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GABRIELLE GIRODAY

Saturday, June 12, 2004

Looking to shift your next weekend getaway or corporate event into high gear? Well, put away the golf glove and pull on the driving gloves. Premier race-car driving schools, some with Formula One cars, are giving office-bound executives and many others a taste of life in the fast lane.

"Our range of participants is completely broad," says Tom Wheatley, operations manager of the Bridgestone Racing Academy at Mosport, just east of Toronto near Bowmanville, Ont. "We have corporate clients who fly over from Japan and use the classroom as a conference room, just so they can have their meetings as close to the track as possible."

The lessons at Bridgestone come with a zippy price tag -- a one-day class for a 12-participant team costs $13,980 total, or about $1,165 per person.

The industry standard for racing schools is one-day instructional packages that run from about $900 to $1,200 a person per day, with accommodations and transportation to the site usually added on top.

Some schools have developed a more vacation-like approach to the racing school experience. For example, Calgary-based Racing Adventures offers multi-day packages at different tracks across the United States and Canada. For $3,100 a person, attendees can pick locations such as Las Vegas, Phoenix or Washington, and fly in for a two-day course in a vintage racing vehicle, the Shelby Cobra. Operator David Zubick has even set up a spouse-along program so that partners can amuse themselves with spa days or golf days. "Seventy-five per cent of my customers are corporate," Mr. Zubick says. "It's a huge part of my business."

For those who are more committed to tearing up the asphalt, wanna-be professional drivers can sign up for more intensive courses at some schools. One of the most rigorous training packages is a $16,475 four-weekend package at Bridgestone, an "arrive-and-drive" program that is designed for those who just want to jet in and get down to business. "We had a cow farmer come up for our $2,599 three-day course all the way from Wisconsin," says Linda Hégault, co-owner of AutoSport Basi in St. Eustache, Que. "He had sold his farm for an amount in the millions, and had waited his whole life to sit behind the wheel of a racing vehicle. For him, cost was no issue."

One-day introductory classes at these schools usually include the same components: classroom time to explain the basic foundations of race driving, trackside demonstrations, lessons in gear shifting, and "practice sessions" where drivers chase the pace car and get comfortable in their vehicle.

The culmination of the experience for a beginner driver is open-track lapping, and maybe even a chance to take on the course instructor in a little race play.

"It's really amusing to watch company teams come out, because often the person with the highest position in the company assumes they'll be the best on the course," says Bridgestone's Mr. Wheatley. "Of course, it rarely turns out that way." Race driving participants are often concerned about safety, but they are suited up appropriately, in two-layer fireproof suits, socks and balaclavas. "People become addicted to the speed and thrill," Mr. Wheatley says.

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