I didn’t start sport driving and road racing until my 30s and if I could go back in time I’d almost certainly start sooner. It’s an exciting lifestyle that challenges you on many levels and connects you with great people. I started driving cars since before I had a license. My first experience driving a car was grandma handing me the keys to her 1974 Z28 Camaro at age 13. It came naturally because it was just like driving a motorcycle but easier. I drove it like I stole it. By age 15, I was sneaking out the family cars late at night to go drag racing, then rebuilding engines and gearboxes with my brother so mom could get us to school and her to work. After getting my driver’s license life at age 16, everything revolved around cars, drag racing, and cruising the strip. Life was like a scene out of American Graffiti. That all abruptly ended when it came time for college.
Even though cars exited my picture, a good college friend of mine was into road racing. He had a ’65 fastback Mustang that was track prepared. I wasn’t impressed by it because it wasn’t very powerful and it was a bit rough looking. Perhaps he sensed this because one day while driving he looked over to me and said hang on. We were speeding down the road and there was a sweeping right-hand turn ahead. He accelerated towards it and at one point a I screamed ‘slow down!’ while bracing for impact. Still keeping into the throttle, he finally braked hard, turned in, and then back on throttle to accelerate out of the turn. The car stuck to the road! I couldn’t believe it. It seemed as though we had just cheated physics. That was my introduction to what road racing is like. It made an indelible impression and left me with a latent interest in getting involved, but it would have to wait until some future time.
I got my first taste of what road racing is all about in a car very similar to this. A friend drove it hard into a big right-hand sweeper and I was sure we were going to die. The car stuck and I my fear turned into laughter because it seemed as though we cheated physics. Suddenly, handling (chassis design and suspension tuning) became a lot more interesting than 0-60 and 1/4 mile times, trap speeds, and horsepower.
It’s random luck that finally got me involved in driving because my girlfriend (now wife) gave me a gift certificate to a high performance driving class at ProFormance Racing School. This was my introduction to sport driving and I loved it. It’s no wonder I married that girl! It was much easier and more accessible that I had imagined to drive fast on a racetrack. I had looked into the costs associated with some of the big names schools throughout the country but was turned off by their costs and distance — I wasn’t interested in a one time experience. However, Pacific Raceways (called Seattle International Raceway at the time) was just a 35 min drive from work and ProFormance held regular lapping days, including afternoon programs at an affordable price. These were great because I could go to work in the morning, get some afternoon lapping in, and then back to finish my work for the day.
It was only about a year before I had my sights set on racing. Lapping introduced me to racers who came out to the track from time-to-time to work on their skills or test their cars. The more I learned about racing the more I wanted to get involved because I’m a competitive person and competition is something that hot-lapping lacks. I took the plunge and my life changed. Outside of work, everything revolved around racing and if I had my way there’d just be racing. I raced for 5 years before deciding to take a break in the middle of the race season. We took a trip to Europe and I then decided to take the rest of the season off. Unbeknownst to me I had ‘taken the [racing] needle out of my arm’ and I was enjoying the extra time I had to do other things in life. 1 year turned into 2, then 2 into 3. Eventually I sold my racecar.
Recently, I got back into driving casually and I intend to keep it that way. I love the people and energy at the paddock, but of course, most of all I love driving. Since returning I’ve had many fuel pump conversations with people wanting to learn more about my car and racing. Often times teenagers just like me when I was their age. I tell them whatever they want to know, but always send them off with some friendly advice to go to the track to learn more and get involved. Had somebody given me similar advice I would have likely gotten involved sooner. It’s with this in mind that I’m writing this short introduction to the sport and how to get started.
Road Racing and Sport Driving
Road racing does not mean racing on the roads. That’s illegal and you can lose your license and even go to jail. Road racing takes place on purpose-built race tracks (also called raceways or road courses). Unlike oval tracks which are used for NASCAR and Indy racing, road courses have several turns designed to challenge the driver, and vary in their length and number of turns. There’s a vast range of cars that participate in road racing. At one end of the spectrum is the modern Formula 1 car, which is more inverted airplane on 4 wheels than automobile. At the other end of the spectrum are older closed wheel cars like a Volkswagen Rabbit, which is less performant than today’s average family sedan. People will race just about anything and budget usually dictates choice. Wouldn’t we all love to race Formula 1 cars?
