Since I’ve spent the last decade obsessed with racing and trying to win $5 trophies against other Ayrton Senna wannabes, it’s high time I pass along some of the lessons learned along the way. To those of you who share my go-fast affliction but haven’t yet mustered up the courage to sign up for your first autocross or HPDE, in Part 1 of this newbie’s guide to going racing, I outline a couple of the more common and effective ways to get your feet wet in the hugely fun but potentially intimidated world of motorsports.
Approach #1: Get Schooled
I know, I know, nobody wants to be told they need to go to school when you’ve already got a driver’s license, a 15-year old Honda, and an ego that’s pretty sure you’ve got the natural talent of Sebastian Loeb, Lewis Hamilton, and Jimmy Johnson all rolled up into one unstoppable force. But the truth is, learning to race is a skill like any other, meaning it takes sound fundamentals and lots of practice to get good at it.
School may sound expensive, but there are affordable options out there when it comes to getting some valuable feedback on your driving technique. You do generally get what you pay for a race school though, so if you can afford a top-notch school like Bondurant, Skip Barber, or the Bridgestone Racing Academy, by all means make that your first priority. The driving technique and disciplined mental approach to racing you’ll learn under the guidance of professional instructors is invaluable. Here’s a list of links to some of the more reputable high performance/race driving schools in North America, all of which I’ve attended and can personally vouch for in terms of the quality of their instructors, facilities and equipment.
If none of these schools are anywhere near you, there’s a good chance there’s a school that operates at your local race track, but before you hand over your hard-earned cash just make sure the school is credible, has an excellent safety record, and offers the kind of instruction you’re looking for. If you have friends who’ve attended your local school, make sure to check with them if it was a good investment.
For those of you trying to go racing on a shoestring budget, you can still get some useful schooling from volunteer instructors in programs like NASA’s High Performance Driving Events (HPDE), where they have a ladder system that allows you to progress through the ranks in an organized way, hopefully preventing that oh so expensive moment when your balls write a check your talent can’t cash. Just keep your expectations realistic when attending these sorts of schools, since the ratio of instructor to student isn’t nearly as favorable as it is at the higher dollar (and highly professional) schools listed above.
Check out NASA’s HPDE webpage for more info on this more affordable approach to driving instruction:
Approach #2: Start Slow
The other option is to skip the education and learn by doing. There’s nothing inherently wrong or dangerous about this approach, as long as you’re confident you can keep your ego in check and aim to progress as a driver in a methodical way. The safest way to jump into the racing game is to start slow, meaning getting involved in a motorsport like autocross or karting, where speeds are low enough that you’re very unlikely to do any damage to yourself or your car/kart in the event of an off-track/off-course excursion.
I personally did quite a bit of autocrossing and karting before ever enrolling at a racing school, since these more affordable and accessible forms of racing don’t require a racing license. I not only learned a lot about preparing myself and my car for these types of events, I also met some experienced competitors who were kind enough to offer free advice on everything from car setup to driving technique. In fact, a lot of my best friends are people I met when I first got involved in these entry-level forms of racing. So don’t be afraid to get out there and try your hand at autocrossing, karting, lapping or HPDE events, where you’ll not only have a lot of fun learning as you go, you’ll also meet some great people that you’ll probably share a lot in common with (at least with regards to cars and racing).
For autocrossing, the best place to start is either with a small local series or with the SCCA, which has the biggest and most popular Solo 2 series in the world. The nice part about attending SCCA Solo 2 events is that you’ll be able to progress from competing locally to regional and even national level events, including the grand daddy fo them all, the Solo 2 Nationals (where there’s more competitors than any other single event in the world…it’s a full-on car geek bonanza!).
Approach #3: Shop Local
The tree huggers and hipsters are doing it, and so should you. But I’m not talking about organic veggies or hemp clothing, I’m talking about hitting up your local speed shops and local car clubs as a great source of local knowledge about the racing scene in your home town and home state or province. Chances are the local race shop or car club knows when and where the best local race events are going down, and by joining a club or befriending some fellow go-fast enthusiasts, you’ll have a built-in support system the first time you show up at a race event.
Ok, that’s it for now. In Part Deux of this tomb of racing wisdom, I’ll spew some more semi-deep thoughts on moving up the motorsports food chain from autocrossing and HPDE to Time Attack and full-on door-to-door road racing.