By Nate Siebens
Over my 25-plus years working in motorsports, I’ve spent hundreds of hours at Sebring International Raceway – and virtually zero of them on the racetrack.
I was back at Sebring a couple Wednesdays ago along with my 16-year-old son, Landon, for probably the most important – and unquestionably the most fun – nine-and-a-half hours I’ve ever spent there. And while we still didn’t get on the actual racetrack, Landon and I got plenty of seat time as students of the Hagerty Driving Academy Powered by Skip Barber Racing School.
SkipBarber.com says, “The Hagerty Driving Academy teaches the survival skills needed to safely handle today’s challenging road conditions over the course of one full day.”
I’m assuming most parents of new drivers are like me in that it’s absolutely terrifying to think about sending your “I-still-can’t-believe-they’re-already-16-years-old” son or daughter out into the streets and highways in a 3,500-pound missile on wheels surrounded by hundreds of other 3,500-pound missiles piloted by people with varying levels of driving ability and experience.
With Landon a few short weeks away from obtaining his driver’s license, I wanted to make sure he is as equipped as can be to take on the challenges of everyday driving and do it as safely as possible. So, I enrolled him in the Hagerty Driving Academy. And at the suggestion of Skip Barber Racing School Chief Marketing Officer Dan DeMonte, I enrolled myself to take the course as well.
When Skip Barber Racing School Calls It ‘One Full Day,’ They Mean It
The sun was just coming up when we pulled through the front gates at Sebring shortly after 7:30 a.m. We followed the signs to the Hagerty Driving Academy “classroom,” signed in and took our seats.
At promptly 8 a.m., our lead instructor, Ken Fukuda, began a short classroom instruction session on what we were going to be working on that morning – specifically, Fundamentals of Cornering, How to Handle Understeer and Oversteer, and How to Use Antilock Brakes (ABS) and Threshold Braking.
What struck me right away was that Ken’s tone and delivery was exactly what this classroom of 15 students – most of them teenagers, but one or two other “graybeards” like me – needed. As cool as the other side of the pillow, Ken calmly and succinctly prepared us for what to expect and used a phrase that immediately hit home. In fact, I’d consider them words to live by. Literally.
“Keep looking at alive,” he said.
Wow. “Keep looking at alive.” It might become my new motto. But what did he mean?
“To sum it up, driving on the roads is about getting from A to B, alive,” he explained. “So, you’re gonna go where you’re looking. Target fixation. You know, motorcyclists know this really well.
“All you have to do is keep looking at alive. Don’t look at the scary things. Don’t look at the wall, don’t look at the truck. Look at where you want to place your vehicle and your hands will follow and you’ll make the right inputs. It’s like magic.”
Time to Make Some Magic
The classroom session was just the right amount of time for us to get an understanding of what would be expected. But today wasn’t going to be about sitting in a classroom.
Nope, we were getting seat time – and lots of it. We made our way out to the skid pad outside “Sunset Bend” – the raceway’s famed and sometimes treacherous Turn 17 – and found a couple of unsuspecting Nissan Altimas and Toyota Camrys waiting for us.
Landon and I were joined by a fellow student named “Allie” and we took a seat in one of the Camrys, where we were met by another of the four talented Skip Barber Racing School instructors working the Hagerty Driving Academy on this day, Simon Tibbett. Our first lesson? Fundamentals of Cornering. I was the first of our group to get behind the wheel after a brief demonstration by Simon.
It was at this moment when I realized a couple of things. One, none of my 25-plus years of working in motorsports had really anything to do with actually driving on a racetrack. So, in some ways, I was just as “green” as my fellow students riding in the back seat.
Two, in 32 years of driving on the streets, I’ve done my fair share of cornering. But nobody prior to this had really given me any training on the “fundamentals” of how to do it right, so I spent my first several runs trying to unlearn some of the bad habits I’d developed over the years.
“That’s why I like working with new drivers,” Simon said. “They don’t really have any bad habits yet, and their minds are open.”
