There's no Betty Crocker…but there really is a Skip Barber, the person whose name is on the banner of the Racing School, its various training programs and Race Series. He grew an organization on a shoestring, reinvested, grew it again…and again…and then sold the operation at exactly the right time to a group of investors impressed with the company's growth and future prospects.
Thirty-five years ago, the Skip Barber School of Performance Driving was begun by Tony Scotti, who brought credibility to the enterprise by attaching his friend's name to the masthead. After 17 years of racing, winning multiple National Championships, a history of racing top-level sport cars, as well as Formula 5000 and a stint in F1, Skip Barber was a well-respected and recognized professional racer.
At the end of the operation's first season, Skip absorbed all the obligations of the company and the school was his. He pursued the business in earnest, soon making locations grow from one racetrack to three. He also developed a well-thought-out curriculum inspired by Skip contemporary and fellow instructor at “Road Racing Drivers Club” seminars, Mark Donohue. His “commercial” school differed from the customary SCCA schools of the period. Skip's school provided the racecars, and focused on explaining vehicle dynamics and creating behind-the-wheel exercises that developed important driving skills, while easing off on rote-learning of rules and regulations.
Despite his self-described shyness, Skip transformed himself into a persuasive, savvy, imaginative and successful businessman. He proved adept at creating profitable alliances when sensible, and equally willing to dissolve them when no longer needed. Was he persuasive? Often, staff who met privately with Skip and were confronted with a nearly impossible task, timeline, or budget, would return from his office thinking the project was not only doable, but almost reasonable. It was called being “Skipnotized.”
After the first season's experience, Skip felt that a way to attract potential Racing School customers might be to offer the availability of a racing outlet, which required school attendance to qualify. In conjunction with becoming the northeast USA distributor of Irish-built Crosslé racing cars, Skip placed an order for nine 30F Formula Fords, which would make up the field for a series of races, beginning with the first of seven events, at Thompson, Conn., in April 1976. Events at Lime Rock and Watkins Glen filled out the schedule.
Not a big surprise, cars got damaged and engines expired. The first weekend was a sporting success, but exposed the concept's various financial risks. Over time, a set of rules and a system to assign damage liability evolved to govern the series.
Late in 1976, one strategic move changed everything. Skip invested in a transporter capable of moving a school's worth of 11 Formula Fords anywhere on short notice. Other racing schools were based at a single location, their schedule limited by the season and track availability as they drew from a regional customer base. Skip's program could now come to you: A three-day racing school could be scheduled anywhere in the East, South, Midwest, Canada or West. The most immediate practical impact was that the New England-based company could stay alive through the winter by doing schools in the south. Also, national marketing and advertising became feasible and ultimately effective.
In 1984, Skip worked together with BMW of North America to create a High Performance Driving School using a skid pad, lane change and braking area, and an autocross. The school taught the same techniques that race drivers use to go fast, but skewed the goal toward using the skills to be a smarter, safer, street driver. With the help of Terry Earwood, who'd been teaching this type of school at Road Atlanta, the Driving School became a popular and profitable program that also showcased the capability and reliability of products from BMW, Daimler/Chrysler and, most recently, Mazda.
Growth continued at a frantic pace. Three schools in 1975 grew to 130 by 1987. As a result, it became increasingly important that the ethic and message remained consistent from school to school. An internal guidebook and outline of each lecture and exercise included in the racing school was put together and expanded, as the instructor staff grew and the guidebook evolved into the book Going Faster! That book is widely considered the best racing text available and has sold more than 65,000 copies.
By 1985, Skip wanted to take the Formula Ford series concept a step further to give drivers with professional aspirations an outlet to show their skills in faster cars. The Pro Series began in 1986 with 12 ESPN-televised events. Saab, looking to promote a more sporty image, provided turbocharged 220hp powerplants fitted to Mondiale chassis with wings and slicks to create a new potent, class of formula car.
By 1987, race weekends, including Formula Ford and Pro Series, totaled 42 events annually. There was more to come. In 1998, with sponsorship from DaimlerChrysler, the Pro Series cars were upgraded to Reynard carbon-fiber chassis powered by Dodge V6 powerplants – a truly modern racecar. Skip had succeeded in creating an institution that's had a lasting impact on the sport, in sometimes obvious, sometimes subtle ways.
Much has changed since 2000. Financial downturns have especially affected companies which depend upon discretionary spending, and the Skip Barber organization was no exception. The company has changed ownership twice more since then. Today, the operation is owned and run hands-on by Michael Culver, a committed racer who began his involvement as an enthusiastic Skip Barber Racing Series competitor.
