-- I'm one hour east of Toronto, wondering why I'm here. Ugo Provencher -- young, athletic, French -- is at the board in front of the classroom.
"If you brake in the curve, you will spin out," he says, stabbing the board at the apex of a drawn curve. "You do not -- do not -- brake here," he repeats, once again stabbing the board for emphasis.
Provencher is chief instructor at the Bridgestone Racing Academy, which conducts its grueling classes at the Mosport Driver Development Center, a part of the Mosport International Raceway.
Would-be professional racecar drivers come here, to what is affectionately and disparagingly dubbed the "driver's kindergarten," to develop their skills. Many stay for four weeks or more, only to graduate as rookies.
I am here with 15 automotive journalists from North America. We've come for one day to get a taste of what it's like to drive an open-wheel, Reynard F2000 racecar at speed. But the more I hear Provencher talk, the more convinced I become that I should have scrubbed this trip.
"What happens if you spin out?" Provencher asks. He answers his own question: "Well, if you're on the track alone, you just create a lot of dust -- if you're lucky. But you're usually not on the track alone in a race. You spin, and your front end winds up facing oncoming traffic. That's bad. That usually means a crash."
Now I'm thinking of excuses to avoid getting into one of those fire-resistant Kevlar racing suits, stuffing my head into one of those helmets and stuffing my body into one of those tight-cockpit, single-seat cars. I'm a two-time kidney transplant patient, I think. That's a good excuse for saying, "Thank you, but no. . . . "
But then I look at my good friend Holly Reich, a cancer survivor and automotive writer from New York. Holly, as usual, is raring to go. She's always up for an adventure -- as long as it involves engines and wheels. I choose not to wimp out but privately curse Holly for being there.
We're suited up and headed for the 12-corner track. Provencher's curve diagram is implanted in my mind. It turns out that a curve actually has three parts -- entrance, apex and exit. You speed into the entrance, but start braking at an appropriate distance, depending on the length of the entrance, before reaching the apex. Braking transfers weight to the front wheels, the steering wheels, giving them more traction as you enter the curve.
But you can't keep all of that weight on the front wheels in a curve without turning the front end into a fulcrum that could spin the now lightly loaded rear. You've got to transfer some of that weight to the back end to keep the car balanced and stable. So you, in Provencher's terms, "blip" the accelerator -- that is, push the gas pedal ever so slightly to gain positive acceleration. You really give it the gas in the exit.
I know why real racecar drivers don't wear eyeglasses. They don't go well with helmets. Mine are being pushed up and jammed into my forehead by the lower portion of my helmet. I make some adjustments. The glasses feel better. I can see. But I'm still uncomfortable.
I think Provencher and his crew have made a mistake. They've put me in the high-level drivers group. I know this because Sue Mead is there. Sue has raced all over the world. She has raced through deserts and mountain ranges. She is the junior version of the famed Denise McCluggage, an automotive writer and former racecar driver who is the first woman to be admitted to the Automotive Hall of Fame. The driving gods must be crazy to put me in a group with Sue.
After a few laps around the track, I'm put into the lower-level drivers group. My ego isn't the least bit bruised, although Provencher tries to politely soften the blow. "I think you'll be more comfortable with this group," he says in informing me about the reassignment. Darned right!
Geez! Speed is addictive! These Reynard F2000 racecars are addictive! I don't want to get out. Heck, switching from Group 1 to Group 2 has more than one advantage. When Group 1 was coming in, Group 2 was rolling toward the track. I join Group 2 and keep rolling, thus getting more track laps than anyone.
By the end of the day, I'm working that little four-speed gearbox like a hand-dance, downshifting and upshifting, braking and accelerating -- and finally becoming so enthusiastic in my presumed new expertise that I drop one wheel off the track on one corner. I don't lose control of the car, but I know I've committed a no-no.
The instructors see my error and flag me in. "You've had enough for one day," one of them says as I roll into the pit. I don't argue. I don't care. I'm going to do this again somewhere, somehow. I'm hooked.