Racing Realities

Some racing reality stories...

Some people have asked me if I drive rally cars for a living. That's not at all the case. Racing is something that happens after my regular job. I have many excited young folks contact me asking how they can become a rally driver, or how they can get sponsored to drive a rally car. Unfortunately, it just doesn't work that way. I've collected some stories from some road racers about the difficulty involved with going racing. Keep in mind as you read these that road racing is much easier to get sponsors for that rally. It at least has some structure for progression, and potential sponsors understand what you're doing. I highly recommend that you do some volunteer work at a rally, or crew for a team, to dip your toe in the waters of rally racing.

Cheers, and best of luck,

Acronyms you may not be familiar with:

  • IT : Improved Touring - regional amateur weekend racing
  • WC : World Challenge - national pro racing
  • GAC : Grand America Cup - national pro racing
  • SCCA : Sports Car Club of America - a sanctioning body / rules provider

Story 1
I wrote this a year ago to a guy, a writer for Sports Compact Car magazine. He wrote in his column about trying to decide which fork in life to take, one of them being a pursuit of a dream of professional racing. I think it's applicable to this discussion as well.

Josh, are you a South Park fan? A couple of weeks ago there was an episode where Stan's parents hired an actor to pretend that he was Stan-coming-back-from-the-future as a drug addict. Tried to scare him into never doing drugs.

Well, my friend, I could have written your "Sport Compact Car" column 10 years ago. You see, in 1992 I was racing SCCA Club and Pro, advancing through my "career" very quickly and quite well I might add. In 1992 I won the Bronze medal at the SCCA Runoffs in Showroom Stock B while setting the lap record. I had Goodyear, Nissan, Valvoline, and lot of local sponsorship with productive experience in World Challenge and IMSA Firehawk. I was ready to make the jump to "pro."

A few things happened to me, though. First, I should have won that 1992 Runoffs race. I had the fastest car out there, I was one of the fastest drivers there, and it was mine to blow it. And I did. Second, I met a woman that stole my heart and diverted my attention to the outside world (partially). Third, while I was able to cover the cost of a hotel room at the Runoffs that year, I let a couple of guys room with me that, I guess, couldn't afford it. They were very successful and promising racers with loads of talent, skills, and experience, and I knew that they were well on their way to success. I looked that those two whom I admired and saw that they had the dedication to sleep on some stranger's hotel floor, to do whatever it took to seek their goals. I saw that they had the desire to sacrifice it ALL to get where they needed to go and it was obvious they were going to get there. I looked at myself and decided that *this* was not for me, that I didn't have the dedication and motivation to do WHATEVER it took, to give ANY sacrifice to get there. Yeah, it's only a hotel room floor obtained through a mutual acquaintance, and sure, I was willing to give up a bunch, and I knew I could compete with the best talent-wise. But the hotel floor was a metaphor for their motivations and I didn't think I had that level of commitment.

During that same Runoffs week I got laid off form my job (again, and via phone call during the event!) I stopped and looked back, realized I was living for the racing, that I had no girlfriend, no really close friends, was not really close to my family, and that the last 8 years of racing had resulted in a road strewn with ex-friends, ex-girlfriends, ex-poorly-done jobs, no savings and a BUTTLOAD of debt, and no real firmed-up future in auto racing. When I tried to use my racing success collateral to obtain a ride for 1993 the responses I got were very much in line with, "Hell, yeah, we want you to drive for us. How much sponsorship are you bringing to the team?" It became painfully obvious that the old axiom of "Money talks and talent walks" was firmly based on reality.

So, I quit. I just up and quit racing after the 1992 Runoffs. Gave it up, let my SCCA membership expire, cancelled almost all of my magazine subscriptions. Sayonara motorsports.

