Kathy Ullyott has always loved cars, and driving. So when Bridgestone Americas invited get on a two-day learn-to-race course at the Bridgestone Racing Academy near Toronto, she jumped on it before you could say, “Ladies, start your engines.”
The Bridgestone Racing Academy at Mosport Park east of Toronto isn’t just a track and a stable of 170-horsepower, Van Diemen open-wheel racing cars. It’s a dream realized for owner Brett Goodman, who, with his father, gave up a thriving insurance business to start the Academy 27 years ago. Speaking of dreams, it’s also the site of fantasies-come-true for thousands of amateur racers, who can sign up for half-day to three-day courses.
The first stop for us 11 female journalists is the Academy’s classroom, where Brett and chief driving instructor Jamie Maurice (right) give us a verbal tour of the course and some basic driving how-tos. How to, for example, avoid crashing into the course’s one cement wall along the pit side of the course. Gotcha, Jamie. Gulp.
Then it’s time to suit up and hit the track.
Where we join Jamie again, this time in the pit for some hands-on tips about the car itself. The Academy’s goal: To get us to go as fast as possible around the one-mile track while maintaining its 27-year injury-free record. My goal: To learn some techniques I can apply to everyday driving. Of course, I’m also cool with staying injury-free.
The pit crew literally packs us — using fibreglass moulds and foam cushions upholstered in duct tape — into what amount to $75,000 tin cans with rockets attached. Snugged into the cockpit and watching the electronic numbers on the detachable steering wheel spin and flicker, I can see why auto racing is so addictive: The throaty roar of the engines and the smell of high-octane exhaust are exhilarating before we even let out our clutches.
And we’re off …
… and running. Confession: I probably don’t hit much higher than 80 km/hr (some of my colleagues went much faster). But driving in an open-wheel car with my butt just inches from the asphalt, I feel like Rapid Roy (“he do 130 mile an hour smilin’ at the camera with a toothpick in his mouth”).
Cara Adams, Bridgestone’s Project Engineer for Race Tire Development — here with Katherine Legge, one of the top professional racers in the world — also got behind the wheel with us. Cara got her first taste of racing in college with Formula SAE, a program of the Society of Automotive Engineers. “I got this addiction for speed and really wanted to work in racing.” She asked the race tire team at Bridgestone what they needed in an engineer, then studied for two years to acquire it. Now 34, she has her dream job: Creating and perfecting tires for Bridgestone-Firestone’s racing teams.
One of the fastest drivers of the day was another woman with a lifelong passion for cars. Diana Merrill Claussen acquired her taste for the track from her late father, who was a drag racer in the U.S. Now, as the Auto Goddess, Diana reviews anything with wheels, covers races and shows and tirelessly promotes and encourages women in the automotive industry.
So what did I learn about driving? That 100 per cent awareness — of your car, what you’re doing and what you’re going to do — are essential. No more jotting notes while stopped at intersections for me!
I also learned you need to plan ahead and allow a margin for error — whether you’re on a race course, a highway or your driveway. That that you learn more if you push yourself a little harder. And that when it comes to cars, women love the wheel thing as much as the next guy.
Photographs: Metro/Kathy Ullyott