So You Want to be a Racecar Driver?

WANTED: Racecar drivers. No experience necessary.
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You can become a race driver. It's easy. It doesn't (have to) take a lot of money. Mechanical experience isn't required and on-the-job training will be provided. I started racing on a very moderate salary. I had no formal training in auto mechanics and I wound up running in the Rolex 24 at Daytona and NASCAR Southwest Tour against the likes of Michele Alboreto and Jeff Gordon.

Requirements

Here is what's required: Commitment in an abundant quantity. You'll know you're approaching an adequate level of commitment to racing when your significant other shouts, "You love racing more than you love me!" and you respond: "Yes, dear, and your point is...-" I know talented drivers who aren't going to make it in racing because they refuse to risk secure, high-paying jobs and loving relationships. And I know far more who have torn up marriages, squandered inheritances, and committed felonies in order to go racing. Others paid the ultimate price. After watching a friend die on national television, my wife said: "Anyone who marries a race driver is an idiot!" "Does that include you-" I asked. "Yes!" she responded. Compared to racing, drug addiction is an inexpensive pastime. If your commitment just fluttered, click over to golf.com.

If you really want to be a racer, you will become a racer.

Upon learning that I drove racecars, people often say, "I've always wanted to do that!" Especially if the speaker has an expensive car and an expansive house, I reply, "Not very much or you would have!" If you really want to be a racer-want it bad enough-you will become a racer. I'm not implying that you can make it to NASCAR or Formula One. But you'll be a racer!

Be Professional

The best way to get into racing is to treat it as if you're planning to start a business. This is true whether you've just won the Powerball lottery or are still in school. Before shelling out franchise fees, savvy entrepreneurs spend time learning and working in their targeted industry. Before you think about buying a racecar, do these three things: Expand your mechanical knowledge, volunteer to work on a race team, and develop your driving skill. My advice: Put off buying a racecar until you've run a few races.

First, start a self-directed study program in racecar mechanics. Read a basic auto mechanics textbook or-even better-take a course at your local community college. (Engineering school graduates: This especially applies to you.) Memorize every book and every video you can find on racecar preparation. Even the well funded need to know how a racecar works. Save books with "engineering" or "technology" in the title for last. Before you redesign suspensions, you need to know which way to turn a lug wrench. Devour every racecar driving advice book and video.

Pay Your Dues

Next, look for a struggling amateur or semi-pro team that needs help. Volunteer to work evenings and weekends washing parts, sorting tires, loading trailers, and the hundreds of mundane chores required to keep even the smallest race team running. It was easy to find teams eager for free help, especially if I brought beer. Don't expect them to teach-or pay-you anything. Your compensation will be the learning opportunity. Another option: The mechanic's training programs offered by big-name racing schools. Make sure the curriculum includes a lot driving experience. Getting on the payroll for a professional racing team is not the best choice if you want to be a driver. They already have all the wheel turners they can use.

Simultaneously, get some low-cost driving experience. "Slick track"-type karts at your local fun park are a great way to learn car control. After you've mastered the art of catching a sliding tail, step up to the much faster machines available at the "indoor kart" facilities found in most metropolitan areas. Also, spend a lot of time on the autocross (a.k.a. Solo II) course: Your current, well-maintained road car is eligible.

Don't Buy a Racecar

Here's why you should not buy a racecar (or kart) until you have run at least a few races: The cost for one season of racing will likely match-and may far exceed-the purchase price of a racecar. And that doesn't include tow truck, trailer, and tools. Don't buy a $10,000 racecar without another 10 grand in the bank and a tow truck and trailer in the driveway, or else you'll become a racecar owner, not a driver.

Instead of buying a car, search for a "rent-a-racer" program. These can be found for almost every category from shifter karts to Champ cars. Choices range from red-carpet "arrive-and-drive" programs, where the company provides everything but your personal safety gear, to bare bones offerings that require you to transport the car and perform at-track work. One big advantage of renting: If you discover you don't like wearing fireproof underwear and scaring yourself to death every few seconds-or you can't drive a nail into sand-you can quit without having to unload a used racecar, tow truck, trailer and tools.

Rental prices start as low as $200 per race for a shifter kart. A friend wins Pony stock races at his local dirt track for $300 per race. Legends cars, a preferred class for those aspiring to NASCAR, go for between $650 and $1,300 a race. For my first race, I paid $450 to rent a beat up street-stock car: I drove it to the track. It wasn't the Daytona 500 but I was racing! Besides, racecars are like sex: Even when they're bad, they're still pretty good.

Another option: Look for a driver who's running out of cash. (That's most of them!) Offer to sponsor him in exchange for some seat time-perhaps in preliminary or novice races. Suggest that you pay off his debt with the race-tire vendor in exchange for driving. (If you've paid a tire bill from a checkbook marked "Children's Education Fund," you might be a racer. I'm guilty as charged.)

Start Wherever

Don't be picky about which class or category you start in. But if you have the choice, two of the best entry-level options are shifter karts and Legends cars. If you're fast in a shifter kart, you'll be able to drive anything. I've piloted virtually every type of racecar. Shifter karts are no less demanding than Champ or Indy cars. Another endorsement for karts: It's where almost every top professional racer started his career and many continue to drive karts to hone their skills in the off-season. Also from personal experience, Legends cars require similar driving and chassis setup skills as those needed in NASCAR. Since Legends are a one-design "spec" class-the cars are mechanically identical-you'll get immediate (though likely ego-crushing) feedback on your driving and setup skills.

Race School

When to attend a professional racing school depends on money. If funding is not an object, it's better if you go to a school before your first race. However, my choice was between racing and a school, so I went racing. Here's a better option for those with limited funds: Attend a kart or Legends school. Price is a fraction of car schools, but the learning experience is nearly identical.

Don't think about going racing too long. Otherwise, you'll be 40 or 60 or on your deathbed, saying: "I should have tried."

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