It’s sad but true: when I was a kid, Internet access pretty much didn’t exist. I didn’t even start reading USENET until 1990, at which point I was already eighteen years old. In the pre-Web days, if you wanted to know something, you went to the library. If you were lucky, the answer was in a book. If you couldn’t find a book with the answer, you were more or less screwed. For example, my elementary-school library had a copy of “The Car Book 1971″ that had all the prices of new cars from 1971, and I memorized the book to the point that I could instantly recall the prices and specs of every new car sold that year. Unfortunately, they didn’t have the same book from 1972, which meant that as far as I knew, there were no cars sold in 1972. Or they were all free. Or they were all $1,999. There was simply no way to know.
The arrival of the Information Age has made that kind of knowledge starvation a thing of the past, with a few exceptions. One of those exceptions is information on amateur and entry-level-professional sedan racing. Those who talk about it on the Internet don’t really know; those who know aren’t telling, for a variety of reasons we’ll discuss below. When I started my racing “career” a few years ago, I had to learn about the costs and difficulties of racing firsthand, at my own considerable expense, and my conversations with other racers have indicated that this state of affairs is nearly universal.
Universal it may be, but it isn’t right. So in this episode of Avoidable Contact, I’m going to give you a brief tour of amateur and entry-level-professional sedan racing. Specifically, we’re going to talk about requirements, costs, and results. I can’t put you in the seat of a real race car — only you can do that for yourself — but I can at least give you a reasonable idea of what’s involved. There are resources, both print and Web, which claim to tell the truth about the costs of racing, but trust me: most of them are either pursuing an agenda or making bizarre assumptions regarding your access to things like frame jigs, TIG welders, and $100 Hayabusa engines. Since most people can’t actually do things like “knock together” an SCCA GT-2 tube chassis, a lot of the advice and information that’s out there might as well be fantasy.
To keep things simple and comparable, most of the costs discussed here will be “rent-a-ride” costs; I will discuss ownership costs in a future column, assuming there’s any interest. We’ll start with the 24 Hours of Lemons and go as far as the Speed World Challenge. So, without further ado, let’s climb to the top of the “Pyramid Of Speed” and see what’s there.
24 Hours Of Lemons: $500-1000 a weekend
There are a variety of really low-cost entry-level wheel-to-wheel options out there, such as $300 ARCA circle-track rentals, but the average would-be road-racer is likely to be most satisfied by buying a seat in a 24 Hours of Lemons team. For somewhere between five hundred bucks and a solid G, you should be able to find a spot with a team that is serious about winning the event. Another five hundred should buy you a basic SA2005-rated helmet, cheapo three-layer driver’s suit, and fireproof gloves and shoes.
While most of the Lemons teams out there are reasonably scrupulous about adhering to the $500 car rule, that amount doesn’t cover the rollcage, the tires, the brakes, the consumables, or any number of other allowables. It’s very possible to spend three or four grand on a “$500 car”, so budget accordingly.
The requirements for being a Lemons driver are absolutely minimal. You’ll need the aforementioned personal equipment plus $75 for a one-time license. Your money should get you between two and six hours on the racetrack. Speeds rarely exceed sixty miles per hour, but you will learn a lot about managing traffic, passing, and withstanding impact. Winning Lemons will impress exactly nobody, as I found out when I won the 2007 Flat Rock event, but it’s neither easy nor trivial to hoist that cup full of nickels above your head. Still, it isn’t “real” racing. For that, you’ll need to sack up and choose one of the next options.
SCCA Improved Touring and Regional Racing: $1000+ per weekend
SCCA has two kinds of racing. There’s “Regional” racing, which is a relatively low-budget affair designed for people who don’t want to compete on a National level, and then there’s “National” stuff. The mainstay of Regional sedan racing is the Improved Touring series. Magazines like Grassroots Motorsports like to make racing in “IT” sound as simple and cheap as running down to your local dragstrip on Grudge Match night. It ain’t so, but neither is it prohibitively expensive for most people.
You’ll need to join the SCCA to start, and if you’re smart you’ll also find a program like NASA’s HPDE, SCCA’s PDX, or one of the marque-club Driver’s Education programs to show you how to get around a racetrack without killing yourself. Once you’re comfortable being on a track in a street car, it’s time to attend an SCCA competition school. You’ll need to rent a race car for this in most regions. Plan on spending between $1000 and $2500 for a “double driver’s school” weekend in someone else’s car. Don’t hurt the car; you’ll have to pay to fix it, and that could run you serious cash. The purpose of SCCA drivers’ schools is to teach you how to pass, how to watch the flags, and how to behave on-track. At no point will anyone teach you to be Randy Pobst. You will have to learn that yourself, later. And don’t catch the “red mist” during school. As someone once told me, you can’t “win” the driver’s school, but you can sure as hell “lose” it by crashing out.
