I’ve often wondered in Club Racing, what separates the drivers who are consistently at the front of the pack and winning, to other drivers? Is it just the amount of money and time they can dedicate towards racing? And more importantly, how can someone who doesn’t have those resources not only compete but win? While my original intent of this article was geared to other racers like me who don’t get a lot of seat time, this information really applies just as much to those who do get more track time and are able invest more money into the car. It’s all about maximizing your resources.

May be an image of car and road
My SCCA IT car. Photo by James Ray

I often see friends and competitors in general posting on Facebook about how often they are either racing or doing track days. I’ll admit, I get frustrated as I’m not able to do that myself. I think about how my competitors are out there getting the almighty seat time, while I’m just looking at my car sitting on jack stands in the garage. That frustration starts to evolve to me feeling a bit mad and wonder how in the world can I compete against them? It’s absolutely true, the more quality seat time one has, the faster the driver will be or at least be more comfortable with what the car is doing. At the same point, my wife pointed out that I am always on the track with drivers who have a LOT more track time than I do yet beat them. This is where I need to do an unbiased self-evaluation of how I’m able to achieve the success I do and share that you, while difficult for me to do. I rarely give myself credit and always feel I should have done better.

A few years ago, I still distinctly remember walking around prior to a qualifying session at Watkins Glen. There were quite a few cars in my class entered that weekend, and there was plenty of tough competition. I ended up talking with a few people before the session began as I normally do, and they consistently asked how much racing I’ve done so far that season. It was like I had a sign on my driver’s suit that I had only participated in the Friday test day and that’s it. The guy next to me who was in my class said this is his 15th time on track this year and has been getting a lot of pro coaching! Great. Just fn’ great.

A father of another driver spoke to me and said his son has won numerous races already this year in SCCA’s central division, set a couple of track records and is looking forward to seeing him kick butt this weekend.

A big aspect of racing is mental. No doubt about it. And here I was thinking how could I possibly compete with them? Not an ideal spot to be in. When I belted myself into the car, I found myself literally shaking my head in frustration. Even writing this article, I’m shaking my head thinking about how to compensate for the lack of seat time. All I could think of was how much of an advantage they had over me. Fortunately, when I get out on the track all those thoughts about how little track time I’ve had compared to others disappears and I’m able to get into a zone.

That weekend, not only did I qualify on pole position, but I convincingly won all three races. I was psyched and a part of me wondered how I accomplished that feat. Even to this day I need to remind myself of what can be accomplished if the desire and level of commitment is there. The message here is that you absolutely can be successful in Club Racing even if you don’t have a lot of money and seat time.

This does not mean it comes easy or I haven’t put lot of effort into my program including my race car. The reality is that I have. I just learned where resources should just be spent and focused on and how to be creative in stretching what little I have available as far possible.

From the start of when I began driving at High Performance Driving Events (HPDE), I took the time to study as much as I could. This included reading racing books such as the Speed Secrets series and Going Faster. When my wife saw me with a book she knew it was a racing book as I would rarely read, but this was important to me. And yes, I know all of that is ironic given how much time and effort I’ve spent on writing this resource. Even now as an experienced driver, I pull out these books as a reminder and pickup on things I hadn’t in the past. I parallel this to watching some Disney movies where someone new (a child in this analogy) gets the overall message, but more seasoned individuals (adults) get additional nuances and messages out of the same material.

I also would take the time to talk to other drivers about how they approached various turns at tracks, and spend time watching what the fast drivers were doing at turns compared to slower drivers. There were times I couldn’t afford to race myself but was at least able to go spectate at the race and learn.

One of the important things I worked on was the ability to filter the information that I receive. What do I mean by this? There are times speaking with fast drivers they either are unable to convey how they are fast or have a different perspective than reality. Oh, you brake at the two marker for that turn? (Reality check is they brake much earlier and braking deeper isn’t necessarily the key to a fast lap.) There’s another perspective which I don’t think a lot of other racers tap into but are missing out. I like to speak with some “slow” drivers who have a good amount of experience. Don’t discount the knowledge they have just because they are not winning or based on their lap times. If you were playing football, would you judge the quality of information Bill Belichick provided you just because he wouldn’t be a good NFL player? Of course not! I’ve gained so much from other drivers who are more than willing to help, even if it’s just a small tidbit about one corner. It all adds up.