I began a focused attempt, at age 28, of rebuilding what I had for my future. I was unemployed but I had an engineering degree and some good skillsets. I also had an interest in computers and networks, which I parlayed into a very lucrative career as a Networking Consultant. That wonderful woman and I got married. I pursued a life-long dream of getting my pilot's license and was able to buy and rebuild one of my favorite small airplanes which I still own and use regularly. I now own a home, multiple cars (including one of my favorites, a 2000 Audi S4), two dogs (no kids), I am debt-free except for my home mortgage, and my credit cards are paid off in full each month. I have a comfortable - and growing - net worth and a super job doing something real fun while being able to save up enough money to be comfortable in 25 years or so when (if!) I decide to retire.

Two years ago I began out of curiosity to find that 1992 race car. I found it covered in weeds in the back of a repair shop, sitting on a trailer, with a blown engine. I decided that I wanted to repair it and go driving again, just for fun this time. I now had the money to do it correctly, and I could make the time to do it. That car and I were back on the race track soon thereafter, and it was a sweet victory for me. I conquered the racing addiction, got my life in order, and then leveraged that into doing exactly what I was doing before, only much better. Once I recognized that I was never going to make a living as a professional race driver I was able to reorganize my life's priorities in such as way as to not diminish what I had done, but to nourish it. I now enjoy the racing as much as I did 10 years ago. In fact, I'm finding I enjoy building and preparing just as much as I did the driving.

So, while I'm not "future Stan" here to scare you into submission, I can tell you that unless you're absolutely committed 110% to trying to make this a career, and you're willing to accept likely failure in that pursuit, there are much better ways to make a living while still being able to pursue your passion of motorsports.

Oh, and those two guys who used my floor at the Runoffs? Boris Said and Peter Cunningham. Who says hard work and dedication don't pay off?

I wish you the best of luck, whatever you decide to do.

Greg Amy

Story 2
Lots of good information in this post. I especially liked Greg Amy's tale or "reprioritizing" his life after realizing just what kind of commitment it takes.

I have seen many sides of the money issue being discussed and gone through 2 or 3 different transitions with regards to my racing, so I thought I'd add my 2 cents of experience.

The only reason I ever got involved in racing was because I come from a "wealthy" (believe me there are varying degrees of that term) family. I was studying automotive engineering at college and started watching/reading about all the formula car racing I could, so my parents gave me/paid for my first 3 day professional school. As my mom said then, "if you're going to design cars, you should know how to drive them". If they had known I was going to become addicted, they probably wouldn't have done so. To their credit, they did help out with my safety equipment (even after I had shown my addiction), but never put the real weight of the family resources behind all of my racing endeavours because they "didn't approve of such an activity as a livelyhood/career." I proceeded to sink every penny of my reasonably healthy pre-inheritance (my family does try to give away as much as they can w/o incurring taxes in order to reduce estate taxes) money into increasingly more expensive racing activities. I did lots of things to learn as much as I could to make up for my late start (I was 20 when I took my first school) and reduce the costs. I raced with a school at first, then worked as a mechanic for the school so as to learn the prep/repair. When I left the school racing scene, I did all the work on/towing of my own car myself because (other than a girlfriend) there was never anyone else willing to give up so much time to it. Eventually my results were promising enough to warrant (at least in my addict mind) paying for/buying a National level FF season with leased engines from the engine shop and race shop prep support so as to find out once and for all whether I had what it takes. I did try and find sponsors, but had no success. I won't bore everyone with all the "IFs" and "COULD HAVEs", but surfice it to say that the "all or nothing" season did not provide the superstar results I needed to be signed as a pro driver. I only realized this after quitting my day job (that I had only taken because they paid more than any of the others that recruited at my college) and spending 1.5 years writing sponsor proposals while working a variety of manual labor jobs. Of course I didn't raise a dime and eventually got another engineering job and married a wonderful woman with 2 step-sons.

