Are driver schools useful for experienced SCCA racers? Terry Earwood says the answer is yes
Terry Earwood has a racing resume that few can match. He’s not only in the Drag Racing Hall of Fame, but he’s a champion autocrosser, too. He drove in the Firehawk series back in the day, and he won the IMSA National Touring championship. He’s been the chief instructor for Skip Barber since 1984, and he’s taught performance driving to more than 30,000 enthusiasts. In addition to everything else, right now he’s an assistant chief steward and driver coach for the SCCA Pro Racing Trans Am Series. Consequently, when Fiat invited SportsCar to a one-day Skip Barber Racing School refresher school, where Earwood would be the coach, we couldn’t resist.
The vehicles we piloted were the Fiat 124 Abarth and Fiat 500 Abarth at The Ridge Motorsports Park in Shelton, Wash., but, as Earwood points out, the cars are simply a means to an end. “A car’s a car,” Earwood explains. “I don’t care if you drive a cop car or a Fiat 124 to school.”
Simply put, Earwood believes in mastering the fundamentals of performance driving and, as a result, his one-day school is pretty much the same for novices and professional racers alike. The day begins with a chalk talk that starts with the basics of grip, radius, and speed. Earwood understands that everyone is eager to get in a car, so he keeps it moving, and the classroom session is no longer than necessary.
“We’re going to start the morning off with [the] skid pad and autocross,” he explains in the classroom. “We’re working on knocking the rust off. We do a heel-and-toe exercise so you can work on proper downshifting, and then we go out on track and do lead-follows and just keep the pace up.”
The sequence is important, however, and the reason for it is simple. “It lets us ride with you for a few minutes and see where you’re at and work on your habits, good or bad,” Earwood says. “If you haven’t ridden on a skid pad with a coach, you don’t know what you’re going to do.”
Out on the wet skid pad, Earwood presses each driver to increase speed until the car loses traction. “We practice the CPR system,” he explains. “That’s Correct, Pause, and Recover.”
Earwood and his team spend as much time as needed working with each student on skid recovery, then we head over to the autocross course for the basics of line, apexing, and eye placement. An exercise in heel-and-toe shifting is also part of the basic curriculum.
“No matter whether you’re staying for three days or not, you need that first day,” Earwood insists. “You need the skid pad, you need the autocross, you need the heel and toe, you need the lead-follow around the racetrack.”
The afternoon session included driving both the rear-wheel-drive 124 and the front-wheel-drive 500 on the Ridge’s 2.47-mile, 16-corner circuit. The format is lead-follow with sessions of about 10 laps, so the instructors can observe each driver’s line and technique individually and offer coaching. After several sessions, speeds come up and each driver works on personal details.
The benefits of a one-day refresher school are real, even for licensed racing drivers. Many in our class had never experienced a skid pad before, while the autocross exercise forced students to focus on precision and planning. Likewise, driving the two dissimilar Fiats on the racetrack forced every driver to adapt to each car’s unique performance characteristics and driving requirements.
“What we have for the advanced driver, someone who’s SCCA-licensed and has been racing for at least a year or so, is our two-day advanced racing school,” Earwood says. “We still kick off with the skid pad and autocross, but then we go straight to a lead-follow session and a stop box session where we stop every lap and get feedback. The next day we go out as instructors in other racecars and we spoon feed you traffic. They’ll pass us in one turn. We’ll pass them in the next; we stay out all morning working on traffic.”
Earwood also emphasizes the value of a school day to learn a new track. “If you just need to knock the rust off, a one-day school is a good answer,” he notes. “For guys who know what they’re doing but just need a little more coaching, maybe the next step is to come and learn a new track, like Sebring, for instance. We offer that at every track where we operate, so you could go to New Jersey or Road Atlanta or Sebring or Laguna Seca.”
Whether you choose a Skip Barber school with Earwood (and you should meet this guy – he’s great) or a school near you, receiving coaching with planned exercises is one more tool to help you perform at your best come race day.
This featured appeared in the August 2019 issue of SportsCar magazine.