It was an hour before noon, but already the heat rose in low, wiggling waves off the oil-streaked asphalt at Riverside International Raceway, sending the Box Springs Mountains in the background into a shimmering dance under the California sun. On a small bluff overlooking Turn No. 8, four men stood in a group, watching a small, sleek race car with a blue streak down its nose come whining toward them through the straight. As the BMC Formula Junior passed the first cutoff marker, one of the men punched a stopwatch.
The car began to angle into the corner, and the whine lessened as the driver backed off the accelerator. He braked and the car slowed. There was a quick bur-r-r-p as he downshifted into third. Then he was into the turn.
"He looks good," said one of the kibitzers.
"He's too fast," said the man holding the stopwatch.
Pete Brock has watched a lot of cars come into Turn No. 8 at Riverside and, as usual, he was right about this one. The front wheels angled in toward the apex of the curve, but the car refused to follow. It began to slide toward the outside of the turn, toward the flat scrubby grass that lines the road, farther and farther off the intended line. Then the driver, who a moment before might have been Phil Hill, suddenly began to look more like Aunt Minnie in a white crash helmet. In desperation he hit the brakes—and the little car turned into a top. The back tires lost all adhesion and broke away completely. The car spun around once, halfway around again and off the course. There was a large puff of dust, and then silence.
When the dust drifted away, all four men were standing by the car, peering curiously at the driver, who peered back from behind his goggles like a sheepish owl.
"I shouldn't have braked?" he asked.
"Not in the turn," said Brock. "You should have braked harder before the turn." He grinned. "If you had made it around, you'd have set a track record." He checked the car over quickly. "O.K.," he said, "go try it again."
A few basics
The driver and the three others standing with Head Instructor Pete Brock were students at the Carroll Shelby School of High Performance Driving, the first institution of its kind in America and one of the few in the world. Not everyone is fascinated by the problems of taking a precision-engineered automobile through a complicated racecourse at high speed, but if you happen to be one of the afflicted, this is the place to learn. In operation for a year, the school has already produced several outstanding sports car drivers and taught dozens of others enough of the fine points of racing to add a great deal to their appreciation of the sport.
"We're not trying to turn out professional racing drivers," says Shelby, who once won 40 of 46 Sports Car Club of America races in a year. "We're simply trying to teach the student something about racing technique. Heel-and-toe downshifting, proper braking. How a car performs in a corner. The proper line through a turn and how to figure it out. All sorts of things like that. We think that by concentrating on basics we can teach the student to drive faster and more safely and to have more fun."
Shelby is a tall, lean caricature of a Texan, with curly hair and a brain as quick as a Ferrari in second gear. Until his racing career was cut off in 1960 by a heart condition, he was astute enough to continue driving in his famous old $3 striped overalls even after he could afford cashmere. As a businessman, he has built up a valuable racing-tire franchise and has just developed a new car, the Shelby AC Cobra (SI, April 30), which isn't going to increase Corvette sales a bit.
"When I was getting started back in the early '50s," he says, "I wasted at least two years learning the simple, basic things that someone with experience could have taught me in 10 or 12 hours. The sports car clubs have their own drivers' schools now, but look at the problem they face: 50 or 75 people trying to learn something one afternoon a month.
"Here," he says, "we keep the classes small, only three to five drivers a week, and we can analyze each one as an individual: what his potential is, his psychological problems, what type of car is best for him. I get six or seven letters a week now from ex-students, telling me about their experiences, asking me for advice on courses and cars, some of them applying to go through the school a second, even a third, time. I don't know when anything has given me so much satisfaction."
In the beginning Shelby planned to run the school 52 weeks a year, sharing instruction duties with his partner, Paul O'Shea, a former Mercedes driver who, like Shelby, was once SPORTS ILLUSTRATED'S Sports Car Driver of the Year. Almost immediately he was booked up through October. But then O'Shea left, and Carroll found himself furiously involved with developing the Cobra. The school cars, a D Jaguar and a series of Formula Juniors, began to suffer under the heavy schedule. So Carroll cut the program back to one week a month, plus special weekend classes, substituted a Corvette for the D Jag and hired Pete Brock, a former General Motors design man who had drifted west to become one of the outstanding young Class G modified drivers on the Coast. Now Shelby uses a Cobra in place of the Corvette.
