So you wanna get into racing, Do You?
by Pierre Martins
Things to consider before you get into circuit racing…
We see new competitors entering the game all the time, despite the many obstacles in the path of self-funded weekend racers.
Unfortunately we’re also starting to see more and more disillusioned competitors leaving the sport due to the tough economic climate and other underlying problems.
Perhaps too many weekend warriors make the wrong decisions early on when they first get involved in circuit racing and find themselves in the wrong formula or class somewhere down the line. Hence they lose interest, pack it up and call it a day.
Don’t think about getting into racing as an event.
Rather think of it as the start to an ongoing process and check things out before you start spending bucks. If you make the right choices now, you will probably enjoy your racing in time to come, but make the wrong choices during your entry into the sport and your racing experience might be short-lived.
So, before you become all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed about getting into circuit racing, you need to give it some thought before you take the plunge, so for your convenience I’ve written about the things you need to consider before you become blinded by the obsession to race…
Can you afford it?
Let’s be frank - There is no such thing as ‘cheap racing’ or ‘budget racing’. Some categories are more affordable than others, but be prepared to learn some expensive lessons along the way. Things will stop making financial sense when you calculate how much you need to spend in exchange for seat time out there on the track.
And to rub salt in your wounds - The more competitive you become, the more your racing is likely to cost you. To hang with the top boys you gonna have to spend like they do. It’s the way things work in this game.
Welcome to motorsport, the destroyer of bank accounts.
How much are you prepared to blow on racing? Nine times out of ten you can double the figure you have in mind and still fall short, trust me. Apart from your race car, bike or kart, factor in the costs of a tow vehicle and trailer, tools and equipment, travelling expenses, entry fees, race fuel, brake pads and other consumables, and suddenly things are not looking so affordable anymore.
Racing on your ‘disposable income’ is a Loch Ness Monster. You will become addicted before you know it. It’s not uncommon to see self-funded weekend racers blow their entire life savings in the pursuit of winning races and stroking their egos. The only return on investment you can expect is the sheer thrill of racing. You’re not going to get rich by winning races.
Hell, you probably won’t even earn starting money or prize money. A plastic trophy every now and again and respect from your peers are the only rewards. It’s an expensive hobby, no doubt.
Can you find sponsors?
I have an inspirational poster in my office. It’s a picture looking down on Paul Tracy in the cockpit of an Indy Car. Along the top of the poster it reads –
“Commitment isn’t the time you spend. It’s a line you cross.”
That means achievement is ultimately judged on results, not the tales and stories behind mediocre results or lack of results. Sponsors are looking for results, not the potential of a newcomer without results to back it up. It’s a catch-22 situation and just like you, there are thousands of competitors out there trying to sponge on sponsors, so what makes you so special?
The harsh reality is that very few sponsors will finance your racing based on your potential and pie in the sky promises of “exposure” by branding your race car, so don’t expect a miracle sponsorship deal to be bestowed on you when in reality you have very little to offer a big ticket sponsor.
You will need to prove yourself first, and that means paying your own way, in the interim at least. But that is not to say you can’t pick up some small sponsors along the way, as long as you understand that the days of getting handouts from sponsors in exchange for a sticker on your car are long gone. These days sponsors want more. It’s up to you to figure out what they want and show them how your racing endeavours can help promote their product and/or brand.
When you ask for sponsorship it goes in the one ear and out the other. It’s better to go about it in a professional manner if you want to leave a lasting impression. There are people out there like Cindy Evans who will put together a professional racing CV for you, or make your own. The point is – You’re asking for money and a formal proposal will up your chances of gaining funds. The golden rule is - Don’t beg or brag.
Sponsors want to be kept in the loop, they want feedback. They want to be part of your racing, so keep them informed. Send regular updates and race reports via email, offer passenger rides in your race car to their employees and/or customers, send them pictures of your race car so they can see their logo in action, make your race car available for promotions and trade shows and things like that. Thank your sponsors regularly, especially when you’re fortunate enough to get interviewed on camera.
And remember, screwing a sponsor is like committing insurance fraud. You may get away with it, but in the long run you make it so much harder on yourself, and the rest of us, to get funding. So please give your sponsors value for their money.
Good luck and please remain ethical.
How far are you from the race tracks?
Living in a metropolitan area has its advantages when you’re into motorsport. There are bound to be countless tuners, engineering shops and race parts suppliers around to take care of your racing needs, but more importantly, it’s probably a short drive to your local circuit.
