Self-Driving Cars Won't Save Your Life, But the Skip Barber Racing School Just Might

In an era of smartphone distraction, declining skills, and indifferent driver education, Skip Barber teaches humans how to drive the right way.

Lans Christensen

Ask any rally driver, professional drifter, or just some kid pulling doughnuts in a snowy parking lot: There are few things more fun than fishtailing a car on a slick surface, as I rediscovered at the Skip Barber Winter Driving Clinic at Lime Rock Park in Connecticut. But this rare opportunity for socially sanctioned hooning has a serious side, when you consider how rarely drivers get to explore the limits of their cars or safely practice emergency maneuvers that might save their lives—or the lives of their occupants.

In my perfect world—as well as in Alex Roy’s, since he's the author of the Human Driving Manifesto—a driving school like Skip Barber would be driver’s ed: A required curriculum for all licensed drivers, taught by real professionals, that teaches actual car-control skills. Even one day of this stuff would beat any knowledge that young drivers absorb from trembling parents, slumming gym teachers, or multiple-choice quizzes at the DMV.

“Even professional drivers will practice on a skidpad to hone their skills,” says pro instructor Ben Haymann, who got his own start in racing by driving his father’s rally car on frozen lakes at age 15. “You’ve got a safe environment where you can push a car past the limit, and then learn to keep it below that limit. For the average driver on the street, it’s the best thing you could ever do.”

Lans Christensen

That may go double for American teenagers, for whom vehicle crashes remain the leading—and so often preventable— cause of death. Drivers between ages 16 and 19 are three times as likely to die in a car crash than drivers 20 or older. Blame a fatal mix of inexperience and overconfidence, sure—but also this nation’s indifferent, irresponsible approach to training and licensing standards. For any age group, the driving skills of the average American might fairly be called a national disgrace. 

If crash statistics are a handy guide, things may be getting worse: U.S. traffic fatalities plunged for four decades, but they’ve now spiked dramatically, despite a fleet that includes the safest, most-crashworthy cars in history. Traffic deaths peaked at 54,589 in 1972, and plunged to a record low of 32,744 by 2014, even with tens of millions more cars and drivers on the road, logging billions more miles. But over the next two years, traffic fatalities jumped a shocking 14 percent, to 37,461 in 2016. The number dipped slightly to 37,133 in 2017, but that’s still nearly 4,400 more dead Americans—including troubling increases in motorcyclist and pedestrian deaths—than in 2014. And fatalities are only part of the story: In a landmark study of 2010 crash data, released in 2014, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration pegged a direct economic cost of $242 billion—or $784 for every man, woman and child in the U.S.—for that year’s tens of thousands of crash deaths, 3.9 million injuries, and 24 million damaged vehicles.

Skip Barber instructors would love to put even a small dent in those statistics. The school also offers a Teen Safety and Survival program and a one-day driving school that instills their time-tested methods. Haymann is one of several top-flight Winter Clinic instructors whose experience includes everything from rally and road racing to stunt driving and training for the military and law enforcement. But there’s no snow or ice at Lime Rock when I arrive. (Damn you, climate change!) Instead, fog and a cold drizzle greet the assembled students as I drive a Mazda Miata RF press car into the historic circuit.

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I’m thinking the day is a literal washout, until I see the “drift rings” on the school cars: thermoplastic hoops that encase conventional rear wheels and tires, sharply reducing their coefficient of grip to allow easy breakaways from as little as 10 or 15 mph. The black rings—think a higher-tech version of plastic cafeteria trays— prove ideal for teaching drivers to initiate and recover from a skid at relatively low speeds. You don’t need to drive especially fast to learn car control, as any pro driver will tell you.

“The same thing happens in a car at 20 mph as it does at 120 mph,” says instructor Paul Balich. 

