While working tirelessly to get back into a race car herself full time, Pippa Mann is keeping busy. Between driving the #18 CyclopsGear.com Honda for Dale Coyne Racing and her popular efforts with the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Radio Network, 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 follow-up 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 year.
The question about why more midget and sprint car drivers don’t try and make the transition to open wheel racing, and climb the Mazda Road to Indy ladder, is one that is often asked in US motor racing circles. More often than not it is answered simply with regard to money. While this is definitely true a lot of the time, and it definitely hinders many drivers who might be interested in crossing over, the desire is also often to jump straight into the ladder itself with no other grounding beforehand. Having watched Ed Carpenter working away at his road and street course skills for years in very public view, maybe it’s about time we all started accepting that part of the reason so few make the big jump across is because it is an incredibly hard thing to do. And, when you’re hugely talented and used to running up front, it has to be hard to find yourself effectively learning to walk again! Suddenly you’re going back to driving a low powered car in a series that doesn’t get as much attention, and being beaten by people you feel you should be able to have for breakfast.
So what happens when someone does make that incredibly brave decision to try and defy the odds, and make the switch over? What is it like going from turning left your whole life to suddenly learning how to turn right?
Jessica Bean first spoke to me and More Front Wing back in March, when she was going to Skip Barber Racing School, for her debut in an open wheel car, and her very first experience of turning right to make a corner instead of simply as a correction. With Glass Hammer Racing’s support (beatbyagirl.org), she has now completed her first ever road racing weekend. After finding out about how her school went, it seemed natural to follow-up with her to see how she got on and find out more about making that big transition to being outside the oval.
Pippa: It’s been a while since we caught-up More Front Wing’s readers on your progress with the whole turning right thing, so in very brief terms, what have you been doing since your first racing school experience in March?
Jessica: Well I went to the second Skip Barber Racing School at Road Atlanta just days after we last spoke. It was just two days instead of three days this time, but I felt like it went really well. I felt like I learned quite a bit, it was nice to learn another new track, especially one like Road Atlanta which is known to be a tricky place, with all the elevation changes and different corner types. After completing the second school I got my competition license for Skip Barber, and I started planning with Greg from Glass Hammer Racing on trying to run a couple of race weekends. Then my midget season started, and it was tough to find weekends that didn’t conflict. The two race weekends at Palm Beach International Raceway on June 22 and 23, and Carolina Motorsports Park on July 6 and 7, offered me an opportunity to be a part of the series on consecutive race weekends, and fitted in around my midget schedule, so we chose those.
P: So there you were getting on a plane, going to Florida for your first road racing weekend. Have you traveled much for racing before with your midget?
J: Farthest I have ever gone to race the midget is Joliet, IL, so it felt like a much bigger deal to be flying all the way to Florida to race. We’ve always run our own stuff, so to actually get on a plane, to go somewhere else, to go drive for someone else…it definitely felt bigger than heading to a midget race. And then there’s traveling with a helmet, and my suit, and my race gear – it’s not fun. I had absolutely everything I needed as a carry on just in case my bags managed to get lost!
P: Given that this experience was already starting to feel like a big deal for you, how did you feel when you finally got to the race track?
J: First day of practice I was pretty nervous, I hadn’t been in one of these cars since March, I didn’t know how things were going to work schedule wise or event wise, or who I would even be out on track with. I could definitely tell there had been a pretty decent gap since I last drove one of these cars. It started off pretty slow for me from a learning standpoint, and then I kind of started to piece things together, and build up on that base from there.
P: You mentioned not knowing how the schedule would work?
J: Normally with the midget schedule you show up race day, practice, run heat races, then run your feature. That’s it, that’s all you get, and it’s all packed into a very compact schedule. The Skip Barber schedule offered a lot more track time, a lot more testing time, but at times it felt like a lot of “hurry up and wait.”
P: Ah, the wonderful racing “hurry up and wait” syndrome!