But if you live in some godforsaken one horse town in the middle of nowhere, your racing endeavours are bound to be cumbersome. The further away you are from race tracks the more difficult and expensive things are going to be. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure that out.
Racing is about man and machine. Even if you think you’re as good as Michael Schumacher, you still need regular track time to test your race setup. For all intentional purposes, every time you change something on your race car it’s going to be a ‘new’ and strange machine and you can’t afford to wait for race day to figure out whether the changes you’ve made are working or not, you need to test it beforehand.
Keep in mind that track driving and riding are perishable skills. You need to be on the track often to stay on top of your game. In the end all the time and money you spend on racing centres around how much track time you get in return.
Track time is the payback.
Do you have the time?
There should be a standard warning like you find on cigarette packs - “Motorsport can be harmful to those around you”.
As is the case with money, racing also consumes more time than you may think and you need to consider the impact on your day job, your loved ones and whatever other commitments you have in life.
Racing is not just about the time you spend at the track on race weekends. More often than not racing becomes a way of life and you spend a lot of time running errands for the next race. There are always a million and one things on your ‘to-do’ list and stealing time from your other commitments to spend on your racing becomes inevitable, especially the week prior to a race meeting.
If you’re working for a boss you’re going to cause problems when you take time off too often to go racing, unless your boss is a real petrol-head who understands and supports your racing. Being your own boss is not going to make it any easier on your conscience either. When you take time away from your business you kinda feel like you’re risking your livelihood, your sense of responsibility kicks in and somehow it just feels wrong to be racing, even when you know you can afford it. Don’t ask me why, it’s just the way it is.
And then of course, you have to think about the consequences of taking time away from your family. This is perhaps the toughest decision to make and there are no easy fixes. Not only do you need support for your racing from your loved ones, you also need to find ways of including them in your racing, or you will be away from them very often and you will probably be just as lonely as they are.
In many ways motor racing is a selfish sport, but we have to do what we have to do. Well, to be honest, we don’t really have to do it, but don’t tell anyone, he-he-he…
Are you prepared to risk life and limb?
So, even if you’re a track day ace, you’re probably not going to match the pace of the youngsters coming up through the ranks. Hell, you’re probably not even going to match the older, seasoned riders. In bike racing the question is not ‘will you crash?’ but rather ‘how often are you going to crash?’.
So if you’re unfit and past your prime and you’ve never ridden a bike in anger on a track and posted semi-respectable lap times, well then you’re never going to ride like Rossi the Doctor or Stoner the Moaner, so scratch bike racing off your list if you’re looking for podiums, unless of course, you’re a freak of nature just waiting to blow the fast guys away. Well, are you?
But let’s move on to four wheelers. For sheer adulterated thrills, try a 250 Superkart. Think F1 of karting. Zero to 100km/h in less than three seconds. Zero to 200km/h below six seconds. Top speeds of 270km/h in a freakin go-kart with no belts and no rollover protection. Are you mental enough to disregard personal safety in exchange for driving a kart that can lap similar times to a Porsche 956 around medium-sized tracks, with a puny little 250cc two-stroke engine the size of a loaf of bread?
The general rule of thumb is - The bigger the thrill, the bigger the risk.
The faster you go the quicker things can go pear-shaped. And no matter how good you are, when things go wrong you’re just a passenger along for the ride.
In open wheelers there is always the risk of hooking wheels. Your wheels are rotating forwards. (Duh, again) If another competitor puts a wheel in front of yours at speed and they touch, the laws of physics take over in a brutal manner and send you sky high. Frightening prospect, innit? Thankfully it doesn’t happen often, but when it does the results are usually ugly.
Tin tops are perhaps the safest form of circuit racing. You’ve got safety measures like fuel cells and fire proof suits, Hans-devices so you won’t snap your neck in case of a roll-over, cosy wrap-around race seats with six-point harnesses and welded in roll-cages for extra protection. You’ve got race tracks with plenty run-off areas, kitty litter, Armco barriers and trained marshals ready with fire extinguishers, but things can still go wrong and freak accidents do happen.
Those are the risks. As racers we don’t conscientiously think about them, but it is in your own interest to consider the consequences a bad accident might have on your life.
But enough of the grandmother-talk! - Racing is dangerous and that’s that.
