Avoidable Contact #145: Are you ready to race? Do you want to be?

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Jack Baruth

Jack, would you consider writing an article, a column, or even a two-sentence reply on how an inexperienced (performance) driver may reasonably progress to become a “club racer” and what a “club racer’”even means these days? A lot of guys seem to think that spending an afternoon on the Tail of the Dragon somehow qualifies them to be the next F1 World Champion. For those of us with amateur motorsports aspirations … it can be a little difficult to know where to start and what things are worth spending time/money on in order to progress as a driver.

That’s the message I got last week from a reader. I’ve addressed this topic a few times over the past 15 or so years, but the state of amateur motorsport isn’t what it was in 2007, or 2017, or even a year ago. So it’s worth taking another look … but let’s start by making fun of brand-new trackday drivers, shall we?

To clarify, I’m going to make fun of myself as a completely ignorant and fresh-faced trackday driver, at Mosport back in the summer of 2002. I had a brand-new BMW 330i Sport on summer tires, and I was absolutely ready to win the trackday. I’d retained a first-rate instructor, a former Firehawk series semi-pro named Brian Makse, but I didn’t think I’d need him for more than one or two sessions. Wasn’t I a brilliant street racer already, and someone with a decade’s work of experience squealing and sliding around Ohio’s Hocking Hills? Yes, I was. As I crossed the border with Canada, I practiced the things I would say to Brian after I surprised him with my astounding speed. I reminded myself to be humble, not to make too big a deal out of it, to give my $42,000 car some of the credit for the incandescent talent I was about to reveal.

Two days later, after being repeatedly passed by every single car in my group, from a 964 Turbo 3.6 to a Cavalier RS and not making a single place back in the whole race-that-wasn’t, I realized that I’d been hopelessly naive. The average “skilled driver” is awfully below-average on track. Twenty seconds off the pace on the average road course. Maybe 30 seconds. Like all untrained drivers, I was a tire-killing demon in second-gear corners and a wobbly mess in the fourth-gear ones. I never drove the same line twice. Several times I came pretty close to hitting the wall for no real reason other than general confusion regarding my available traction. Brian Makse deserved a medal for putting up with me—and he got one, when we won the Flat Rock 24 Hours of LeMons as teammates five years later.

My less-than-promising start didn’t deter me. In the two decades since then I’ve spent approximately 370 days on-track, winning 13 classes in seven different sanctioning bodies and scoring podiums from Laguna Seca to Sepang. I’ve done a lot of things right behind the wheel—but I’ve done just as many things wrong. I don’t know anyone else who has had an undefeated NASA season and two NASA regional suspensions, one of which cost me a championship. So let’s see if we can use my successes and failures to answer the question above.

There are a hundred different ways to go club racing and a thousand ways to get started, but most of them aren’t worth your time or money. To figure out what you should do, start off by coming up with two realistic budgets. The first is how much you can afford to spend on your car. The second is how much you can afford to spend annually.

Harsh Reality Number Zero: If you can’t reliably put your hands on $5000 a year in cash—$10K or $20K would be better—then strongly consider an alternative to club racing such as SCCA Time Trial, LO206 karting, or autocross. A lot of low/no budget would-be racers decide to run LeMons or one of the enduro series instead. That’s a great way to have fun, but you won’t become a competent racer by running enduros. I’m telling you this as someone with multiple wins across LeMons, Chump/Champ, and AER. The driving standards are abysmal, and it’s full of Porsches running at Spec Miata pace.

Now ask yourself: What’s more important to me … the cars, or the competition? Some people really want to race a Porsche, and that’s their primary goal. Other people want to be the best and most skilled racer they can be, and it doesn’t matter what they race. It’s also OK to change your mind halfway through your career. Plenty of racers do. If you want to race a particular car, then that’s great! See where it would fit in SCCA and NASA. You can do this by calling any regional official and asking—most NASA and SCCA regions have contact information on their sites. If it doesn’t fit there, then consider the marque clubs like BMWCCA and PCA.

If you want to be the best racer possible, then consider a spec class with strong participation in your region. I won’t tell you “the answer is always Miata” because I personally hate racing Spec Miatas. I feel like a bear trapped inside a kitchen cabinet when I’m driving one. But they do have a big field everywhere you go. The Spec Racer Ford class, in both SRF2 and SRF3 variants, always has good competition. Some NASA regions have really strong Spec E30 and Spec E36 classes. Personally, however, I recommend against any “Spec German” classes anywhere. The costs can get out of control in a hurry, and the youngest class, Spec E46, is still a bunch of 20-year-old cars like the one I started my trackday career with back in the first GW Bush administration.

