Getting Started in Road Racing in the United States: A Guide to the Costs and Methods Available
Getting Started in Road Racing in the United States: A Guide to the Costs and Methods Available
So, you want to start racing. You’re looking to follow a pastime, or possibly a career that few even think about, let alone try. Racing is not for people who like pastel colors. It is also not for people with bad money management skills. There are lots of ways to spend money incredibly quickly in this sport. If your goal is to get rid of your capital in the loudest, fastest possible way, this may be it. Fortunately, this process of turning money into pure speed is an incredibly rewarding one. Even if you only ever get to participate in one race event in your lifetime, those memories will be with you until the day you die.
But how do we get started? Let’s dive right in. I’ll go from least expensive, to most expensive.
A quick disclaimer. While I outline the base expected expenses of each discipline, know that any method of racing can be made very expensive. The base costs will get you in, but what you do beyond that is up to you. It is possible to spend tens and hundreds of thousands of dollars doing even the least expensive disciplines, depending on a huge number of factors like: who you hire, what parts you buy, how much you spend on travel, et cetera.
Autocross is by far the least expensive way to race. Autocross events are held by the major car clubs in America – the biggest two being the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) and the National Auto Sport Association (NASA).
An autocross event usually takes place in a large parking lot. A course denoted by traffic cones and chalk is set up in this parking lot, and competitors race from a standstill from beginning to end. The driver with the fastest completion time wins his class. Knocking down cones incurs a time penalty for each cone.
Autocross events usually cost about $ 30 to $ 50, and all that is required to participate is a membership with the hosting club and a state driver’s license. For your money, you may get between 3 and 5 solo, timed runs. Each run is usually about a minute or possibly longer. You will have to navigate a number of corners, as autocross courses are rarely very straight. The idea is to keep speeds low, below 60 or 70 miles per hour, so that the event is kept safe. There is nothing to hit and the chances of rolling a car are basically nil. It is the cheapest, safest way to race. It is also appealing for a number of other reasons: there are many “stock” classes that allow you to race normal street cars (indeed, most people actually drive their cars to the event, race them and then drive home), the shortness and limited nature of runs is easy on the car and does not use up much in the way of tires or brakes, and it is a very fast-paced way to drive because the courses are so tight. If all you want to do is quench the need for speed without spending hardly any money, autocross is the way to go.
Unfortunately, autocross competitors are rarely recognized for their accomplishments. Even if you win your region, go to the national championships and win that as well, you will probably not get that much credit for it, even though you will have put in an enormous amount of work, skill and possibly money to achieve those wins. As such, it is inadvisable for an aspiring professional driver to put the effort into learning autocross, unless it is all the aspirant can afford. That said, it is not impossible to use autocross to help you make a professional career. Some professional drivers started in autocross and are currently doing very well. Autocross does demand skill and quickness – corners are tight, so quick steering and pedal inputs are required, and runs are limited, so the driver must get up to speed very quickly to be competitive. Both excellent skills to learn and will form a good basis for moving up to more expensive, more dangerous forms of racing.
Track Days and Time Trial
Track days are days when a racing facility like Road Atlanta or Infineon Raceway will open it’s pit lane and, for a fee (usually between $ 250 and $ 400 per day), will let you drive your street car on the track as fast as you want. This is not technically racing, but it can lead to a discipline that is.
A time trial is like a track day, but has a competition element. The car with fastest lap time around the circuit wins it’s class.
This sounds like autocross but it’s not really. Both NASA and SCCA run time trial events as well as other car clubs like Porsche Club of America and BMW Car Club of America, but the main differences between time trial and autocross are the amount of driving time you get (time trial often runs for hours instead of minutes), and the track is usually occupied by many cars at a time rather than solo runs spaced throughout the day. The requirements for time trial are the same as autocross.
Time trials and track days are good methods to try out road-racing-sized tracks without really racing wheel to wheel. You must share the track with other cars, and the speeds will be much higher, so track days and time trial will be more dangerous than autocross. But it is a good way to become familiar with big track driving and is a good stop on the way to the meat of American racing culture – club racing.
Now we’re getting really serious. Club racing is likely to be most drivers introduction to full on wheel to wheel racing on full size tracks using purpose built racing machines with loud exhaust, wings, and slick tires. Unfortunately this also means increased cost.
Club racing is also sanctioned by SCCA, NASA, PCA and BMWCCA among others. Like time trials and autocross, the clubs must charge an entry fee to the drivers. Big tracks are more expensive to hire, though, so the entry fees will go up. In the SCCA, for example, the typical entry fee in 2012 is about $ 500 per event, which will get you a practice session, two qualify sessions, and two races during a weekend. Budget about $ 3,000 per racing season for entry fee. Ouch.
But it doesn’t stop there. We’re using purpose built racing machines now, so we can’t drive them on the street. So not only do we need to buy a racing car (which could cost anywhere from $ 5,000 to $ 150,000 for a running car), but we also need a trailer and a tow vehicle, not to mention storage, tools, and spare parts.
The total cost ultimately depends on which class you choose. Spec Miata is one of the more popular classes at the moment, primarily because it’s relatively very inexpensive. A solid, running, second-hand Spec Miata is going to cost around $ 10,000. These cars require little work and are very reliable. Alternatively, you might want to run in the GT2 class. A nicely prepared GT2 legal Porsche Cup car is going to cost north of $ 100,000 and will require almost constant maintenance.