With your Regional license in hand from passing the driver’s school, it’s time to find an Improved Touring seat. This can be tough for somebody who has never raced before, because most car owners don’t want to take a chance on somebody new. Look in your local SCCA newsletter or on the regional website to find an “IT” rental opportunity. Call ’em up. Be polite, concise, and factual. Expect to spend between one and two grand for a weekend. This will get you a car that might be capable of winning a race, but probably not in your hands. It will pay for some used tires and fuel. It won’t pay for damage, excess wear and tear caused by temper or stupidity, or new tires. So race smart, even if you have to race slow, and learn your craft.
In the real world, by the time you drive to a race, stay in a hotel, eat a meal or two, pay your entry fee (which is a minimum of $250 most places) and buy a T-shirt, you’re going to spend a minimum of $1500 to go Improved Touring racing in someone else’s car. Let’s put that in perspective: racing an old VW Golf or Honda Civic once a month costs as much as buying a Nissan GT-R or Porsche Cayman S on a five-year loan. Are you starting to get a sense of why racers are all “coin-operated”? Our next option is no cheaper, just different.
NASA Cheap Classes: $1500-5000 a weekend
There are two major organizations in American amateur racing. SCCA is the older, established, more prestigious group, while NASA is the new kid on the block. It would take a whole book to discuss the differences between the two, but here’s one way to look at it: NASA offers a wider variety of race options for production-based cars, is more contact-and-drama-tolerant, and is also more welcoming to new racers. I’m a NASA racer. It’s the right fit for me, but some people are better-suited for the SCCA. After a few races with either sanction, you’ll know where you belong, and it’s possible for rent-a-riders to move back and forth between the two, as most SCCA and NASA Regions will honor a competition license from the “other” sanction.
NASA offers a variety of affordable production-car classes: Spec Miata, Performance Touring, the slower German Touring Series classes, Honda Challenge, Spec Focus, and others. To get started, you’ll want to have some on-track experience in your street car. One year with NASA’s HPDE program should take care of that. You can then attend one of NASA’s driver schools. The Mid-Ohio School offers a pretty good one-day course, using their Acura TSX “school cars”, for about a grand. Of course, you’ll need the same helmet, suit, gloves, and shoes you’d need for SCCA or Lemons. You’ll also need a HANS Device or similar, which costs $695 or more, to race wheel-to-wheel in NASA.
Pass your driver’s school and you’ll be eligible to rent a car and go racing. Unlike SCCA, NASA makes no distinction between Regional and National racing. It’s possible to take Comp School in July, race twice in July and August, and then go run the National Championships in September of that same year.
Rental costs for entry-level classes in NASA range from $1500 (for a tired Spec Miata) to $5000 or more (for a well-prepared GTS or Performance Touring car). It’s very, very possible to spend $15,000 on a NASA racing weekend, but you don’t want to do that right away. Heck, you really don’t want to do it at all, because for that kind of money you could race “pro”. In fact, NASA permits cars from the Speed World Challenge and Koni Challenge pro series to run in Performance Touring, so if you want to try a “pro” car in a low-stress environment, NASA can be the right place for you. Plan on spending a minimum of $5000 to do that for a weekend. Be aware, too, that most rentals in NASA have a minimum damage amount of ten grand or more. You can do $50,000 worth of damage to many GTS-class race cars in a second or less, and it’s usually payable immediately, in certified funds, before the end of the weekend. Even a lowly Spec Focus can cost $15,000 to repair. And here’s the best part: it might not even be your fault. You could be minding your own business, get put in the wall by somebody else, and still have to pay. Make. Sure. You. Understand. This. Before. You. Take. A. Green. Flag. Okay?
Winning a NASA National Championship will get you… um, nothing. All sorts of hacks and idiots win NASA National Championships. Heck, I was one error in judgment away from being a NASA National Champion in 2007. As the sanction ages and competition thickens, that situation will change, but in the meantime, if you want respect in amateur racing… look below.
SCCA National Championship Racing – $3000 and up. Way up.
