We strongly suggest that you actually try driving the type of car that you think you want to race. You don't want to buy a car, trailer, tow vehicle, tools, etc. without knowing for sure that this the type of car you want to race. Today there are many options to "test the waters".
Let's say you have decided you want to road race. There are a number of possible ways to try out road racing. First you can participate in an open track event or High Performance Driving Event (HPDE). You take your car or one you rent to a track where someone is putting on one of these events. You will receive some classroom instruction and an instructor will ride with you to teach you how to drive safely at speed. Typically the instructors are volunteer and may or may not be well trained. These will cost between $200 to 500 dollars depending on the organization doing the event. Goggle or contact a track closest to you and they will be able to tell you who does them.
An option is to attend a professional road race driving school of which there are many. Some of them are Ron Fellows, Bob Bondurant, and Skip Baber. You use their cars and they have qualified professional instructors. These will cost $2,000 to 4,000 and in some cases they will qualify you for a license with some race sanctioning organizations.
Another option is to go to an indoor or outdoor karting facility and rent a kart. Some tracks have schools that will teach you the fundamentals. Karting is excellent training and experience for road racing and is a economical way to get involved in the sport. Many pro racers got their start in karting.
Nothing says that you have to race in wheel-to-wheel competition. Many people are happy doing HPDEs or autocross events and don't want the hassle and expense of full on racing.
For drag racing many tracks have a "grudge night" where you can take your daily driver and race other cars. You car will have to pass a basic safety inspection and you do not have to have a competition license. These events are normally very inexpensive. There are also many professional drag racing schools which you can find by searching drag racing schools on the net. Frank Hawley's Super Comp Dragster school is $2,000.
Like the other types of racing, oval track racing has many options to try the sport. There are both dirt and asphalt schools and both open wheel and closed wheel schools. There are also a number of companies that have oval track "experiences" where you can drive or ride along in a stockcar or open wheel racecar. One is the Richard Petty Driving Experience in which you can drive a NASCAR stockcar at over 20 different tracks. Search oval track racing schools.
Unfortunately racecars and racing costs money. Sometimes a lot of money depending on the class of racing. Racecars don't run on gas but rather money. You must be honest with yourself on the financial front. Decide how much of you're hard earned money you are willing to spend per year for the challenge and excitement of being on the racetrack. Don't even think about the idea that you will find some sponsorship dollars to fund your racing because it probably won't happen. Assume you will be paying for everything out of your own pocket. If you can talk someone out of some of their money, great, but don't count on it.
When you are creating your budget, don't forget about travel, lodging and food. Once you have come up with a budget, double it because that's what it will probably really cost. We don't want to sound negative but we want you to go into this with your eyes wide open. Too often we see people start racing and spend most of their money buying the car and the support equipment and not having any money left to actually race the car. Is your spouse on board with you racing? We have seen too many divorces as a result of racing.
Please understand the risk to your car and yourself. Both can be hurt in the racing environment. We say there are two kinds of racers, those that have crashed and those that are going to crash. What would happen to your family and job if you were in the hospital for an extended period? Can you afford to repair your car after a major shunt? In my 50 years of watching races and racing myself, everyone one I know that has been racing for over 5 years has crashed at least once. That includes me. Most of the time they are relatively minor and injury to the driver is minimal or non-existent. However, I have personally witnessed two drivers die in racing crashes so the risk is certainly there. But remember, no risk=no reward.
What Do You Want From Racing?
There are many potential answers to this question. Are doing it just for the thrills? The challenge of learning a new skill? Do you want to be a famous professional racer?
Regardless of your answer, you will have a lot more success and enjoy it more if you do it right and learn the correct fundamentals. Go to a professional school or hire a competent coach or mentor who can get you up to speed. You will avoid many of the mistakes and frustrations that can be costly in both money and time wasted. You will not have to unlearn bad habits or incorrect techniques.
I am constantly appalled at how few people hire coaches when they begin racing. A good coach or mentor can accelerate your learning curve way beyond trying to learn it on your own. When I started racing in 1957, there were no coaches so I had to teach myself and it was not a fun experience. I did well because I had an open mind and asked a lot of questions of more experienced racers. A good coach would have saved me hundreds of thousands of dollars and lots of frustration. There is a reason why pro ball teams spend millions of dollars hiring dozens of coaches for their players. They have discovered that this is the fastest way to improve their players skills. Keep in mind that these players are some of the most gifted and talented athletes in the world and they still need coaches. What about you?
Don't Be Too Hard On Yourself
Measuring success on the race track is easy. All you have to do is win. There is only one winner and second is the first loser. But keep in mind that there is a lot of work and experience to be done before you start winning. Be patient and give yourself the time to develop all the the complicated skills necessary to be a consistent winner. Don't put too much pressure on yourself. Enjoy the ride.
Malcom Gladwell studied several extremely successful people like the Beatles and Bill Gates to discover what made them successful. He discovered that all of them had spent at least 10,000 hours developing their skill, craft or business in order to become world class at what they did. So for you to become the next Lewis Hamilton you only have to race 2 hours everyday for 14 years!
When we started racing with SCCA, the first year we won the regional championship and the Pacific Coast championship. How were we able to do that? One reason is we had already been racing karts and motorcycles for over 20 years. So we were a 20 year overnight success.
So You Want to be a Professional Racer
Recognize that you have picked one of the hardest professions to break into. For every beginning race driver, the hardest part to swallow is that progressing from the fundamentals takes time. Racing is no different from the other sports in this respect. How long does it take to become a scratch golfer or minor league ball player?
Racing is very different from other sports in the way it treats talent. If you are a minor league baseball player and you bat .420, hit the ball 400 feet and have an arm like a cannon, someone will probably pay you a lot of money to play for their team. The minor leagues of racing, however, are filled with drivers with as much, or more raw talent than the drivers at the top of the professional heap. What they lack is the opportunity to drive a top-rank car unless they can pay for it. They also may lack the years of experience needed to deal with that car's peculiarities.
The other way racing is different is it requires the driver to have much wider range of skills and abilities than other athletes. They need to be good at public speaking and understand business and marketing to be a good representative for their sponsors. They are the team leader and must be able to work well with and communicate with the crew chief, engineers and mechanics. He must be able to motivate them to perform at the highest level.
Money and Sponsors
Staying in a racecar year after year takes money and. if you want to be a professional, you have to accept that fact. That money can be your own or someone else's. It doesn't matter because money is money.
The reality is that before someone is going to pay you to drive, you'll have to develop the talent and gain the experience. You will probably have to spend you own money during the early stages of your career unless you have wealthy parents or relatives. Demonstrating your talent behind the wheel will not be enough. You will need to hustle up the resources to do the next season or buy or rent the faster car.
Roger Penske discovered these facts early in his racing career. He decided that the best way for him was to start his own businesses to fund his racing goals. The result is what you see today which is one of the most successful businesses and racing enterprises the world has seen.
Getting sponsorship dollars from businesses is an obvious solution to the money issue. This is a subject that is beyond the scope of this article. We will try to cover this topic in a future article. Just understand that a successful sponsorship will create a return on investment for the sponsor by increasing his sales or creating some tangible benefit for his company. He doesn't care that you are the next Mario Andretti. He wants to know what's in it for him or how is it going to benefit his company.