J: It was definitely frustrating for me. It was good to be able to take the time to hear from the observers, and learn what I needed to work on, but it was difficult not being able to get straight back in the car and go out there and try things. Even on the test days for example, I would have 30 minutes track time to every hour of down time. I wanted to be able to just go back out and do, rather than being forced to sit and think for extended periods of time. Then with Skip Barber there’s no data like you’ve described to me with the Indycar and other Mazda Road to Indy ladder series’, there’s just observers. So you have maybe 10 different observers, from 10 different corners, giving you 10 different pieces of information to try and remember and digest all at the same time. That gets confusing when you’re trying to learn so much and you strap back in, trying to remember who said what about which corner.
P: The learning the tracks point also interests me. Is that something you even have to do much in your midget when you go to a new place?
J: No, in the midget series I race in, we may go to five or six tracks throughout the entire year, but even then most of them are about the same size, and have many similarities. The last time I even had to learn a new midget track was about three years ago, so even the process of learning the tracks is new to me. Plus I’m used to dealing with four corners, not 11 to 14!
P: I assume that made things tougher again?
J: I never really felt like I got a good handle on Palm Beach because I was still so busy trying to get used to the car, re-learning and remembering things from the two schools, knowing what to do with it in unexpected situations, and trying to gain confidence in the car so I can feel more comfortable and push harder. I’m not used to being told I have to just go out there and push harder! I felt like I was pushing pretty hard and getting close to the limit already, and they’re telling me I’m not pushing myself or the car hard enough at all yet!
P: Talking of pushing hard, how did you find the car around other people – did you notice much of a tow-up effect from the cars in front? Start to feel a little of what it’s like to run in dirty air?
J: At Palm Beach I really noticed the big tow, it’s the first time I’ve been in a car where I’ve had that experience. You can definitely start to feel the dirty air from the car in front, but in these cars it wasn’t as dramatic as the force sucking you up behind another car. To begin with I was jumping out of line too soon when I wanted to pass someone, and then just stalling out there, and having to pull back into line again. You have to get so close! And then there were people on my butt, getting the draft off me, waiting to jump out too. It was definitely an interesting experience!
P: So everything so far has been pretty tough, pretty different. Did having rolling starts for the start and restart help a little in terms of that being something you’ve grown up with in the midget?
J: It was a little more familiar, but it definitely wasn’t comfortable. I wasn’t sure how the car would react on cold tires, in a group, with other people around me, and I wasn’t sure how they would all react either. In a midget I kind of know who I’m racing against, as well as knowing my own car, and I can already plan in my mind how I intend to react to certain situations. This felt very different. Oh, and remembering to shift! You don’t get very far if you just hit the gas and try to go and don’t remember to shift!
The first start I did, I was very cautious, and there was a pretty big pile up at the start. I came through unscathed, and was running in the top 10. But then there was a restart, and I ended up being way too cautious expecting more melee, and everyone just kind of blew by me. A whole bunch of words I can’t say came out, that was really frustrating! I guess I just needed to be up on the wheel a whole lot more, but I learned from it. It was after all my first race!
P: So from Palm Beach to yet another new track. Carolina Motorsports Park. Did it feel like starting from scratch all over again going to yet another new track?
J: Actually it wasn’t too bad. It definitely took me a session to get used to being on another new road course, but after the first session, I felt like I was starting to get going. The car confidence I started to pick up in Palm Beach had managed to carry over.
P: And then it rained. As someone who has never driven on a dirt track, but who has seen you drive on one, and how sideways you’re able to run, I would assume that actually the rain, and driving the car sideways might play into a few of your dirt track instincts?
J: No, not at all! At first it was terrible! I had several off-track excursions, I wasn’t taking it as slowly as I needed to, and every little mistake I could get away with in the dry kept trying to, or managing to, spin me out in the wet. I wasn’t prepared for the amount of water, how dramatically it would change the car handling, even something as simple as the pedal controls, and I was definitely on the wrong lines. A lot of the instructors thought the same as you in that it would come naturally to me, but it is so different from driving sideways in my midget. You have to have such quick hands to catch one of these cars once it starts to slide, the limited amount you can actually turn the front wheels to correct against a slide compared to my midget makes the yaw angle so much more critical, and the speed it snaps away from you is so much faster. Everything happens so much faster than it does in the midget, and I was told even at my very first school that I have slow hands. I don’t think I realized quite what that meant until I was moving them as fast as I could in the rain in the Skip Barber car, then saw how slowly my hands were moving back on the wheel of my midget the next weekend!
