Q: “Hey, I have a quick question. I can’t remember if I read it from the book you wrote or one of your online conversations/blogs, but I think somewhere you stated that starting in an open wheel car was the best way to start off racing. Is there any specific reason why this is the case in your eyes?”
A: What one learns in an open-wheel car will apply to any car one drives in the future; that can’t be said about driving a closed-wheel, production-based car. The finesse a driver develops when driving an open-wheel car will benefit in any car.
Open-wheel cars (actually, any purpose-built race car, which includes closed-wheel, prototype race cars like sports racers and LMP cars) respond quicker to a driver’s actions than do a production-based car. Production cars have more isolation between the driver and tires, and that restricts some of the response to and from the driver. Therefore, in a production-based car a driver can do something – good or bad – with the controls, and not really notice the difference. In a purpose-built race car, the driver will know and learn what worked and what didn’t. And the key in that last sentence is the word “learn.”
Therefore, a driver will learn more in less time in a purpose-built car about what works and doesn’t work, what techniques and skills result in what is desired, and how to read what the car is doing. Drivers of purpose-built cars develop the sensitivity to the limits of the car and tires better. And all of that will apply to any and all cars driven after that.
Of course, there are always exceptions to the rule, and there are some really great drivers who have never driven a purpose-built, open-wheel car. But the odds suggest that if he/she ever got in one, they would not be as good as a driver who learned in a purpose-built race car.
Logically, this is absolutely true. I am lead instructor for the open wheel and sports racer group at my local SCCA Racing License school, and also race in a sports racer. They are as pure as racing gets.
BUT, and this is a big but, someone getting into racing is also diving into a new hobby, and that hobby has a multitude of choices and options. Choosing open wheel introduces a number of challenges that people need to understand. They’re harder to support and repair than the basic Spec Miata. They can’t be brought out to most track days for practice due to safety rules. And, they have no home in NASA (which is all closed-wheel) and are a shrinking part of SCCA, so you need to find another organizer to find races. Lastly, they’re hard to buy and sell.
I’m not advocating against open wheel. I just think a new racer could waste a lot of time and money if s/he isn’t aware of the full picture.
Hard to buy?
This seems like a good opportunity to suggest getting some seat time behind the wheel of a race kart.
Although, admittedly, not all of the vehicle dynamics will directly apply, the reaction time needed will, along with the sense of speed.
Plus, seattime in a race kart is demonstrably less expensive than trying to get seat time in an open wheel car. $4000 to $6000 can get you a very competitive kart, and a set of new tires are $250.
Karts are effectively smaller open wheel cars than give you 3g of mechanical grip.