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September 25, 2012

Bridgestone Hosts Inaugural Event for Female Journalists

AcademyWhen I received an invitation to attend Bridgestone’s Indy Racing Academy (Driver Development Center) in Toronto Canada I felt electric excitement (and a little disbelief) that I had been invited (along with nine other female journalists) to attend what to me, was  my ultimate dream come true.

After receiving the invitation the first two people I would have loved to share this exciting news with was my father and my grandfather – unfortunately both had passed within the last year.  My dad and grandpa loved cars, were pilots, and both would be really proud (and just as excited as I was) to have heard about my invitation.  My dad would have been especially stoked because he loved to race cars – more specifically drag race.

So in an effort to honor my dad I decided to put on a special piece of jewelry and call my step mom.  I not only wanted to tell her the news about my racing school (dream) invitation but to also inspire her.   “In honor of dad I am going to wear my butterfly (pendant) necklace (he gave me a few Christmas ago) while driving the Indy car,” I told her.  “That way (when I’m driving) it will be like dad is flying around the track with me,” I added.  Of course an emotional female moment ensued -  but it was all good..

Both my father and my grandfather always encouraged me to be who I am and to be persistent.  In my youth my dad even (at times annoyingly) had me changing oil, tires, doing body work, jacking up cars and just about any other mechanical or laborious, ‘guy chore’.   Although dad wasn’t the biggest supporter of ‘women’s lib’, both he and my grandpa instilled in me that women could do anything a man could - at times my father would have me doing some crazy project in an effort to prove his point – and possibly get a little free labor. Many times his charges were met with my occasionally stubborn yet futile protests.

Both the men and the women in my family also taught me how to suck it up and not let gender barriers (and sometimes my fears) keep me from trying new things.  I don’t know when it happened but somehow along my path of adulthood my fears sometimes won out and kept me from truly living. Being afraid of heights is a biggie for me, that is why I can usually be found on kiddie coasters as opposed to larger ones.  Interestingly enough I have rarely had a fear of speed.

From the time I received my invitation to attend the school to the time I found myself boarding my Air Canada plane to take me on my ‘dream’ adventure I was still in disbelief that this opportunity was actually a reality.  Once seated on the plane I realized I might have to contend with my tiny (and occasional) aversion to being in small/tight spaces.  I then pondered what it’s like to be crouched up in the cockpit (if that is the right word) of an Indy car.  I’ve never had complete claustrophobia but wondered, “would I have it now?”  After a few moments I realized that the excitement and thrill of the opportunity would win out over any unlikely worries. That is another thing that has kept me from living – worrying.

During my plane ride I contemplated ordering a glass of French wine (in honor of my heritage of course), but remembered that my driving school waiver explicitly informed that drinking 24 hours prior to driving was prohibited.  The timing of attending the school was perfect because our event would be taking place immediately following the summer’s Indy race at Toronto's Mosport International Raceway, (now named the Canadian Tire Motorsport Park) located next door to the school.

School info

Bridgestone’s Driver Development Track located an hour east of Toronto.

The driving school’s owner Brett Goodman has been operating the business for 27 years and his school has a blemish-free accident/injury record.  Goodman then opened the Driver Development Track in 2000 and it was designed to enable industry leading curriculum progression.  The tracks lack of numerous walls, additional run-off areas, over 24 configurations, and many different corner-straight combinations allows for the practice of a wide range of driving techniques and the opportunity to obtain greater speeds with more challenges.  

AERIAL 1The track is a mile long and it was also designed for a broad range of drivers - from the public enthusiast and beginners to Indy professionals. Drivers may attend for numerous reasons be-it for the thrill, to learn or improve their skill or to even receive their competitive driver’s license.  Graduates include everyone from mom’s and dad’s, and corporate executives to professional driver’s such as Indy Car Rookie of the year  (2011) James Hinchcliff, Indy’s Alex Tagliani, NASCARs Danica Patrick, and F1 driver Robbie Wickens.

The cars used at the school are $72,000 dollar, 2008 open-wheeled Van Diemen Formula cars which feature Pi in-wheel digital dash boards with shift lights.  You are seated in a steel compartment on two pieces of metal that create a ‘seat’.  There is also a roll cage, encompassing the compartment but not overhead.  The crew provided the driver’s with various forms of foam to make themselves more comfortable but I found the foam to get in the way and settled for banging around in the cage for two days.  Although it caused a few large bruises, I was very proud to show my battle scars as proof of my experience driving the cars.