Do you have what it takes?
I was a breakfast-run-biker for fifteen odd years before I had my first on track experience in the early nineties. I thought it would be a walk in the park, but there I was going hell for leather on a Kawasaki ZX7RR, scared out of my wits and what happened? - A freight train of snot-noses on puny little 125cc’s passed me around the outside in some corners.
I couldn’t believe how slow I was. Many track days and a gazillion laps later I had barely enough experience to run mid-field in regional superbike races.
On four wheels I have always considered myself a relatively good driver, so when I retired from bike racing I tried my hand at 250 Superkarts. I think I used every word in the dictionary of vulgar lingo the first time I drove one. Damn “modified shopping trolley” scared the wits out of me, but I bought the thing there and then. Two seasons and a steep learning curve later I racked up enough experience to score regular podiums.
The point I’m trying to make is that racing is not as easy as it looks on TV or from a spectator’s track-side view. So if you’re a couch racer thinking “Hell, I’d be good at that!”, I’ve got news for you…
Tonking it on the open road and canyon carving can not prepare you for the experience of going full taps on a race track. Race pace is deceptive and the experienced guys make it look so easy, but in reality you will probably have bowel movements the first time a fast track driver takes you on a hot lap. It’s an experience that will leave you shaking in your boots.
One of two things is bound to happen after your first serious on track experience. You’re either gonna be scared off by the intense profoundness of the experience, or you’re gonna get hooked instantly and fall into the clutches of an obsession that will drive you to go faster and faster, come hell or high water. If the latter happens to you, you are in for the best times and worst times of your life…
So forget that you’re a hotshot for the time being and get some initial track time under the belt before you go racing. Start by hanging around the pit area at open track days and look for fast guys with passenger seats in their cars. A few well-aimed compliments will get most racers’ attention and before you know it you will score a passenger ride, your first on-track experience and rush of adrenalin.
Now imagine what you could do behind the wheel. You could take your regular road car around at open track days. Hell, other people play golf on weekends, why shouldn’t you be allowed a bit of track day fun? He-he-he…
On second thought, your daily driver is probably a financed jobby owned by the bank and your insurance company won’t take kindly to you thrashing their car about on a race track, so can that idea. If something goes wrong you’ll be at the short end of the stick, so be sensible!
There are other options, like advanced driving courses and formal race schools. Sure, these courses are expensive, but they cost far less than a track car and you will pick up some good pointers. Besides, you get the opportunity to thrash the latest big money machines around a track with the added advantage of expert tutoring to boot. What more do you want?
It’s all about getting laps and valuable experience under the belt, so don’t be overwhelmed by the violence of a fast car around a track and don’t let the moment get to big for you when it’s your turn behind the wheel. Stay calm, pay attention to what your instructor is telling you, get a feel for what the car is doing and try to learn something. Remember, the best racers in the world were also rookies once upon a time.
Don’t be intimidated. We all have to start somewhere.
Which formula is right for you?
There are world class drivers out there who are useless behind the wheel of a single seater, yet they are brilliant in sports-car racing, and vice-versa. The same rule applies to you. You don’t want to waste time and money only to find yourself in the wrong formula somewhere down the line.
You’ve gotta find a niche that suits your dexterity. Unfortunately that is easier said than done. It’s hard getting test drives in race cars, especially when you’re a rookie. However, you can start by being brutally honest with yourself by answering a few questions for yourself –
* Do you prefer driving rear wheel drive or front wheel drive cars?
* Do you fancy swapping paint and making contact with other cars, or do you prefer clinical driving, without any contact?
* Considering your age, are you the next Lewis Hamilton, Walter Rohl, or do you wanna just do some on track driving as a hobby?
Start with the end in mind.
If you aspire to be the next F1 star, you better start young, in karting. The fact that many F1 drivers cut their teeth in karting is common knowledge.
Karting teaches you the basics of track racing, things like looking through corners, over-steer, under-steer, threshold braking, trail-braking and so on. These things all happen quicker in a kart than a full-size car and you gotta stay wide awake and sharp to be fast in a kart. The younger you are when learning these things, the better. You will also learn invaluable lessons about basic race car setup – Things like camber, caster, kingpin inclination, Ackermann, aerodynamic & mechanical grip, slip angles and so forth.
