Top Stories from the Special Reports pages of the International Herald Tribune,
Saturday, October 19, 1996

Fast Track for Would-Be Racing Champions

By Brad Spurgeon International Herald Tribune
DRIVING schools are not only for learning to drive the family car safely. They have become a part of the route to fame for future racing champions.

Michael Andretti won his first national karting event at 9, then won a third of the 75 events he entered. But when he was 16, his racing driver dad, Mario, wanted to be absolutely sure he was made for racing. So he sent the future IndyCar champion to racing schools as a test.

''Most driving schools are very reputable,'' said Mr. Andretti Sr. ''They have good instructors, and they have student records. That's how Michael assessed his situation. He broke student records. So he felt he had something going.''

Jacques Villeneuve, last year's IndyCar champion and this year's Formula One vice champion, started at 15 in a three-day course at the Jim Russell International Racing Driver's School in Mont Tremblant, Quebec.

''I learned a lot in three days,'' he said, ''because I hadn't even driven on the road. And I stalled a lot on the first day. Of course, I'm getting better at that now.''

However, racing schools are, above all, for learning what racing is about and how to move up the hierarchy. One school that tries to do even more is La Filiere, in Le Mans, sponsored by Elf. It works in conjunction with the Education Ministry to help its students continue their traditional studies, with part of the day at the track, part at a local high school. They help the best right up to Formula One.

La Filiere has been criticized, however, for not placing more drivers in Formula One, with only Olivier Panis there this year.

Henri Pescarolo, a former Formula One driver who advises the school, responded: ''Do you know how many graduates of the baccalaureate end up in the polytechnical institutes? Very few. That's no reason to question the whole system of national education.

''What we're trying to prove, is that with an equal amount of natural talent, a driver who has continued his studies along with doing the Filiere will bring a lot more to his team than one who only has talent.''

The 20 students are selected each year through a racing competition. Elf provides half of the 400,000 francs ($80,000) tuition, while the student brings the other half, usually through sponsorship.

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