant two trips from California to Florida. Lastly, it meant measuring myself against some of the best young karters in the country. My wallet, my nerves, and my ego were all in for a bruising. But this was my only shot at moving into formula cars. Call me a masochist.
Once I pulled the trigger, the adrenaline started flowing like I’d already jumped in the car. In fact, I had to go for another long walk just to calm my nerves. Few things get this ol’ chunk of coal jumping like a kid on Christmas, but the prospect of racing seriously in formula cars did.
Taking part in this scholarship entailed two trips from California to Florida: one for the preparatory two-day training session at the end of October, and another for the shootout in the beginning of December. As I live in California, I wasn’t thrilled at the idea of flying across the country twice, but it’s incredible how quickly you pull out your credit card when strapping into a racing car is at the other end of the transaction.
I first arrived at Sebring two days prior to the two-day lapping session to acclimate. When trying to walk around the track, a pleasant blonde woman stopped her car and offered me a lift. While her Pomeranian, Frappucino, kept trying to lick my face, I stared out of her Nissan’s windows at the track we were driving around. From a distance, it’s hard to make sense of where you are, since there are no elevation changes or distinctive landmarks. Sebring looks like a labyrinth from afar. I’d have to get a better idea of what it was like once I drove it, but at least I got to experience some southern hospitality.
The following morning, I rose bleary-eyed, trundled down to the track, and was greeted by a car that was strangely familiar. Lucas Oil’s school car, the Ray GR-RSC, was a lot like the old Skip Barber formula car I’d tried some years ago — almost a renovated version. However, this car benefited from paddle shifters, a punchier motor, and a significantly more comfortable cockpit. Still, it was an approachable car made to accommodate drivers of different sizes and skill levels.
Getting a few bruises from elbows and knees banging around inside the cockpit is par for the course. Underneath the tuchus, I placed a large piece of foam, but that was all the padding I was afforded. If you can properly adjust the crotch strap, it’s cozy but not cramped. Thankfully, I’m not interested in having children, but the pressure applied through the crotch strap under heavy braking was never pleasant.
The car’s behavior at speed is reassuring and forgiving. You can hear the Cooper street tires howl before they begin to slide much. It rolls more than you might imagine, which makes the car progressive on the limit. The steering response and direction change are so good, even on the treaded tires. Quantum shocks kept it compliant over the bumps at Sebring, and there are plenty, even at higher speeds. In other words, it’s not too hard to get accustomed to.
The GR-RSC gets moving quickly with roughly 160 horsepower pushing along just 1,100 pounds. The 2.0-liter Mazda MZR engine isn’t a powerhouse; it’s more a workhorse that can be abused. There’s not an excessive amount of music coming from the engine compartment, but you can rely on the engine note to decide when to shift. At first, I used the shift lights, but once you start pushing a bit harder, the bumps and the sunlight piercing my visor would make the lights hard to see. Eventually, I’d either rev the motor until it made a particular buzz, or wait for the powerband to fall off around 6,100 rpm.
Inside the spartan cockpit, you’re given a few knobs and buttons to tweak, but the most important adjustment is made on the steering wheel itself. Flick a few pages past the home screen and you come upon the brake bias readout. With a firm push of the brake pedal, you can see how much pressure is sent to both axles, which should remain within a certain range. Too much lockup or wheelhop from the rear can be ameliorated with a twist of the bias knob—and that was the extent of the chassis tuning.
For this two-day lapping program, we were running on a truncated version of the full track called the Johnson Club Circuit. This layout lacked the grit-your-teeth-and-pray corners—some weight off my shoulders—but still had a few fast sections, a couple heavy braking zones, a blind entry or two, and lots of bumps.
After a surprisingly quick lap around the track in the back seat of a van with a coach driving, we got a sense of where to brake, turn, and accelerate. It’s odd having to brace yourself in the back seat of a Ford Econoline; the van feels like it’ll flip at times, but that makes you want to get into the formula cars all the sooner.
After every session, I hunted down the coaches to get some feedback—each was a wealth of information. They’d give very specific pointers regarding brake release, entry speed, line, and throttle application. These pointers helped build out a framework and helped put together a reasonable lap.