After 12 years of not racing and devoting my earned money (pre-inheritence "gifts" had stopped for this period too) and energy to my family, I decided to take it up as a hobby again. Owning the sports car for the street (as a substitute for racing) had just led to a lot of speeding tickets. The step-sons were grown and on their own, so there wasn't that kind of drain on the finances, or my time, anymore. I took a small part of the real inheritance from my grandmother's estate and bought the ITA car, the trailer, the motorhome, and the tools that I needed to race again, paying the "consumables" from my own disposable income. That worked for about 4 seasons, then the internet sucked me in deeper again. I read about a GAC "rent-a-ride" on some website (may have been this one) and it was going to be at the track (Mont Tremblant) where I started racing 20 years before and they had just finsihed millions of $$$$$ in renovation of the track. I was also eager to see the folks I met when working there. A little part of me was also hoping that if I had a good result, that teams would be willing to take me as a driver for the longer endurance races that needed "extra" drivers. So I signed up and ran part of 3 hour pro race with a co-driver that was so wealthy he didn't even have to have a day job and was running a few GAC events in between his PCA events before his "full-time" pro racing run in 2003. We did really well too, but of course there hasn't been any team willing to take on drivers that couldn't pay their way. The funny thing about my co-driver (that I still stay in contact with), is that his goal is just to be able to stop paying for all his racing.

Between the pro rent-a-drive and some unexpected house bills (new windows) early that winter, I realized that I could only really "afford" to race enough to keep my license the next season. That didn't bother me so much and I tried getting a weekend job as an instructor for a different pro school and a manufacturers driving event company, but none of that panned out. One local GAC team agreed to let me work the weekends (as a volunteer), but there was no pay and no guarantee that I would be going to the races (they didn't really need the help), so I stopped after just a few times. Then I read on another website (that darned internet again) about a WC team that needed extra help, part-time for the 2003 season and possibly full-time for 2004. So I signed on as a "fly-in" mechanic for a pro team. This was the first time that I ever made money racing. Not only did they pay expenses, but a small daily "salary" as well. 15 years with my company has left me with enough vacation time that I actually made the racing salary on top of my regular salary for the weekdays I had to spend doing this. I thought I wouldn't want to be a mechanic w/o driving for more than one season, but I must admit that it was enjoyable and I did make some contacts that I would have never made otherwise. One of those contacts has offered me another fly-in job in 2004 for an ALMS prototype team. Part of me says, don't bother, go back to your driving hobby (I don't have enough vacation time to wrench and drive) and stop dreaming of the "big time" and part of me says just maybe I could turn this experience into a full time racing job. Not driving, obviously, but a team manager job or manufacturer liaison job would be neat (even though they could never pay what I make now and are very insecure as far as having work every year).

One other observation I've made about GAC and WC teams with my exposure to both from 2 different perspectives. All the big multi-car teams seem to have the same make-up. One rich owner who wants to race for less than a full rent-a-ride, one "pro" driver to help with set-up and give the team some legitimacy, and at least one rental driver paying as much of the cost of the first 2 as possible. Needless to say, unless my situation changes again, I would not be a GAC or WC rental driver again.

I should add that some GAC and WC owners are just hard working racers that have turned their racing effort into a business. Congrats to those and what appears to be another example.

Story 3
This question bothered me, as did Andy's reactions to Kirk's post. It bothered (and surprised) me simply because I had made my initial post with the purest of intentions, and had not considered that someone would react in such a way. I suspect that Kirk felt the same way.

The posts that I offered were not intended to be "negative" as inferred. In fact, they were intended to be offered for exactly the opposite reason, as more of a warning than a discouragement to pursue a dream. How so? I'd say that it fits right into the mindset of "been there, done that, didn't get the t-shirt."

I've observed that motorsports, when taken to a level above "just something to do on the weekends" brings out the best and the worst in the human animal. Those that are deeply involved in motorsports - and I think that this would encompass just about everyone that is a member of this board - experience the gamut of human emotions and desires at an extreme level: pure joy, hurtful sadness, great anticipation, bitter disappointment, greed and envy, satisfaction, dissatisfaction, friendship, enemies, wonderful generosity, nasty selfishness. When taken to a higher level, such as when one decides to make a living at it, those emotions are raised to a level of survival. Somewhere along our journey we find two lines of emotional demarcation: the one where you get serious about the weekend fun, and the one where you must succeed to survive. Each time you cross one of those lines the emotions of your involvement quadruple then quadruple again.

