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Racing as a Career - Road to the Top

Becoming a race car driver isn’t as easy as it looks.

Mike Speck
Dec 5, 2011
Photographer: Modified Staff
Modp 1201 01+racing as career+cover Photo 1/2   |   Racing as a Career - Road to the Top

So you want to be a race car driver, do you? Well, welcome to the club, because pretty much everybody who’s reading this mag wants to do the same thing. How in the wide, wide, world of sports does someone become a race driver, and what exactly is a race driver, anyway?

In my mind, simply having a race car doesn’t make you a race car driver. It might make you someone who drives a race car, and it might even help you on the path to becoming a race driver, but the simple fact of owning the thing doesn’t necessarily make you a true racer. Sure, building a killer car that’s clearly quicker than anything else will let you win a lot of races and proves you can put a car together, but it doesn’t guarantee you as a shoe.

From my perspective, after spending years in the sport, a racer is someone who has the combination of skills that lets them compete in a series where equipment is grounded and equalized, be it club or pro. A racer is a racer, whether they get paid to do it or not.

With that in mind, racing is a business, pure and simple. It’s a financially driven sport, and it absolutely costs money to make money. To succeed as a racer, it helps if the driver is a combination of savvy businessperson, marketing guru, self-promoter, politician, endurance athlete and engineer. Top-flight drivers are an enigma in the sports world, and as such, are generally misunderstood.

All that is great to know, but what it really boils down to is this: to make something of yourself as a driver, you have to find a way to make money. A young driver trying to make it to the top is more likely to get there if he’s fortunate enough to have access to lots of green bills. I know it sounds jaded, but it’s true, and it’s becoming truer as time goes on, especially in the current economy. In order to survive, race teams must turn a profit, and there are a ton of incredibly capable drivers out there who, despite their talent, still have to bring money to the table. This is exactly the area where things get tough for me and for a lot of other aspiring drivers. It’s so rough in this respect that there’s a joke in the sport that the world’s best driver is probably flipping burgers somewhere because he or she simply didn’t have the funds to keep going. If I knew how to raise a budget, I’d be running the Daytona 24, Sebring and Le Mans in 2012 in a Porsche GT3 Cup or GT3 RSR. But I don’t, so I’ll be watching those races on SPEED Channel from the comfort of my couch.

A young driver trying to make it to the top is more likely to get there if he’s fortunate enough to have access to lots of green bills.

If knowing all that doesn’t deter you from wanting to give it this profession a shot, good. It didn’t sideline me, and I’m glad I persevered. Once you’ve figured out how to bring/get/steal/beg/borrow/trade, you have to decide on which path you want to pursue in the sport, and to me, pretty much all of them are valid. The cost of admission might be more to take certain paths, but the payoff may be better as well. If you’re racing solely to make money, you may have chosen the wrong sport.

Everyone has their opinions on which version of motorsports has the best drivers; personally, I make no distinction as to a skill-level difference in a comparison between a world-class NHRA funny car driver like John Force, versus a multi-time Sprint Cup champion like Jimmie Johnson, versus current F1 Champion Sebastian Vettel, versus WRC stud Sebastian Loeb.

As far as I’m concerned, the reason all those drivers made it to the top of each of their respective categories is because they are just plain great. Making comparisons between them is like comparing apples to apple juice — same fruit, maybe, but in a totally different form. Sure, we all have our favorites, but please don’t be one of those people who thinks that what NASCAR star Jeff Gordon does all day is easier than what F1 standout Fernando Alonso does because Jeff appears to just be turning left. Take a ride with him during a race or any top-tier Sprint Cup driver, and I guarantee you’ll find out that you’re sorely mistaken.

Once you’ve set your eyes on which path you want to travel, learn about it. In excruciating detail. Remember, everybody wants to be in the race seat that you’re trying to get in to, and you’re trying to do it with limited funds. Hell, you’re not even in the car yet and you’re competing. In this competition, knowledge, almost as much as money and engines, is power. Be around the sport as much as you can. Talk to people in it. Read about the sport. Know the players, the machines, the tracks, the rules, the ins, the outs, the politics, the cheats and the ways to cheat — everything.

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Next, learn about actual driving. If you’ve never driven a race car in a sanctioned race series, then I feel confident in saying that you really don’t know much about competitive driving. You might be able to drive a car, but driving fast and racing are two different things. You’re gonna have to fix that part of the equation if you want to be a racer. One way to do it is to race — legally, and preferably in a sanctioned event!

Another way to learn about driving is to go to a racing school, one that specializes in drive craft and race craft. Those of you who read this mag regularly probably know that I taught at one of the best racing/driving schools in the country — the Bondurant School in Phoenix — for about 16 years, and I’m proud of the time I spent there. But there are other excellent ones to choose from like Skip Barber, Jim Russell Racing Drivers School, Team O’Neil and more.