P: You did mention to me though that one of the instructors kind of took you under his wing a bit and that really helped you with things?
J: Basically I wasn’t getting a handle on things as quickly as I wanted to, and the rain just emphasized that. I’m used to being a pretty quick learner, but with the road courses, and these cars it was all just coming at a much slower rate than I wanted or expected. He kept reminding me that it’s hard, and it was completely new to me and that I was progressing at a good rate. He told me he could see my talent, they would see I had it in me, and I just had to keep pushing back against my background. Having someone who sees people come in and race in this series all the time, and who has seen people try to make the transition I am trying to make reassure me definitely helped me get my head back in a better place after a couple of tough sessions.
P: So how were the races at Carolina?
J: Well thankfully they were dry! In my first race I got my first top 10 finish, I came close at Palm Beach so I really wanted that. But in my second race, despite the fact I ended up spinning a couple of times from pushing so hard, I was really proud of the time gains I made in terms of lap time. And I was proud of my start. I was racing the same people again, and I knew more of what to expect from them, and from the car. I got a great start, managed to overtake a couple of people around the outside, and was running in seventh place, chasing down the group of fast cars ahead. It was surreal to look in my mirrors and see the next guy around 10 car lengths behind me at the end of that first lap, and it felt good to be finally starting to run up where I want to run at these races.
P: This is against guys whom are mainly racing the whole season right?
J: Yes! A couple of them haven’t done many races, but the fast group is racing the whole series. It felt good to get that close to them!
P: Also, compared to driving your midget, how physical was it? Has growing up driving a midget prepared you physically for the challenges?
J: Yes and no. I’m not used to running an entire day in 30 minute sessions, one hour off, and in Florida in June it must have been 100 degrees with high humidity. That was very fatiguing, and mentally it was draining too, trying to absorb and process so much new information. Then in Carolina I noted my left shoulder started to get pretty tired. I’m used to just turning left, which uses mainly my right shoulder for strength. Turning both directions, and requiring the same strength from my left shoulder was definitely a new experience. I was definitely pretty sore afterwards.
P: So other than joining a gym…
J: (Laughs) Yup.
P: What’s next for you? Have you been bitten by the road racing bug now, or was it an interesting experiment that made you pine for your midget? Also, did anything from the experience transfer back across to your midget when you got back in there?
J: Nothing transferred across at all! However, one thing that did feel strange, after being in a different car for the previous two weeks, it was almost like I had to take my brain back in time. Everything back in my midget seemed weird and different, even down to the driving position that you always comment on whenever you’re at the track with me.
P: So you see my point now?!
J: I wouldn’t go that far! But yes, the seating position felt very different, the steering, even the gas pedal not being as soft, and the fact I had to drive with my elbows up again. It all came back very fast, and felt normal again, but I’ve been racing midgets for five years, I didn’t expect that when I first got back in.
P: And back to the road racing bug question?
J: I definitely think I’ve been bitten by it. It’s something new to me, and I’m enjoying it more than I think I even thought I would. Even with the struggles, and trying to learn how to drive in the rain for the first time, it’s really a path I want to try and find a way to pursue now. I want to get better, and that second race in Carolina, it showed me that the instructor who had helped me so much was right, the potential really was there.
Ideally I want to try and get back in a car for another race weekend later this year, and I would love to be racing in one of the Skip Barber Championships next year. I’m currently working with Glass Hammer Racing, UAW Motorsports, and other companies and businesses that have supported me, as well as trying to reach out to new companies and businesses that I might be able to persuade to support me. Formula cars have been a long time dream of mine, with Indy Car always being the ultimate goal. I’m one step closer to that goal and dream come true, but have many more steps to take up the ladder. There’s no doubt in my mind that this is something I want to continue to pursue!
Be sure to follow Jessica on Twitter at @JessicaBean3 to follow her progress and to keep up-to-date with her racing experiences.
For more information on both Glass Hammer Racing and the Glass Hammer Racing Experience, visit beatbyagirl.org.