The following photoset shows some typical road courses and the various levels of the sport.
Roadmap to Racing
My progression into racing was typical and as follows:
1. Attend an introductory high-performance driving class. Associated with each racetrack is a usually a school. I attended the Proformance Racing School Introduction to HP Sport Driving class where l learned about things like ‘the line’, weight transfer, understeer and oversteer, and the importance of being smooth. Exercises helped drive home the concepts followed by some actual on track driving. Even if you don’t continue on from here the lessons learned are beyond the average driver education curriculum and will make you a better driver on the street. Ironically, public roads are a much more dangerous place to drive than the racetrack. On racetracks, there’s no opposing traffic, pedestrians, trucks with unsecured loads, sudden slowdowns from congestion, kids running into the road, and you don’t have to deal with drivers who are drunk, distracted, or otherwise impaired. Not a day goes by that I don’t apply some of the principles I learned in my high-performance driving class to my everyday driving.
“Not a day goes by that I don’t apply some of the principles I learned in my high-performance driving class to my everyday driving.”
2. Develop skills at hot-lapping days, also known as driver education (DE) events. Getting fast requires practice or ‘seat time’ as drivers like to call it. It’s no different than anything else we humans need to go through in order to get good at something whether it be playing an instrument, golf, or downhill skiing. What you get out of your day depends on what you put into it. You can make it an opportunity to drive fast or practice getting faster. The first if fun, the latter is work. I always take the time to do both. Having an instructor in the car is optional (after being cleared to drive solo) but will help you develop skills faster and prevent bad habits from forming.
3. Successfully complete a competition racing class. I did the 2-day Competition Class at Proformance. You’ll learn about the rules and protocols of racing, what all the flags mean, gridding, what a splitter is, how to pass, etc. You also learn what not to do such as blocking, being ‘helpful’ to faster traffic by going off line, etc. Of course, you’ll also get a chance to experience racing for the first time.
4. Go racing. Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) and National Auto Sport Association ( NASA) are the two most popular sanctioning bodies in the US for road racing. I happen to live in the Pacific North West where International Conference of Sports Car Clubs (ICSCC) is very popular among drivers, so that’s where I raced. One of the nice things about ICSCC is that as a novice racer they don’t dump you right into racing with experienced racers. ICSCC’s program progresses you from Novice -> Area -> Senior driver. Advancement doesn’t require you to be fast, but demonstrated ability follow the rules and not endanger yourself and others.
The following videos is from hot-lapping day with ProFormance racing school at Pacific Raceways. It was common for me to have an instructor out with me for my first year, and this video is from very early on when I first started driving. As a bit of trivia, the Pacific Raceways was called Seattle International Raceway (SIR) back when these were recorded. Also, Turn 8 and 9 merged right onto the drag strip which was very dicey in the rain because the VHT that gives dragsters more traction becomes very slick in the rain.
You don’t need a fast car to get started in sport driving. All that’s required is access to a well maintained vehicle which does not put you and others at risk. I’ve even seen folks show-up in minivans. Personally, I think this is pushing the limits of sensibility but if it means getting out there and learning then it’s arguably a better choice that waiting for the ‘right car’ to come along.
In my opinion, the best cars to start with are low in power, light (under 2800 lbs), and nibble – drivers call them ‘momentum cars’ for reasons that will become clear in a moment. If you can be fast in a momentum car, you’ll be fast in almost anything you drive.
“If you can be fast in a momentum car, you’ll be fast in almost anything you drive.”
With a powerful car, much of its lap time performance comes from being able to accelerate quickly down the straights. If you don’t drive through the turns fast and get good exit speed, the impact to overall lap time is less relative a lower power car (assuming also lower power / weight). In other words, power can easily become a crutch for bad driving and easily woo you into thinking you’re a hot shoe driver because you’re faster that all the other [slower] cars.
A momentum car requires you to drive well in order to turn fast laps by driving through the turns as fast as possible to minimize scrubbing off speed that takes power you don’t have to reclaim easily, and hence the term ‘momentum’ car. Later in your driving career when you transition to a high power car, you’ll drive it like a momentum car but also have the straight-line power to boot. Then you’ll be fast driver in a fast car, instead of just a driver in fast car.
