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Summer camp on the race track

Published on: July 10, 2019

Race school owner Ray Garcia directs traffic on the oval at one of the practice sessions of his summer camps. STEPHEN FLANAGAN JACKSON PHOTOS

Racing school teaches more than just zooming around an asphalt oval

Ray Garcia’s Ambassador Racing School track and shop in Balm

From training race horses to teaching teens and pre-teens how to drive go-karts, Ray Garcia has had some pretty interesting days on the track. Now in his mid-60s, Garcia was born and raised in the Tampa area, where the racers he worked with had four legs, not motorized or mechanical parts. “I did that for a few years – back when I was 18 or 19 years old in Tampa,” Garcia said, over the background roar of racing karts, which were running the asphalt oval at his current business, the Ambassador Racing School (ARS). Garcia came out to the Balm area some 40 years ago. He started a small track 28 years ago on land next door to his home, when there was not much in Balm except the small post office, a few homes, orange groves and nurseries, and farms and cattle. Garcia’s father was an auto body man and painter from Cuba, so Ray comes by his mechanical aptitude and ability genetically.

Youngsters learn mechanical aspects of a vehicle, as well as racing skills, at ARS, owned and operated in Balm by Ray Garcia, above right in blue shirt. Racing campers from left: Zachary Chavez, 14, Zephyrhills; Aidan Wuttke, 13, Ft. Myers; Cooper Beasley, 12, Valrico; Nolan Mesa, 10, Jupiter; and Jeff Hrunka, 14, Ft. Myers.

From the age of 4, J.R. Garcia III, known as Ray, wanted to race, and he has dedicated his life to every aspect of racing. In 1995 he built a quarter mile, asphalt, banked track, right next to his home on 14840 Speedway Drive, just off C.R. 672 in Balm. Since then, Garcia’s mission has been to instruct the next generation of drivers, including those who attend his week-long summer camps for youngsters where Garcia teaches them not only how to navigate the oval but also the ins and outs of the mechanics in the neat, organized shop next to the track.

“From driver development to full race car building, I teach it all,” said Garcia proudly. “We utilize various racing vehicles, such as competition karts, quarter midget race cars, pro-trucks, sprints and late models,” he pointed out. He added that ARS offers private and group instruction, as well as the annual STEM (Science Technology Engineering Mathematics) summer camps for the ongoing development of a young driver. These coed sessions last from Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Lodging is available at nearby homes.

“Our Kids In Racing summer camp is far more than just about driving,” said Garcia. “Some of our students have reached the ranks of NASCAR, sprint cars, and almost every facet of mechanical engineering.”

Mechanic Wally Rheim, above, tends to race cars in pit stops and in the shop and has been working with Ray Garcia at Ambassador for 20 years.

On Day 1, campers are fitted with and review the proper use of safety gear and the proper operation of a race car. The youngsters learn about race track communication, such as hand signals, racing flags, and track lights. Then they are ready for their first test drive – a spin around the track. The next day it is time to move indoors to the shop where they learn about each part of the vehicle and its function, including the engine.

Then later in Day 2 it’s back to the track for learning to safely enter and exit the pit box and the pit lane, as well as entering and exiting the four turns on the oval.

Day 3 entails more time in the shop, learning about chassis set-up and what makes the car drive properly, what makes the car turn, and how it reacts. Reviewing technological terms such as tight, under steer, push and more jargon completes the mechanical lessons, and then it’s back on the track and a driving session designed to teach how to pass other cars on the track.

Day 4 consists of more brain work as drivers learn weight percentages of a race car, math formulas related to motorsports and more. Before practicing some of the driving skills learned earlier in the week, drivers are also taught how to relate to sponsors and how to handle interviews.

Entrance to Balm race track and complex, operated by Ray Garcia as Ambassador Racing School.

On Day 5 it’s practice sessions first in the morning. The drivers will draw for starting positions for the qualifying rounds. Later that day, a feature race is completed with a celebration in victory lane. Drivers will be interviewed, presentations made, and sponsors acknowledged.

For prices and details about the summer camp and other programs for youngsters, as well as adults, call Ray Garcia at 813-634-1076.

Garcia advised that it’s never too late to start racing, no matter what your age. Ambassador Racing School can help anyone enjoy racing as a hobby or learn the proper way to begin a motorsports career. All equipment is provided, and private sessions are available by appointment.

According to Garcia, there is no definite answer as to what makes a great race driver. But one common link among the top competitors, Garcia pointed out, is how to extract the most from their race vehicles. Garcia added that many of the top professional race drivers, such as Tony Stewart, Michael Andretti, Jeff Gordon, Danica Patrick and more, began their careers racing karts or quarter midgets. “These drivers utilized their grassroots experience in racing to sharpen and to maintain their skills in motorsports,” said Garcia.

Garcia added that the ARS has refined a hands-on method of utilizing on-track sessions that is fun and educational. Among the skills learned and practiced are understanding drafting, learning proper passing, finding the fastest racing lane, improving driving techniques, entering and exiting the corners, properly, and developing confidence.

“I get a great sense of contentment and satisfaction from seeing our students develop as both racers and as individuals,” said Garcia.

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