Racer to Racer: Pippa Mann chats with up-and-comer Jessica Bean

IndyCar, IndyCar commentary — By on March 4, 2013 9:10 am
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While working tirelessly to get back into a race car herself, Pippa Mann is keeping busy — she’s working with an initiative called Glass Hammer Racing that works to give young women with an interest in racing a solid foundation for exploring careers in the sport. Here, Pippa files a special report with More Front Wing in which she has a conversation with GHR-backed racer Jessica Bean, who is making a change from midgets to try out Skip Barber Racing School this winter.

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JBean1I first met Jessica Bean last year through my association with Glass Hammer Racing. She grew up racing quarter midgets, then moved into racing midgets both on dirt and pavement, but she’s always had a hankering to maybe try an open-wheel car on a road course — if just to see what it feels like.

I remember my transition from karting into racing cars all too well; it’s an experience that stayed with me as much as the first time I ever saw and drove on a high-banked oval in the winter of 2008/2009 when I first came to the US. While some people struggle with the transition to racing on ovals, most road racers find themselves picking up the knack to be competitive fairly quickly.

However, for most sprint and midget oval racers trying to come the other way, it seems there are a lot more challenges. It is rare these days to find an IndyCar driver who has come up through the sprint and midget route as opposed to growing up racing karts. So, when I found out Jessica was going to road racing school this winter, I wanted to find out what it was like trying to make that change.

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Pippa: So, firstly, why did you make the decision this winter to go to Skip Barber School?

Jessica: As you know, I was one of the Glass Hammer Racing drivers this past year, driving the BeatByAGirl.org Mel Kenyon Midget out at the Speedrome here in Indianapolis. I always knew I wanted to try road racing. I definitely wanted to get in an open-wheel car. I had never had enough funding in the past to be able to make it happen, but it was something that Greg [Gaich, founder of GHR] was keen to see me do, and they helped to make the opportunity happen.

P: The Speedrome is pavement, so I know you’ve driven on both dirt and pavement ovals, but had you done any road course driving at all before you headed to Sebring for the school?

J: Aside from driving the indoor karts at Fastimes, hitting up the local family fun parks, and one time in Greg’s BMW road car at Putnam Park, absolutely nothing at all.

P: For somebody who doesn’t know much about it, talk to me more about the Skip Barber School. What do they actually do?

J: It’s actually fairly similar to the classes we run for the Glass Hammer Racing Experience students, except we’re working with Formula Ford cars as opposed to go karts, and obviously we’re adults! The classes are over three days rather than just two hours, but the idea is to teach you everything about the basics of racing.

P: Given that we’ve both instructed plenty of GHRE classes together, I guess it felt like a familiar environment, except now you were on the other side of the table.

J: Yeah. The moment they started talking about oversteer and understeer, it took me straight back to the basics we try to teach our girls in our classroom.

P: Did you just find yourself sitting there at any point thinking “Come on, come on, I know the theory of this stuff! Get me out in a race car!” 

J: Exactly! Several times, especially when they were going over the flags. I mean, I race — I know the flags!

P: This reminds me of the glazed look we sometimes get from our expert students on this subject.

J: Well, now I know how they feel!

P: Okay, but seriously, you had people there who genuinely didn’t know the flags?

J: I was the only one with professional racing experience. A few people had been to watch races or had done a high performance drivers education course, which is the same thing I did with Greg and his BMW, but none of them had ever driven a race car.

P: So, getting in an open-wheel car for the first time I assume you don’t all make your own seats, so how do they fit you in?

J: Just with a generic seat and padding behind you.

P: So like Fastimes again?

J: Yup! And the seat was rock hard, so it wasn’t very comfortable.

P: And then your first impressions when you got in the car, before you drove, as you were getting fitted?

J: I thought, “How am I going to ever get used to this?” The only time I have been that close to the ground was in a quarter midget, and at least then I get to sit upright. Now, I have to almost lay down!

P: So, now you know why I look at your car and have no idea how you drive it?

J: Exactly!

P: Next question — and I remember this being a huge shock for me coming from karting into an open-wheel car for the first time — vision?

J: I really noticed that. In the midget I’m able to look up, see the nose, and see almost all of the front wheels.

P: And in an open-wheel car, you barely see the tops of your front tires. I don’t know if people who watch racing but haven’t ever sat in a car realize that.

J: They also had some kind of plexiglass screen on the front of the cars that made it hard to see. They weren’t exactly new, and one of the cars I got in had what looked like the remains of an old sticker right in the middle of it! I thought, “This is ridiculous! How am I going to see around this?”