Another advantage of low power cars is that they’re generally less expensive than high-power cars. Not just in purchase price, but more importantly in terms of overall cost. And if you’re going to get serious about driving, you need to consider the overall costs which can easily overshadow purchase price sooner than you might expect depending on how much you drive. High power cars have big tires and brakes which are proportionally more expensive than the smaller tires and brakes found on low power cars, and you’ll be changing tires and brakes a lot if you get serious about driving. Driveline components are more highly stressed and expensive to repair on high power cars, and things will start to break if you track your car a lot so you need to factor in cost of replacing clutch, changing wheel hubs, engine repair (or even replacement) if you get serious about driving. When all costs are consider, the car you think you can afford probably isn’t the car you can actually afford.[box type=”bio”]
When another driver calls you fast it means you’re fast and not the car – it’s the biggest complement a driver can receive. You can be a fast driver in slow car. You can also be a slow driver in a fast car, even though you might be turning faster lap times than the fast driver. The most rewarding experience as a driver is being faster in a slower car. Of course, being fast in a fast car is the best you can do but there’s always somebody faster so be prepared to have your ego bruised. When you’re in a fast car there are no excuses. (Hint: If all else fails, blame it on the tires. That seems to work pretty well.)[/box]
“Driving with your wallet.” It means limiting how much your willing to push yourself for fear of damaging your car. When getting started driving it’s not an issue, but eventually you will reach a point where you need to push beyond your comfort level to improve. If you’re preoccupied with worries of damaging your car then it will affect your push and and ultimately how quickly you progress. Ironically, a slower and less expensive car can actually turn you into a better driver faster than the really expensive and fast one unless you’re made of money. Incidentally, pushing oneself should not be confused with recklessness. Your instructor can teach you techniques for pushing the limits in an incremental fashion so it can be done safely, but it does involve getting out of one’s comfort zone which the the wallet can influence.
When getting started in driving you’re much better off spending money on instruction and extra lapping days than spending it on expensive performance upgrades. Having said that, you’re going to eventually need or want to start upgrading your car if you find yourself lapping frequently.
The biggest upgrade to make your car go faster is in you! With this in mind, prioritize areas that are affecting your driving first. If you find yourself hanging on to the steering wheel in the turns, invest in a better seat. If you’re having problems working the pedals get some driving shoes and adjustable pedal covers, and work on adjusting them until they feel right. If you lack confidence in your brakes because they’re fading or squishy, upgrade your braking system. You’re never going to get better or go fast if you’re concerned about being able to stop your car.
“The biggest upgrade to make your car go faster is in you!”
You’ll also want to consider safety equipment early on. At the risk of sounding cliche, you can never spend too much money on safety equipment. There. I got that out of the way. Having said that, if you’re driving a car capable of going 160mph into Turn 1, you might want to give a lot more consideration to safety equipment that the person driving a car capable of only 110 mph. That extra 50 mph amounts to over twice the kinetic energy of the slower car. A rollbar, fire extinguisher, harness, and Hans device might not be a bad idea before you go adding more power. Seems obvious when put this way, doesn’t it?
When it comes time to make your car go faster, follow the scientific method and change one thing at a time. It will help you get smart about different component changes contribute to a car’s overall performance. It’s you change a bunch of stuff all at once, then you’ve robbed yourself of this opportunity. What’s more, a change can hurt a car’s performance even if a performance part. If you change more than one component at a time, you’ll be hard pressed to single this component out or even know it’s holding you back. (You might be blissfully thinking you improved your car’s performance when in fact you took 2 steps forward and 1 step back.)
The following photoset illustrates the development of my M3 Lightweight. It slowly but surely evolved from a street car to a racecar. I developed it without consideration for race class and rules. This was a mistake in retrospect. In the end, the only class it fit was essentially a ‘free’ meaning pretty much anything is allowed in terms of go-fast modifications. At risk of offending some folks, it’s my opinion unlimited classes like these are essentially a car constructors’ classes based on who can build the fastest car (i.e., spend the most money) as opposed to a drivers’ class. I was interested in the latter. Since the car was developed to the point of no turning back I ultimately sold it.
