Learning to drive an open-wheel racecar with help from IndyCar star Ryan Hunter-Reay, who lost his mother to cancer, was a scary but deeply moving experience for SI.com's Andrew Lawrence.
MONTEREY, Calif. — Lots of drivers get nervous before climbing into a racecar. But the pros at least have the skills to conquer their fears. I, on the other hand, am not so well equipped. Not yet, anyway.
Earlier this month I received the motorsports writer’s equivalent of an early Christmas gift: a chance to spend two days here at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca—an 11-turn, 2.24-mile outcropping in the heart of California wine country—learning the fundaments of performance driving. Instruction came courtesy of the Skip Barber Racing School, an august institution that counts scores of pro racers among its alumni.
Two of them, IndyCar veterans James Hinchcliffe and Ryan Hunter-Reay, served as teaching assistants. Hunter-Reay, an Indy 500 winner just a year ago, was actually the spearhead of this whole endeavor—an inaugural fundraising effort for a charity called Racing for Cancer. After working out my own transportation and lodging, I attended on my usual “journalism scholarship.” (Otherwise, tuition would’ve started at $7,500.) I should’ve at least hesitated a little before saying yes so quickly.
Why? Because I’m not as brave as I used to be—a fact I was recently reminded of while accompanying my five-year-old cousin on the dragon coaster at Legoland. Also: Not once in the last 20 years did I ever learn how to drive a stick shift. How could I after taking Driver’s Ed on an automatic and living in big cities my entire life?
None of this fazes Terry Earwood, the decorated drag and endurance racer who leads this 101 class. He assures me I’m not the first among the 30,000-odd students he has come across in his three decades of teaching who can’t do his own shifting; I’m not even an exception in this class. I’m just the one who feels the most self-conscious about how my lack of ability could make me a rolling hazard and possibly ruin the fun for the other 20-odd people who’ve been really, really looking forward to school: the dermatologist from Seattle, an ad man for Honda, the manufacturing partner of Hunter-Reay's No. 28 Andretti Autosport car. Hunter-Reay’s wife, Beccy, and his dad, Nick, are classmates, too. The pressure!
School starts on a Monday, at 8:30 a.m. sharp. I take copious notes. I home in on every word that comes out of Earwood’s mouth. It helps that Earwood is exceedingly funny and delivers his lesson plan like the Micro Machines man doing Kevin Nealon’s Mr. Subliminal bit. His detailed breakdown of basic car control—a knack, he explains, that comes in part by keeping your eyes forward and treating your foot pedals “like a rheostat switch”—sets him beautifully for so many surprise one-liners. Some of the jokes are on him. Some are on us. Many, many more come at the expense of people we’ll never know. For hours he has us doubling over in our fire suits. The whole point is to get us to relax and pay attention. It works.
After a lecture inside one of the track’s paddock suites Earwood introduces us to the open-wheel car we’ll be driving, a Formula Skip Barber. To my eye the rig looks like a Power Wheels version of an IndyCar, but to Hunter-Reay’s it is “the training wheels version of an IndyCar.”
These training wheels are no toy, though. This car gets by with a 129 horsepower motor—which didn’t initially seem like much, especially when compared to the Toyota Corolla I pulled up in that morning. Thing is, the Barber car weighs just 1,500 pounds, half as much as my rental. Power for pound, that’s some serious giddyup—maybe too much given the conspicuous onboard absence of automated safety features. Zero to 60 comes in a hair under seven seconds, which feels a lot faster than it sounds when you try that sprint without a windshield or a roof. Those butterflies? From earlier? They’re fluttering like mad now.
The sheer force of their effect threatens to send my breakfast floating back up my throat when I finally climb into my Barber car, the No. 34—a blue and white vision of menace. No prior driving experience had prepared me to take that seat. Like a plurality of commuters I’m partial to a cozy and spacious cabin, to a high and upright seating position, to a smooth and soothing driving experience.
