Q: “I appreciate the racing/driving knowledge you generously provide and continue to provide. I have a question: how did you become a race car driver from being someone who wanted a seat in a race car, from inception to the point of transition? I, like most people, want to make my goal a reality (that’s where the realists will chuckle, but never mind them), but it’s quite difficult to see how I can make that come to fruition. Although not everyone’s path will be the same and our environments may have differed, I think having a guideline could be useful.”
A: Hmmm… that could be a very long answer! In fact, it could be an entire book in itself, but I’ll try to write something that fits here.
You’re absolutely right that there are so many different paths to take when going racing, and that’s why I can’t give you specifics here. What I can give you is the one overarching guideline, and that is, “If you want it bad enough, you’ll find the right path and approach to making it.” That might not be specific enough for you, but it’s accurate! You either pick a specific path (Road to Indy, race formula cars in Europe to go to F1, race the regional NASCAR series, work your way up through the sports car ranks, etc.) and commit totally to doing whatever it takes to make that one work, or you test various paths and do whatever it takes to make one of them work.
If I could give one other quick piece of advice, it would be to be open to whatever opportunities come along. I’ve seen some drivers say “no” to, let’s say, racing sports cars because they only wanted to end up in Indy or F1 cars – and their careers end; other drivers take advantage of the various opportunities that come along. Hey, Michael Schumacher moved into sports cars at one point in his career because the open-wheel path had stalled, and he used it to get attention, and that led to his opportunity in F1. The one thing that never changed for him was the desire to make it as far in the sport as he could – the commitment.
For me, I wanted to race Indy cars from the time I was a little kid, and I kept scratching away at every opportunity I could, and got “lucky” that a new race was added to the Indy car schedule in my hometown of Vancouver. That opened the door for some funding to come along to jumpstart a move into Indy cars. That never turned into an opportunity to drive for a competitive Indy car team, but it opened the door to a few offers to drive in IMSA, and that took off for me. I sacrificed a lot in my life to make that happen, and it’s paid off in the long run – in the very long run! – because I get to do what I love.
Before I got into Indy cars, I had driven Super-Modifieds on ovals, club racing production cars, Formula Ford, Formula Atlantic, Trans-Am, home-built sports racers, showroom stock, GT cars, and anything else I could get my hands on. Sure, I wanted to drive Indy cars, but I knew I needed to drive something until that opportunity came along. I also knew, somehow, deep down inside that I was going to race Indy cars one day. I was committed (and sometimes wondered whether I should be committed!!).
Two lessons I learned through that process that I wish I’d known earlier in my career were this: First, surround yourself with great people, and they will see how motivated and committed you are – and will be inspired to help make your goals happen. And second, race wherever you have the biggest budget. Okay, it’s doesn’t have to be exactly the biggest, but you definitely don’t want to do what I did too often, and that was race with the smallest budget. That pretty much just leads to frustration and a lack of results. If you have the budget to be a well-funded kart racer, you’re better off going there and dominating to make your name and reputation. Trying to stretch that budget racing an F4 car will likely mean you’ll be less than competitive, and no one will notice you.
Oh, and never forget why you’re doing what you’re doing: to have fun!