What do you want to be when you grow up?
I’m sure you remember hearing this question ad nauseam when you were little, just like I did. Now that I'm older, I understand why: Adults ask kids this purely for entertainment.. Kids’ attention spans are so short that if you ask them once a day for five consecutive days, you will get answers like this:
Monday – “Astronaut!”
Tuesday – “Dog!”
Wednesday – “Super Hero!”
Thursday – “Construction Worker!”
Friday – “Saturday!”
But that wasn’t me. When I was little, every time I got asked this question my answer was the same: “I want to be a race car driver.”
I never dreamt about throwing the winning touchdown in the Super Bowl. I didn’t care about being at bat 3 runs down, bases loaded, full count, in the bottom of the 9th inning in a World Series game 7. I never wanted to lead the free world or land on the moon. I just wanted to kiss the bricks at Indianapolis. I wanted a last lap pass for the win at Daytona. I wanted to survive a grueling 24 hours at Le Mans. For a while, my family and I got somewhat serious about chasing that dream. From the time I was in middle school until my sophomore year in college, I was a full time kart racer. I won a few, was consistently up on or near the podium those last few seasons, and if I say so myself, I was a halfway decent driver. But Penske wasn’t calling to give me a ride, nor was Hendrick Motorsports or Scuderia Ferrari over in Europe. After 6 years of only self (and family) funding and “Okay” but not “Once-in-a-generation” talent, we decided that it would be smart for me to sell the kart and focus on getting a degree. I could always get back into some form of racing later on, after I got settled into a “normal” career.
My story is not uncommon. For every Lewis Hamilton, there are about eleventy bajillion people like me who have the same goals but are lacking in talent, money, luck or all of the above. So…is the the end? Are all of us common folk just doomed to the tv screen, live stream or grandstands at our local race tracks? No. Of course not. Fortunately, there are a plethora of ways for us wannabe-Jeff Gordons to scratch that itch and feel the thrill of competition.
This past winter I went out and bought another kart, trailer and all the fixins it takes to go racing again. Because I was starting fresh, I thought it was the perfect time to try a different class of kart that I’d never driven before. New motor. New chassis. New weight limit. New handling characteristics. New everything. But it’s all good, because I wasn’t chasing a dream this time. 10 years removed from my last race and at 30 years of age, this was about having a good time and seeing if I can still do it without embarrassing myself. And after only 4 races this year, with hopefully one more before we close up shop for the long winter months, I can check both of those objectives off the list. Now, my return to racing wasn’t without some trials and tribulations. My first race weekend I got hit so hard on my left side that my left front tire was cut and my left control arm was bent. That was expensive. In my third race I experienced some kind of motor mount issue, so my engine was sliding around on my chassis as I was driving alone. Just slopping around back there. Not safe at all. If we didn’t figure that issue out, I’d be shut down for the rest of the year for sure. But in race number 4, I got on the box. A podium! 3rd out of 13 in my class. Yeah, it’s just a local club karting event. But considering I’m only 4 races in to a completely new kart/engine package and coming off of a decade hiatus, that felt damn good! At this point in my life I don’t NEED my face carved into the Borg Warner Trophy or stand on top of the podium in the Royal Box at Monaco. I can get that same satisfaction 20 minutes from my house, racing with the normal folks just like me.
Karting is a fantastic way for racing dreamers to feel the speed and fuel the competitive fire like the pros do at a fraction of the cost. To get everything in my garage, I spent just north of $6k. That’s up front cost that I don’t need to spend again. From here on out, it’s gas, oil, a couple sets of tires per year, spare parts as needed (hopefully not often) and race entry fees. Nothing crazy. The cost is probably similar to that of an annual membership at a golf club, but racing is way more fun. Just like a real race car, on a kart you have to dial in your setup with camber or caster, ride heights, tire pressure, gear ratios, weight distribution and more, while accounting for track and weather conditions on race day. Just like Scott Dixon or any of racing’s best, you need to be smooth, hit your brake and turn-in points and fend off or pass the competition if you want to see the checkered flag first. Despite my little sales pitch here, you still may not think karting is for you, but fear not! There are plenty of other options.
If you think that karting isn’t close enough to the real thing, there are plenty of options for you with actual cars. Just Google the local race tracks in your area and you’ll find plenty of road racing, oval or dirt racing venues with multiple classes that cater to different budgets and skill levels. You can buy an old Civic or Saturn 4 cylinder and race it on asphalt or dirt ovals for relatively cheap. If you have the budget (or a sponsor) and the desire, you can spend 6 figures on a super late model with over 600hp and race with the best short track drivers in the country. If you want to go road racing, look into SCCA, NASA or AER racing series. They are all club level organizations with regional events catered to amateur or semi-pro racers. They all have multiple classes to compete in, so whether you have Porsche 911 or a Mazda Miata, they will always have a place for you. But maybe you’re on a budget so small that…well…you have no budget. No worries, friends! You can get your fix digitally as well.
While Sony and Microsoft have plenty of driving games on their consoles, I would recommend looking at driving simulators available online, like R Factor or iRacing. I’m an iRacing member myself. For a $199 annual subscription, plus roughly $12 for every a la carte car or track you wish to download at your discretion, you can race against petrol heads from all over the world from the comfort of your own living room. Cars and tracks are all laser scanned and approved by the powers-that-be in the sport, so everything is about as realistic as it can get without getting into a real car. When you are charging through The Esses at Suzuka, you better believe you’re seeing and feeling the same thing as the pros are when they are competing in front of thousands of fans. How realistic is it? Well, William Byron, who is a rookie in NASCAR’s premier Monster Energy Cup Series, was discovered by Dale Earnhardt Jr. a few years ago BECAUSE he was so dominant on iRacing. He turned his passion into a legitimate career. As you may recall, friend of the podcast and NASCAR Xfinity Series’ most popular driver (VOTE NOW) Josh Bilicki swears by it as a tool to learn a new track before his actual car rolls off the trailer.
Let’s face it: just like any other pro sport, it is extremely hard to make a career out of racing cars. We can’t all be Jimmie Johnson, and attention parents: NEITHER CAN YOUR CHILD. Stop trying to live vicariously through them! Uh…the point is, no matter your skill level or budget you can still participate actively in the sport you love. It may not be Indianapolis, Daytona or Le Mans, but that track down the street can give you all the same thrills and satisfaction that you need. So get out there and give it a try! I’ll see you there.