I Went to Racing School and was Invited to Join a Budget Racing 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 not a little 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, no one had been paid, but promises had been made and the school would go on. What followed is perhaps worthy of its own story. Suffice to say, a couple of hours later 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, a handful of us had been 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 each weekend is broken down into 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 based purely on power 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 way to describe a thoroughly used sports car). The original rotary engine had long since been replaced with an old 1.6-liter MX5 unit, and just about every panel had a dent in it. 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.
Sonoma, and the first big off.
At Sonoma Raceway, we were joined by a fourth driver. A talented mechanic, which is a huge asset on an amateur racing team. Unfortunately, his driving skills did not match his engineering skills, and he crashed hard at the chicane, on his first lap. We crowded around the recovery truck as they bought our bent RX7 back into the paddock. The silence said it all: the race and the weekend were over. One of the rear control arms was 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.
Mission Motorsport Racing Team
It was the end of class on the final day. I was watching the race cars being loaded onto a truck, still hot from the track and now assets in an unfolding Chapter 11 case when Mike and Sergio ambled over and 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 clear 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, 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 pit-lane. I was about to drive out 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, wherever possible, following the more experienced drivers.
The Chump cockpit
Sergio, checking the harness before my run.
And then we bought a Porsche...
Naturally, we had started talking about how to make the Mazda quicker, but like all race cars, everything superfluous to racing had already been stripped out of it, even the heater and windshield wipers. So, reducing weight wasn’t 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, unfortunately, it didn’t perform well at its inaugural event, Willow Springs Raceway. Willow Springs is steeped in history, and it's a tricky old track with one of the fastest, scariest corners in racing. It remains much the same as it was in the ’60s and the outfield is a rough, boulder-strewn desert. On day two, Sergio had a big off and killed the Porsche.
Mike prepping the Porsche
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 we had thrown a turbo on it. Spirits were high, finally, Mission Motorsports could 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 the oil seal and I crept around the track leaving a slick in my wake.
We started the second, and final, race back where we began 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 allude us once again, but as the sun set, a cold beer in hand, I watched the various teams hook up their trailers and head back to their regular working lives, and realized a podium finish, although nice, was never the point. It was pure escapism. The lure of speed, the thrill of testing your limits and meeting the fear when you reach them, and above all, the camaraderie. For a handful of weekends each 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 will be the best money you ever spent.
There are at least three organizations running amateur endurance racing leagues in the US. Champ Car, Lucky Dog, and 24 Hours of Lemons. They all have similar minimum vehicle and personal equipment specifications. Broadly speaking, this means race cars must be fitted with an approved roll cage, five-point harness, racing seat, fire extinguisher system, etc. and drivers must have an approved fireproof suit, helmet, boots and gloves, and 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).