I’m pretty sure it was five years ago when my mom called me. The Jim Russell Driving School had offered my mom or dad, motorsport publishing icons in their own way, a free entry into their three-day roadracing school at Sears Point Raceway, and neither felt physically ready for it.
“We really wanted to give to your sister first,” she said. “But she says she doesn’t want to do it. So….”
Ignoring this, I was ecstatic. I was finally going to realize my life long dream of being a racecar driver, if only for three days of my life.
Well, it was three very tough days and a life changing experience. It took me weeks to unlearn what they had taught me so I could autocross well again, because in autocross, the turns come much more quickly. You don’t have the time to think like you do on a track.
But I also never felt more confident as a driver. I learned the basics of race car driving from some of the best drivers in the sport. And I learned I could hold my own, something I had always wondered if I could ever do outside of the cones of the parking lot.
I was supposed to write a review of the school for my parents tabloid newspaper, MotoRacing. And I never wrote it. And I think, no, I know it’s because my feelings were hurt. Call me sensitive and immature, but I was hurt, yes, that they chose my sister over me, when I was the one, after all these years, who had shown to have the passion for driving. If my mom or dad had wanted to go, I’d be fully supportive, mind you. If Maggy wanted to do it, I would have been supportive. But she didn’t. And I don’t know why mom wanted to make that point so very clear.
“Don’t think this really is for you,” she said. “We just couldn’t talk Maggy into it.”
So I didn’t really ignore it.
It was three very tough days, that started first with basic skills, like downshifting five times in five seconds (I swear!), proper lines, accelerating out of turns, stuff that I knew already, in my own self-taught way that got me in trouble in class. Like, I probably shouldn’t confess this, but the only way I got through the downshifting exercise was to hold down the clutch while breaking, and blip the throttle five times. I got a lot of hoots and hollers for that one. I was their star pupil. If they only knew.
When we got to the actual driving, it turned out to be a lot tougher than I had ever imagined.
Even though the school’s cars are low-horse-powered open wheeled cars, they still can take a lot out of you. After that first day, I felt like my muscles had been ripped off my bones. After the second day, I went to see Lilly Tomlin perform that night in the city with a friend, and I fell asleep.
But I learned how to shift without a clutch, which my instructor John Knoedler said was “advanced.” That made me feel good. With each round of driving, he’d say something that would trigger a positive reaction in me, and I’d get better and better.
John, Rick, and all the other instructors, were excellent with the constructive criticism. Lap after lap, my confidence grew. I found myself accelerating early out of turns, aiming up ahead at drivers in front of me, just trying to get by them on the straights because we weren’t allowed to pass in the turns yet. I found the closest thing to heaven.
And I was diggin’ it. By day three, all the guys in the pit crew were cheering for me. I ate it up.
John said, “You need to get funded. You could do this. I’m serious.”
We had a special awards ceremony and they handed out cute little certificates, something to hang on your wall with pride. I felt all giddy inside, as I think all of us in the school did. We’d all just accomplished something really big.
I ran to my Dad, who’d been there taking pictures, and told him what John had said.
“Of course he told you that,” he said. “He wants you to come back and spend more money.”
The sound effect to go with this is that sound a balloon makes as you let the air squeak out until it deflates into a rumpled soft shell of its previous form.
And so, I went home. I forgot about racecar driving.
I am not sure if it’s that my dad deflated my ego so much, but that he spoke the truth. It’s not what I wanted to hear, but it’s true. Racecar drivers are a dime a dozen. The ones who succeed aren’t necessarily the most talented, but they are the most driven. Or they’re rich. Take your pick.
Who am I doing this for, I wondered. I mean all of it. Seventeen years of autocross, three national championships in ladies classes, three national top fives in open classes, and I just wanted my dad to say he was proud of me.
What I wanted was selfish. I wanted his approval on my terms. Here in a box by my desk, I have a stack of photos taken by my dad of me in this driving school, at nearly every turn. How much more evidence do I need?
Well, after this, I forgot about racecar driving. I went to one more national championship autocross and hung up my helmet. That next year, I did a 50k ultra-marathon, two Olympic-distance triathlons, a 10k ocean swim with no wetsuit, and three whole bike races, surprising at least one person: me. I didn’t know I could do all that.
And I did it on my own. Autocrossing and racecar driving was something given to me. But this, this is mine. Holy smokes, I can do some cool shit.
That’s what I learned at the Jim Russell Racing School. Let me correct that. That’s what I learned from my mom and dad. And I think that’s what they wanted me to learn the whole time.
This was a lousy review, so I’ll just tell you, if you’re thinking about a driving school, Jim Russell Racing Schools is an excellent choice. They know how to explain complex racing physics in a way that’s easy to understand, and they’re going to gently guide you to a level you never knew you could reach.