At almost every race I compete in, from Laguna Seca to Watkins Glen, along walks a fan, who asks the age old question, “How do I become a race car driver?” This is usually followed up by, “I’m pretty fast on the street; I think I’d be a really good race car driver.” I can appreciate their enthusiasm, but I usually chuckle at their over simplification of speed and what it takes to become a real race car driver. So, in an effort to help those who dream of taking the checkered flag and standing on the podium while spraying a bottle of the cheapest…I mean finest champagne…whether you are interested in NASCAR, Indy Car, Tudor United SportsCar Championship, or grassroots motorsports, here are my tips for any teen or adult who is interested in starting a racing career:
1. GET AN EDUCATION.
And by education, I mean, go to racing school. Unless you are the reincarnation of Aryton Senna, you will need to be educated on the fine art of race craft and driving technique. Your knowledge of “driving fast” on the street has nothing to do with driving “fast” on a race track. I repeat, just because you drive 100 mph down your state’s turnpike does not mean you will know what to do when you approach a decreasing radius turn and will have to threshold brake to the appropriate point to maximize your rolling speed at the apex without screwing up the exit of the turn. Catch my drift yet? Ok. So which racing school should you attend? There are plenty out there. My favorite is the Skip Barber Racing School; it’s like “How to Become a Race Car Driver: For Dummies” without making you feel like a dummy. It is the best way to go from zero knowledge to getting in a real race car. Some other options are Bondurant and the Porsche Driving School. Your local track may even have their own racing school. Do some research and pick a place you can afford. By the way, ALWAYS BUY THE CRASH INSURANCE. I was at a one day Skip Barber School at Lime Rock Park to learn the track and prep for an upcoming race in 2014. One of my classmates was a crash engineering specialist for the racing simulator iRacing. As he came out of turn 2, he had too much throttle simultaneously with too much steering input (a big no no), the car snapped around on him, and into the tire wall he went. Oh the irony! I really wanted to ask him, “So how is crashing in real life compared to your simulator?”
2. JOIN A RACING CLUB.
There are so many!!! Porsche Club of America, National Auto Sport Association, Sports Car Club of America, and almost every race track has their own “home” club. My home track, Hallett Motor Racing Circuit, has their own racing club called the Competition Motorsports Association. When I moved up from half scale cars to sports car racing, I joined COMMA and raced with them for my entire teenage years. You have to have experience in order to become a race car driver. So, join one of these clubs, and start racing. Get a cheap race car, like a Spec Miata, and get some seat time in the car. The more laps you do, the better you will get. Practice what they taught you in your racing school. Make sure you are hitting your marks. Do not miss your turn in points, apexes, and track out points. Get in racing traffic and practice passing. Hire a local instructor to give you one on one coaching. No one knows a particular track better than the local instructor who grew up there. Get a couple races under your belt and see how you like it. You may be surprised by the pressure, physicality, and mental toughness that it takes to complete a race.
3. SEAT TIME. SEAT TIME. SEAT TIME.
Ok, so now you have gotten some laps under your belt and maybe a couple of races. Now it’s time to really put in the work. Sign up for testing days or open lapping days. Get in your car and practice an endurance stint. If your car has a big enough fuel cell, stay in the car for 1 ½ hours to 2 hours. This will really test your mental focus. Remember, the more laps you do, the better you will get. Focus on improving your lap times. Move your braking points deeper. Make sure your steering input in smooth. Smooth is fast! Is your track out all the way to the edge of the track? If it is not or you are having to drive to the track out point, then you are not driving fast enough. If you have a data system in your car, like MOTEC, which maps your throttle, braking, speed, G-Forces, etc…you need to be pouring over data with a data engineer. If you do not have a data system…then you will just have to focus on your sector times. If you do not have sector times, then focus on your overall lap times. And if you do not have lap times, for goodness sake…bribe a friend to stand near the front straight away and clock your dang times!
4. COMPETE IN A SPEC SERIES.
Competition is the best way to improve your skills. Nothing sharpens your skills like being in the heat of battle. A spec series is the most effective means to achieving this goal. Why? Because all the cars are the same (assuming no one is cheating). Same engine, chassis, brake pads, etc… A spec series is all about driver ability. Which one should you choose? The best bang for your buck, hands down, is Spec Miata. The parts are cheap and there are a million of them out there. Of course I am a bit bias, I won a championship in Spec Miata. There are many options available. Spec Racer Ford, Spec Boxster, Porsche Cup Car, Formula Mazda, etc… Start with the most affordable and go up from there. Side note, NEVER SKIMP ON YOUR ROLL CAGE. It is the most important piece of safety equipment in your car. Don’t believe me? Check out my nasty tumble at Road America in my 2012 Porsche Cup Car.
5. MAKE YOURSELF MARKETABLE.
What makes you special? Are you a Veteran? An immigrant? A wickedly handsome chap with a perfect smile? It sounds stupid, but you have to promote whatever it is that makes you special. I work the pretty girl angle. Get more comfortable with public speaking and promoting yourself. If you can afford one, have a Public Relations rep send out press releases. Other things to think about: Facebook page, website, Twitter, sponsorship proposal, etc…
6. PAY TO PLAY.
Racing has evolved over the years. No one will hand you a contract and offer you a job on their team. 99% of the time, you must bring money to the table. It does not have to be your money! Get sponsors! But, you will have to pay to play. A basic budget for Continental Tire Challenge is $200,000 per driver (2 drivers per car). The price goes up from there to compete in the Tudor United SportsCar Championship. To be quite frank, this ain’t cheap. To become a professional race car driver, yes you need skill, but more important, you need sponsors who can bring real money to the table. Without that, even if you are the reincarnation of Aryton Senna, you won’t be competing in pro racing any time soon.
With that being said, if you are not going to become a professional race car driver, you can still have a long and enjoyable club racing career. I know several former professionals who went back to club racing just because they love the sport so much. The people that you meet along your journey will be friends for life. The journey has its challenges. It can be disheartening to hear “no” after “no” from potential sponsors. However, even if it’s just a few races, becoming a race car driver is one of the most rewarding experiences you will ever have. Once a race car driver, always a race car driver. Good luck future racers!