The No. 34 car, though, offers no such trappings. The cockpit is barely big enough to fit my 5' 5" frame; the little space that remains—behind my back, mostly, is filled with foam padding so I don’t jostle about underneath a clunky three-point harness. One belt threads through the legs, two more come down over my shoulders; the whole contraption buckles just above my gentlemen’s area. Brake too hard, Earwood jokes, and I could go from a baritone to a soprano.
The car’s black fiberglass seat is cold, hard and about as upright as a beachside lounge chair. The roll cage and flimsy body panels pin my elbows to my sides. A gray shift knob jabs into my right forearm. The gearbox is a five speed, Earwood explains. The upshot for me is that it shifts sequentially, not in a pattern. Grab the knob to change up, mash the clutch and push the knob to downshift. That seemed easy enough to grasp until Earwood said not to bother looking for a shift indicator on the car’s spartan dashboard—where, by the by, you won’t find a speedometer or a gas gauge on the other side of a 3/5ths scale steering wheel. “So be sure to remember what gear you’re in,” he says. Gulp.
After strapping on our helmets we start out slowly through an autocross circuit on a paddock area parking lot. The idea is to get to know the car, but I struggle to connect with mine. I sit so close to the pedals my knees still bend as if I’m sitting up. The exposed steering column keeps my left foot fastened to the clutch, leaving my right foot to flail alone with the gas and the brake—which, incidentally, are so close together I can barely tell them apart. More than a few times, unintentionally, I stomp on both at once—the equivalent of taking a sledgehammer to that rheostat Earwood was talking about earlier. If one of his assistants hadn’t been so quick to dive out of the way during one memorable lap, when my confused pedal inputs sent me veering off course, the story that you’re now reading might well have been a eulogy.
Other than that man’s life, I come to appreciate something else after that accident—how thoroughly uncivilized this No. 34 car is. Recall: I don’t drive uncivilized cars. I drive cars with power steering and ABS, with set-and-forget shifting and cruise control—cars that essentially drive themselves.
In the No. 34 car, however, I don’t just have to work for my ride. I have to grab this machine by the scruff and make forceful demands. Stop! Turn! Gimme all the giddyup you got! Faster! Faster! The more I insist, the more it responds. All of this ordering around takes quite a toll on my hips and neck, which endure upwards of 1g of force in some corners. (In the Corolla, on Monterey’s twisty, tree-lined roads, I barely corner half that hard.) I feel the burn. I see it, too.
Like many men who are approaching 40 I wear a fitness tracker. After downloading its data I find that I expend as much energy learning how to drive a car (about six calories per minute) as I generally do pedaling a stationary bike. On Monday alone I keep my heart rate in fat burning zone for some two hours, basically the entire time I’m behind the wheel.
All the while smoke billows from my ears. Hinchcliffe, of course, knew what that signaled. “You’re trying to hit your brake points, your turn-ins, your apexes, your on-throttle, control the balance of the car, to look in the right direction. You’re performing this mental exercise as you exert yourself physically. It’s exhausting.” And that’s without having to reckon with three troubles that constantly worry the pros: car reliability, lap times and traffic.
After Earwood sends us out again, 10 at a time, for another acclimatizing session on the full 2.24-mile strip (a stint that ends three laps early for me after I spin the No. 34 car into a gravel pit while exiting turn 11), I plop back into the Corolla and set off for the hotel, more than a little bit shaken. And to think I was so gassed up about Barber school. My dad and I had talked about enrolling ever since he gifted me a subscription to Car and Driver at age 11. He, more than anyone, was so excited and so insistent about my signing up for this.
The women in my life, though, were not. My wife was too concerned with my safety and rising anxiety levels to imagine what possible fun remained to be had on Tuesday. (This, despite my repeatedly telling her that I was learning from the best and that the ride would get better—reassurances meant just as much for me as for her.) My mom? I had managed to keep her in the dark about this whole adventure until Monday evening, when I grudgingly acknowledged that I might be in slightly over my head.
“Is this a job requirement?” she texted.
No, I write back, just something I’ve been wanting to do, you know, since forever ever.