And if you’re good in karts, you will probably want to move on to full—size big tracks at some stage, so let’s talk about cars, lap times and bang for your buck…
Try to get hold of the top 100 lap times from the time-keepers at your local circuit and you’ll find who-is-who in the local circuit racing hierarchy. Horsepower and low weight ratio do the talking in circuit racing so it’s a no-brainer to find single seaters at the top of the list in terms of lap times. For example, it’s not odd for a Zetec Formula Ford to be quicker around a tight track than a Porsche 997 GT3.
The dippy guys in the bastard class of motorsport are also in this league – 250 Superkarters. They are blisteringly quick, too fast for small kart tracks. Hence the karting fraternity doesn’t consider 250 karts a part of the karting scene and the big ticket guys in expensive full-sized cars are generally a tad intimidated by the fact that these little modified shopping trolleys are capable of similar lap times.
I reckon if there were no egos there would be more competitors racing 250 karts. In Europe they have regular spectacular grids of forty to sixty karts, but in other parts of the world they struggle to get 15 Superkarts on the grid for a regional race. It’s a pity really, but if racing without belts and no rollover protection is a tad too hardcore for you and you still wanna be driving one of the quickest cars around a race track – Stick to single seaters.
There’s a fair amount of choice in the world of single seater racing, all the way through grassroots Formula Vee, Formula FORD, to the more powerful “Wings & Slicks” formulas with fantastic power-to-weight ratios. Yes, they are quick, but watch out, single seaters are generally fickle, tricky to set up and not that easy to drive. The cars are generally well-matched. Your car and driving has to be consistently on the button for the entire race distance if you wanna feature at all. Make a small mistake and you lose big-time, without the advantage of making up the deficit up again on horsepower alone.
Aside from that, you should also keep your physical condition in mind. If you’re unfit, decidedly overweight and/or too tall you may find it hard to fit into the cockpit of most single seaters.
But if you don’t fancy racing being strapped down in a bathtub with a wheel protruding on each corner, you can always consider tin-top racing. Sports and saloon cars are the mainstream of circuit racing and rife with options. The majority of motorsport populous play in this category, but you can also make the wrong moves in a sea of choice…
Some tin-top categories produce relatively clean racing like Historic Car Racing and Club-level racing. In other rough and tumble hey-watch-me-push-and-shove-my-way-through the racing is much closer and more intense, but frequent mishaps are the order of the day. Close racing and spectacular crashes are nice for the spectators, but not so nice if you’re the one fitting the bill at the end of the day on a shoe string budget. Every buck you spend fixing accident damage is a buck you could have been spending on making improvements to your car.
And even when you get taken out by a cut and dry kamikaze move, the best you can do is lodge a protest and the other competitor may be suspended or fined, but that money doesn’t come to you as compensation to fix your car. It goes into the coffers of the organizers.
It depends on your budget and the level you wanna compete at. Big money and loads of experience are required if you want to campaign a tin-top car at lap times comparable to 250 Superkarts and single seaters. Fast tin-tops like Porsches, Ferraris and whatnot are bound to cost you an arm and a leg, not just to acquire and develop the car, but your annual race budget will also cost you a pretty penny even when you don’t experience setbacks. Factor in some unfortunate things like a broken engine, gearbox, a few clutch overhauls and a crash or two and you could be in for a financial nightmare. It sucks that racing is so expensive, eh?
There is obviously ample choice of cars and formats in racing, but what matters in the end is what you want from it. At the David Piper Historic races earlier this year at Zwartkops raceway I watched some of the races and saw local ace Sarel vd Merwe power-sliding a big red Ford Galaxie around. In the same race, albeit in a slower class, was a little yellow ’56 Austin A35. The car’s name is “Teapot” and it’s too cute for words, but dead slow. Be that as it may, you could see a mile away that the driver in the Austin was having as much fun as Sarel by the way he was drifting the little noddy car through the esses.
The point is you don’t always have to be in a super-fast car to have fun, if that’s what you’re after…
Another thing you should make yourself aware of is state of the category you intend competing in. Don’t take things at face value. Maybe it’s not a bad idea to play a little detective game and check things out before you spend money. How is the class doing? Are things looking up with increasing interest and decent fields on the grid, or have the numbers of entries dwindled to the point where the people are ready to can it?
You can’t race on your own.
