I Went to Racing School and Unexpectedly Joined a Race Team
What followed would be one of the best experiences of my life, and less expensive than you might assume.
The December sun had just risen over the horizon, giving the old track a sepia hue. As I drove through the gate of Laguna Seca Raceway, a tingle of anticipation (and trepidation) made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. This was it; I was finally fulfilling a lifelong ambition to go to racing school and at Laguna Seca, no less! I drove into the paddock and was surprised to find no evidence of a Skip Barber School. Just a group of agitated people. Three hours went by before anyone from Skip Barber even showed up. The first instructor who did show made a brave go at it. He was also completely honest.
Skip Barber Racing School was preparing to file for bankruptcy.
Skip Barber was bankrupt. The instructors, wary of going unpaid, had been talking with the management, and after some hasty promises, the school would go on. What followed is perhaps worthy of its own story. Suffice to say, Thomas Merrill, a highly competent lead instructor, turned up with a freewheeling ex-NASCAR guy, and we ended up on a bit of a fast-track, in every sense. It was a superb three days and looking back - I wouldn’t change a thing.
You meet all types at events like these, but at racing school, you can be sure that we all have a pretty high opinion of our driving abilities, and although no one will admit it, we all want to be the fastest. A few were young, with genuine racing aspirations. Most, like me, were middle-aged, chasing unfulfilled racing aspirations. At $5,000 a seat, it's the middle-aged dream chasers that keep these firms in business (or not, in this case). As the course unfolded, the competition built. By day three, several of us were setting the pace. Cale Engelage was the man to beat, Mike Sun and Sergio Sierra were also fast (the young guns), and I was doing pretty well for a middle-aged dream chaser.
Sunrise over Chuckwalla Valley Raceway
"Aim for the tree" - Dropping into the 'Corkscrew' at Laguna-Seca
Chump Car Endurance Series
Champ Car (formerly Chump Car) is an amateur racing series (no experience or SCCA license required), and Chuckwalla Valley hosted the first race of the Western 2017 season. They run an endurance race format, and race weekends typically combine two, seven-hour races or the occasional 24-hour race. Perfect for neophytes on a budget like us because teams of three or four drivers can split the costs, still get plenty of seat time, and, in theory, success is not solely dictated by horsepower and skill but also on tactics and car preservation.
Our Mazda RX7, bought from racingjunk.com for the princely sum of $4,000, was already a seasoned campaigner (a generous description of our thoroughly used sports car). An old 1.6-liter MX-5 engine had long since replaced the original rotary unit, and there wasn't a single straight body panel to behold. We were the only team without a two-way radio, relying on a rag tied to a broom handle to call in our drivers, and we were the only team sleeping in tents. Everyone else had pitched up in an RV. None of it mattered. It was truly epic. Our Mazda, though relatively slow, proved to be incredibly reliable, and we finished fourth in class.
Mission Motorsport Racing Team
It was the end of class on the final day. I was watching as our race cars were loaded onto a truck, still hot from the track, now assets in an unfolding Chapter 11 case, when Mike and Sergio ambled over. They asked me if I’d like to join their racing team, Mission Motorsports. I think I laughed initially. I was flattered but pointed out the undeniable mismatch between the contents of my bank account and the cost of motor racing.
Just two weeks and two days later, I was sitting in our race car, in pit-lane, at Chuckwalla Valley Raceway. Sergio was shouting some last-minute advice through the window netting as the rest of the field screamed down the straight next to me. I was about to drive onto a properly ‘hot track’, for the first time ever, in a car I’d never driven, on a course I didn’t know, and I couldn’t hear a word he was saying. Everything was drowned out by the sound of engines and the blood pumping through my brain. But, as I rounded turn one, the lessons learned at Skip Barber were still fresh in my mind. I lifted my vision and settled into my two-hour stint, finding the breaking points, the better lines, and following the more experienced drivers when I could.
The Chump cockpit
Sonoma, and the first big off.