“I am just uneasy.”
It was enough to make me consider packing my bags and hopping the first bird home. But then I remembered: Worrying is what moms do when their kids go racing.
Hunter-Reay’s mom, Lydia, was no less panic-stricken when her only son attended his first Barber school on December 14, 1996—three days before his 16th birthday. Before his races she’d get so nervous she’d puke. The higher Ryan climbed up the open-wheel ladder, the more Lydia purged like Willie Beamen. “Oh yeah she did,” Beccy says, laughing at this memory. “I don’t even know how she handled it. I don’t know if it was worse for her to be at home or at the racetrack.”
In 2008, at age 27, Ryan made his first ever Indy 500 start in a car owned by Indy legend Bobby Rahal. Lydia tagged along and, on cue, was soon feeling queasy again. But it wasn’t her stomach this time; it was her back. She couldn’t go for long walks, making it tougher to enjoy a 2½-mile expanse like the Brickyard. (So her boy hooked her up with a golf cart.) Ryan, after starting 20th on the grid, finished sixth. Two months later Lydia was diagnosed with colon cancer.
Ryan was floored. “She was one of my best friends, I was that close with her,” he says. He had no clue what doctors to solicit for opinions, where to get chemotherapy, what medication to start buying in bulk. For leads, he searched Google and online forums. “It was so unorganized,” he says of those early days after the diagnosis. “You feel like you’re in a bottomless pit. It scared the living daylights out of us.”
He treated the task of shepherding her through her treatments like a second job, spending virtually the entire 2009 season jetting from the track to hospitals around his hometown of Ft. Lauderdale. Racing career-wise, the timing of Lydia’s downturn in health couldn’t have been more terrible for Ryan. He was right on the brink of really making it as a pro driver. Hurling aside, he says, Lydia was probably more supportive of his ambitions than anybody.
Later that same year she went to MD Anderson in Houston for one last “Hail Mary clinical trial thing,” Ryan says, “but it didn’t work out and they said she couldn’t fly [home] because of it.” A.J. Foyt, Ryan’s team owner at that time, flew Lydia back to Florida on a private plane. “I’ll forever be grateful to him for that,” Ryan says. In November 2009 Lydia passed away. She was 55. Ryan was 28. He was devastated.
Ryan remained deep in mourning through 2010, the year he signed a three-race deal to drive for Andretti. Among his car’s sponsors was an industrial pipeline concern called Aegion. One night Ryan found himself dining with Tom Vossman, an executive liaison for the company, and sharing Lydia’s story. He wanted to honor her memory by helping other cancer sufferers, but the tryout deal with Andretti didn’t leave much time for side projects. No problem, said Vossman. He’d get the process rolling, and Ryan could contribute at comfortable clip.
In July 2010, three months after Hunter-Reay took a major step toward securing his long-term future at Andretti and captured his first IndyCar win (at Long Beach, in a fourth start that came as a reward for a second-place showing in the season opener at São Paulo), he and Vossman introduced Racing for Cancer. “I couldn’t have done it without him,” Hunter-Reay says of Vossman. “It was a completely selfless act on his part.”
Among other things, their charity strives to chart a clearer roadmap to a cure. Thanks to a partnership with AutoNation, $3.8 million has been raised for the cause. In November 2014, six months after Ryan pipped Team Penske’s Helio Castroneves at the Brickyard, Racing for Cancer donated $2.5 million to the Cleveland Clinic in Weston, Fla. The lobby there is now named for Lydia. The number 28 on Hunter-Reay’s Andretti Honda recognizes 28 million people who live with cancer and forge ahead anyway.
On Monday night in Monterey, during an after school dinner at the local aquarium, Hunter-Reay shares an abridged version of this story with the Barber class. I’m hearing it for the first time. It feels like there’s a lesson here for me, something about the virtue of forging ahead through scary times. My confidence, in the dumps just a few minutes ago, creeps slowly upward.
