Episode 7: “How long is a piece of string?”
I was reading your response to A.J. from Winnipeg, MB in the July/August 2009 issue. I am in his same position (but 29), wanting to drive a race car but not sure where to start. I have looked at several series, and I am not sure which one to try. I would appreciate you or the PRN publication doing a series of articles on how to get started in racing. You could cover where to start driving from nothing to driving a personally funded race car or sponsored race car. For instance, list the cars you should start in to end up in F1 and what licenses you would need to earn. I know there are several cars to start in to just get racing, but after a while there are certain cars a driver must compete in to move up to the highest level. Some series I can think of doing a “Where do I Start from” series of articles on would be F1, IRL, NASCAR, ALMS, WRC, and Formula D. I know there is no set formula to become a race car driver, but I am pretty sure there are some general stepping stones. I am sure all of us that seriously want to race cars would follow your recommendation in the articles as most of us are unsure where to start.
SCCA Solo2 (amateur racer)
Great question Joshua, and not an easy one to answer – it reminds me of an old saying: “how long is a piece of string?” The possibilities are endless…
A series of “where to start” articles sound good but there are a few stumbling blocks to that:
A) I’m honestly not qualified to speak about the feeder series to ALL forms of racing!
B) The feeder series for most of the Pro categories listed above are often in a state of flux as are the places a big team looks for new drivers. (actually, big teams looking for new drivers is a bit of myth in itself – more on this later). Example: For decades aspiring F1 drivers pretty much needed to establish themselves in British F3 which made sense as most of the F1 teams were privateer efforts based in the UK. In the past decade, however, F1 teams became largely manufacturer-backed and Euro F3, World Series by Renault and GP2 - all of which have large manufacturer connections - came to the fore. Then, in a span of 10 months, the F1 manufacturer era pretty much came to a screeching halt with the sudden exit of Honda, BMW, Toyota and the partial Renault sell-off. Where to go now, the new F2 or soon to be GP3? Great question!
C) Most importantly: the answer to “where do I start” is 100% relative to each individual. Where do you live? What is your experience level? What is your goal? Also, the correct answer depends more on your financial backing than just about anything else. The best path for a funded driver is completely different to that of the unfunded driver.
Working within this context though, there are some solid starting points.
Find the Ladder
Start with your end goal – whichever category that may be - and work backwards to find the series that leads to it. Let’s take the IZOD IndyCar Series for an example: the level directly below is the Firestone Indy Lights series. It provides a great training ground as a scaled down, but very similar, machine racing at the same tracks as the big cars. The next level down, the Atlantic Championship, used to be the stepping stone to Indy Lights, but these days Star Mazda is probably a more cost effective alternative that will still provide you with an adequate amount of speed and engineering complexity (carbon tub + wings that work). The step below Star Mazda that you could run in is the F2000 Championship series or save some dollars running similar equipment in SCCA regionals. I say this because anything below Star Mazda is really not on the radar at all. I’d advise just getting seat time in a car that will prepare you for the next step while learning as many tracks as possible. Honestly a good driver could go straight from karting into a winged Formula Ford, but learning about mechanical grip only – no aero- (multi adjustable shocks, spring rates, ride height) is always a good thing, so Formula Ford 1600 wherever you can race them is never a bad idea. Below Formula Ford is karting, and I mean both two-stroke and four. Two-stroke is fast and helps develop car control, while four-stroke teaches you momentum and how to race. This last point will pay dividends no matter what you race for the rest of your career – it’s the equivalent to very truthful adage: “if you can be fast in a Miata you can be fast in anything…”
But if IndyCar Series isn’t your cup of tea, tracing the ladder backwards is easy. Just study all the new drivers that have entered your series of choice in the past 3 - 5 years. Go to their websites and look up their career history – it will show you all the series they competed in on their way up. The good news is step one for almost everything is Karting, Lapping events or Solo competition – all of which are relatively affordable to any hard working and determined person.
Get into the Paddock
Once you know which series you need to be racing in – get into their paddock. You have to physically be in whichever forum you want to be working. This sport is all about personal relationships and the sooner you start developing them the better. Introduce yourself, ask questions and stay in touch. Do not be afraid to ask to speak to team managers or even team owners. Do not pester people (Friday test days are better than Sat. just before qualifying) but by the same token do not fall out of their memory; out of sight = out of mind.
Also understand this: pro teams do not often look beyond their nose when looking for new drivers. Many junior category drivers (at the time myself included) think that the top teams are paying attention to everything below them. They’re not. You want to get Chip Ganassi’s attention – go beat Franchitti and Dixon in a rival Indycar. Winning the Indy Lights series will definitely help, but even that is pretty far removed from a team like Ganassi’s driver selection process. More often a top team owner will choose someone with experience in his specific series over someone at level lower with tons of potential. Bear in mind also that most often the guy getting the ride is bringing something to the table.
“Ask not what your country can do for you - but what you can do for your country.”
Always be mindful – racing is a business before it is a sport:
What do you bring to a team? Being the fastest driver in the land really doesn’t go very far. Unless you are already at the top of the sport in a series that pays huge prize money - winning does not pay the bills. Many years ago I won the Formula Ford support race at the Canadian Grand Prix and with it the full $1,000 in prize money, but the budget required to race that event was $10,000. Currently in Grand Am Continental Tire Challenge it pays $7,500 to win a race in the ST category – which is great except that the going rate to do an ST race is $20,000. You don’t even need a calculator to do the math here – as I said, winning does not pay the bills. So it is your job as the would-be driver to bring value to a team.
Which means your money, sponsorship money, a co-drivers money, linking up a business-to-business deal for the team. Or you could try to find the one in a million team owner willing to pay for your ride based on your common interest in water polo/basket weaving/butterflies/fill in the blank, and the guy just likes you. All of this leads us to the most important point:
It is All About the People Skills
Unless you fall into the first category and can write the big cheque yourself, any way you slice it, you will need other people’s help. Whether it’s finding a sponsor, convincing a co-driver to partner with you or getting a team owner to make an exception, it all comes down to personal connections and people skills.
Making friends and motivating others to get behind you is more important than any result you can every have on a track. Go read Dale Carnegie’s famous book, How to Win Friends an Influence People. When you get the chance to work with a team do everything you can to build positive and lasting relationships with everyone there: your mechanics, crew chief, chef, co-drivers- everyone! Personally, I am currently in the midst of researching human communication styles just for this reason and wish like hell some one had turned me on to it ten years ago!!
Build positive relationships and focus on your people skills with the understanding that in this business they are just as, and in many cases more, important than your driving ability.