P: We run those things in Indy Lights for the air flow on the big ovals. Trust me, they never look good! Even if they start new, they look old in a big hurry. I even sit there looking at it sometimes on pit road wondering how I’m going to see. But then, when you get up to speed, you’re looking far enough ahead that you don’t even notice.

J: Right. Sitting on pit lane, I swore it was going to be a nightmare. But once I got going out on track, I didn’t even notice the sticker.

P: Was it only visibility out of the front you had an issue with at first? When I came from karting, I really noticed not being able to see much to the side of me. I felt very restricted.

J: That nearly ended up being a huge issue for me. In one of our on-track sessions I came out of the pits and everyone was going at speed, and I wanted look across to check and see if anyone was coming but I couldn’t. There’s no radio in there for anyone to tell me, and apparently I pulled out right in front of two cars going at speed. So, then I looked in my mirror and they were right there. I was watching them going into turn 2 because I didn’t want to get run over. I completely missed the turn!

P: I’m assuming midgets are like karts and don’t have mirrors. Man, I remember that feeling, your first day on track, not wanting to get run over, then spending too much time looking backwards as opposed to forwards.

J: Exactly. I will remember my first experience with mirrors. Now I know why we tell our students they’re not allowed to look behind them!

P: Was there anything else you struggled with control-wise? Again, a big thing for me coming from a kart was that I was coming from just the two pedals — a throttle and a brake — to three including the clutch. I never drove a gearbox kart, so the shifting was new to me, too. I remember trying to learn how to time my blips on the downshift and thinking it was impossible at first.JBean2

J: I struggled with that, too. A midget is like a kart in that there’s no clutch and no gears to switch to, so that was all new to me too. The blips — I was terrible at those to start off with. We had one exercise where we worked solely on our shifts, including getting the downshifts right with the blips. I was awful at it. But once I got on track for the lapping session, I had enough other things going on to worry about, so I stopped thinking about it so much and it got easier.

P: So, in a way, it was even worse when you tried to isolate it in an exercise?

J: Oh yeah, for sure! The instructor even told me I was overthinking it, and he was right. I mean, it’s not hard for me to overthink any situation, but I was definitely relieved when it wasn’t such a big issue once I was back on track. I was worried that I’d be struggling with that throughout the entire school.

P: What was your biggest help or hindrance coming from your racing background compared to the other people there on the course?

J: The biggest thing that helped me…

P: Wow, that is a long pause!

J: Yup. There wasn’t really much that translated. Everything was alien to me.

P: What about car control? Did that help?

J: Yes, now you say that. I was definitely able to catch the slides much better than the other guys. It felt like they were spinning out all the time, especially when we went out to the autocross section. They wanted us to spin to get a feel of what it feels like to push too far, and I just kept catching the car on instinct. Of course, on dirt I’m used to that, I’m used to the car sliding around all over the place, so trying to let the car spin and not allow my reflexes to catch it was really tough for me. Back on the actual track during one the sessions I nearly had a big one, but thankfully I caught it. I was very glad of my dirt background right then!

P: Oh, boy — the mythical “almost big one”?

J: Yeah. After that session, the instructor told me that was probably the closest I would ever come to having a “big one” without actually losing control of the car and having the crash.

P: Why is it that engineers, or in this case the instructor, always feel the need to tell you that after a big save? I’m like, “Dude! I was in the car! I know!” It’s so reassuring of them…

J: Tell me about it! I was like, “I am well aware that was nearly very bad, thank you!”

P: Can you pick one thing that really hindered you? 

J: One of the corners there, turn 7, is a fast corner with a really long straight after it. I couldn’t get it right, and the instructors kept telling me it was because my hands were too slow. At first I wasn’t sure what that meant, but obviously when I’m driving on an oval I have to be really gentle with my hands as I turn the car into the corner. And I kept messing this corner up because my hands were turning too slow.

P: So, you were turning in too early, apexing a little early, and while having a nice smooth line you were making your exit slower because you were still effectively turning the car to complete the corner when you should have been aiming down the straight already?

J: Yes. At first, I didn’t really understand what they were asking me to do. Coming into a fast corner, turning in harder and more aggressively goes completely against my instincts. Every time I thought I had the corner right, I was then told I didn’t. Then I went out there and watched another group on track from the outside, and that’s when I started to understand what they were asking me to do with my hands and what they wanted me to do with the race car. I said to myself, “Okay, that’s what I’ve gotta do.” Then I went back out there for the final on-track session, and I felt like I finally got it down!