Tuesday morning dawns. I arrive at the track with a bit more swagger and a clear game plan: to focus more on making my driving more technically sound than fast. Granted, it’s not the best approach for Tuesday’s lesson—on passing—but it’s mine, and I stick with it for half the day.
This helps my shifting, which starts to come more naturally and elicit pleasant growls from No. 34 car. In fact, things move along so smoothly that it dawns on me why I wiped out so much on Monday—because I had overlooked one of Earwood’s earliest warnings: Never let out the clutch in a bend. Now I do all my downshifting while braking, before turn-ins. But I do so in a herky-jerky manner that puts me off the pace I had set a day earlier.
What’s worse, I find out, after being waved into the pits, that I’m not really cutting a long, loopy path through the track as I should be. No, my racing line looks more like I’m playing a game of connect-the-dots—all straight lines and sharp angles. When one of Earwood’s assistants tells me this, a once blurry picture suddenly comes into sharp focus. I relax. The next time I get in the No. 34 car, for the free race session, I really get after it.
I bravely keep my foot on the floor on the main straightaway even though I can’t see the first turn, because it’s on top of a hill and the buffeting winds turn me into a rumbling bobblehead. I find a rhythm with the brake and the clutch and scream out the gear numbers to myself under the roaring winds and whining engine. (Good thing flags, and not radio, are how instructors’ stay in touch with us drivers…) I let in the throttle as I let out the steering wheel. While blasting between turns four and five, I push a radar speed sign on an overhead bridge past 90 miles per hour for the first time all week. At one point, on the radar sign above the main straight, I clock 100 mph coming back around.
Then just as my confidence is about to crest I spy two bogies in my mirrors as I’m about to dart up another hill and down into Mazda Raceway’s famed corkscrew sector. It’s Mr. and Mrs. Hunter-Reay. Before I can think of where to park, they zoom past on the left. It’s a relief. Turn 9—my favorite, a sweeping left-hander—is up next. I’d rather enjoy it alone.
On and on we go until dusk falls and the checkered flag flies. I feel like a winner even though I don’t pass a single car. I measure success in other ways: by how easily I get the No. 34 car going after so many false starts, by how much more fun I had with every lap, by how quickly I scrambled back on track after spinning out of the pit road exit. (That time my tires were cold, I swear!)
At the end of the day Earwood herds us back into the classroom and, to my pleasant shock, hands out certificates. When he gives me mine, he introduces me as “the guy who couldn’t even spell stick shift.” After every graduate is suitably roasted, we gather at the front of the class for a photo. Hunter-Reay and Hinchcliffe hop in, too. A wave of emotion smacks me clean in the face, and I fight to blink back the tears as the flashbulbs pop. Not only have I come a long way in these last few days, but we’ve all survived this experience without hurting ourselves or any equipment. That was something worth celebrating. And we did, even more, later that night.
What did I learn in school? That the problem with auto racing isn’t that it’s unrelatable. It’s the false equivalence to plain ol’ driving. It’s that too many people assume they can bring a racecar to heel because it has four wheels and a motor, just like the Corolla in their driveway. I can authoritatively say now that these people are nuts, but not as nuts as the people who are going forward with an autonomous racing series to undercard Formula E. “I don’t think anybody’ll watch that,” says Hunter-Reay, “and not because it’s low horsepower or because it’s boring. But because it’s not a challenge for the human. It could be the most intricate piece of mechanical art, like an electric car powered by hydrogen or powered by whatever. It doesn’t matter. It has to be a human wrestling a racecar around a track. It has to be difficult.”
It has to confront a living, breathing person with a true test of will. My biggest takeaway from Barber school? The degree of physical and intellectual horsepower it takes merely to meet a passable performance standard is just off the freakin’ charts. Also: Your spirit must be made of steel. Mine, as it turns out, is a lot stronger than I had thought. Thanks to Lydia Hunter-Reay, I can now say I have a far better sense of what it means to be brave.
If you would like to donate to Racing for Cancer or participate in next year’s Barber School, check out their website racingforcancer.org or contact co-founder Tom Vossman directly at email@example.com.