How to Break Into Auto-Racing

May 25, 2016

When I was younger, I saved every penny I ever made. I opened a small wholesale business at the age of 12 (I know, I know, I had no life), and I saved all the money I earned. Before I got my driver’s license, I had picked out the car I wanted; a 2004 yellow mustang convertible. I had always been into cars, and I had saved enough to be able to afford one, and once I bought it I drooled over it as it sat in the driveway while I waited until I could get my license. I knew nothing about working on cars, but my uncle knew a little bit, so he taught me as I began doing small modifications. During college, I joined the FSAE team; a team that would fabricate a small formula car and race it against other schools. During this, I found that the other members raced autocross. Autocross typically takes place in a large, flat parking lot. A tight course is laid out using orange cones, and drivers are sent out one at a time to complete the course as quickly as they can. Because of the tight configuration of the courses, engine power is much less of a factor than driver’s skill. I invited my uncle to a race as he used to be an instructor, but hadn’t raced in over 10 years. He helped coach me through my first event. I won the FT (first timers) class. I was hooked. I convinced my uncle to compete with his stock Honda Civic, and he later “got the bug” again and bought a track-prepared Porsche 944 Turbo. 

As fun as it was I wanted more. I wanted to try High Performance Driving Events (HPDE), which take place at race tracks. An HPDE is considered “non-competitive” and during events, a beginner is given an instructor and they take their car on the race track to learn how to drive as fast as possible, with no speed limitations. Between sessions, drivers attend a classroom where they learn more about the car and can discuss difficulties they’re having with specific corners. HPDE’s can also be done in almost any car but there are a few restrictions, as convertibles are typically not allowed without a roll-bar/roll-cage. All cars are put through a tech-inspection to ensure cars are mechanically sound since cars are driving at triple-digit speeds, and loss of control can mean severe injury or death. However, much is done to prevent this. The instructor is a main point of safety, as he/she knows what should be happening, and can tell when the correct thing is not happening. Listening to them is imperative. Additionally, corner workers (flaggers) are stationed at each corner to look for anything that can cause danger such as fluids, debris, spun car ahead, or even an overly-aggressive driver. They will signal, via flags, to drivers to alert them of danger. They can also communicate with the Chief Safety Steward, who usually stands in the pit lane. The wear and tear is much higher in HPDE’s but your skills as an HPDE driver can directly translate to street driving.

After moving up through the ranks, I was considered “advance solo”. This is the highest you can go besides an instructor. Shortly after, I was elected the Chief Safety Steward for the BMW Club. This meant I had to attend each HPDE event we held, including an event in Calabogie, Ontario. I later stepped down from my position to become an instructor. Being an instructor is great, yet it definitely comes with a lot of danger. I enjoy it, but wouldn’t necessarily recommend it to everyone. One benefit is getting to drive student’s cars for a lap or two, which has afforded me the opportunity to drive fun cars like Ferraris, Lamborghinis, Porsches, Lotus, and more. 

After watching a drift event I was invited to view in NY, and learning how cheap those cars were, I went out and bought a 1991 Nissan 240sx, which is my current race car.  Now I had a car I could learn to drift with and also take to the race track. I did a few modifications and took it to the track. Drifting is a fairly new form of driving and is very different from other forms. Drifting is not about who is the fastest, but it’s about the driver demonstrating their ultimate car control. The purpose is to drive around the course “sideways”. This is where the driver will cause the rear-end to swing to the outside of a corner, to the point of almost spinning, and maintaining this “slip angle”, while throwing the rear end back and forth as they approach different corners. To drift, a car just needs to be rear wheel drive, however, most drivers also use a limited-slip or welded differential, a manual transmission. and upgraded suspension. Additionally, the majority of the cars have engine upgrades, as an increase in torque and horsepower make drifting easier.

For anyone interested, I suggest starting with autocross as it is a safe ways to push your car to its absolute limits, and learn what your car can and can’t do. It’s also a cheap way to get exposure to the racing culture. The two most active local clubs are CT Autocross and Rally Group (C.A.R.T) and Fairfield County Sports Car Club (FCSCC). The Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) also hold events for autocross but are usually more competitive and you have professional drivers as well as amateur.

If you’re looking to break right into track driving, you certainly can as well. With this, remember, the mechanics of your car are even more important. I would suggest an oil change and fairly-new brakes prior to the event. If you have a mechanic family member, they’ll be a good source to have with you. There are many clubs in the area that hold events. My favorites are Sports Car Driving Association (SCDA) and BMW Car Club of America (BMWCCA), specifically the CT Valley chapter. Both of these clubs allow any brand of car, unlike other cubs such as the Porsche Club of America or Ferrari Club of America, which are great clubs, but they require you use a specific brand.

 

Charles Logue is a member of HYPE's Personal & Professional Development Committee.

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