Those that manage to experience such emotions and involvement (and ultimately escape) naturally look back to find the reasons for leaving. While inability to perform is always a concern, the primary - almost sole - reason for leaving or not entering to begin with was/is financial.

Among club racers especially, we have an attitude that if we do well, win, and look good someone is going to rescue us from among the weekend warriors and offer us a pro ride. That may have happened to Jim Clark and Dan Gurney, but that was nearly fifty years ago. It certainly does not happen today. Hell, that probably has not happened more than a handfull of times since the early 1970s. However, everyone one of us to a "T" still believes that it can happen. We still believe that if we win that next race, or the OMP Challenge, or the Spec Miata Cup, that there will be a bevy of team owners itching to get our phone number and plop us into a World Challenge car.

"Those That Have Been There" know better. We know that no matter how many times we beat the guy with the better car, he was the one to get the ride because he had the money. We know that even though we maxxed out credit cards and student loans to buy some pro rides and did exceptionally well with them that we lost the ride the following week to someone with a checkbook. We know that no matter how hard you try, "money talks and talent walks." We know that the vast majority of the Indy 500 field, the World Challenge and Grand Am field, hell, even the back half of the Formula One field is rent-a-rides in some form or another. Talent will crack open the doors, but money is what gets you past the threshold. More money will open the doors regardless of talent.

I *know in my heart* that I can drive better than that checkbook! Can you imagine the emotions that situations like this takes a person through? Can you imagine the frustration of knowing that you are capable of competiting but cannot simply because you didn't win the Lucky Sperm Lotto? I cannot imagine how many driving greats have been lost to history simply because they didn't have a father that nurtured them through karting circuit, then some feeder series, then on and on up the ladder. Look at the guys that are making it today and pick out the one that turned himself into a public corporation to buy the F1 ride, and the one that has an entire COUNTRY sponsoring him, and the one that had a father that dropped him in a kart at age 2. Find the WC guys that started in SS, bought or built WC rides with their own money, then finally managed to do well enough to get paid by the factory. On the flip side, look at racing today and find me someone that was plucked directly from club racing to become a driving great, all free of charge? There may very well be someone out there, but even ex-NYC taxicab driver "Spin N Win" Sullivan was working his ass off to back up his prodigious talent (and to his significant credit, he's working his ass off again to try and bring up the talent through the ranks).

Even the latest success story offered is a case in point. Truly a talented driver for sure, but even a win in a prominent spec class did not get him a free ride. He had to buy the last year's race car (and already has to replace a blown engine), "might as well" run the spec car again too, plus is going to run a T1 and an SBB in the National scene in 2004 on top of it all. He has great potential looming as a journeyman driver, but unless I miss my mark there's some serious personal money (and no job/life constraints) wrapped up in this program. That Spec win didn't get him free rides.

The bottom line is that professional motorsports is not some Great Society experiment where the cream will rise to the top to be skimmed off and used for grander purposes. Auto racing is a BUSINESS, and decisions are made for business reasons. Those of us on the bottom "rungs" that fail to realize this can be bitterly disappointed when we show ourselves to be the cream but find the milk being scooped out from underneath us.

Having been through the old milkpot blender certainly gives one the opportunity - if not the right - to be a cynical bastard about professional auto racing. And while it may seem rude to point out racing's "dirty little secret" (as if it were really a secret to begin with) I sincerely wish someone had pulled me aside 20 years ago and said, "Look, bud, you're a good stick but until you get the money you won't get the seat." I wouldn't have believed him, I would have called him a cynical rude bastard but maybe, just maybe, I would have kept an open mind to learn how to work the system instead of working against it.