I eventually kind of got it, then handed off to Landon for his turn. As Landon accelerated down the short straightaway and approached the left-hand turn, I was momentarily frightened that my youngster was hurtling into this turn at what felt like a fairly high rate of speed (but wasn’t really). But then, I was immediately impressed by how quickly he mastered the ability to turn in at just the right time, hit the apex and then track out just the right amount on corner exit.
All three of us got a couple turns behind the wheel before it was onto the next module, Understeer and Oversteer. This time, our steed was one of the Altimas with a “special” right-rear tire.
Ken was our in-car instructor for this one and “volunteered” Landon to go first. It’s important to note that drivers must be at least 15-and-a-half years old, with a learner’s permit and at least 20 hours of driving to be eligible to attend the Hagerty Driving Academy.
Landon more than met all of those requirements, but he still didn’t have that much experience – and I can confidently say he’s never been sideways in a car. He has now, thanks to that “special” tire. In fact, he’s done a full, 360-degree spin.
But he also now knows how to deal with both understeer and oversteer situations. Hint: It involves “looking at alive.” Magic.
The last lesson before the lunch break was on using ABS and “threshold braking” which is braking hard, but just enough to not engage ABS. For me, this was the toughest lesson of the day and another session where I needed to undo 30-plus years of driving habits. I think I kind of figured it out by the end, but the youngsters in the car were definitely better at it than me.
Now it was time for lunch, a little debrief on what we’d experienced in the morning, and another brief classroom session to discuss what was awaiting us in the afternoon session. Specifically, autocross, sudden lane changes and learning to drive a manual transmission. Oh, and a special surprise that I won’t ruin here. You’ll have to attend yourself to find out about that.
The Racing Bug Gets a Few More Bites
Off in the distance, you could hear IndyCar testing over on the short course around Green Park. Every now and then, you’d also hear a gaggle of Roush Ford Mustang GTs using the other half of the Sebring course rumble through Sunset Bend. These were drivers participating in their second day of a three-day Skip Barber Racing School, which both Landon and I are now eligible for since we’re Hagerty Driving Academy graduates.
Meanwhile, Landon, Allie and I were back in a Camry with Simon on a cone-lined autocross track on the skid pad. And I can tell you, the three of us students in that car were having just as much fun as those drivers in the IndyCars and Mustangs.
The autocross gave us the chance to put the lessons we’d learned in the morning to good use. This was where the line between “Driving Academy” and “Racing School” was blurred in the most fantastic way. All the lessons we’d learned in the morning were put to use in this exercise, and all three of us improved dramatically in multiple turns behind the wheel.
Upon emerging from the Camry after the autocross session, Landon said, “Dad, I want to do track days now. How can I do that?” Allie, meanwhile, asked, “What was the name of that association you and Simon were talking about?”
“SCCA. The Sports Car Club of America.”
You’ve often heard about people being bitten by the racing bug. The one flying around in our Camry did not go home hungry.
“It’s a beautiful sport in racing, but it’s also a beautiful activity in driving,” Ken said. “We want to demystify it and also make it more approachable; break down the barriers. And you can only do that by understanding the logic behind how to operate a vehicle safely, effectively and efficiently.”
According to Ken, our next lesson was the one that has inspired many follow-up emails from grateful parents. It was how to make high-speed lane changes in a split second to avoid a collision, and Ken said the emails usually have a similar message: “Learning this technique saved my kid’s life.”
I’m proud to say that almost no cones were harmed by any of the three of us as our instructor for this module, Mike Ogren, shouted “Left!” or “Right!” as we sped toward a center lane blocked by cones. There may have been one or two that got slightly moved – not going to say who did it, but it wasn’t me – but Mike told us, if that was a bunch of refrigerators lying in the road, we’d have only grazed one of them. We’ll take it!
We Drove Roush Mustangs at Sebring!
For our last official module, we made our way into what normally would be the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship paddock during the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring Presented By Advance Auto Parts race week. This day, it was being used to teach us how to drive a car with a manual transmission.