Take this even further. Who literally sees hundreds of cars taking a single turn over, and over, and over? Corner workers! They often love talking to drivers. For the turns you find most challenging tap into their knowledge as well. In most Club races (at least SCCA), if a driver walks up to a corner station in between sessions and asks if they can join the worker for a session, they are typically quite welcoming. While engaged with corner workers, ask them what they are seeing the fast drivers do that the slower cars are not doing. They have a lot more information about how to go fast than most drivers think. Beyond all of this, we couldn’t be doing this hobby without them and it’s just a nice thing to do.

Take all the information in from various sources, filter out what’s not going to help, and learn from it. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Talk with the fast drivers. You’d be surprised how much they are willing to help even fellow competitors. It also seems like almost everyone loves posting their racing videos on YouTube or another social media site. Take advantage of that! I’ll do web searches of lap record at Lime Rock Park (or whatever track) in various classes. I’ll also search for the names of drivers who are fast in my class or other similar classes and often, they have videos posted. One other racing category I watch videos on are several Spec Miata (SM) front runners’ videos. There are some fantastic drivers in Spec Miata, and that even if your car is totally different than a Spec Miata there’s a lot there to be learned.

Race Craft and Experimenting

I’ve known many drivers who are fast when they can drive the perfect line without traffic around them. While they may have mastered the fast lap using the ideal line, in wheel-to-wheel racing you often don’t have that opportunity. Even early on in my High Performance Track Driving days, I’d imagine there was another car racing me and I’d have to take a less than ideal line. I’d focus on how I could go through turns so that I don’t lose too much time, and not give the other driver my place. Then how can I set up the next turn to my advantage? I’d experiment with different lines in general and see how the car reacted when I drove over the various berms. Too slippery? I’d make note of that. (I gradually ease my way into these scenarios first starting with a relatively slow speed and work my way up.)

When I started my racing career it was in an under prepared car to say the least, in a class where it didn’t belong (it should have been in a slower class and eventually was moved), and with a super low budget. While it was tough at the time, this truly proved to be a benefit to my success. During this time, I learned another important aspect of racing. How to manage faster cars coming up from behind. There were times when it didn’t benefit either of us for the other driver to pass me at that place on the track, and I made that clear to the other driver. This can be accomplished by where you place the car, and hand gestures. There were also many times where I could lift to more easily allow them get the pass done quickly, then get behind the car and not lose much time. The faster driver also appreciates this and will feel the need to take less aggressively moves to pass you the next time. One key to all of this is to be predictable and communicate what you are doing to the other driver.

As I transformed into being a front runner, I retained all this information. When I’d approach a slower car is in front of me, I’d have a plan of when and where I wanted to make the pass. Maybe that meant I’d slow down a bit early on into a corner and then ensure I had optimum corner exit speed to make the pass on a straight. All this strategy comes into play which is what I believe truly separates a decent racer from someone with strong race craft.

Although my next suggestion doesn’t sound like it would be considered race craft, I still think of it that way. Get to know your fellow competitors. Walk around the paddock and introduce yourself. While on grid waiting, take a few minutes to say hi and wish them good luck. Of course, a primary benefit is getting to know people who share a common passion and make some amazing friends. But since we’re talking race craft and associated benefits, other drivers who can put a face to you and not just see it as another race car will absolutely drive against you differently in a positive manner. Being a front runner, I also made it a point to introduce myself to the drivers in the back of the field. I can’t count how many times those drivers made even more of an effort to allow me by when lapping them while I had another car right on my butt. And to take it even further, I know there were times they were not quite as accommodating to the other car following me. Maybe you’re thinking that’s not right, but it’s a part of sports and life in general.

Probably the most important things to acknowledge that there’s always more to learn, no matter how successful you think you are and to have fun! Hopefully this has given you some additional ideas on how to make the most of the resources you have access to.