How To Race Your Car: Part 1
Well, well… you got the itch, do you? You know what I’m talking about – every time you get behind the wheel, all you want to do is push the throttle a little further, brake a little later, and take that turn a little harder. I get it. You want to go racing.
And who can blame you? Motorsport is one of the most intense hobbies on the face of the planet. It takes an incredible amount of mental and physical prowess to put a car on the limit and keep it there. It’s also astoundingly fun.
So what’s an adrenaline junkie to do? Take a risk on the street? That’s definitely the dumbest option out there, and the truth is, once you get a taste for the track, exploring a car’s limits on public roads is simply not as interesting.
But a lot of aspiring hot shoes just don’t know where to begin. Well don’t you worry, because TopSpeed is here to help. In this article, we’ll give you the quick and dirty on what it takes to get up and running at 10/10s. We’ll look at different types of entry-level motorsport, some of the more prominent race organizations operating in the U.S., what to bring with you, what to expect, and a few other helpful hints along the way.
Think you can’t go racing for real? Think again.
Continue reading to learn more about how to go racing.
Types Of Motorsport
Amateur drag racing is one of the quickest and simplest ways to get involved in motorsport. There’s no training required, no specialized gear, the costs are extremely low, and pretty much any road-legal car can compete.
First, look up the local drag strip and check out the schedule. It’s sure to have some kind of recurring event, like a “test-and-tune” night, where anyone can simply show up and race for a minimal entrance fee (usually around $10 to $40). There will be a quick tech inspection to double-check your car won’t spew fluids at half-track or lose a wheel, but after that, it’s line up, watch the tree turn green, and go. Sounds pretty easy, right?
In practice, mastering this sport is very difficult. Hitting that perfect reaction time, finding maximum traction on the launch, and slotting home lightening-fast shifts are all skills honed with practice. But if you’re just looking for a taste of speed and competition, this is a great place to start.
Autocross (also called auto-x) is another fantastic place to try your hand at racing, with low costs, no required training, and a “run what you brung” attitude.
Courses are arranged using traffic cones, usually in a big parking lot, and involve a focus on technical agility over outright speed. Layouts are almost never repeated, which makes for an interesting dynamic as participants grapple with learning a fresh track for each event. Cars run individually, with penalties added for every cone knocked over.
Like drag racing, autocross is a sport that’s easily accessible to amateurs, but with multiple tiers of competition if you get serious. Nothing sorts out a car’s at-limit handling like a solid autocross event, so if you like diving into the corners, start here.
This is usually what people think of when you mention racing. Laguna Seca, Road America, Watkins Glen – these are the places where heroes grab glory, but even so, mere mortals like you and I are allowed to tread upon the hallowed ground.
As should be expected, prices are higher and safety restrictions are stricter, but the payoff comes in greater thrills. Instead of a single blast down the 1,320 or 90 seconds slithering around some cones, road racing will demand much more from both you and your car.
Road racing events include High Performance Driver Education (HPDE), whereby racers of various skill levels pilot their vehicles with instructors in the passenger seat. You can even bring your daily driver minivan if you want, provided it’s safe. The emphasis here is on personal improvement, and as an entry into the faster stuff, this is where many road racers begin.
Beyond this point, however, the street-legal rides begin to give way to more purpose-built machines, with required equipment including roll cages, harnesses, and fire extinguishers. Licensing is also an issue, with completion of an accredited driving school or several HPDE programs required for participation.
But that means the speeds are higher. In time attack, for example, the objective is to get the fastest single lap possible. Cars are skewed towards the conservation of nothing, putting it all out on the line for that one magic flying run.
Finally, there’s wheel-to-wheel competition, with all the unpredictability of overtaking and dicing for the win. Racers must work up to this level, and while the path isn’t easy, the rewards are sweet. Just ask anyone who’s taken the inside line for a clean pass. It’s enough to turn an interest into an addiction.
You’ve watched Video Option. You’ve been to Formula D. You think tire smoke is an aphrodisiac. You must be a drifter.
There are tons of amateur drifting events out there. But before you take the daily driver out for some slide sessions, there are a few things to consider.
First, a proper drift set-up is stupendously dangerous anywhere but a track. Not only that, but the sheer abuse of drifting means your sideways chariot will be in a constant state of repair. Finally, you’re gonna stuff it. You just will.
If you want to go drifting properly, you really do need a dedicated race car. You might be able to get away with only one vehicle for both track days and personal transportation, but in the end, it’s probably not worth it.
Oval racing, either on dirt or asphalt, is one of the most popular forms of motorsport in the U.S., but the price for entry isn’t necessarily cheap. Competitors must trailer in dedicated race cars specially built to keep the momentum in the banks. However, support for these types of series is huge, and while taking your daily driver Camry out for a spin is pretty much out of the question, it doesn’t necessarily take a huge outlay to get started. But before you drop $20K on a used sprint car, I suggest trying out some of the more accessible motorsports first, just to get a flavor for it.
