The old Jim Russell Racing School launched some of the very best careers. Now rebranded as Simraceway and based in Californian wine country, it is looking to do things a little differently
Writer: Ed Foster
The sun is shining on Sonoma Raceway in its natural amphitheatre looking out across miles of vineyards. Our hands are sweaty and our brain awash with all the advice we’ve been getting over our ham-fisted attempts at lapping the 2.5-mile circuit.
It’s a non-stop rollercoaster of a track with little run-off and even professional drivers admit to how hard it is to learn. Lucky we’re under instruction, then.
Thirty-five miles south is San Francisco, while Sacramento is 70 miles north-west. On a sunny day (these happen roughly 365 times a year) with cars screaming around the track, there are few better places to be. Think Spa-like gradient changes and the relentlessness of Brands Hatch Indy, with beautiful weather.
But sadly Motor Sport is not at Sonoma (Sears Point, to you and I) to spend hours having tuition in one of Simraceway’s Audi R8s. We want to find out about Simraceway, the company that rents 180 days a year off Sonoma for tuition and experience days. It sounds like a simulation business, which it is, but it’s also the old Jim Russell Racing School. This was one of the best known in the world and pupils included Emerson Fittipaldi, Jacques Villeneuve and Derek Bell. But we’re a long way from its old bases, at Snetterton and Donington Park.
First things first: why change the name to Simraceway? Brit Jonathan Haswell is the owner and takes me to eat at one of the vineyards you can see from the track. A warm wind blows through the open restaurant and the waiters are so friendly it’s almost unnerving.
Haswell has been here for more than a decade and occasional words are therefore more West Coast than West London. “There are reasons for the name change,” he says after taking a sip of a local Chardonnay. “Jim Russell is a brand that wasn’t owned by us. Fundamentally it didn’t control its own destiny, which from a business perspective isn’t very attractive. It’s a big traumatic change, but the brand needs its own identity. I’m odd in that I don’t think names have much bearing on a business if the product is really good. Look at Google, that’s a terrible name.”
Haswell didn’t come over here all those years ago for the racing – he came over to make his money in Silicon Valley. In short the ex-banker found a way to quantify skill levels in sports computer games. “The way to do it,” he says in his quick staccato voice, “is from banking risk mathematics – that’s where I found the original solution.”
Simraceway was founded as a driving simulator business (Haswell has always loved cars) and as it grew it took on brand ambassadors such as the late Dan Wheldon, Dario Franchitti and Allan McNish. While organising an event at Sonoma, Haswell fell in love with the place and because he didn’t have the money to compete with globally successful computer game Gran Turismo through advertising worth many millions of dollars, he was looking for something creative that would have the same impact, something that would bolster the sim business while marketing it at the same time. Driving experiences and career ladders were good places to look.
He entered into a partnership with Jim Russell and then, two years later, bought the business after renaming it Simraceway. Getting sim racers into the sport via the Simraceway karting school at Sonoma is the long-term plan, but first up Haswell wanted to refresh all the activities the racing school offered, starting with a new fleet of carbon fibre monocoque single seaters. Designed and built by Lola in 2008 and based on the B06/30, the F3 chassis have a 2-litre turbocharged Mitsubishi motor powering the 500kg car to 60mph in less than three seconds. There are various Simraceway track activities with the F3 cars, plus a fleet of TTs, RS5s and R8s from Audi and also days when the general public can bring their own cars. While I was there an elderly gentleman brought his late-1990s Dodge Viper, which he spun in the car park. Twice.
All seems straightforward so far, but soon differences from normal driving schools appear. Ex-sports car racer Paul Charsley is the head of instructors and programmes for Simraceway and he was the one bold enough to take me out for some coaching. But he wasn’t sharing ‘my’ R8 (he’s a wise man, Charsley). Rather, he was up ahead in another R8 speaking through a radio in the centre console. The reasoning is that it’s quicker to learn the right lines when you can see someone using them in front of you.
When it comes to the F3 school and associated race series the differences keep coming. Firstly, during races the instructors – who include ex-Champ Car driver Memo Gidley and former Indy Lights man Tom Dyer – camp out at every turn watching each of the cars come through. After the chequered flag drops, all drivers crowd around the instructors to download what they were doing wrong or, in some cases, right. Later they can be taken through the data in minute detail. If you can’t improve here, you’re clearly doing something wrong.
The biggest difference, though, is that you don’t buy a season of racing, you buy sessions. “I look at it from the hotel room point of view,” says Haswell. “There are a number of ‘rooms’ available [you can buy practice sessions, qualifying, races or all three. Qualifying and a race costs £980)] and it’s our job to make sure they’re full.” It’s a perfect solution for someone who can’t commit to a full season of racing, like many of the drivers on the grid, because of either time or economic restraints.
Why don’t more junior race series do it? The main reason is the risk. Teams don’t want to live on a week-by-week basis; they want their budgets covered before the season starts. It’s the same risk Simraceway carries, but the school makes money, grew 30 per cent between ‘13 and ‘14 and had grown a further 30 per cent by August 2015. It clearly works.
So where do the drivers go if they win? One was completely besotted with getting to Formula 1, others were quite happy to stay racing in the same championship. Some were in their late teens, others were 60 years old. Alexander Rossi is one ex-Simraceway driver, but Haswell disagrees that he needs an ex-pupil to make it to F1 to validate the business. “We wouldn’t shout about it,” he says. “The motor sport credentials weren’t a challenge. If anything, we had to try and get over the expense/difficulty barrier.”
There are various names who have come through the school, though. Memo Gidley sold everything he owned to enrol in a course for mechanics; as payment for their work the students would get a race at the end of each weekend (“they wanted all the cars in one piece for the paid drives…”). The future Champ Car racer won nine out of 11 and was then helped along the way by instructors at the school who recommended him. “I come from a normal family,” he says. “Well, sort of normal! I got to where I did without any personal money.
“Simraceway is great; the biggest difference between it and the old Jim Russell School is the F3 car. They are so much more advanced compared to what we used to drive. It really does feel like you’re racing for a professional team.”
So what next? An order has been placed for six new FIA F4 racers and Simraceway is keen to get more. The plan is to set up a winter development and testing programme – in both these and the F3 cars – in the run-up to the FIA F4 US Championship, which starts in May.
The day when a young hopeful comes through from the gaming side of the business to Simraceway’s karting, F4 and then F3 series is a while away. However, it’s one of very few ways to move up the American single-seater ladder and get proper instruction along the way. For that alone it should be applauded.
Hire firms aim higher
Bored with car rental queues? America has some answers
When in America you do get the impression that they’re just slightly ahead of us in some ways. One of those was the Audi on-demand car rental service in San Francisco.
It’s as clever as it is easy. Everything is done through an app: when you first rent from the company you’re given an operational card, which can then be used for all subsequent deals. This means you don’t need to be at home when they drop the car off. Yes, the vehicle you rent is delivered for you and also picked up. If you leave the car empty, Audi will refuel it and charge pump prices rather than extortionate European rates. You can even turn the car on with your phone if you’ve lost your card. As I said, as clever as it is easy.
So what’s the catch? It’s more expensive than traditionally cheap American hire cars. An A4 is $155 (£100) a day, an RS5 $440 (£284) and an R8 Spyder $1285 (£830). However, that includes all insurance, whether you’re old or young, whether you have points on your licence or not.
The system is only set up in San Francisco at the moment, but will roll out to other American cities if and when it is successful.