In the first classroom session several hours earlier, Ken asked for a show of hands on how many of us had never driven a manual transmission. Better than 50 percent of the hands went up, including Landon’s.
When we got into the paddock, we found a pair of 750-horsepower Ford Mustangs with six-speed gearboxes waiting for us. Those who hadn’t driven a “stick” got to go first, so Landon took a seat next to Simon in the cockpit.
As you might expect, the car lurched to a stop and the engine fell silent the first time Landon let out the clutch. But on his second try, he smoothly applied the power, gently let his foot off the clutch and pulled away cleanly for a couple of slow laps around the paddock. He tells me he got to third gear on a couple occasions, and while he believes there is significant room for improvement, the fact is that he now knows how to drive a car with a manual transmission.
For my part, I’ve had thousands of hours driving a manual over the years (albeit none very recently), so this module wasn’t much of a challenge. That’s not to say it still wasn’t a learning experience. I learned that they don’t teach the “pistol grip” on the gear shift lever, and the proper way to shift from third to fourth gear is with your palm at the front of the lever pushing downward.
Perhaps most importantly for the race fans among us was the fact that – as our instructors pointed out – we can say we drove a Roush Mustang at Sebring!
“I would definitely say one of the most valuable things I learned was how to drive with a stick shift,” Landon said. “Because I pretty much had no clue with anything that involved stick. So, learning that was definitely super cool.”
As I mentioned earlier, our last on-track activity was a surprise, and I won’t spoil it for you. I’ll just say it gave us one last chance to apply different lessons we learned throughout the day and also got our competitive juices flowing a little bit.
Safe and Sound
From there it was one last trip to the classroom for some parting words, which included Ken telling us that we were now part of the “elite” among drivers on the road with the level of training we just completed. We covered a lot of ground in the time we were together.
“Yeah, it’s pretty phenomenal,” Ken said. “We have kids who are 15-and-a-half, with maybe a month, sometimes a couple of weeks of driving experience. And then they hop in our cars and we throw them in oversteer and our skid cars.
“So far, I’ve had a hundred percent success rate after doing this for a few years. No one has gone through and not been able to catch an oversteer slide, understeer, learning what it feels like and how to remedy it. Talking about high-speed lane changes and making an evasive maneuver with a last-minute lane call and the right technique in executing that. How to take a corner properly.
“Talking about setting up for success. No one ever really addresses even how to take a corner properly in driver’s ed or in the DMV. So, we break that down … And this is Day 1, and their first real education on a lot of the things on the road that we experience. So, it’s pretty incredible.”
At the end of the day, Landon reflected on everything he’d learned and came away with newfound confidence.
“I think it’s going to help a ton,” he said. “Just having more experience behind the wheel, obviously, it just boosts your confidence. Knowing that you can get out of situations, and just kind of having fun, I guess, behind the wheel, but safely.
“I think everyone should have to take this. I mean, it’s so useful and it’s super helpful.”
With our “swag bags” and certificates of graduation in our hands, Landon and I headed for my pickup truck as the sun disappeared below the horizon in the distance behind Sunset Bend. On our way home, we stopped for dinner along U.S. 27 just before we reached Interstate 4.
As we walked to my truck after dinner, Landon said, “Hey Dad, can I drive us home?” He was clearly buoyed by his newfound confidence behind the wheel.
He’d never really driven on I-4 prior to that, and what he was proposing was a trip all the way through Orlando from the attractions, through downtown and beyond. I paused, took a deep breath and handed him the keys. A little over an hour later, he drove up our driveway at home, having completed a safe and successful day behind the wheel.
If you have a young driver in your life, or would just like to get more confidence in your own driving abilities, you can learn more about the Hagerty Driving Academy Powered by Skip Barber Racing School HERE.
The program is offered at racetracks throughout the U.S., including tracks that host IMSA events such as Sebring, Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta, VIRginia International Raceway, WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca and Lime Rock Park.