At a good school, in addition to learning about driving and racing, you’ll also learn from some great drivers and racers. In fact, some of the best drivers I’ve ever competed with are instructors you’ve probably never heard of at race schools across the country. Guys like John Dean, Travis Washay, Austin Robison, Tim Maddux, Tim Moser, Tim Rose, Mike McGovern, Brian Cole, Brian Germone, Toby Grahovec, Chris Cook, Nico Rondet, and the list goes on and on. Believe me, those guys are racers.

The next step is to determine just how much you want it. A lot of folks talk like they do, but the proof is what they are willing to do to get it. When I first got into the sport, I decided to go karting in California. I was staggeringly clueless about racing and actually thought I was going to be an F1 racer. I mean, how hard could that be, right? So I decided to enroll in a school-based race series at the Jim Hall II Racing karting school in Ventura, CA. It was cost-effective (RE: “all I could afford”), and one weekend a month I would make the 60-minute drive to Ventura, paying for the series with money from a job I had in Los Angeles. After taking several classes and then testing at some practice days, we went racing. Because I weighed so little, and because the karts weren’t raced on an equal weight basis, I won the series (lucky break for me).

At a good school, in addition to learning about driving and racing, you’ll also learn from some great drivers and racers.

During the series, I would hang out after every race and ask all kinds of questions and offer to help clean the karts or put things away. Basically, I made a nuisance of myself. Luckily, I was too clueless to realize it. I even asked if they needed help doing stuff on the weekends that I didn’t race. They begrudgingly agreed, so I drove up there on my own dime every weekend. I worked seven days a week for about four years. They were even able to me get to work at first without paying me. Actually, I traded my hours in for a version of pay that proved more valuable than cash: seat time. I drove literally thousands of laps with some of the best karters in the country, and boy, did I get my ass kicked! Man, was it painful. But I kept at it. Doggedly, annoyingly and eventually I got better — a lot better. I even ended up leading a championship in weight-equal karts before I broke some ribs and had to sit out a few races. It didn’t matter, though. All I knew was I wanted to be a driver, and I was going to do whatever it took to get there.

With my time at JHR and my race performances, I was able to accept a position at Bondurant, which I had taken a class at in 1989 and was duly impressed by. I took more than a 50 percent pay cut from my full-time LA job to become an instructor there. It paid off, though, because Bondurant gave me the opportunity to go Grand-Am racing with some students of mine. I got lucky the whole time, and it was a ride I’m happy to have had the chance to take. And, of course, it opened the door for me to write for Modified — something else I’m proud of.

OK, so we’ve established that we need money (you’re on your own there, folks), knowledge (read some books), ability (go to a school), people skills (need to please those sponsors), desire (you have to do what it takes) and luck (lots of it). Once you’re on the path, though, things won’t always go your way. Adversity is more a part of racing than success is. I always joke (although I’m actually serious) that I would have made a lot more money in the sport if I had been paid for my screw-ups than for my successes. In my mind, the only difference between drivers who succeed and those who don’t in this particular respect is that drivers who succeed just keep getting up after they’ve been knocked down. I like to think I’m one of those people. I have made mistakes that have really made me want to hide my tail between my legs and go find a place to hide, but I’ve always tried to come back and do it right. You’ve got to have very thick skin in this sport.

Remember that what you do outside the car is many times as important as what you do in it. Pissing people off left and right will probably not end up helping you in your career. You might be fast, winning races and riding a wave, but you have to know that someone out there is going to be faster and better at some point. Be confident, but don’t get cocky, and never stop working on being a driver. It never ends. You can always be better.

To close out this segment, I want to use a young driver as an example of someone who I think will, in the years to come, be a household name to those who watch racing. His name is Neil Alberico. Neil starting karting at a young age, but seemed to do it on a modest budget. Nevertheless, he had some notable success, although he wasn’t necessarily a standout. I consider myself lucky to have had the chance to work with him as he competed in and won the Bondurant Formula Mazda Championship series in 2010.

Neil took his success in stride, then went to England by himself to compete in Formula Fords — considered the toughest area in which to prove yourself as a driver. It’s a bunch of crazed, well-funded, very talented, teen karters and formula car racers from all over the world trying ultimately to vie for about 26 seats in F1 cars. Neil’s ability also won him a slot on the Team USA Scholarship. It also puts him in the company of some of the greatest drivers the U.S. has ever produced.

What makes Neil so good in my eyes is that he has the qualities that I think make a racer. He has obvious driving talent and has the right level of aggression in the car. Out of the car, he’s incredibly pleasant, intelligent, calm and remarkably mature for an 18-year-old. He clearly has a tremendous amount of desire and is going to do what it takes to win. His technical knowledge is excellent, and he has a thick skin. He never seems to quit. And that’s what it takes to be a race driver.

By Mike Speck
15 Articles

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