Racing the wind at Laguna Seca

Sliding into the stripped-down, souped-up Mazda MX-5 Cup at Laguna Seca racecourse this past Spring, my heart was beating wildly, my foot itching to stomp on the gas pedal. I wanted nothing more than to begin tearing around the 2.24-mile-long course, world renowned for its scary corkscrew at Turn 8. Clothed in standard racecar driver attire, the steering wheel vibrating beneath my fingertips, I looked anxiously at the instructor next to me. It was time to feed the need for speed.

I had never been much of a speed demon, but when a friend arranged for a three-day course at Skip Barber Racing School, I jumped at the chance. The schools — operated at 12 tracks throughout the country, from Atlanta to Chicago to Florida — give amateur roadsters like me the chance to get behind the wheel of everything from Porsches and BMWs to open-wheeled racers. Not wanting to get in over my head right away, I opted for the aforementioned 200-horsepower MX-5, which comes nicely equipped with a steel rollcage and custom-fitted seats and harnesses, as well as all the accouterments one would expect from a custom-design sportscar:  exhaust system updates, special shocks and spring, enhanced suspension, etc. It’s little wonder that world-famous drivers — including Michael Andretti — regularly check in with the schools to hone their skills behind the wheel.

Over the next three days, any fears I had about going fast quickly abated. However this was, after all, a school, so don’t think for a moment that they simply throw you a helmet and the keys and wave you onto the track. Staffed by expert instructors who explain things in laymen’s terms, courses cover everything from slalom and advanced braking techniques to studies in racing theory. And although I didn’t plan to let the car leave the track at any point, safety was a top priority throughout the course.

By the end of the second day, I could sense my skills were already improving as I learned to accelerate out of turns, draft and pass other cars, and generally push the car to limits I’d never dreamed of. They even taught how to negotiate race starts and restarts, something the pros make look easy but which are, in reality, exceedingly tricky undertakings. And at the end of day three, the group was presented with graduation certificates, which allowed us to participate in advanced training courses and real competitive races.

The school, I learned, is about much more than just learning to be a racecar driver. Indeed, programs range from road rules instruction for first-time drivers to handling a car in inclement weather. In addition, many drivers considering a luxury car purchase take advantage of the school’s fleet of vehicles — Lotus to Mercedes to Lexus and more — to help they decide on what exactly they want to buy. And from recreational motorheads to aspiring professional speedsters, the schools have garnered a worldwide reputation as the place to indulge in a bit of behind-the-wheel luxury.

I learned on my last day at Laguna Seca that my graduation certificate allows me to apply for a spot on the MazdaSPEED race circuit. And although the offer is tempting, I think my three-days of tearing up the hairpins and corkscrews will sate for me some time.

Peter Rerig is a Senior Writer for Vacations.com.

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