A day at the races: Skip Barber Summer Series hits soggy VIR

Dakota Dickerson leads Chase Owen away at the start of Tuesday's Skip Barber Summer Series race at Virginia International Raceway in Danville, Virginia.

Earlier this week, the Skip Barber Summer Series was at Virginia International Raceway in Danville, Virginia, for rounds 13 and 14 of its 16-round season.

The Skip Barber Summer and Winter Series are championships for drivers who have got their feet wet in the program’s Racing School, and who are either trying to break into top-tier open-wheel racing divisions, or who just enjoy the thrill of racing a 150-horsepower Skip Barber open-wheel race car.

The top five points finishers at the end of each season advance to the Skip Barber Championship Shootout, where the winner receives an opportunity to compete in the Cooper Tires USF2000 Series – the first tier of INDYCAR’s Mazda Road to Indy program.

As a result, there was a mixture of experience throughout the field, ranging from Jeffrey Stern, who served for the U.S. Marines back in 1968, to 14-year-old Neil Verhagen, who was the runner-up in the Skip Barber Winter Series.

However, the drivers were thrown a curveball when qualifying began on Tuesday, as the weather routinely switched from being hot and sunny to then pouring down with rain about every half an hour.

Forget wet-weather setups, however, as the Skip Barber Racing School owns every one of its 40 open-wheel cars, of which 21 were on hand at VIR, each featuring an identical setup. The instructors test each car before the event to make sure they are all capable of running the same times and, if one car gets wrecked or breaks down, a team of mechanics at the track is able to cycle it back out later on in the day.

Much like at your local go-kart track, no driver can call a car his own – the car they practice in is a different one to the car they drive in qualifying and the race, and could even be wrecked by another driver in the session after them.

The drivers were split into two groups, which would each have two races at VIR. Drivers who miss a race event at another track were welcome to “double-up” and race in both groups. At the end of each group practice, the drivers would come in and debrief with the programs’ instructors, who were watching on from the corner stands. Later on in the day, however, the discussions turned more towards what the weather was doing and how wet the track was.

PHOTOS: Skip Barber Summer Series at VIR

One driver who was hoping the conditions would stay wet was 23-year-old Chase Owen, who was sitting second in the points behind Timo Reger but had been faster than Reger in the wet morning practice. Owen and his friend David Porcelli had both been to several Skip Barber Racing School events in 2014. Out of a pool of nearly 1,000 participants, they were two of 33 drivers to be chosen to compete for a scholarship shootout at the end of the year. Finishing first and second in the shootout, they were awarded scholarships and were able to race in 2015 Skip Barber Summer Series.

Before the season, each driver and his family had to find a way of being able to fund their way through the series. Various liability programs are set up by the school to help reduce the financial burden when a driver is involved in a crash. If the crash is a result of a mechanical failure, like it was for 18-year-old Kyle Masson whose steering broke at Turn 15 during the morning practice, then the driver is off the hook.

The atmosphere around the track was very friendly, not just between the instructors, families and spectators but the drivers themselves – the two championship leaders of Timo Reger and Chase Owen actually sat at the same picnic table during lunch.

The track was still wet when qualifying and the first race of the event rolled around on Tuesday. Multiple drivers ran off in qualifying and, via the rulebook, were required to drop behind the drivers who did not run off for the grid.

Dakota Dickerson leads the field to a restart as the pace car pulls in at VIR on Tuesday, Sept. 29.

Consequently, championship leader Timo Reger was lined up in 12th of 13 cars for Tuesday’s Group 1 race while Chase Owen started second. The driver third in the points, Dakota Dickerson, started on pole for Tuesday’s 11-lap race and ultimately led from flag-to-flag, winning two races overall and never finishing worse than fourth as he “doubled-up” at VIR.

His job was made slightly easier due to the wet conditions. The spray from the cars hurts the visibility for the drivers further back, whereas a dry race would usually see multiple passing attempts due to the Skip Barber cars’ rear wings creating an immense amount of drag, often leading to drafting battles.

Dickerson was, however, hindered by an early Safety Car period when Pat Daly – who was leading the masters class (for drivers over 40) at the time – went off at Turn 14. Daly was OK but the car was badly damaged, and 54-year-old Chris Brassard took the master’s win. However, in bringing out the safety car, the incident had helped Reger close back in on the leaders and, when the field went back to green, Reger began working his way through the rest of the field until he was running in third on the final lap, right behind his title rival Owen.

However, Owen, in trying to run down Dickerson, ran off at Turn 3 on the final lap, and was ultimately classified in eighth after the race. This moved Reger into second, completing a solid run after having started from 12th.

The Skip Barber Summer Series will be at NOLA Motorsports Park in Avondale, Louisiana, for the final event of the season from Oct. 22-24.

More information about the Summer Series and the Skip Barber Racing School can be found at http://skipbarber.com/