Your Gran Turismo dreams can become reality at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca, with a visit to Allen Berg Racing Schools.
Story by Glenn Oyoung. Photos by Glenn Oyoung and courtesy of ABRS/Thomas Outzen, Kinetic Motorsport Photography.
The Corkscrew. If you’re a racing fan, you know that I’m talking about turn 8 and 8A at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca (or in race fan shorthand, simply “Laguna Seca.”) This is one of the most famous turns at one of the most famous tracks in the world. In 1999 Polyphony released Gran Turismo 2 on the heels of the wildly popular Grand Turismo for the Sony Playstation and ushered in a whole new generation of Laguna Seca devotees including yours truly. I’ve logged countless hours of my life from undergrad to just before my daughter was born digitally racing around Laguna Seca within the Gran Turismo universe. Thanks to Allen Berg’s gracious invitation to attend his racing school I was able to experience the Corkscrew in our universe.
One of my favorite past-times is attending racing schools. Eventually I’d like my to work my way up to some form of grassroots racing but a) I know my current career and family commitments preclude me from investing the time or financial resources it takes to run a season of anything except my favorite Netflix show, and b) I actually am perfectly happy with the intellectual and physical challenge of learning race craft and applying it in an educational setting. Thanks to semi-annual treks to drive formula cars at Bondurant and a chance to pilot a Radical at Spring Mountain I knew enough to put down “return your race car exactly as you gave it to me” as my number one goal on Berg’s pre-class questionnaire. This was not false humility. 2.2 miles, 11 turns, and more ups and downs than an emo teenager…it’s Laguna-freeking-Seca people!
The thing to realize about any racing school is that a room full of students can include everyone from people who can’t drive stick to hotshoes with SCCA licenses. Not only does the talent level vary wildly, but attitudes also range from respectful students who know their limitations to those who just want to put the pedal to the metal despite a complete lack of understanding of physics, let alone the proper racing line. Put this motley crew into some Tatuus Renault Formula 1600s on one of the most technical courses in the world (did I mention the Corkscrew???) and you have a recipe for the mother of all #fail video series on YouTube.
Who in their right mind would think they can take on a challenge like this? Enter Allen Berg, a veteran racer who has campaigned in British Formula 3, Toyota Atlantics in North America, and sports-car racing series around the world. Oh, and let’s not forget F1 where he qualified for 9 starts. Berg knows a thing or two about not only racing, but also instructing with time as chief instructor at BMW Mexico and time teaching with various racing schools including Skip Barber before he struck out on his own and started Allen Berg Racing Schools (ABRS).
I was invited to attend the one-day class and my particular cohort included mostly novices with a handful of students with prior racing school experience. Everything about the day was designed to give students a safe experience while also providing us with a way to improve from wherever our individual baseline was. I found that to be the single most impressive thing about ABRS — we all had a fantastic time and we all came back safe and sound (including our bank accounts.) To take a dozen random human beings and teach them to drive relatively quickly around WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca in one day is akin to taking a smattering of people and teaching them to competitive tango in a day.
After an hour-plus class covering everything from proper seating position to heel-toeing in a formula car, we were given a tour of the track by an instructor in a van. I was starstruck by the track landmarks (can you be starstruck by a bridge?), waypoints I’d spent countless hours looking out for in my little simulation world.
With the van ride complete it was time to take control of our own cars. I was fitted to a racecar by a helpful instructor and after struggling a bit to get the finicky Tatuus Renault rolling (the trick is maintain 1500 rpms as best as you can, no useless blipping) I was underway.
What’s it like to sit in a formula Renault on the start at Laguna? Absolutely surreal. I could not believe I was actually seeing the track in real life from the vantage point of a race car inches off the ground.That was just the feeling I had sitting there waiting to fire up the engine. It was a red-pill-blue-pill moment for me. Real world, fake world, whatever – which one of these gets me more seat time to the Formula Renault?
The first half of the day was spent in lead-follows in groups of four. Experienced students might find this tame if not for the fact that you are cruising around Laguna Seca. However if your particular group is fast (three of our four were pretty quick) your instructor will pick up the pace to accelerate your learning.