"Negative"? It's not negative in my mind, unless your outlook is one of the motorsports optimist. No, I'd say it's the sudden welling of all the old emotions - greed, envy, excitement, disappointment, bitterness, resignation - coming back in one rising bulge upon learning of someone else taking the bulls by the horns and making their own opportunity. I personally wish the Flatout crew and everyone else that takes their shot the best of intentions, I wish I was going with you. I think you will find no one that supports a run at the brass ring more than someone that's tried it. However, no one should expect a Pollyanna-esque view of "all you have to do is be talented and try hard enough" because that just ain't reality.

If that makes me a cynical rude bastard, so be it.


Story 4
By way of an illustration of my point, humor me...

How are the bills at NayKid getting paid? Who is the decision maker at the Chevy dealer that sponsors the team? What is the motivation for a local dealer to put money into a national racing program? Is Kumho providing $anything$ besides product? Ditto the other race product sponsors? How much of the bill is covered by sponsorship from White's own business? Has NayKid put out any invitations for "funded drivers" to contact the team about rides in the past 18 months? Was it expected that the current drivers "bring something to the table?" Perhaps most to the point, how much personal, family money, or money over which they exercise spending control has each of these professionals spent to reach this point in his or her careers?

Now, I don't know the real answer to any of these questions but based on my understanding of how this business works I have some guesses. I might also be dead wrong but the fact that I'm willing to commit it to type suggests that I will be surprised if that turns out to be the case.

This is NOT to suggest that I think this is somehow bad or crooked, nor do I for one second deny the influence of hustle and hard work, where it comes to making deals like this happen.

MOST IMPORTANTLY - I am NOT suggesting that Ms. Lux or either of the other NayKid drivers doesn't have the talent to do the job behind the wheel. That is NOT what this is about.

It's simply about what I said in the second post of this topic: It is funding that allows a driver to take steps up the "ladder" in road racing.


Story 5
I would like to shed some light on the subject of jumping into the World Challenge series. I used to race in ITS in the northeast and in 1996 I decided to try a World Challenge race. I have been competiting in the series every year since. As for going from IT to WC I think that it is great and I welcome anyone. As far as the tallent end goes most of the WC drivers were tops in their class at the club level. Thats the reason most of us stepped up into the Pro ranks. For me it was a bigger challenge.

As to what it is like to go from a regional class to WC let me just say that it is a very very sobering experience. At the club level we were usually one of the top cars in ITS for several years I rarely finished out of the top 3. I am sure that is how it is for most of the WC competitors out there. The difference between the front runners and the back markers, such as myself, is money and time. How much money you ask? In order to be competitive it will cost approximately $150,000 to build a front running car. And it will cost approximately $10,000 per race to run the car. In the BMW that I drive it went from being able to run a stock motor, ECU and Bilstein shocks to having to have a $25,000 motor, $10,000 Motec unit and $6,000 in shocks. WC is not for the faint of heart or wallet. Can you run events in WC absolutely! Will you be a top 10 of 5 car probably not. Not unless you have committed the dollars and resources. Most of the top teams in Touring and GT treat the series as a full time job, Turner, Realtime and Tripoint just to name a few. For the reset of us it should be treated as a great experience with the hope of having one of those perfect weekends whereby we could sneak into the top 10 or 15.

Please do not slam anyone for trying it. As for the real side of all of those rides out there with the top teams and their press releases anouncing their driver lineups here is the truth. Most (95%) of the drivers either fund their own operation or pay to drive a car. The Tripoint team wants appox $15,000/weekend to run one of their top cars I would assume the same for the rest of the teams. Could you rent a car for less - yes will it be the same as a Tripoint, Turner or Realtime ride? I doubt it.

For us small guys trying to do this back us and root for us as we come from the same background as the rest of you.

I have personally used the series as a chance to run tracks that I would never have gone to such as Laguna Seca, Las Vegas, Portland, Texas Motor Speedway etc. I do this on the budget that suits my limits/desires. I look at a top 10 as a win based on my time/budget constraints.