"Pete takes the student through the first two or three days," says Shelby. "He's a lot better with beginners than I am. More painstaking. Then I try to handle the last couple of days."
The cost of instruction is $50 an hour in your own car, $100 an hour if you use school equipment. For the five-day course this means either $500 or $1,000. "It sounds like a lot of money," says Shelby, "but figure it this way. A guy races for a season, burns up several sets of tires at $200 a set, and he still doesn't win anything. Here he can learn something about driving and make it worthwhile. If he's good enough, he can pay his own way."
The raceway is located in the little town of Edgemont, five miles from Riverside and 60 miles from L.A. The shriek of B-52 bombers taking off from March Air Force Base to the south blends in with the snarl of the racing cars. These are sounds that racing drivers love, and they show up for a typical school week early on a Monday morning, foot heavy on the throttle. Brock soon slows them down.
First he drives them around the 3.27-mile raceway half a dozen times in a battered old Chevrolet panel truck that serves double duty as a tow car and standby ambulance. "Before you attempt to drive a course you should study it," he says. "The best way of all is to walk it on foot. You'll see more that way and the fresh air will do you good." He points out that the convenient cutoff marker signs before each turn at Riverside are there only for guidance. "The point varies with each driver, each car, each speed," he explains, "and you may not want to use these at all. Use a boulder or a light pole, whatever feels right to you. Only don't use a girl in a red dress. She might walk 10 yards down the track between laps, and next time around you'll find yourself on the other side of the fence."
There is one very long straightaway at Riverside between Turns 8 and 9, and here the Formula I cars, like the Grand Prix Lotuses and Coopers, hit 180 miles an hour. The Corvettes used in the school will really fly through here, too, but Brock ignores the straight. "In racing," he says, "the turns are everything. A straightaway is a place to sit back in the seat and relax, to think about what you did wrong on the last lap and how you'll improve the next time around. Anyone can drive a straightaway. We'll concentrate on the corners."
And for a week you concentrate on the corners. The nine turns at Riverside do not resemble one another in the slightest, nor do they match the turns at any other course. But Brock points out that by learning to "read" a corner, by studying it and thinking the problems out, by driving it and testing it you learn something about all corners. And all corners on auto racetracks have some things in common.
"The secret on any turn," says Brock, "is not the speed at which you enter but the speed at which you come out. But in order to come out fast you have to go in properly and follow the best line through the curve. Basically, here is the procedure. You go in as fast and as deep as you can before you cut off. Then you brake, hard. While you're braking you downshift, to keep your revs up so that you will have as much power as you need to get out of the corner fast. Then you take the proper line, for that speed and that corner, and drive the car around as smoothly as you can. If you're too slow, someone is going to pass you; if you're too fast—well, you'll find out about that as we go along. The thing to remember at first is to take it easy until you feel comfortable in the car and know the curve. Then you can begin to work on cutting down your time."
So Brock diagrams the curve and you walk up and down it, studying the problems. Then he drives through with you, if you are in a Corvette, or leads you through in another car if you are in the Formula Junior. Then he stands at the apex and brings you in closer and closer until you are on line, almost brushing his toe as you roar past. And you learn more each time you try it until you know that you have this particular curve whipped. Then you go on to another. And pretty soon it becomes easy, and you know that Fangio and Hill couldn't beat you through there themselves. And then Brock says, "O.K., now we'll go back and try to go through those things fast instead of slow."
About the third day, when you are really driving into the corner and standing on the brakes and putting the car around the turn with something resembling control, Shelby shows up. "Very good," he says, "but what if there are other cars on the course and you can't pick your own line? What if you have to start high or low? What if someone carries you in too fast? What if you find yourself skidding toward that fence or those hay bales? Then what are you going to do?" And he shows you, and you have to learn all over again.
When the course has been completed Shelby and Brock may take an especially promising student aside.
"Go back to your own region," they will tell him, "and race as much as you can. Get some experience in traffic. Then after the season come back here, and we'll teach you how to be a real racing driver."
As for the rest of the students, they leave happily, convinced that they are racing drivers already. In a way, maybe they are. Can you shift down through two gears while standing on the brake while setting a car up for a perfect line through a decreasing-radius corner that you can't even sec because it is just over a hill? You can't? Well, that's a breeze for graduates of the Shelby School of High Performance Driving.