I have been asked many times by young people how to become a race car driver. The following is a letter I recently received in response to an ad we ran for "Funded drivers" for our team, and my response follows below. I hope it will be of help to others, so I am posting it here:
"I was hopping I could take a few minutes of your time to ask you a few question about the posting for Funded Drivers on your web site. Any response to these questions will be greatly appreciated. The questions are more about becoming a driver and getting started in racing then they are about asking you any seat time, or even a chance at becoming a driver for you this coming season. I'm not going to sit here and blow smoke up your ass and say I'm qualified to drive for your team, because on paper I'm not.
I've never attended a racing school, and aside from being a complete lunatic when I was younger on public roads and highways, the only "legal" racing experience I've had was attending three auto cross events in the summer of 2001. Bald tires and financial restraints kept me from competing in the summer of 2002.
One thing is, I'm honest, even if it doesn't help to benefit my situation.
I have been an avid racing enthusiast all of my life, and would like nothing more then to race cars for a living (I'm sure you know the feeling). I Graduated college last spring and have been seriously questioning whether or not to drop everything and pursue a life in racing or not.
If I had the money I would turn my car into a road race car, and head down to the American Iron series here on the East coast. But, I can't afford to do that. I've been making myself crazy trying to find ways to become a driver and race cars for the rest of my life so like I said any response to the questions will be greatly appreciated. I've been following the NASCAR Channel, I mean Speed channel's coverage of the World challenge for the past couple years now, and look forward to see the Griggs name on either a Mustang or a Corvette racing in the series this year. I currently own a 2001 Mustang GT (my 2nd, and my families 5th) and truly love the cars and what they are capable of. My Father has had 5 Corvettes since my brother and I got our licenses, so I know with either of the cars and your suspension system the cars will be more then competitive. Yes the ZO6 does have an advantage over the mustangs but after seeing what a Mustang with a fully equipped Griggs GR-40 road race suspension can do with my own eyes, I have no doubt that it will be just as competitive. Good luck this season, I'll be watching with much anticipation, and I hope to hear from you at some point.
- Funded Drivers: When you say "Funded", do you mean drivers who have sponsors backing them, or do you mean drivers who have enough money to cover their own expenses as the season progresses? (I've come across the term "Funded drivers" before but never quite knew what they meant by this. I figure I better learn and become one, otherwise I'll never get shot in the racing world).
- When looking for drivers, do you go by whether or not they've attended Driving schools? If so, any in particular? (I'm just curious if I should spend the money on a school like Bob Bondurant's or the Skip Barber racing school. Can't help but feel a little screwed by college if you know what I mean.)
- Starting from nothing, other then a Racing school, how would one get started in becoming a driver? How does one go about pursuing seat time in an actual race car? Should I try to contact local club racers to see if I can get seat time with them? Or is that a waste of time?
Thanks for your interest in our racing program. From your letter, I would presume that you are not qualified, as of yet. You ask a lot of questions, so I will respond with the following:
If you say you "can't" afford it, then you can't. If instead you say that you have to arrange to be able to afford it, then "can't" no longer is the operative word.
We are looking for drivers that can bring resources adequate to seriously make a championship run. This means you should be prepared to spend about $150K for race and team travel expenses; plus about $75K for wear and tear on the car; plus more for testing, and a have a reserve for crash damage. You can figure a top team effort in WC/GT to be worth $300K for a secondary ride. You should also be experienced driving in bumper-to-bumper racing events lasting at least 30 minutes.
American Iron is probably the very best place to get the kind of experience required for the least buck in high-powered heavy sedans. There are many schools to learn to drive; all have some good, but none work as well as just doing it. You should go through a NASA program first and at least be open tracking every chance you get. AJ Foyt said if you want to be a race driver, then race everything you can get your hands on everyday possible. Don't get me wrong, in time you should do all the schools you can. Shifter Karts work well for low cost car control and other driver development, as do dirt track cars. Individual coaching is the best kind of instruction. All of these things cost money, so find some, and don't waste any money on any other activity. Spend smart.
I would suggest you spend every minute you can at race tracks, getting to know everyone you can, especially watch the winners, and only the winners, and volunteer your grunt help. READ, READ, READ! Not the BS on the Internet, but "Race Car Engineering, "Circle Track" and publications like that. Don't avoid short ovals, as short track racing will teach you more about chassis and the technical side of racing faster than anything else. The best drivers in the US drive on Ovals because that is where the money is. Don't forget that. So don't hesitate to move to where there are lots of ovals, like Indiana, Wisconsin, Michigan, or the Carolinas.
Above all, pro racing is a marketing business. Always look at it that way. You have to market yourself, but you must market your associates, or supporters first. It takes more perseverance than you can imagine, because it takes more money than you can imagine. You have to be a salesman first, then the money comes, then you can buy the time to get good. EVERYBODY that is successful in pro racing today has backers, that somehow along the way, were impressed with their driver as a person, as much as his ability. I know that on the night that Tony Stewart won the Winston Cup championship he called many people in the Indiana area business community to thank them for their past support that launched his career. So, associate with those that can help you and nurture your relationships. Network. Make sure they get to know you and your desire. Don't be shy, but don't be obtuse either. Allow them to make your desire theirs as well. All that matters in life are our relationships. Maintain them always. I cannot say enough about this.
Now, with all that said, never judge your own talent until you have had a chance to drive a first rate car. There are far more good drivers out there than there are good cars. If after you have done it for a while, and you think you can't do it, do whatever it takes to make sure you have a properly set up ride.
Racing is a discipline--resource management at its maximum. Dedicating your life to any endeavor requires maintaining a spiritual balance to succeed. If you do that, you just might, I say might make it.
Oh, it would also help if you married a Fortune 100 heiress. I have seen that work too :)