How does charging sideways through a forest and catching air off a blind crest sound to you? Fun? Then rally might be for you.
Like wheel-to-wheel road racing and circle-track racing, rally takes much more specialized equipment than amateur drags or autocross. Prepping a vehicle for the rigors of sliding in the rough stuff can get expensive quickly, especially when you consider all the extra expenses for repairs. There’s a reason this sport is so badass – crashes happen. A lot.
Sports Car Club of America
The SCCA is one of the largest and oldest racing organizations in the country, with history stretching back to 1944. With that in mind, it has a reputation for being slightly stuffy and overbearing when it comes to regulations. However, few other series can match the fierceness of its competition.
The SCCA is structured into nine divisions composed of 115 regions spanning the entire U.S., which means there’s probably a local chapter not too far away from wherever you call home. The organization services a broad range of skill levels, from the freshest of newbies to the most hardcore racer. As such, there are a variety of series designed specifically for the aspiring pro to progress through the ranks, but there are a few more laid-back events as well. Included are road racing, autocross, rallying, and HPDE.
National Auto Sport Association
Compared the SCCA, NASA is the new kid on the block, first formed in 1991. Road racing, autocross, rally, and HPDE events are scheduled, in 17 regional divisions. NASA recently added a National Championship run-off to its program, giving members the chance to take their racing career to the next level if desired. However, amateurs are equally catered to.
Since 2001, Speed Ventures has offered road racing, autocross, and HPDE at tracks throughout California and Nevada. Both personal development and wheel-to-wheel competition are part of the program, with a variety of make-specific series available to suit participants, including Super Miata, Corvette Challenge, Bimmer Challenge, and Pony Car Challenge. If you’re looking for a break from the seriousness of the SCCA and happen to live on the west coast, check out Speed Ventures.
What To Bring
In racing, preparation is paramount. A far-from-exhaustive list of things to bring would include tools, a jack, extra wheels and tires, spare parts, fluids, brake bleeder, air compressor, tire pressure gauge, a helmet, close-toed shoes (the thinner the sole, the better), driving gloves, an awning, sunscreen, sunglasses, and a hat. You’ll also want some snacks and maybe a meal or two (some tracks offer food services, but it’s usually super greasy and not necessarily conducive to 100 percent brain function). Bring lots and lots of water – race driving will drain you. Stay away from energy drinks. They might give you a nice quick boost, but you’ll soon lose that buzz and brain fade is a killer on the track. Plus, you’ll have plenty of natural adrenaline to keep you going. Finally, remember it’s better to have it and not need than need it and not have it.
That being said, adjust this list accordingly. For example, you’re not going to need an awning and brake bleeder if you’re going to the amateur drag races on Wednesday night, but if you’re gonna be out at Willow Springs all afternoon at an HPDE event, you’d better believe those items are absolutely essential.
Arrive as early as possible to claim your spot in the pits and maximize your time on track. Even if you’re just walking the course, talking to folks, and doing final checks on your car, it’ll be time well spent. Rushing through tech or making last minute adjustments will inevitably lead to problems. You don’t want to be questioning whether or not you remembered to tighten all the lug nuts when you go for the brakes at the end of the back straight.
What To Expect
So you arrived early in the morning at your very first high-performance driving experience, and everywhere you look, there’s some kind of pumped-up speed machine. Porsches with enormous aero kits sit next to Corvettes with steamroller-sized tires. Tuned imports, bulging muscle cars, even a few stripped out racers – they’re all present. There’s an air of seriousness mixed with giddy anticipation, and you start to wonder exactly what you got yourself into…
Your first few experiences on track can be intimidating, but don’t worry – every grizzled, hardcore Stig-relative you see out there has had his or her taste of being the newbie. They get it. Not only that, but they’ll more than likely bend over backwards to help you out if asked. Forget your jack at home? Need a splash of high-octane fuel? Maybe some quick blasts from the air compressor to get your tires at the proper psi? Just ask nicely and pay it forward. Any real racer would prefer beating you because you had a slower time, not because you had a DNS.
Every experience on the track will be a learning opportunity, especially in the beginning, so check your ego at the gate. If you’re expecting to be Sebastian Vettel right out of the box, you’re in for a rude awakening. The proper attitude is essential – a humble mindset is far more conducive to trimming lap times than unbridled pride. You gotta earn it, so take it in stride.
Don’t get discouraged. Like anything else, it takes a lot of seat time to get good at racing. Just remember that you’ll make mistakes. Identify problems and work on correcting them. Don’t get bogged down with “so-and-so is faster,” or “I can’t believe I got passed on the outside,” etc. Focus on self-improvement above all else.
Talk to the regulars and learn as much as you possibly can. Listen carefully to the coaches. Spend your pit time checking over the car and taking notes for each corner on a track map. The real fun begins when you realize you’re getting faster.
Next week, we’ll get into a few of the technical details of what it takes to get on track, including an analysis of the more successful cars in competition, the costs involved, preparation, and what you can do to take your racing skills even further. See you then.