Transitioning into Racing
Racing requires that you have a competition license. Each sanctioning body has its own rules regarding licensing requirements so it’s a good idea to figure out where you want to race and then refer to their respective regulations and rules. Or, do like I did and find someone already familiar with the regional club racing scene and ask lots of questions. You’ll also need (and want) to attend a competition school. There are nationally known ones like Skip Barber and Bondurant, but there’s a good chance your local school will also offer classes and be more plugged into the local scene where you’ll be racing. For example, I attended ProFormance Racing School’s competition program which is well known by ICSCC, the regional sanctioning body where I raced.
Contrary to what you might think, you don’t actually need to be fast to go racing – that’s only required if you want to win. What’s required is that you’re not a danger to yourself and others. This means being predictable, aware, in control, and an understanding of the rules and protocols of racing. With the exception of the latter, you might already think you’re all of these things and hopefully you are in day-to-day life. But to drivers, these terms take on a different meaning and they take time to develop. If on a hot-lapping day you’ve got a line if cars in your rear-view mirror that appear to be scrubbing your mirrors, that’s actually you driving off line and failing to recognize that you should be pointing them by. and you’re not quite ready to go racing yet.
“Contrary to what you might think, you don’t actually need to be fast to go racing – that’s only required if you want to win.”
Seat time will help you develop the skills you need to go racing and hot-lapping days are the best way to get this. They’re typically organized into two (2) or three (3) run groups based on driver experience level and that alternate throughout the day. This way you don’t have experienced drivers intimidating inexperienced, and inexperienced frustrating experienced. Initially, you’ll be overwhelmed that you’re driving your car really fast on a racetrack while unaware that you’ve actually created a traffic jam of cars waiting for you to point them by. Eventually, you’ll learn to scan your mirrors and spot faster traffic well before it’s on you’re bumper. Once you can do this, you’ve taken your first step towards becoming a racecar driver by demonstrating that you’re comfortable on the track aware of your surroundings. Over time you’ll develop car control skills, be checking turn stations, learn to control emotions, and start to develop a taste for what it’s like to compete. At some point, you’ll be ready and may have the desire to go racing. For me this happened after about 1 year of hot lapping.
Once you’re ready to go racing register for and attend a competition class — it will introduce you to the ‘rules of the road’ in competition driving. Yes, racing does have rules and lots of them. Knowing, following, and even taking advantage of the rules can make the difference between wining and loosing a race. In competition driving, there’s a lot more to wining than being fast. Being fast is something you should have focused on while hot-lapping but now you’ll need to turn your attention to racecraft and strategy, which you’ll be introduced to in class. You’ll also learn how about and practice passing (who owns the line, side-by-side through a turn, etc.), and in general everything else you need to know that you didn’t learn and experience in lapping days.
“Knowing, following, and even taking advantage of the rules can make the difference between wining and loosing a race.”
After graduating from competition class, you’re ready to go racing. Some sanctioning bodies having you jumping right in. I started with a sanctioning body that organizes races in the Pacific Northwest called the International Conference of Sports Car Clubs (ICSCC), or just ‘Conference’ in short. For the most part, it follows the same set of rules and procedures outlined by the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) organizes races in the area but a far fewer number of them which might explain why ICSCC came into existence. Conference has an onboarding procedure for new racers that involves a progression from Novice -> Area -> Senior driver. This eases new drivers into competition which is better for everybody involved. The following photoset describes each phase an my journey from Novice to Senior driver.
The following video shows a full race from before start to finish. You can see the idle time before the race which I use to mentally prepare myself. Exiting the grid, there’s the splitter and then scrubbing in the tires and getting heat into the brakes on the pace lap. The most exciting moments of any race for me are the start and then the strategy that starts to unfold when first coming upon lapped traffic.
Costs of Racing
“How do you make a small fortune racing? Simple. Start with a large fortune.”
It’s impossible to know how much fun racing can be unless you’ve experienced it firsthand. Anybody calling it a hobby is an outsider and doesn’t get it. It’s highly addictive and it can change your life for the better, or worse if you’re not careful. Racers frequently equate its addictive powers to that of a drug addiction. It’s like inserting a “needle in the arm” the saying goes.
The most important thing I learned in competition school had nothing to do with the competition part of racing. One of the other students was a gentleman in his early 50s and he had a beautifully prepared Mustang racecar. At one point he commented the car cost him his entire retirement savings. I was stunned. I made myself a promise that wouldn’t me one day.