And what about the “vibe”? How will you fit in? If you’re a laid-back kinda guy racing for fun and the social aspect of racing and making friends are important issues to you, you need to check out the people you’re about to associate with before you join the group. I suggest you attend some post race noggins to learn more about the people you will be racing with. Expect to meet some individuals with egos the size of Texas.
Motorsport politics are part and parcel of racing and nobody is immune to it.
There’s a weekend racer I know who says he doesn’t race to make friends. He’s not afraid to make enemies either. Nowadays everyone hates his guts and avoids him like the plague on race day and he mopes around the pit area like a morbid old fart. If that’s your idea of having fun, then good for you, but if you’re like the rest of us mere mortals who enjoy weekend racing, you will understand that mixing with people is part of the racing experience. It’s all part of the fun.
It is possible to stay under the political radar whilst you’re running midfield or towards the back, but don’t be surprised when your fellow competitors throw the rule book at you as soon as you start mixing it up front. People’s attitudes towards you are likely to change when you start stealing their thunder. Good clean racing is fun, but it is tough when you find yourself racing with egotistical assholes in a dog-eat-dog scenario.
The trick is to find a formula that is right for you, that suits your pocket and your level of skill so you can race in an environment where there is mutual respect.
Should you buy or build your own track toy?
Nine times out of ten it’s easier and cheaper to buy a well-developed race car instead of building your own, but there are pitfalls. I guess it all depends on the car and series you want to compete in.
If you’re buying, look for a car with a known history. Good race cars get scooped up quickly by people in the know, so for the most part, avoid buying race cars advertised in the press. A step in the right direction is to contact the club or association of the series you want to race in and spread the word that you’re looking for a car. Don’t be shy to ask for help, guidance and second opinions.
Some things to consider when buying a race car –
How competitive is the car?
Here’s a little fortune cookie wisdom in motorsport – “Buy from Park Ferme.” Don’t be fooled by tales of a “championship winning car” if it won a championship three seasons ago and hasn’t seen a race track since. You can bet your boots it won’t be on pace anymore.
Age and race history of the car?
Find out if the car’s been in a big shunt. If the chassis was bent, you want to know if it was repaired in a chassis jig and who did the repair? A car with a twisted chassis will not handle properly.
Something to keep in mind when buying a tubular frame race car is the age and condition of the chassis. A chrome-moly chassis will outlast a seamless mild steel chassis, but if the car’s been pranged and they heated up the chassis to bend it straight you can pretty much throw the chassis away, in my not-so-humble opinion.
Engine & drive train due for a rebuild?
Some guys don’t do any pre-emptive maintenance. They will race the thing until something packs up. If you’re buying a car that hasn’t had any major component rebuilds for a few years, you can add the costs of a full engine, gearbox and clutch rebuild to the price of the car for all intentional purposes, cause you’re gonna end up paying for it sooner or later anyway.
Are there inherent problems with the car?
Race cars are usually sold as-is, so if the car you’re interested in has had frequent DNFs - you wanna know why, whether the problems are fixable and how much will it cost to fix them? Don’t buy someone else’s problems. There is nothing more demoralizing than a track toy that breaks down often.
What’s included in the deal?
Buying a race car is not just about the car. There are other things which add up quickly if they weren’t included in the deal. What about a trailer to cart the thing around, gear ratios and other spare parts you might need? And wheels? Generally you need three sets of rims – One set with worn rubber for practice and one set with fresh rubber for the race, as well as a set with wets just in case it rains. Are you buying a race package, or just the car?
Shouldn't you just build your own race car?
Okey-dokey, let’s see what you need. A donor car and a set of spanners, some spare cash, free time in the evenings and over weekends to gut the interior, weld in a roll cage, slap on bigger discs and callipers, a set of Konis or Bilsteins, a free-flow exhaust and last, but not least, stick it full of stickers and bob’s your uncle, you’ve got a race car…
Yeah, right. If only things were that easy…
Building and developing a proper race car in requires two main ingredients - money and patience, and you need ample amounts of both if you’re having the work done by a tuning shop. Most tuning shops are on their own time, even the good ones. So be prepared to spend more and wait longer than you anticipated.
Anyway, I can waffle on and write you twice as much as you need to know about the pros and cons of building or buying your own track toy, but in the end you should be fine if you keep your expectations realistic and not overspend on a race car and end up with no money to race it.
Just don’t ask me how I found that out, he-he-he…
And that’s it for now. I’ve written more about how to start racing though, and will update this post in due course.