P: Yeah!

J: What really surprised me, though, was it actually went back to two corners previously. I wasn’t quite getting my exit right coming off turn 5, then I was slightly off through 6, and off for the fast corner, number 7. When I got the exit of 5 the way I needed, the next two really started to come together for me.

P: That makes a lot of sense. When you’re on a road course, it can really be that one corner affects another. It’s about trying to string them all together and get into a rhythm.

J: That’s exactly it.

P: The reason I found the comments about your hands so interesting is that when I’m driving on an oval and the car’s doing something I’m not comfortable with, I struggle to slow my hands down enough. I have to find a way to force myself to turn in slower. So, my hands coming from a road course background are sometimes too fast on the ovals, while yours coming from an oval background are often too slow on the road courses.

J: Right. And the instructors said it’s a very common trait/problem for drivers with my background to have. They weren’t surprised it was happening at all. The nice thing is they seem to have had enough midget and sprint car drivers through the program that they knew what to expect from me and how to try and help me.

P: That was something I did wonder about, whether they would know what to do for someone coming from a sprint and midget background. 

J: I guess they are used to it. They have people from all sorts of different backgrounds and ages. In my group, there were some people in their 50s and 60s!

P: Now that you’ve told me that, you’d better tell me next that they got “beat by a girl”?

J: Of course!

P: I’m glad we cleared that up!

J: Although the instructors said it’s actually harder to teach someone like me with an oval background how to drive on a road course than it is someone with no experience at all.

P: I find that really interesting. I know it’s completely different, but I would never have guessed it would be harder than for someone with no racing experience.

J: I think it’s just that everything I have ever learned, all of those habits I grew up learning that now form the instincts of my driving, I have to rework and rewire all of those — the slow hands scenario being a perfect example.

P: Is there anything else from the school that you want to bring back to the GHR Experience classes, especially for our more advanced kids?

J: I liked talking about the exit speeds of corners, deciding whether the entry or the exit is more important based on the length of the time you’re on the throttle afterwards. We spend a lot of time working with the girls on their line at the hairpin at Fastimes, but maybe if we could emphasize the amount of time they are on the throttle afterwards and why it makes such a difference to lap time, we could interest them more in trying to get the right line.

P: I swear I see eyes glaze over every time I mention the word hairpin in class!

J: I know.  Maybe coming at it from this approach will make them more interested in trying to improve their line. Other than that, though, most of what we do seems pretty similar. It’s nice to know we’re getting a lot of it right.

P: So, going forward, any more road course driving in your future?

J: I’m actually doing the advanced course in just a couple of days. However, it’s at a new track this time, Road Atlanta. I’ve never been there, and I don’t know much about it. The instructors will be new to me again, and it’s only two days — not three like the previous course — so I feel like I’m going to have a lot to get used to really quickly.

P: Are you nervous? Looking forward to it? Do you know what they’re going to cover?

J: Both! I also don’t really know what we are going to be doing, so I think that added to the new track and new instructors increases my nerves a little.

P: Are you starting to convert to a roadie type who wants to turn right more often in the future, or do you still find yourself thinking wistfully of the midget right now?

J: It’s a new challenge, and I’m loving doing it. I like learning new things and challenging myself. Sure, there are moments that sneak in there where I miss the familiarity of my midget — that’s my comfort zone, and I’m a long way outside it right now. But I’m really enjoying the experience.

P: I can relate to those feelings, too. When I first started driving in open-wheel cars, I missed the karts I drove before. I was a huge fan of the super sticky tires and lots of grip. Driving something that was big, heavy, and slid around all over the place was an eye-opener for me, and I was just coming from road course to road course! I can only imagine how much of a big change it must be for you.

J: Yup. But as I said, I am really enjoying the challenge. I don’t have any plans I can share right now, but maybe I’ll get to do some more of this turning right stuff in the future.

P: One final question. And this one is entirely your fault because you posted this on Twitter right before we talked. 

J: Uh-oh!

P: Boxers or briefs?

J: If I have any more moments like my “almost big one” at Sebring last week, it might be Depends!

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With the support of Glass Hammer Racing, Jessica will be back in action at the advanced Skip Barber Racing School class this Monday and Tuesday, March 4th and 5th. You can follow her on Twitter at @JessicaBean3 to find out how she does, and you are more than welcome to ask her yourself about whether she needed the Depends.

For more information on both Glass Hammer Racing and the Glass Hammer Racing Experience, visit beatbyagirl.org.

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