Now we’re getting close to The Show. Winning an SCCA National Championship is a gold-plated testimony to your talent as a driver, your skill as a car builder, or both. The list of SCCA National Champions reads like a “Who’s Who” of serious racers. But it ain’t cheap. To begin with, you’ll need to have a year of mostly incident-free Regional racing under your belt, and you’ll need to find a National ride. People can and do spend six figures to win National Championships, but $3000 should get you a Spec Miata or American Sedan seat at a National race. Of course, if you want to go to the actual championship race, (referred to as the Runoffs) in any class, you will need a lot more than that. But if you win the Runoffs, you will want a new challenge…
Speed World Challenge and Grand-Am Koni Challenge: $8000-50,000 per weekend. That’s right.
Here we are. The Show. Professional racing. And guess what? You’re gonna pay to race. Almost everybody does. It’s the dirty little secret of “pro” racing. Everybody pays. Sure, some teams offer a salary to a few of their drivers, but the number of people actually making a living in Speed World Challenge or Koni Challenge probably wouldn’t fill an extended-length E-150. Instead, drivers beg their sponsors, friends, families, and spouses for money to make the grid. Ah, money. Well, just the annual license for Koni Challenge costs six hundred bucks. The good news: you get to attend all the Rolex Series races for free as long as you’re wearing it. To qualify for that license, you’ll want to have some club racing background, preferably without too many black marks on your record or too many probationary periods. One year should be enough. During that one year, try to win the lottery, inherit some money, or become a lobbyist for a group of Florida orange-juice farmers, ’cause it takes cheddar to race professionally.
Eight grand or thereabouts will sit you in a decent ride for the Speed Touring Car or Koni “ST” class. You’ll be on television. Maybe. To have a chance at winning, you’ll want to spend more. Ten or fifteen grand will put you up at the sharp end, where the announcers can mispronounce your name and criticize your driving. If you want to run the faster cars in the “GS/GT” classes of Koni or Speed, you’ll pay more. A lot more. A weekend in a Ford FR500C Mustang might cost $20,000. And guess what? It’s possible to do $175,000 worth of damage to that car. In under one second. You know the drill. Pay before you leave.
It’s kind of funny, really. Nearly everybody who brags on Facebook or on their personal website about being “signed” to a Koni or SWC team is really writing a big check to that team. And some of the checks are quite large. Koni Challenge is an enduro series, so you can spend a little more money and get a known hotshoe to be your second driver. The arrangement is common, even in Daytona Prototype. The paying driver is the “gentleman driver”; the paid driver is the “pro”. I heard a rumor recently that one “gentleman” paid $185,000 for a Koni Challenge season with a well-respected “pro”.
Think about it. At this level, it costs just as much to race a Honda Civic or Volkswagen GTI for a year as it does to own a Lamborghini Gallardo. Which one will impress your friends more? You know the answer to that. But if you have the burning desire to race, to be in The Show, and to live a little bit before you die, owning a high-priced street car isn’t even an option. Racing on television is the ultimate high, the biggest hit possible. It’s what we all wanted to do as kids. Everything else, as Steve McQueen memorably said, is just waiting.
But wait, there’s more.
As you now understand, racing is expensive. But the weekend costs we’ve discussed don’t cover it all. In order to be competitive, you’ll want to run some practice days, which run from $500 a day in an Improved Touring Civic to twenty times that much for a Koni GS-class Porsche. To win races, you’ll need to buy new tires as often as possible, maybe four times a weekend, at a cost of anywhere between eight hundred and two thousand dollars a set. You’ll want the best equipment; my Impact! carbon fiber Air Draft helmet and HANS Professional Device together cost well over three thousand dollars, and a custom driving suit with the logo of your “sponsor” might run you another three G. Top-tier coaching from people like Ross Bentley will take precious tenths off your lap time, but each one of those tenths may cost you as much as a Rolex Submariner.
You’ll miss work to race, skip family events, disappoint friends, and force your loved ones to spend their weekends wondering if you’ll come home injured or in a box. The stress of knowing that you could end a race a hundred grand in the hole, or in that hole yourself, might drive you to make some very strange decisions. Some people lose their nerve out there on the track and return to the pits utterly broken inside. Others let the burning hunger for lap time, TV time, plastic trophies, or simple victory take over the rest of their lives. And once you’ve won a race, the fever to do it again will never truly leave you. Once you’ve put your foot on someone else’s neck — once you’ve looked out of your window net and simply destroyed another man’s confidence on the entry to a critical corner — you will want to do it again and again until it either kills you or ruins your life.
Those are the real costs. I’ve spent the equivalent of a new Corvette racing crappy little cars in the past two years, but that doesn’t cover half of it. The true cost arrived the moment I realized that I couldn’t stand a life where I wasn’t scheduled to race at some point in the near future. So I’ll be out on the grid again in 2009, and that includes a couple of shots at The Show. Cross your fingers for me, and I’ll look to see you out there, too.