But it gets even more complex. Maybe you don’t have the knowledge, tools, storage or time to maintain a race car. Most people don’t. Your only option may be to race a car owned by another person, or a team. If that is the case, rental is for you.
Rental of a race car seems like a strange concept but it is how most of the racing world operates. The driver pays a fee, and in exchange the owner or team will store, transport, service, prepare, and repair the car for the driver.
This has an increased cost, of course. Returning to our Spec Miata example, a nicely prepared Spec Miata rental will probably cost between $ 1,500 and $ 2,500 per weekend of racing. As before, that is likely to get you two races and two qualifying rounds in addition to a practice round. And don’t forget, you will probably have to pay the entry fee, and supply the tires and fuel on top of the base rental fee. Racing tires usually run about $ 800 to over $ 1,000 per set of four.
Add in a little bit of crash damage, possible testing days (like track days, but for racing cars only), and travel expense, and you’d be safe to budget over $ 20,000 per year to race someone else’s car. A basic rule of thumb: take the basic rental cost of the car, and double it. Then you will have an idea of how much to budget for a season. Your ultimate expense may be more, it may be less, but at least you won’t be shocked n the check for your first weekend is twice as much as you were expecting based on the basic rental cost.
You also have to keep in mind that now we are dealing with a sanctioning body, who will have much more strict requirements for participants. You will be required to earn a competition license, and in order to get the license, you will have to pass a medical exam and receive a sufficient amount of instruction. Various clubs have various requirements, so refer to those guidelines. The license requirements aren’t steep – it is easier to get a competition license than it is to get a state driver’s license. There’s no tough test to pass in most cases. You simply need your instructor(s) to sign off on your competency in most cases.
You can also get your racing license another way.
Racing schools are big in America. Skip Barber being the largest. You can go to Skip Barber, or Bondurant, or Bertil Roos, or any number of other schools and complete a 3-day course that will qualify you for immediate bestowal of a racing license from a large number of sanctioning bodies: from IMSA to NASA.
At the school, you will have at least one, probably many coaches attending to your every educational need. You will be using their cars in most cases. The only downside is cost. A 3-day racing school could cost as “little” as $ 3,000, or it could cost as much as $ 6,000 or more.
These cars are not going to be any more glamorous or fast than what you can find in club racing, except in very few circumstances. Most schools are done in entry-level formula and sports cars.
You will learn a lot. There is no denying that racing schools are worth the price of admission. They all know their stuff and they all make sure to hire very experienced, well rounded drivers to instruct.
Most professional aspirants with sponsorship or money to burn will start here. Racing schools usually operate some kind of arrive-and-drive racing series. This is invaluable for a number of reasons. These series, especially the likes of the Skip Barber series, are very highly promoted. They also usually offer great prizes to the prodigy drivers who win the series. These prizes can sometimes be worth hundreds of thousands in scholarships and free rides. Racing schools are the place to be for young hotshots with enough money to pay for it.
Because these racing series are expensive compared to club racing. Most of it is down to the cost of instruction – they are fully coached just like the 3-day programs. But it raises the price quite a lot. A regional race weekend at Skip Barber is going to be over $ 5,000. Budget $ 35,000 to $ 40,000 for a season. And that’s one of the less expensive ones. Other series can cost $ 80,000 to $ 100,000 per season or more.
But what if you want to spend even more money?
Now we’re talking. Here, we may be on TV. We may have pit-lane interviews. We may be invited to do a speech or two. We’ll probably spend most of the day making calls and doing sponsorship presentations to companies. We’ll have to act, look, and be professional at all times. We have to be squeaky-clean. Even if we’re just looking for fun and not a career.
Don’t get me wrong – we are still very much in the “pay to play” category here. Very few drivers are paid in semi-pro circles. The ones that do get “paid” mostly just get free track time and “special prices” (meaning free rides or nearly so).
But plenty of people start at this level, too. And that takes money. How much?
Well, one of the less expensive options is the SCCA Pro Racing MX-5 Cup. If we’re brand spanking new to the series and no one really cares to have us in particular drive their car for fame and fortune, then we’ll have to buy in. And that will be about $ 65,000 to $ 75,000 per year. Yikes. But it gets worse!
The next rung up might be the Grand Am Continental Tire Sports Car Challenge (say that 3 times fast). There’s two classes on offer here. Street Tuner and Grand Sport. The Grand Sport cars are faster. Street Tuner is slower, but cheaper. Budget about $ 120,000 for a decent team for one season. More to be at the front. Grand Sport is about twice that.
But what if we don’t like having a roof? It’s even worse in open-wheel.
Star Mazda is a nice mid-level open wheel category. The series has a good mix of young professionals and thrill seekers just looking to have fun. The cars are fast and very sexy. They cost a lot. $ 450,000 for a solid team for one season.
I think it’s safe to say that if you’re looking for a price list on your racing categories, you’re probably not in the market for that kind of product.
These series are all extremely professionally run, of course. They are expensive for a reason. We’re in the big leagues now.
I hope you’ve got some insight about the costs and methods associated with starting a racing career, either for fun or as a serious profession. Whatever level you decide to go with, you will make life-long friends and memories. Racing is truly special.
Gregory Evans is a Californian racing driver who aspires to race professionally. He writes about his experiences in racing on his blog, Chump to Champ, which also includes a number of other features such as driving tips and track guides, like his Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca guide.