Harsh Reality Number One: Every number you will ever hear from a public source about the cost to race a spec class is a lie. I’ve seen people spend $500K a year to race Spec Miata. Don’t think you can race Yokohama GT3 Cup because you can afford $175K for the car and $75K a year to run it. You’ll be on the sidelines by July. Find someone who is racing in the class right now and ask them, privately.

Alright. You’ve come up with a “destination” for your racing career. Could be SCCA SRF, could be BMWCCA Spec E30, might be NASA Super Unlimited because you’re determined to race a Morgan Aero 8 that you’ve rebuilt into a race car. (Somebody did that, by the way.) Now you have to get there. After coaching hundreds of drivers, I’ve come to believe that most people need to spend about 50–100 hours on track before they’re really ready to race. One good way to do this is to take a car you already have and run it with NASA, Hooked On Driving, or any other organization that offers MSF certified instructors. Feel free to contact me directly if you’re unsure where to go.

The ideal trackday car has: a manual transmission, less than 500 horsepower, a roof overhead or a very nice roll bar, like the SCCA-legal bars at Blackbird Fabworx. If you don’t own a car like that, consider buying a stick-shift Honda Civic or Toyota Corolla. You’ll learn faster in a slower car, as strange at that sounds. No matter what you have, you should make sure it’s on appropriate tires and brake pads. There’s a lot of information out there, but you can’t go wrong by calling Hawk Performance and asking for a recommendation.

Harsh Reality Number Two: You might as well get a slow car because nobody will ever be impressed by anything you do at a noncompetitive trackday. Those YouTube videos of people “winning” trackdays in tuned-up cars are a joke, and everyone’s in on the joke except the dude posting the video.

After 50–100 hours in a program like NASA HPDE, you should have a pretty decent idea of what it takes to race. Then you can go to a competition licensing school, strictly for the purpose of learning racing etiquette and behavior. I’m partial to the Mid-Ohio School, operated by authentic legend Tommy Byrne, but there are plenty of good options out there, and you can always contact me for a recommendation in your region.

When you have your race license, you can buy your race car (if you haven’t already).

Harsh Reality Number Three: At this point, you’re just getting started.

Alright. So that’s a general idea of how to choose a trajectory. Now let’s try a few “dos and don’ts”:

Do get professional coaching help every chance you can. One day in a car with a good pro instructor will help you more than a dozen trackdays where it’s just you and Harry’s Lap Timer.

Don’t wear a Nomex suit or “race shoes” to a trackday unless you’ve brought a Jaguar XJR-16. You look like an idiot.

Do visit a bunch of different tracks. You’ll build what Ross Bentley calls a “corner library,” learning how to approach new turns by using your existing knowledge of turns you’ve driven in the past.

Don’t tune your car. If you have $2000 in your pocket, spend it on a day with Tommy Byrne, not on a chip tune that will send your dumb you-know-what into the wall eight mph faster.

Do watch and learn from other drivers. If someone passes you, stop making excuses in your head and watch how they’re doing it.

Don’t use a lap timer or performance app until you’re already running at a respectable pace. Until then, rely on your coaches to tell you how you’re doing.

Do make friends and talk to people in the paddock. They’re not the competition. At least not yet.

Don’t let your ego get the better of you on track. That’s how people end up taking an Uber home from the trackday while the wrecker collects their car.

Last but not least: A lot of people who are going through a program like the one described above end up realizing that racing is not for them. That’s OK. You might decide you’d rather run Time Trials or just keep enjoying yourself in the “fastest run group” of non-competitive trackdays. Don’t force yourself into being a racer if what you really want to do is just drive a really cool car on track. There’s nothing wrong with that.

If I could do it all over again, I would have bought an SCCA SRF in 2003, raced it for a decade, then made the move to one of SCCA’s sports racer or prototype series. Doing that would have been no more expensive than the all-over-the-place path I’ve followed over the past 20 years, and I would have a lot more really great races under my belt. I’ve also come to believe that turning street cars into race cars is nothing but an extended exercise in frustration. If you want to go racing, buy a real race car. But there are plenty of people who have enjoyed a lifetime of competition in Bimmers and Hondas and MGs. Your mileage may vary.

No matter how you do it, or how you get there, I believe that wheel-to-wheel racing is one of the greatest challenges, and greatest joys, that an average everyday person such as your humble author can enjoy. Like golf, it’s a lifetime sport. I know a few 80-year-olds who are still turning race laps, and I know a lot of 65-year-olds who are still serious competitors at a national level. I believe that it can make a positive difference in your life. It certainly has in mine. With that in mind, I’m always willing to answer individual questions from would-be racers. If I don’t have the answer, I’ll send you to someone who does. We are serious about racing here at Hagerty Media, and we have multiple licensed racers on staff: myself, Larry Webster, Alex Della Torre, Sam Smith, Eddy Eckart, and a few “ducklings” in progress. Won’t you join us?

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