ABRS sums up Laguna Seca quite well as a race course that “has it all: high speed banked turns, serious elevation changes, fast straights, and challenging technical corners.” It’s a veritable smorgasbord of exhilaration and racing fun. One of my coaches called it a very “flowy” track, and once he said it that’s stuck in my mind. As you get better and better there’s almost a zen-like quality and beauty to the track. There are twists and turns and ups and downs, just like life itself. No other track heretofore has inspired me to wax this philosophical. That’s because no other track has the Corkscrew, which is a winding 6-story drop over a mere 450 feet. (I promise, I’m not crying about a racetrack…it’s these damn onions I tell you!)
After a delicious lunch trading stories with my fellow students it was time to start the second, more exciting half of the day. No more lead-follows we were on our own. The rules of engagement: no engagement. Ostensibly, that is saved for more advanced multi-day courses. Instead, students are separated at the middle of the straight by instructors.
You are called in for feedback or to allow quicker students to pass. It took me a couple of warm-up laps and after that I was off to the races, so to speak. My mentality was to try and improve each corner and stay smooth, vs. go for absolute speed.
We were advised that our gauges weren’t very accurate when it came to displaying what gear we were which was one of the trickier aspects of the cars. A more experienced racer would have found it no problem but alas I’m no gear or card counter (or I’d have a Ferrari). I was called in once to advise me that I needed to upshift as I was screaming around the track. As the afternoon session progressed I felt more and more confident in my ability to go fast around the track, save for a couple of corners that I kept Goldilocking-up (came in too hot, came in too cold).
The amount of seat time that is allocated to this novice class was very generous. By the time the last session was announced I knew I had optimized every turn as best as I could for my first day at the track. I was ready to call it a day. This is generally the time of day at race schools that the word deductible comes into play, along with the phrase “Will that be MasterCard, Visa, and AMEX?” Physical and mental fatigue are a huge factor, especially for novices who have been high-fiving each other all day. The instructor strapping me in confirmed as much when he shared that this last session would be shorter. “No problem,” I said, “I want to get out of here while my FICO score is still good.”
Ten minutes and several laps later, the checkered flag was waved and it was time to pull in. My decades-old Gran Turismo-inspired dream was now a reality, preserved forever on a SD card from a helmet-mounted camera graciously provided by the school. I left wanting more, and vowed to myself I would be back.
I’ll spare you my turn-by-turn commentary, primarily because that’s like a white belt explaining kung fu – but I can share some observations:
- Nothing beats the real thing. Video games are nice, and you may have memorized Laguna Seca but in real life you have elevation changes that play with your internal organs, tires to manage, and let’s not forget danger. You cannot simply hit reset if things go wrong.
- You don’t have to be experienced to love ABRS. I’m a racing school junkie, but you don’t need a closet full of Bondurant, Skip Barber, or ABRS polos to enjoy this experience. Even if you have no prior knowledge of formula cars or even Laguna Seca (I can’t even imagine by the way…) you will still have a blast. My class included some folks who couldn’t tell Laguna Seca from Laguna Beach and yes, some of them did spin out or stall. But here’s the thing: so what. They had a terrific time and thanks to the structure and staff of the school, they came out unscathed.
- Speaking of safety, this is very safe. Is there the potential to cause serious physical and/or financial harm to yourself or others? Of course. We’re talking about race cars going at speed. Even if the cars are doing 6/10ths of their limit, at the hands of a newbie doing 11/10ths of theirs – things can get sketchy really quickly. I shared with Berg that it was miraculous to me that he could take a room full of adrenaline junkies with no racing experience in the morning, improve their skills, and have everyone return safe and sound.
- You will be learning from some very talented racer. Berg refers to his instructors as “coaches.” I had the pleasure of being coached by some talented racers who also were talented coaches. There’s an intersection of driving ability and interpersonal skills that makes a good coach. All of his coaches have extensive racing experience ranging from karting to rallycross to F4. Fittingly, I met a former contestant on the Nissan GT Academy who is currently figuring out how to tow in an eco-friendly way. Most of the coaches possessed a good bedside manner and patience, which is probably important if you’re going to spend your day watching newbies spin out despite your best efforts to coach them up.
- If you ever want to drive a formula racecar, this is the way to do it. You simply must go to WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca and check out ABRS. I know that when my body no longer will support my love of racing or even driving, I’ll be able to think back to my day playing “Glenn Turismo” with ABRS.
ABRS runs a variety of classes from one-day novice classes to three-day advanced courses. They also offer race licensing through a partnership with SCCA. For more information on ABRS, visit the Allen Berg Racing School website.
I had the opportunity to sit down with Berg and discuss his school, the state of the racing school industry, and his future plans. Check out that in-depth discussion here.