JM__1269The Van Diemen’s have a 2.3 liter racing engine, a light weight clutch /flywheel in conjunction to a 5 speed sequential shift gear box.  The engine provides the 1,000 lb. car with up to 170 hp. Along with high performance racing brakes the cars are also outfitted with Bridgestone Ultra High Performance RE-11 tires.  “The new cars are faster and harder on a tire, and the design specifications and build quality of the RE-11s have proven they are up to the task,” Goodman said.  “In the 20 years we have been running on Bridgestone’s we have never had a single tire failure,” he added.   The Van Diemens’ are a smaller version of a regular Indy car but can go up to 150 mph.  With the school’s reputation for safety at hand mixed with the information of how fast our Van Diemen’s could go – we were then informed that we would be given three learning experience opportunities to be safe.  If we weren’t safe we would be introduced to “the thinking chair”. Which one would equate to being given a timeout and/or face the possibility of the school’s “Early Graduation Program,” (being kicked out).

JM__1859Those who attend the school first meet with Goodman, and Director/Lead Instructor, Jamie Fitzmaurice.  The drivers are then introduced to the pit crew who are always trackside with Jamie to ensure all driver’s needs are tended to.  Each member of the pit crew is involved in the school’s (seven month) Mechanic’s/Racing Training program.  They learn to assemble, maintain, and repair the cars while also performing pit lane/trackside and learning how to drive the Van Diemen’s professionally. The pit guys were also cool because they would shout out encouragements to us when we came in to the pit for our Van Diemen's safety checks.

Each day consisted of being outfitted with a two layer race wear suit, gloves, balaclava (head sock), helmet, socks, racing shoes (if needed) and Bell helmet.  We wore shorts and a T-shirt under our racing suits and after suiting up we would receive classroom instruction and then two 20 minute sessions to put our newly learned skills into place.  Then we would either be given further (personal) instruction by Jamie  during and sometimes after our track time.  After each track session we would head back to the classroom to learn more and then back to the track to put it into practice.  Every moment was either filled with kind and thorough instruction, (at times humorous) explanations and applications, interactive learning, fierce intensity, and/or adrenaline.

Day 1

Class 1                                                                                                                                           JM__0005

We first were taught the basics of the Van Diemen’s and the track.  What to expect while on the track for the first few laps (we would be initially led by a pace car and then we would be on our own).  We were also instructed on basic technical driving and control, and understanding the physics and mental application we would encounter during our time at the school.  Lastly we learned the colored flag system used on the track: Yellow, caution; Checkerd, last lap; Black, go to pit lane; Green, go. 

Track time 

Hearing all of the Van Diemen’s engine’s roar to life for the first time somehow triggered a sense of female empowerment and unity within my spirit. I was ready to dive in and be washed in the wave of what my Van Diemen (car #5) had in store for me.  Being in car 5 later earned me the nickname of Speed Racer by Bridgestone Engineer Cara Adams.

Class 2                                                                                                                                       

Jamie further explained the track and a few of its tricky areas and how to approach, drive through and come out of those areas.  The importance of going into a turn is to go in slow and come out of it fast.  Jamie then assigned us shifting, downshifting and braking exercises we would need to try out during our next track session.  We were also sectioned into two groups; one for advanced driver’s the other for beginners. Thankfully I made the advanced ‘team’.

Track time

Class 3                                                                                                                                    

Learning more about when to brake and obtaining and driving at optimum rpm for best performance, times and capabilities.. Also learned about heel/toe driving (which I couldn’t stand and didn’t do), more about the digital wheel, the importance of its readings, how high our rpm needs to be to warm up and to not get it anywhere near 6,500 rpm’s or we would red line and possibly ruin the $72,000 dollar car. Jamie explained the importance of using the brakes (not the gears) to slow the vehicles so that we could keep the engines constantly revved. He also shared that I was doing way too much shifting and needed to drive in lower gears – which was pretty foreign to me but I gave it a shot..

Track time was then followed by Jamie’s day-end insights, thoughts, instructions and encouragements.  He also explained ‘margin for error’ and how the more track time we had the smaller our margin would become. Slowly taking higher levels of risk would also happen if our margin decreased and our skill improved..  His words sparked my adrenaline and determination that on day two I would really push myself.  During Jamie’s final de-briefing of the day the gals and I were gleefully de-briefing our fire suits down to our shorts and t-shirts because the suits were pretty uncomfortable.

We then left the school for our drive back to our hotel to get ready for our first group dinner.  During our drive to the restaurant, Bridgestone’s representative John Lindo of Razor Voice Public Relations shared a few insights about inviting female journalists to experience the driving school.   The idea of bringing the women to the school began one day while, “we were talking about how important ladies are becoming in racing and the industry,” Lindo said. “We have never had an all-female group (at the track) and wanted to see what the dynamic would be like – turns out to it was a natural fit,” he said.  Lindo also noticed that he had, “never seen a group with as many good questions (as the female journos asked during the day).  Asking questions is one of the first aspects of learning and the women are taking the time to learn,” he acknowledged. Interestingly enough there was never a lot of girl talk amongst us female journalists – most of our conversations revolved around the track.

Day 2

Group1I awoke with a new and intensely determined attitude to conquer the track, while gaining technique and increasing my lap times  -  I can’t remember any moment in my life where I have ever felt such personal intensity.  Then during breakfast our group had a surprise guest who informed us she would be spending the entire day with our group.  That guest was Indy’s Katherine Legge who was with us throughout our entire second day and not only acted like a regular girl, she gave us each insights, tips, and encouragements on our driving.  Legge’s presence and the time she took with us made this dream-come-true an even more extreme fairy tale.



