33 is a magic number in IndyCar racing. After all, 33 has long been the traditional number of starters in the Indianapolis 500. Now, it's also a magic number aspiring race drivers, specifically the 33 who were selected to participate in the inaugural shootout of the Skip Barber Racing School IndyCar Academy at Sebring this weekend. At stake is one fully sponsored ride in either the 2013 summer or winter Skip Barber Regional Race Series presented by Mazda, with the opportunity to climb the Mazda Road to Indy ladder to the IZOD IndyCar Series.
The drivers don't necessarily fit the profile of the typical drivers on the fast track to the corner of Georgetown and 16th Street. In fact, that's the whole idea. Only drivers who've graduated from a three-day Skip Barber Racing School and not gone on to a professional racing career are eligible to apply, with the selection of the final 33 based on input from the school instructors
The idea is to provide one aspiring driver who might not otherwise have a chance to climb up the IndyCar ladder a chance to do so based strictly on talent, regardless of their age, regardless of their relative lack of racing experience. And those 32 who don't win the shootout, will gain three days of valuable track time and instruction . . . for free.
• Friday's schedule
for the Skip Barber IndyCar Academy began with a re-acquaintance exercise of sorts, with drivers taking turns pounding around three different autocourse layouts set up along the Ulmann Straight. No times were recorded, nor were penalties assessed for spins and/or flattened cones. Still, as one instructor noted, everything counts, even if it's just making a first impression.
Along with on-track instruction, today's program included an hour-long session with IndyCar driver Townsend Bell focused on the business of racing, specifically the quest for sponsorship money. Bell noted that, today, instances where companies write checks to put their names on the side of racecars are the exception to the rule. Citing the example of Target, Bell noted that the real opportunities lie in drivers serving as the catalysts for business-to-business deals.
• In search of 350.
The judging criteria for the shootout is based on a combination of objective and subjective criteria. Each driver will participate in four on-track lapping sections over the course of the three-day program, with a total of 70 points available from each session. 35 points go to driver with the fastest lap in each session, 34 for second fastest, etc. and another 35 points will be awarded to the driver who posts the fastest average lap times in each session, with 34 going to the driver with the second fastest average lap times, etc.
In addition, instructors will grade the drivers subjectively on their feedback, the sorts of questions they ask and the manner in which they process and apply the instructors' critiques. The instructors' grades will be based on a 70 point scale, with the most teachable driver earning 70 points.
Drivers can also lose points in the process with a 35-point deduction for a crash, a 15-point penalty for a spin and a loss of five points for putting four wheels off the track.
For the record, Andre Gomes of Nashua, N.H. got off to a good start in the opening track session posting both the fastest time (1:21.357) and fastest average lap time (1:22.224), besting Chicago's Connor Clifford (1:21.543 and 1:22.453).
The inaugural class
for the Skip Barber IndyCar academy is nothing if not a diverse lot. They range in age from Alan Baker, a 51-year-old computer consultant from Vancouver, B.C., to Jarrett Overstreet, a 17-year-old student from Roanoke, and they hail from 20 states (ironically, none from Indiana) and three countries (USA, Canada and Ecuador).