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Students of all stripes take to the track for the thrill of high-performance driving

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By Ann Silvio
Globe Staff / July 25, 2010

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LAKEVILLE, Conn. — On a sunny Thursday afternoon in June, a black Lincoln Town Car stopped in front of Paul Battaglino’s house, and the insurance adjuster from Wellesley dutifully climbed into the backseat. Battaglino had no clue where the driver was taking him. For his 40th birthday, his wife, Tammy, had packed him a bag and set up a mystery weekend. Her only instructions: “Clear your schedule.’’

Setting off down the Mass Pike, Battaglino offered his driver cash to divulge their destination. He refused. “I just figured she’d set up a golf weekend,’’ Battaglino said. “That’s really my only hobby.’’ After two hours, the car began winding past the bucolic farms, covered bridges, and the tree-lined back roads of the Berkshire foothills. Battaglino put away his laptop and let the scenery wash over him. “I’d never been there before. It was where Connecticut, Massachusetts, and New York all come together, and it was stunning.’’

When the car finally stopped, he opened the door to Lakeville, a quaint hamlet where three college buddies awaited him at a local inn. After graduation, the group reunited every year on golf trips, but the tradition had died nearly a decade ago as they became husbands and fathers. The next morning, the four men sat in a row, fidgeting as an instructor scribbled math formulas and diagrams on a whiteboard.

Tammy’s surprise was a full-day course in high-performance driving at the Skip Barber Racing School, which is headquartered at the Lime Rock race track in Lakeville. The school offers up to three days of instruction in different types of cars. Battaglino’s course would put him in the driver’s seat of high-performance sports cars like the BMW M3, Porsche 911, and Lotus Exige, all a far cry from his kid-carting Tahoe. The class took the men through lane-changing drills, braking exercises, and skidding practice. By the end of the day, they would don helmets and tackle Lime Rock’s 1.5-mile professional race course. If you think that means driving at breakneck speed in mind-numbing circles, think again.

“Racing in Europe started on public roads,’’ said Skip Barber, 73, who founded his eponymous school in 1975. “In America, it started on country fair tracks, so our history is the oval. The European’s is the road.’’ Unlike the oval track of American stock-car racing, Lime Rock is basically a simulated country road with no cars coming the other way, and Barber is proud of how it zigs and zags over hills and dales. It’s known for its sudden elevation changes and seven unique turns, each known by a nickname like Big Bend or The Righthander.

When the track was built a half century ago, road racing was fashionable. “Everybody on Madison Avenue came to Lime Rock, every important guy in advertising in the ’50s and ’60s,’’ Barber said. He learned to race at Harvard as an undergraduate, and he takes exception to the redneck reputation of car racing in America today. “This was a gentleman’s sport,’’ he says.

Barber sold the driving school in 1999, but he still owns Lime Rock Park, which he considers the Tanglewood of race tracks. The school retained his name, and Barber is often on site at the track while classes are going on. No grandstands spoil the verdant hills surrounding the track, and his concession stand serves locally made Grote & Weigel hot dogs and Harpoon beer. On race days, kids can bring kites and adults, wine. “It’s a park,’’ he says. “It’s about picnicking. You come for a day in the country.’’

Lime Rock sits in peaceful Litchfield County, home to prep schools, vacation homes, and high-end antiques shops. Classes range from $700 to $4,000 and are often populated with executives, hedge fund managers, professional drivers, and celebrities. Instructors like to recount stories of VIP graduates like Paul Newman and Eliot Spitzer, who brought his daughters to the school.

Barber instructors, dressed in safari hats, white polos, and khaki shorts, tend to small, 20-person classes. They wave students into the pit with a checkered flag and bend down to deliver gentle critiques and good-natured ribbings through the driver’s side window. But the on-call ambulance idling next to the pit underscores the seriousness of the lesson plan here. Many instructors are former pro drivers who train NASCAR and Indy 500 winners.

But the most satisfying student, said instructors, is one who arrives with confidence lost. “The 18-year-old girl who was in an accident and is really afraid. It can do wonders when she learns that the car can slide and she can control it,’’ Barber said. Just off the main track is a circular, water-soaked skid pad. With an instructor riding shotgun and water splattering across the windshield, students build speed around the circle, screeching into a dreaded fishtail spinout. But here, curbs, pedestrians, cars, and other street dangers are nowhere in sight. The exercise is what instructors call “finding the limit of the car,’’ and the point is learning how to correct a slide in a controlled environment before it becomes a spin (hint: slamming on the brakes isn’t helpful). Teens of decades past once learned these lessons through willful spinouts in empty parking lots, but that tradition has fallen out of favor, said instructor Paul Balich. Instead, he increasingly sees well-heeled fathers bringing young drivers for “street-proofing.’’