At Sonoma Raceway, a fourth driver joined the team. A talented mechanic, which is a huge asset on any amateur racing team. Unfortunately, his driving skills did not match his engineering skills, and he crashed hard at the chicane on his very first lap. We crowded around the recovery truck as they brought our bent RX7 back into the paddock. The silence said it all; the race and the weekend were over. The righthand rear control arm had bent, and the tie rod had snapped. But this is Chump Car, and we exchanged a case of beer for a replacement control arm with another team, while the mechanic redeemed himself by somehow welding the tie rod back together without a welding tool. We finished the race, but that was the last we saw of the mechanic.
Sergio, checking the harness before my run.
And then we bought a Porsche...
Naturally, we had started discussing ways to make the Mazda quicker, but, as with all race cars, everything superfluous to speed had already been stripped out of it, even the heater and windshield wipers. So, reducing weight was not an option. We could fit a turbo or maybe buy a new engine, but no, we went back to racingjunk.com and picked up a Porsche 944. And let me tell you, this is the only issue with amateur racing. You still want to win, and inevitably that means dollars. Still, the Porker was only $4,000 (perhaps the standard in destroyed race cars), and it came with a spare engine. If anything, it was in a worse state than the RX7, and, sadly, it did not perform well at Willow Springs Raceway, its inaugural event. Steeped in racing history, Willow Springs is a tricky old track, with one of the fastest, scariest corners in racing. It remains much the same as it did in the ’60s, and the outfield is a rough, boulder-strewn desert. On day two, Sergio had a big off and killed the Porsche.
The Starting Grid for the final race at Laguna Seca
Mike Sun working on the Porsche 944 before its first race with Mission Motorsports at Willow Springs.
Waiting for my first wet race.
The Starting Grid for the final race at Laguna Seca
Sergio had received notice of his imminent posting to Afghanistan, and so, we signed up for one last race back at Laguna Seca. Cale joined us as a fourth driver and would prove to be the fastest of us once again. We decided to run the RX7, but this time would be different. We had thrown a turbo on it. Spirits were high. Finally, Mission Motorsports would be competitive. I should mention, none of us are mechanics, and without any time or place to test our slapdash engineering, we had to go racing with our fingers crossed. The results were fantastic; for about two minutes, and then we blew an oil seal. I crept around the track, leaving a slick in my wake.
We started the second (and our final) race back where we started with Mission. Our normally-aspirated RX7, gamely charging around Laguna Seca, rarely overtaking anything but reliably letting us bounce it off the rev-limiter for seven hours straight. A podium finish would elude us once again. But as the sun was setting, I sipped a cold beer and watched the various teams hook up their trailers and head back to their regular working lives and realized, although a podium finish would have been nice, it was never really the point. It was pure escapism. The intense thrill of speed. A chance to test the limits of skill and nerve, and meet your fears when you surpass them, and above all, it was the best in camaraderie. For a handful of weekends a year, you’re a race car driver, and what's better than that?
Mission Motorsport - from left, Me, Cale, Mike & Sergio
Amateur Endurance Racing – Costs and Requirements
Firstly, I recommend you start at racing school, or, at the very least, get a few track days under your belt. Secondly, you will need two or three like-minded mates who also have the flexibility to drive hundreds of miles after work on a Friday night to some distance racetrack and not return until Sunday night, at least a thousand dollars poorer. Okay, I said it is less expensive than you might assume, but it is still motor racing, and it’s going to be the best money you ever spent.
At least three organizations are running amateur endurance racing leagues in the US. Champ Car, Lucky Dog, and 24 Hours of Lemons. They all require similar minimum vehicle and personal equipment specifications. Generally, race cars must incorporate an approved roll cage, a five-point harness, racing seat, fire extinguisher system, etc. Drivers must have an approved fireproof suit, helmet, boots, and gloves; and use a Hans Device.
Choose a league and check out the vehicle and personal gear requirements.
Buy a race car. We went to racingjunk.com but there are several websites focused on race-spec cars (already equipped with a roll cage etc.) Expect to spend at least $4,000.
Buy your gear. Check out your chosen league’s sponsors who regularly offer driver deals. Expect to spend between $1,500 and $3,500.
For the races: track fee (approx. $300 per driver), tires, and gas.
I strongly suggest you invest in a pair of Quickfill Dump Cans, or you’ll be refueling while everyone else is racing.
Get yourself a rag and a broom handle (or, if you’re feeling flush, a two-way radio).