Best of all, the rings work even on bone-dry pavement, so trainers and students don’t have to worry about the weather cooperating. We’re soon slip-sliding in a Ford Fusion and an Escape, with this winter school preferring a blend of sedans and crossovers like those students might be driving in the real world. Instructors sit shotgun to work on our counter-steer recoveries, hand and throttle positions, and the criminally overlooked skill of visual tracking. 

The instructors’ expert, good-humored approach brings back memories of my great experiences in Skip Barber open-wheel racing schools. So I’m gladdened to see this seminal school reborn at five U.S. racetracks, under new and committed ownership, after a bankruptcy in 2017. Founded by Skip Barber in 1975—“Skippy” sold the school in 1999, but still owns the Lime Rock circuit—the school’s racing alumni include Jeff Gordon, Juan Pablo-Montoya, Michael Andretti, Kyle Petty, Bill Elliot, and dozens more. Barber's Miatas are no more, replaced by a fleet of Mustangs and other Fords, helpfully provided by Northeast Ford in nearby Millerton, New York.

Lans Christensen

After lunch, our group heads out for panic braking, slalom, and emergency lane-change exercises. As I stomp the brakes of a Mini Countryman and feel the throb of its ABS, the instructor reminds me how critical early initiation and maximum brake pressure are to save-your-ass stops. Many drivers, of course, will never press the pedal hard enough to even engage ABS in a critical situation, with some assuming that standing on the brake will somehow “break” the car. (As though they’d prefer the “breaking” that comes with a rear-end collision). Rather than address the educational shortfall, companies like Lexus invented “brake assist” technology to recognize when drivers actually wanted ABS, and simply engage it automatically.

Lans Christensen

That brings up everyone’s favorite trendy car topic: the rise of autonomous technology that has pro instructors as ambivalent as everyone else. Our coaches are quick to praise the tech revolution in everything from air bags and ABS to stability control. But more than ever, auto technology seems to be wielding a double-edged sword. Semi-autonomous and (eventually) autonomous technology may well be a key to dramatic reductions in highway fatalities and injuries. One element of it, automatic emergency braking (AEB), is already demonstrating statistically significant reductions in front-to-rear collisions. Yet distracted driving, led by compulsive smartphone use and enabled by auto touchscreens, is a prime suspect in the sudden surge in auto fatalities. And self-driving tech, if it’s poorly implemented, misused, or misunderstood, may lull drivers into a false sense of security—or cause already-shaky skills to atrophy further. 

Skip Barber’s people stress that, even if autonomous cars become reality, they’ll still be sharing the roads—for years if not decades—with conventional cars and sentient drivers. Knowing how to drive, safely and well, will still be a worthwhile human endeavor.

“I can’t even fathom being totally reliant on technology to get where I’m going,” says Colin Chambers, Skip Barber’s vice president of marketing and business strategy.  “I think there will always be room to drive in this country, and racetracks as well. And we still see young people who just as eager to drive and compete as we were when we were kids.”

That brigade includes Will Lambros, 15, and his brother Dino, 13, both of whom have been running Skip Barber racing events. And our winter clinic has brought a good half-dozen teen drivers—young men and women alike. With darkness falling on Lime Rock, the day wraps with a cool surprise: A timed autocross in a 2019 Ford Mustang GT and a Mini Countryman, with students split into teams for relay-style laps. If you didn't think driving was fun before, a trip in the bellowing V-8 'Stang might convince the coldest soul. Some of the fastest laps are posted by 19-year-old Philip Weymouth and his 17-year-old brother Carte.  The Manhattan residents are huge car fans—Audis and Aston Martins are some favorites—and these new-gen drivers give the old-school Skip Barber a big thumbs-up.

“This would make anyone a better driver, absolutely,” Philip says. “It’s very situational, with opportunities to practice that you’d never get otherwise.”

Skip Barber Racing School’s Winter Driving Clinic is being held on select Saturdays at Lime Rock Park. It’s open to any licensed driver, or holders of a learner’s permit with at least 20 hours of driving experience. For information, contact skipbarber.com, or at (866) 932-1949.