Changes to the scope of the company's ambitions had to occur in response to the new environment. The flagship “Pro Series” could no longer be justified, partly because the cost structure of TV coverage had drastically changed for the worse. The series lasted for 18 years before the plug was reluctantly pulled in 2003. Pros like Robbie Buhl, Bryan Herta, Kenny Brack, Jerry Nadeau, Barry Waddell, Brian Till, Jim Pace, Ryan Hunter-Reay, AJ Allmendinger and Juan Pablo Montoya used the Pro Series as a route toward a career in professional road racing, NASCAR, IndyCar, and beyond.
The organization continues to offer sampler programs, like the High Performance Driving School for drivers to explore the limits of vehicles from manufacturers like Mazda, Porsche, BMW, Lotus, and Lexus, on the autocross and racetrack. The Driving Schools continue teaching defensive driving techniques and providing thrills with Mazda's best models on the skid pad and autocross course. And, of course, the core racing programs continue to teach the skills that it takes to excel. With new support from Mazda, customers now can choose to get their race training either in single-seat formula cars or fully race-prepared Mazda MX-5s. There is also a “Mazdaspeed Challenge Race Series” for those who prefer to race closed-wheeled cars.
In addition, a “National Race Series”, targeted toward professional aspirants, continues the ethos of providing a springboard for pros of the future. Begun in 2004, as an alternative to the Pro Series, it has produced an impressive crop of young racing talent including Marco Andretti, John Edwards, Brian and Burt Friselle, Ricky and Jordan Taylor and Conor Daly.
Every season, Skip Barber's system seems to produce new talent you'll read about in the future. So…same deal for the next 35? More than likely.
“I didn't attend the school but I did drive for Skip in Formula Fords in 1981. I wish I could have done more with him, and so it was really good that we were able to work together again with Marco, from 2003-'04.
“I think it's amazing what Skip's done through the years and look at the talented drivers who've emerged and gone on to win in Formula 1 and IndyCar.
“As the first experience of a racecar, there's so much to learn, even basics like downshifting and learning grip levels from slick tires, so speeding up that learning process is vital and that's what Skip's school does. Going up against really experienced guys who have reached that level and who've made it their hobby but who are very good – Dave Weitzenhof, for example – and you're also surrounded by kids in the same position as you – trying to be champion at the first corner of the first race!
“You learn about changing the car mechanically – only basic stuff, but vital for taking you to the next level. The team will make a change, you go out on track and feel the difference and think, “Oh, that's what that does.” You memorize that and it gives you another reference point.
“Living in the Northeast meant I also did a lot of driving in the wet, and those techniques are fundamentals that apply all the way up to F1 and IndyCar. My very first win was in the wet, actually – beating Chip Ganassi!”
“Skip Barber and his organization and series had a huge impact on my racing career, without a doubt. Skip developed real opportunities for up-and-coming drivers.
“He's a real racer, so he created the school, the Nationals, the Barber Dodge Pro Series based on that – not about money or anything else. He wanted to really help racing talent and give that talent a place to grow and develop. That meant a lot to me because my parents didn't have the money or resources to put me in a car or even give me a chance. Skip and all that he created gave me that chance, just based on my talent and personality.
“When he picked me to participate, it made me feel really special because of Skip's length of time in the sport and the reputation his organizations had for being at high level of competition. Just that nod and being a part of it gave me the jump start I needed.”
Juan Pablo Montoya
“I went to the Skip Barber Racing School in Sonoma when I wanted to make the change from karts to auto racing in 1992. They taught me everything I needed to know about how to drive racecars – from braking, getting in and out of corners, shifting, to the overall feel of the car. I would recommend anyone who has an interest in auto racing take the classes. It gave me the foundation to go after my dreams and get me to where I am today.
“I've even promised my wife, Connie, that I'll take her to the school sometime so that she can experience it.”
“When I say I joined Skip's school straight out of karts, I mean that: I came back from a kart race one night, we turned the truck around and went straight to Sebring and I got my first racecar seat time the next day.
“The biggest culture shock when moving up from karts is how much weight there is to move around, so you have to be careful not to overdrive it. SBRS helped teach me that speed comes from finessing a car, and learning how to deal with things like the transfer of weight in the corners.
“Everyone was really helpful. People like Terry Earwood, Pete Argetsinger, Jim Pace and Barry Waddell have done endurance racing and so I was getting great advice – and they were also very patient. They shape your talent into what it needs to be.
“Myself and three others got selected from the Skip Barber Karting Scholarship, that got me a season in the cars and I won the Eastern Regional Series in 1999. That got me through to the National Championship. I won that and then went to the big scholarship shootout, 10 days later at Sebring, and winning that got me a season in the Barber Dodge Pro Series. After two years, I moved into Atlantics and discovered just how great Skip Barber's preparation had been!”