By: Tanner Watkins
January 2, 2018 | 9:00 AM
As the landscape of motor racing continues to evolve, so too must its techniques for driver development.
In an era of highly restricted testing regulations and a scarcity of sponsorship money, rising talent must find creative ways to cultivate their skills in order to achieve the professional status they covet.
Fortunately in this day in this day and age, technology such as iRacing provide aspiring drivers as well as hobbyists the opportunity to test, tune, and race at their leisure. Subscribers of these simulations can self-teach themselves the intricacies of car setup and race craft, but the ceiling for learning is often capped by their own teaching limits.
In order to absorb the absolute most from these driving sessions, serious drivers should consider RaceCraft1.
Created in 2011, RaceCraft1 is a place for drivers – both amateur and professional – to develop their skills in a controlled environment. Partnering with the PitFit Training Center in Indianapolis, the facility offers the most thorough training plans in the industry centered around very specific and detailed development techniques.
I had the opportunity to visit the RaceCraft1 facilities in early December, thanks to an invitation from the company’s owner and chief instructor, Kelly Jones.
Jones is one of the more unique and interesting members of the motorsport community. A graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy in 1989, he was an instructor and pilot who compiled over 2,200 flight hours at the helm of F-16 fighter jets.
Additionally, Jones was a U.S. Air Force Academy cadet survival instructor and a National Collegiate Boxing Association all-American. His excellence in military conduct landed him on the USAF Academy Commandant’s List as well as the Academy Dean’s List.
Utilizing teaching methods learned while a member of the Air Force, Jones and his staff at RaceCraft1 can help create an environment for instruction that centralizes focus on specific sectors of driving performance in order to help a racer develop.
Jones cites over 25 years of aviation experience and the characteristics of that type of instruction when describing the techniques used to work with drivers.
These techniques stress the importance of efficient teaching while operating at the same levels of excellence found in military operations.
Teachings by Jones and the staff at RaceCraft1 are carried out with the same intensity and focus as if you were risking man and machine, concepts utilized in war. In racing, the concepts aren’t so far-fetched.
Setting the Standard
One of RaceCraft1’s most proud examples lies within driver Michai Stephens. Hailing from Evanston, Illinois, Stephens is one of the best feel-good stories to follow in motor racing.
While attending Arizona State University studying industrial design, Stephens sought out the Skip Barber Racing School and a unique program that allowed aspiring drivers without any racing experience to take part in a three-day course with one driver lucky enough to earn a scholarship to race.
Michai was the driver to win the shootout and an opportunity to race in the Skip Barber Summer Series in 2014. That platform launched him into various opportunities to follow, including two stints as a Team USA Scholarship driver (one of those years he paired with current Indy Lights driver Aaron Telitz) and experience driving in the USF2000 series.
During this time period, Stephens became connected with Jones and his services at RaceCraft1. For Michai, he represents the most emotional and raw example of the effect that the company can have on a driver.
Hearing the Illinois native discuss and elaborate on all that Jones and RaceCraft1 have done for his career, the energy and appreciation Stephens’ exudes is palpable.
“The experience of RaceCraft1… what does it embody? It is the opportunity to better your craft,” says Stephens. “We can take anyone in here and make them better. Even if they think they are the bees’ knees.
“We can relate to anybody, and our concept of motorsport is very fluid. It is adaptable but it is very real… It is real life applications and experiences, not just racing, and I ultimately think that is what stands RaceCraft1 head and shoulders above the competition.”
It was incredible to feel and see how Stephens’ life as an individual has been impacted, as a whole, through his involvement with RaceCraft1 and the friendship built with Jones.
Look for a feature on Stephens’ and his career to this point in January. Actively working on a program for 2018, he is certainly a driver to keep your eye on with a tremendous story that is easy to get behind.
Instruction at RaceCraft1
In determining the type and duration of training for a RaceCraft1 client, the staff considers a driver’s current aptitude, proficiency and amount of development necessary to improve or master a skill.
Courses of study range from concepts as simple as vehicle operation and employment, the essence of car inputs and racing lines, to advanced race craft and resource management strategies.
Additionally, the curriculum touches on modules such as data acquisition, car tuning and setup, race strategy and even how to race for championships, by analyzing tracks on a driver’s schedule where he or she may struggle, and how to approach those weekends to glean the most points.
As a natural byproduct of instruction at RaceCraft1, when drivers are taught specific skills and techniques, they are becoming teachers themselves.
In speaking on Stephens’ training during the December meeting, Jones detailed how the time spent at RaceCraft1 and the concepts absorbed have made Michai an incredibly advanced racing mind – with the ability to reciprocate these teachings to others.
“Michai may not realize this yet, but he is a fighter pilot and that is the mentality that he can bring to racing,” states Jones. “He’s going to be successful in racing – no matter what he does – because he has a different outlook on how to go about teaching himself how to learn and eventually, how to teach other people.”
Moving the Motorsport World Forward
In getting the opportunity to visit RaceCraft1 and sit down with both Kelly Jones and Michai Stephens, it is easy to see how the world of motorsport is shifting towards a new digital era.
Similar to the aerodynamic phenomenon that has swept over the racing landscape over the past forty years, the importance of simulation and training away from the track will become more and more prominent as time passes.
It is terrific to see companies such as RaceCraft1 provide the value and expertise to advance the career of a promising young driver through advanced – and somewhat abnormal – teachings.
And training for race competition is no longer restricted to track days: RaceCraft1 offers online and remote training sessions to continue strengthening a driver’s skills for the comfort of their own home.
As for getting started with an advanced racing simulation rig? It is not as difficult as one may imagine.
Jones first experimented with simulation racing while competing in various driving series overseas. At one point in his driving career, he was forced to take some time away from on-track competition and used simulations to stay sharp.
When he returned from the hiatus, he was a faster racer than before and became convinced that simulation could be used for real-life instruction and development.
Over time Jones began developing rigs for personal use, showcasing their capabilities to friends and anyone else who was interested.
These experiences developing simulation rigs helped Jones create the driving simulators available at RaceCraft1 – highly sophisticated and powerful machines that help blur the lines between reality and sim.
As a service, RaceCraft1 helps clients understand the choices and information available to those interested in building a capable simulator.
RaceCraft1 will help with simulator construction at each step along the way, navigating the wide array of components, software, hardware and manufacturers available when getting a sim racer started.
The group even offers simulation support services, which “remove the headache from operating today’s sophisticated but capable equipment.”
With all that RaceCraft1 has to offer, it is time to look forward to this new digital age of racing and embrace it. Instead of looking the other way at iRacing advertisements or the PEAK Antifreeze Series champion when he is announced at NASCAR’s season finale at Homestead, listen to what they have to say with an open mind.
Drivers, engineers, and race coaches state that they can accomplish three to five times as much improvement per hour spent with RaceCraft1 and other simulations as they can at the real-world race track.
It is time to recognize that this is a new sector of motorsport, and it is here to stay. If a driver, team or other members of the motorsport community is struggling to embrace that concept, then watch as the competition speeds away, leaving you in a virtual trail of dust.
Images courtesy of Kelly Jones and RaceCraft1.