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Trying out life in the fast lane from the driver's seat of a Formula race car at Sears Point Raceway

March 26, 2000|RICHARD O'REILLY | TIMES STAFF WRITER; Richard O'Reilly is director of computer analysis at The Times

NOVATO, Calif. — It is an audacious idea: Take 15 people whose only real qualification is the ability to come up with $385. Put them in a real Formula race car. Teach them how to drive it. Three hours later turn them loose, unchaperoned, on a real race course.

The Russell Test Drive class at Sears Point Raceway near Novato is the most affordable race course driving experience the Jim Russell Racing Drivers School offers, but it lasts only 3 1/2 hours. It also never happens on a weekend day, when the track is hosting real racing events or more lucrative classes. Generally run only twice a month, the Test Drive classes tend to be on Mondays early in the month and Thursdays late in the month. I managed to reserve a Monday class earlier this month.

March is a beautiful time to drive in California, and my companion, Julia, and I were not disappointed on a recent Saturday. The hillsides were a spectacular green as we drove north on Interstate 5 and across Interstate 580 to San Francisco Bay.

Unfortunately, our first night at the Rose Garden Inn in Berkeley was more thorns than petals, setting us back $134.40 for a tiny, shabby room.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday April 2, 2000 Home Edition Travel Part L Page 6 Travel Desk 1 inches; 33 words Type of Material: Correction
Racing school--Due to a reporting error, the telephone number for the Jim Russell Racing Drivers School ("Racing Forum," Weekend Escape, March 26) was incorrect. The correct numbers for the school are (800) 733-0345 and (707) 939-7600.
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday April 9, 2000 Home Edition Travel Part L Page 6 Travel Desk 2 inches; 47 words Type of Material: Correction
Racing school--Due to a reporting error, part of a description of how a Formula race car is driven was incorrect in a Weekend Escape ("Racing Forum," March 26). A driver brakes with the left side of his foot and taps the throttle with the right side; the story indicated the reverse.

But Sunday was warm and sunny, and a drive across the Bay Bridge, through San Francisco and over the Golden Gate Bridge to Marin County made us feel like giddy tourists. We drove through the golden light of late afternoon through hilly dairy herd country to the night's destination, the R&R Racers Retreat in Novato. The B&B is just eight minutes from the raceway and offers its three guest rooms only to race car drivers and Russell students.

Arriving at dusk, we were greeted by proprietress Doris Caceres and her handsome terrier mix, Speedway. The large guest rooms--two with single king-size beds and one with two queen-size--are on the lower level of a large, rustic hillside home. Each has a view of the northern end of San Francisco Bay in the distance.

We were the only guests that night, and we soon felt as if we were visiting an old friend. Caceres is a true racing aficionado. Many of her famous race driver guests have given her autographed photos of themselves and their cars, which fill the walls of the hallway outside the guest rooms.

She offered a couple of videos from the Sears Point track for viewing on the big-screen TV in the upstairs library. They so absorbed me that we were nearly too late to get dinner at Cacti in nearby Novato. Built in a former Roman Catholic church, the restaurant has a white-plastered interior that is recognizable as a sanctuary, despite the bar along one wall. My filet mignon burrito and Julia's skirt steak tostada were tasty.

I had the foresight to register for the 10:30 a.m. driving class, not the 8 a.m. one, so we had plenty of time Monday morning to enjoy Caceres' full breakfast of our choosing, which was scrambled eggs, fried potatoes and English muffins. We thought our $115 room was a bargain.

Sears Point Raceway is carved into a hillside and features a course that winds up and down the hill.

With the early class still on the course, my group's 14 men and one woman sat in a classroom to watch a video and listen to instructor John Knoedler explain the idiosyncrasies of the Formula Mitsubishi we would soon be driving.

This was no gussied-up go-cart I was put into, but an "entry-level" single-seat, open-wheel, 850-pound Formula car powered by a two-liter Mitsubishi four-cylinder engine. Four-inch-wide belts strapped each shoulder firmly against the reclined, unpadded fiberglass seat and held my hips tightly a mere 2 inches off the ground.

The clutch and brake pedals are small, and the four-speed transmission is a "crash box." No synchromesh system sits inside to bring gears smoothly together when shifting. It would be up to me to downshift smoothly by tapping the throttle to match the speeds of the spinning gears. And I would have to tap the throttle with the left half of my foot while braking with the right half, rolling my foot sideways at the ankle.

As we headed out to the cars at 11:30 a.m., the earlier class was returning, all smiles.

Knoedler gave us a thorough briefing about how to get started. Soon we were hurtling, single file and well spaced, down a straightaway at 62 mph, aiming at four numbered orange cones. At cone 4, begin braking. At cone 3, clutch in, roll the foot, tap the throttle, shift--crunch--and let the clutch out. Same thing at cone 2, and again at cone 1. Another noisy downshift into first gear. Then make a tight 180-degree turn at 15 to 20 mph.

Next, accelerate quickly up the other side of the straightaway to four more cones at the other end and do it again. Crunch--crunch--crunch. It was a humbling experience.

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