We began our day learning where we needed to have the car on the track after certain corners and curves and where (and how) we needed to set the car up for the next corner/curve. For example, corner four is a tight turn with a steep hill and after coming out of the turn we need to have the car at the far left side of the track (in-line with an orange cone) which would prepare us for going into corner five. Jamie also guided us in understanding trajectory points on the track (which actually consisted of geometry) and how to achieve the best engine performance.

Track Time                                                                                                                                  Photo(61)

There was a moment when I ran off the track (for my first and only time) after taking a curve too fast (but immediately corrected and kept on going).  When I brought the Van Diemen straight to the pits after my lap was completed the entire crew gave me an ovation (jokingly) for going off the track.  Thankfully, Legge saw the maneuver, walked over to me and kindly complimented me about my correction.  WOW! Katherine Legge was proud of me.. what a cool moment.  Later in the day Legge climbed into one of the Van Diemens’ and continued to inspire us as she raced around the track.

Class 2 We learned the methodology of speed (while being safe) which has a lot to do with traction and weight shift of the cars. The importance of cornering expertly is to apply gas in the middle of the maneuver, while maintaining that constant speed to straighten after maneuvering. Straightening the car as soon as possible is key. 

Track Time

Final Track Time was when our lap times were then compiled and we found out who had the best combined times – I finished second.

In all, we were at the school for a full two days – although every second was amazing, it was utterly exhausting.  Being in a fire suit in an open car under the sun, banging around within a completely steel cockpit, learning techniques, putting them into practice, concentrating every second we were in the classroom or on the track and then correcting or learning where we each could improve was probably one of the most intense experiences I have ever encountered – every waking moment of the entire two days at the Driving Center made me push myself more and more while barreling past a precipice of what I have never made myself encounter.  By day two you are tired, your arms and body are sore and bruised, your head is filled with a lot of new knowledge, and you are making yourself learn from every singular moment – I can’t think of a time when I have ever truly lived (until that moment in time).  I also can’t think of a time that I have ever been prouder of myself – I didn’t give up (although my head and body were telling me I should), but instead I made myself learn more, and continue to improve in skill and lap times. The sheer intensity also gave me a few needed attitude adjustments and the opportunity to learn what I really can accomplish if I push myself beyond reasoning and self-imposed barriers.


Personal Insight on the experience - A written aside - "The Butterfly"


As our group of female journalists and hosts were on the party bus going to dinner, I shared the story of my butterfly pendant I was wearing with Becky Coles (a Canadian journalist who was also part of the invited media).  The pendant was the first and only jewelry my father had ever bought me.   I also shared that he had recently passed on Valentine’s Day this year, told her about the phone call with my step mother and then explained why I was wearing the necklace during the event. Becky was an attentive listener and very kind.

My dad would have really loved being a part of the driving experience with me – he would have especially enjoyed getting behind the open-wheel of the Indy car and taking it for a spin himself - if he were still here.   Me wearing the necklace signified his spirit experiencing this incredible opportunity with me.  Little did I know that the next day that the symbolism of his presence would become a reality.

Day 2                                                                                                                                            

We experienced more classroom instruction(s) and opportunities to practice our recently learned techniques on the track while increasing our speed and lap times.  During one of our classes I received an email which (I let) get under my skin – later I realized that day two was almost half way over and my personal distraction was keeping me from putting my recently learned techniques completely into practice.  I was letting the stupid email tarnish the joy that this amazing driving event had given me. Within minutes (of this realization, as I was driving around a corkscrew section of the track), the largest butterfly I have ever seen appeared within a hundred feet away (on the grassy infields).  The butterfly seemed to be hovering within that range of me and my car for at least 5 seconds.  During that moment I instantly felt my dad’s presence and felt he was telling me to, ‘Get your head in the game,’ while letting me know he really was there with me.

During that time Becky was filming in that same vicinity of the track and saw the butterfly too.  “I actually saw it twice,” Becky said.  “Once while driving and then again when I was out filming.  I think it was a Monarch butterfly,” she added.  “The first time, I think what struck me was that despite the noise of the cars (and it being a breezy day) the butterfly just stayed on the track, as if to make sure we saw it. I then remembered Diana telling me about the connection to her Dad and I thought for sure it was a sign that he was so proud of her and loved that she was out there having a blast,” Becky elaborated. “The second time I saw it was when I was filming.  The butterfly just kept flying around Jamie and I. It had all that space, but it stayed in the area of where I was filming, as if it was watching,” Coles concluded. 

I will always believe that my father was with me that day at the track and that he was letting me know he was thinking about me too. 


To view video of this amazing driving experience at Bridgestone's Racing Academy go to:  

Photographs by:

Video by: Becky Coles



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