Often fathers and sons take a course together. “We’ve had cases where the kid wasn’t even talking to his dad,’’ said Barber. “Then the kid does better than him at something difficult. This is a very level playing field for the two of them.’’

Merrick Teti, 34, an aspiring stand-up comic from Philadelphia, recently joined his father, John, 64, for a three-day course in the school’s low-slung, open-wheel race cars. “I don’t fish and he doesn’t surf, so it’s an opportunity for us to do something together,’’ says the younger Teti. By the time the pair climbed out of their cockpits and peeled off their red jumpsuits, they were left with plenty to discuss. “At the end of the day, we had a couple beers and talked about some of the excitement we had on each of our turns,’’ the son said.

In class with Battaglino, there was a fashion-show producer and a theater-set designer who declared himself ready for “speed-junkie rehab.’’ There was also a bookish New Yorker whose only personal vehicle is a bicycle. At the start of a morning braking exercise, he poked his head out the window of his assigned Porsche and said sheepishly, “Excuse me, looks like I’m having a bit of trouble getting this thing started.’’ By the end of the day, he marveled at the adrenalin high of “driving at the ragged edge of my ability.’’

And then there was Farah Al-Sabah, 26, who freshened her pink lipstick throughout the day and spoke in a quiet British accent. A daughter of the ruling family of Kuwait, Al-Sabah was visiting the United States for a month to take five Barber courses. Her love affair with road racing school began a year ago when she took a driving course in California on a lark. Although her family compound in Kuwait is filled with two Ferraris, a Porsche, and a Bentley, she said she spent the past year pining for a return to the track. “I couldn’t stop thinking about it,’’ she said. Back home, she’s known as a timid driver, but when it was her turn to squeal around Lime Rock’s autocross in a little orange Lotus, Al-Sabah skipped gleefully up to the car.

The joy of driving a road track happens whether you like cars or not, she explained. Figuring out how to drive the proper “racing line’’ around Lime Rock’s varied turns requires intense focus, which translates to a kind of stress relief, she said. “All you’re thinking about is what you see in front of you. You clear your head.’’

“If you want to mentally get away, this is the place to come,’’ echoed John Teti. “It leaves an effect like if you went mountain climbing.’’

That feeling is exactly what Barber had in mind when he started the school. “We thought it would be a lot like an Outward Bound experience,’’ he said. “You’re getting bombarded with information, and you make a thousand mistakes a race, teeny ones. You just keep fixing them. It demands huge discipline, but when you get it right, it’s huge fun.’’

Halfway through the day, Battaglino did something that he would never do on a golf course: turned off his cellphone. The following day, Battaglino and his buddies traded the racecourse for the golf course, and phones were back on. “But all we could talk about while golfing,’’ he says, “was driving.’’

Ann Silvio can be reached at silvio@globe.com.

If You Go

Skip Barber Racing School
Lakeville, Conn.
866-932-1949
www.skipbarber.com
Classes range from three hours to four days ($700-$4,000) and include classroom instruction, seat time in their 85-car fleet, and supervised drills. Lunch is usually included. Classes are available in open-wheel Formula cars, Mazda MX-5 racing cars, or a candy-colored selection of high-performance sports cars (Lotus Exige, Lotus Elise, BMW M3, Lexus IS F, or Porsche 911, Cayman, and Boxster.) A Mazda one-day teen driving class is offered for $999.
Where to stay
Interlaken Inn
74 Interlaken Road
Lakeville
860-435-9878
www.interlakeninn.com
This family-friendly 30- acre resort sits between two spring-fed lakes. A Skip Barber Racer’s Lounge is provided for students to mingle with instructors, all of whom stay here. $169 to $379. Discounts to guests who are enrolled in a driving course or visiting the track.
The Boulders
387 East Shore Road (Route 45)
New Preston
860-868-0541
www.bouldersinn.com
Thirty minutes from Lime Rock Park, this small 20-room inn on the shores of Lake Waramaug runs $365-$475 a night. Guests have the use of hybrid bikes, a fitness center, and a swimming dock. Full breakfast and afternoon tea included.
Where to eat
The Boathouse
349 Main St.
Lakeville
860-435-2111
www.boathouseatlakeville.com
A rustic local favorite with steaks, seafood, and a full sushi menu. Their most popular beer on draft is the locally brewed Berkshire Ale. Entrees $13-$29.
Community Table
223 Litchfield Turnpike (Route 202)
Washington
860-868-9354
See “Community Table Restaurant’’ on Facebook
The restaurant buys nearly every ingredient from farms within a 50-mile radius. Decor is minimalist, and the menu offers three or four entrees per night. Guests mix at a 12-person table. Open Thursday-Monday, 5-10 p.m. Entrees $20-$30.