Their help wasn’t limited to on-track specifics. Just about any other racing-related question could be answered—fitness, diet, visualization, career moves, and whatever else. Even some of the coaches would tell me about the experiences of sampling cars as crazy as a current Indy Lights machine. Walking in and out of a fancy motorhome laden with computers between sessions, it really felt like I’d gone pro.
That feeling continued into the second day, which was dedicated to fine-tuning. After the morning session, in which another car spun in front of me at speed, we got to analyze our telemetry. It was the first time I’d ever used any data, and it became clear how much better modern drivers have it. After overlaying my telemetry with a pro’s, the differences became obvious—and saved hours of track time. With all the attention showered on you, you begin to strut around almost as if your name was written on the motorhome.
Changing Technique to Help Rotation
All this coaching was instrumental in getting up to speed quickly, since this low-powered formula car is a far cry from a kart, and I hadn’t changed my technique at this point. It required a much different touch. Some of the greatest difficulty I had was with brake release, which determines the attitude and speed one can carry into the corner. Get off the brake too soon, and the car wants to understeer. Carry the brake too deep into the corner, and the overslowed car understeers too. Hop off the brake with too much entry speed, and it starts to oversteer. It can’t be flicked in with a tweak of the steering wheel, unlike a kart. To get the car pointed into the corner as I wanted, my brake release had to be so smooth. This is part of why formula cars are such good trainers—they’re very particular.
Then, where pushing past my limits of comfort were concerned, I had to get off the brake earlier than I felt comfortable. My instinct told me the car wouldn’t turn, but letting off the brakes earlier would facilitate some zero-steer, and sometimes oversteer. The improvement in lap time was great, but the real reward was personal. Breaking past those self-imposed boundaries provided thrill that, to experience anywhere else, might put you in the back of a squad car.
Learning the Less Obvious Pieces
With two serious braking zones heading into the hairpins (0:40 and 1:05), there was plenty of opportunity to find the limit in braking—and over-extend myself, too. I was instructed to dial back braking point; I’d been rolling too much speed into these slow corners. By braking too late, locking up, or just carrying too much speed into the corner, I was compromising my exit speed into the two hairpins. Since these hairpins both lead onto long straights, I had to prioritize the exit: the easiest place to find time, by ensuring I didn’t overcharge the entry.
The Carousel (0:20), a very long left-hander, was no cinch. The apex isn’t visible on entry, and the width and length of the corner made it tempting to accelerate too early, snatch the outside curb, and spin the car in the dirt. The many black stripes from the curb leading to the inside wall were testament to that.
Once I started, my early throttle application pushed the car toward understeer at the corner’s exit. In the footage above, the car understeered slightly at the apex (0:23) before applying full throttle, which pushed it into a small snap of oversteer. While it looked cool and felt heroic, it wasn’t the fastest way out of a corner leading onto a very important straightaway. I had to consult a coach to figure out how to get the car pointed sooner.
Getting Sideways with Gusto
One of their most experienced coaches, Phil Lombardi, told me to try and show a little more courage into the corner, and the chutzpah would sort everything out. By staying full-throttle a car length longer, turning in later, and just barely brushing the brake, the extra speed would naturally agitate the back end of the car into yawing slightly.
A racing car like this will edge the car towards oversteer when lifting off the throttle, and it seems to get even more tail-happy as the speeds increase. It was a challenge—especially with the walls quite close—trying to train myself to believe it. However, by working up in small increments, dialing in a little extra assertion, and trusting it, the yawing would straighten the car earlier. This helped avoid the understeer, and allowed for full throttle two car lengths earlier, which meant a few more speed down the subsequent straight. Unfortunately, the data from that session was corrupted, but I now had some real confidence; I could push the car into bold angles and get the machine straightened. It all clicked.
In my foray to Florida, I’d strapped into a modern car, pushed past a couple personal barriers, and avoided the actual, concrete ones. It was enough to give me some confidence for the Shootout the following month, but the other entrants present at this two-day training session were quick—very quick. I had my work cut out for me.
To read further, here’s the article on the Lucas Oil Karting Scholaship Shootout.