So, who are the guys that know what they're doing? Well, unlike most schools, The Justin Bell's Viper Driving School actually has its namesake leading the class-Justin Bell. Who's Justin? Well, his Dad is Derek Bell, who's raced and won The 24 Hours of LeMans, among other things, so Justin's grown up with the stuff. Justin has raced in many different types of cars over the last nine years, culminating in a relationship with Dodge that resulted in his winning of the '98 LeMans GT2 World Championship. Now stop and think about that-the guy who piloted the Viper to the podium at LeMans is sitting in the passenger seat, giving you pointers. And it wasn't that he was just there for my class because I was doing a story for a magazine-he's at every class. And what's more, he's not the snotty, arrogant, professional European sports car driver you'd expect. He's a down-to-earth guy who's easy to talk to and joke around with. He just knows what he's doing behind the wheel, whereas you and I don't (I'm not sure that can be stressed enough).
The other instructors in the school are handpicked by Justin, and all are current sports car racers with FIA and SCCA experience-and they're all also real decent guys.
Okay, let's cut to the chase. In these types of stories, the magazine guy always tells you that they learned a lot, it was fun, they were stars and blasted to tremendous speeds, it was a great experience...blah, blah, blah. I spun a Viper. What's worse, I was the first guy in the class to do it, though two others would follow. That was on day three, and it's part of the school. It's not encouraged, but it is expected. What did I learn? That when you're going through a corner and trying to downshift, mistakenly grabbing Second instead of Fourth brings the back of the car around, at which point you're just along for the ride. What else did I learn? Those low concrete track barriers look like the Great Wall of China from the driver's seat of a Viper that's in the middle of a nice, slow spin that started at 60 mph. That was day three and had nothing to do with thinking I was better than I am. Fortunately, the only damage was to Moroso's grass-I owe you guys some sod.
On day one, I got chewed out by one of the instructors during the braking exercises. We were supposed to accelerate to 80 mph, then brake and bring the car to a halt in a short, measured distance without locking up the tires. Stopping wasn't the problem-accelerating was. How do you accelerate a Viper to 80 mph and hold it at that speed until you have to hit the brakes? I figured I'd hit 80 mph in the middle of Second, then put it in Third to maintain my speed coming into the cones. The problem was I grabbed Second like I was on a drag strip. Not a smart idea when the course is wet and you're playing with 550 horses. The tires went up in smoke and the car got all squirrely before I took my foot off the gas and coasted to the cones, where the nice instructor explained to me that I would not bang gears again. Hot rodding isn't tolerated in the school, and with good reason. That one had everything to do with thinking I was better than I am.
The school was full of surprises. We learned what we were or weren't capable of, we were allowed to push $80,000 cars to our limits for as many laps as we wanted, and a world champion driver was an integral part of our instruction. But perhaps the biggest surprise of all was that they use new 4-door Neon ACRs as teaching tools. Everyone in the class was pretty underwhelmed by the thought of running around the track, skid pad, and slalom course in 4-door "kiddie" cars, but I'm here to tell you that the Neon rocks!