As mentioned, the costs associated with racing go well beyond purchasing and building a car. If you don’t have experience in racing, then chances are the car you think you can afford to race aren’t what you can actually afford. Go back to the beginning. I started lapping with a brand new Porsche 911 Turbo and by the time I was racing it was in a 15 year-old BMW 3-series. Significant factors contributing to costs include the following:
- Acquire or build racecar*
- Tow rig (truck and trailer, plus fuel and maintenance for rig)*
- Annual and biannual maintenance for items such as brake calipers, wheel bearings, clutch, and engine rebuild.*
- Consumables such as tires, brake pads and rotors, fuel, and oil.*
- Upgrades to car to make and keep you competitive.*
- Race entry fees
- Food and lodging fees when traveling to venues far from home
- Driveline repairs when stuff happens (blow engine, gearbox broke, differential broke, etc.)
- Bodywork / chassis repairs when stuff happens.
Items marked with asterisk (*) don’t apply if you’re renting a car, but are replaced with the cost to rent. Except for fuel and oil, nearly all costs associated with the racecar itself will vary significantly depending on the car. A newer Porsche 911 is much, much, much more expensive to race than an older BMW E30 racecar when all of the costs are added up. Consider everything before taking the plunge into buying a racecar. Renting gives you an easy out if you find you picked the wrong class or car.
Life as a Racer
How much your life changes will depend largely on if you’re an owner driver or just driver. In professional racing, driving spend their time practicing, driving, and preparing to exercise their craft in a car that somebody else owns. In club racing, you don’t get paid to race and the majority of drivers are driver-owners meaning they race and own their own car. If you’re financially fortunate, you can pay somebody to build, prepare, fix, maintain, and tow your car to events for you. However, club racing being what it is, this is not the case for most drivers. There is one alternative path to owning which is renting, which is discussed below.
Racing may take place on Sunday, but anybody watching a race is seeing only the tip of the iceberg in terms of the preparation, planning, and time involved. Assuming the car is fully prepared and ready to go racing, a typical Conference race weekend plays out as follows, assuming a local race:
Thursday – Load-up car and equipment into trailer. While at the track, you need more than just your car. Tools, fuel, spare parts, tents, tires (race rubber vs practice / qualifying rubber, and rain tires in case of rain), are just some of the things you’ll need to have on hand in order to get through the weekend. Racers are always helping each other out but you cannot go empty handed. I’d take extra spares just in case somebody else had problems. Sooner or later, people you help out will return the favor. It takes about 6 hours to get everything loaded up and ready to go.
Friday – It’s common for a test-and-tune today to precede the race weekend. The track is open all day long (no run groups) so you can dial in the car. It’s also a great way to get some extra practice time or verify everything is OK and in working order coming of the heels of an upgrade or repair. Before driving, time is spent unloading and setting up your pit for the race weekend. This can take a couple of hours.
Showing up for test-and-tune also lets you secure your space in the paddocks for the weekend. All the other racers will be lined-up late Friday evening awaiting entry or showing up first thing Saturday morning and scrabbling to find a good spot. Getting a nice paddock spot can make your race weekend a lot nicer if you’re close to power, water, friends, and on asphalt as opposed to stuck out in the weeds away from everything and your friends network.
Saturday – Saturday is spent practicing and qualifying. For each race entered, you get a practice session in the morning and then a qualifying session in the afternoon. A lot of racers enter two races (a primary and a secondary), so that results in 2 practice sessions and 2 qualifying sessions. I often entered for 3 races but didn’t participate in all of the practice and qualifying sessions. I just wanted a lot of seat time.
Sunday – Sunday is race day. The day starts with morning qualifying sessions. Qualifying determines your grid position. It puts the fastest cars / driver near the front and slowest at the rear so you don’t have mayhem when the green flag drops. For each race entered, your starting grid position is determined by the best (lowest) qualifying time from Saturday and Sunday. If it’s raining or the track is otherwise slow on Sunday and the track was fast on Saturday, there’s really no need to go out and qualify again. Save your car. It’s not worth something breaking now that you’ve made it this far. Also, except for your primary race, consider if you really need to qualify again. Usually, secondary races are races that your car is not competitive in because they’re higher-spec classes so you’re allowed to race because your car [easily] fits within the rules. Unlike your primary race, you’re just racing for fun and practice, not to win.
