Race-car driving school offers learning and luxury

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SONOMA, Calif. -- Sometimes adventure means getting lost and going around and around and around. Sometimes it just means going around. At 110 mph.

The Jim Russell Racing Drivers School here has teamed up with the Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn & Spa to offer

adventurous couples a three-day, three-night package of race-car driving and luxurious living.

Dubbed the Monaco in Sonoma package, the plan includes one three-day Techniques of Racing course at the Jim Russell School, a three-night stay for two at the resort, a choice of two spa treatments or two rounds of golf at the Sonoma Golf Club, dinner for two at Sante (the resort's premier restaurant), two wine tastings at Gloria Ferrer winery and a bottle of Gloria Ferrer sparkling wine.

Just don't expect to go wine tasting and then get behind the wheel of a Formula One car.

And they're off, at the Jim Russell Racing Drivers School in Sonoma, Calif. The opportunity to drive those cars, in fact, is one of the highlights of the course. The thrill of driving an open-cockpit, open-wheel car is unique, according to the school's Del Leutbecher.

"Regular cars have fenders. There are no fenders with open-wheel cars. And 110 mph in an open cockpit feels like 150 mph in a regular car."

Most people have never driven a Formula One-style car, so the Techniques of Racing course is truly a learning experience. Students who complete the course are eligible to apply for their Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) license, which enables them to race in club competitions.

"This isn't a fantasy camp," said Leutbecher.

Though it may not be a fantasy camp, students should rest assured they'll spend plenty of time behind the wheel.

About 20% of the course takes place in the classroom; the rest is on the track. By the second day, students are being timed and critiqued by their instructors.

The track used at the Jim Russell School is Infineon Raceway, the same track used in professional races such as Nascar's Dodge/Save Mart 350 and the Infineon Grand Prix of Sonoma.

Unlike oval tracks, such as the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Infineon loops through the Sonoma wine country in a series of 12 turns, with elevation changes of up to 300 feet. The scenery is beautiful, but it's probably best to keep your eyes on the road.

Thankfully, the Monaco in Sonoma package allows time to experience some of that scenery.

The Gloria Ferrer Winery opened in the 1980s on the site of an old cow pasture. It's a much prettier place today, with lush vineyards adorning the Sonoma hills.

While the winery makes a range of reds and whites, it is their sparkling wines -- styled after French champagnes -- that have garnered most of the awards.

Guests at the Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn & Spa should not miss the chance

to taste more of the region's fabulous wines at Sante, the hotel's premier restaurant. The restaurant's staff is adept at pairing those wines with menu choices, so don't be afraid to ask for advice.

Although many visitors take the advice of Conde Nast Traveler and make "a special trip just to eat [at Sante]," the hotel itself is a lovely place.

The main draw, of course, is the opportunity to relax in natural thermal mineral waters.

The hotel offers a variety of spa treatments, and visitors on the Monaco in Sonoma package can choose from a range of massages, facials, manicures, pedicures, herbal body wraps, mineral baths and other spa treatments.

"This package enables couples with different interests to enjoy the same vacation," said Leutbecher. Indeed, it's a rare trip that combines the thrill of race-car driving, the indulgence of a spa and the elegance of fine dining.

The Monaco in Sonoma package costs $3,595, pays agents a 5% commission and is available through 2004.

To book a package, agents should call Jim Russell's Leutbecher at (800) 733-0345. For more information on Jim Russell Racing Drivers School, visit www.jimrussellusa.com. For more information on the Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn & Spa, visit www.fairmont.com/sonoma. For more on Gloria Ferrer Winery, visit www.gloriaferrer.com.

To contact the reporter who wrote this story, send e-mail to [email protected] .

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