The afternoon is spent racing. Each race lasts 30 minutes and there are a lot more race classes than there is time to run a race for each class, so multiple classes are combined into a single race. The organizers try to group classes so there’s not a big spread in performance but sometimes there’s no way around it and you can have very fast cars on the track at the same time as slow cars. If you’re in a slower car, you need to be really heads-up because the fast cars seem to appear out of nowhere and the speed deltas are large. Open wheel cars never mix with closed wheel cars. When you’re racing, you’re racing against the cars in your class. There is no overall race winner. Even if you’re the 4th person to cross the finish line, you’re still the winner if you’re the first of the cars to cross the finish line in your race class.
Your day is far from over after the race has ended. The pit needs to be torn down and trailer loaded back-up, then the trip home. You’ll be exhausted by time you get home so everything stays on the trailer and right to bed.
Monday – If you think you’re going to have a productive day at work on Monday, you’re kidding yourself. You’ll be sleeping in and then there’s still that trailer to think about that’s sitting in the driveway. It’s needs to get unloaded at some point and returned to the storage facility (I kept my trailer at a storage log about 15 minutes from home). Unloading can wait until after work if needed, but it needs to happen at some point during the day. Expect a long lunch talking war stories about the race weekend with race buddies.
Between Races – What happens in between races depends on factors often outside of your control. Most often, your time is spent fixing something that broke or an issue with the car that is affecting its performance (and your ability to win). Even if the car had a good race weekend, time spent inspecting the car and replacing wear items will help it stay that way. Finally, if you’re like me, you’ll be spending whatever remaining time you have tinkering and improving the car in whatever way the rules allow room. A big part of racing is reading, understanding, and taking advantage of the rules wherever you can. Understanding and interpreting the rules is a sport in and of itself. Racers who don’t read and understand them are leaving themselves at competitive disadvantage.
Renting versus Owning
When I started asking around what it cost rent a racecar for the weekend my first instinct was to want to go out an buy a used racecar instead, and that’s ultimately what I did. On the surface, it seems like owning might be a lot cheaper but I invite you to refer back to the costs of racing topic from above. At the club level, driver-owners renting their cars are simply looking to help cover their costs and very few, if any, are making a profit.
Advantages of Renting
- Arrive and drive. The car owner typically handles building, maintaining, fixing, and transporting the car to the race venue, and setting up everything at the paddock. You arrive rested and can focus on your driving. No need for a tow rig, garage, tools, and mechanical know-how.
- You’re not committed to a particular car or class. If the class lacks the level of competition you’re looking for, you can easily switch over to a different class. If you like the class but the car is not competitive, you can find another car to rent.
- Less expensive than owning. When all costs are considered, renting is usually less expensive than owning.
Advantages of Owning
- If the car breaks, you can fix it on your own terms and timeline. You may even decide to throw in the towel for the season if the damage is really bad. If renting, the owners may need to have the car on the track in time for the next race and grease local shop owners with extra money to expedite it through their shops, and you’re responsible for all costs associated with the car breaking while you’re driving. (There can be some gray area here when it comes to mechanical depending on your business arrangement.)
- You can drive the car without regard or concern for the owner or other renters who may be driving that weekend. The first time I rented, the parting words from the owner were go have fun and win, but please remember I’m in the running for championship so please don’t break the car.
- If you’re your own crew as is the case for most driver-owners, there’s an entirely different dimension to racing that renters never get to experience. This includes driving and setting up the car to handle, which can become a competitive advantage once you start to understand the relationship between what the car is doing on the track and how adjustments can improve or worsen a car’s handling.
If you decide to rent, keep in mind that you’re entering into a business relationship between you and the owner. It’s best to agree to terms in writing, which should cover who pays for what, services to be provided at the paddock, what happens in the event of damage to the car (mechanical, racing contact, or off-course impact).
My favorite books about racing are (in no particular order):
- “Going Faster! Mastering the Art of Race Driving” by Carl Lopez
- “Drive to Win” by Carroll Smith
- “Speed Secrets: Professional Race Driving Techniques” by Ross Bentley
Regarding Carroll Smith, he is one of my heroes. His entire set of books is a must have.
If you’re serious about racing, you also owe it to yourself to familiarize yourself with the SCCA General Competition Rules (GCRs). Get the latest version from the SCCA’s website.