Raising a Race Car Driver

Written by Mark Atkinson | Photos by Michael Haley on .

Raising a Race Car Driver Mark Atkinson

It’s an age-old story: racing fan watches race, sees favourite driver get punted by brain-dead rival who’s three laps down, and thinks, “My kid could do better than that!” If that scenario sounds familiar, and you’re interested in having your young in’ become the next Sebastian Vettel, Ron Fellows or Kyle Busch, consider this a primer. We’ve assembled the basics and cold-hard facts about how to get your kid from the local tracks to international superstardom, and the jaw-dropping price tags to match.

Getting Started: Karting

Raising a Race Car Driver Mark Atkinson

Whether for road racing or stock-car racing, karting is the place to get them started. They can get racing at an incredibly young age, as early as five years old for Cadet. Equipment costs about $200 for a racing suit, helmet, gloves and shoes.

Russ Bond, a host on Motoring TV, is a former racer himself and owner of the Canadian Karting League and the KartStart teaching program. Bond says that finding a good Arrive-and-Drive program is ideal. All the karter pays is a flat fee per season – generally about $1,000 – and the series looks after providing and transporting the racing gear. “That way you can find out if they have any talent or interest without spending big bucks on equipment and replacement parts,” he explains.

It’s also a good barometer of talent since the karts are randomly assigned every race weekend and good performance comes through ability and luck.

What’s next?
Raising a Race Car Driver Mark AtkinsonIf talent and funds permit, a karting series run at a local track and, eventually, regional championships are your next steps. Most tracks also serve as importers and distributors – sometimes exclusively – so it’s smarter to buy those brands raced and sold at the place you’ll race, even if they cost more than from another store. You’ll have access to better service and support, and extensive know-how and setup tips from other racers and families to draw from.

Costs start to spiral upwards very, very quickly. Some karters seriously committed to the sport spend anywhere from $5,000 to $10,000 a month, travelling across North America to race all year long. Obviously, you can run for smaller sums a year, but the chances of developing the skills necessary to become a professional racing driver without that kind of investment and seat-time is almost nonexistent.

Choosing a Discipline
Eventually, your little racer will need to decide which direction they want to expand their racing career. Generally, the transition from karting to open-wheel race cars has been the expected path, but a combination of market forces, a lack of a competitive ladder system and the dominance of NASCAR mean that stock cars are now the focus for around 80 per cent of up-and-coming racers. Starting in a four-cylinder class at a local short-track can be done for a few thousand dollars per season before moving up to more expensive classes, like Thunder Cars and Late Models. Open-wheel generally starts in regional Formula Vee or Formula Ford series, while there are countless places to start road-racing production-based cars.

Climbing the Ladder: Sports Cars

Raising a Race Car Driver Mark Atkinson

Moving up the racing ladder means more money, both for equipment and associated costs. To get a better idea of what it would cost in real door-to-door competition, we spoke with Karl Thomson, owner of Compass360 Racing (C360R.com), a professional Canadian race team that’s won its share of championships both here and in the U.S.

“Compass360 Racing has a well-defined program for up-and-coming drivers to develop into professional racers,” Thomson said. “A young driver will usually spend a few years with us driving in either Canadian Touring Car (www.touringcar.ca), or taking a single seat in the combined IMSA Continental Tire series (this series is an endurance format where each car has two drivers). Once we feel they’re ready, we’ll team them with a pro driver that they can drive with for the season; the idea being that not only will they learn how a pro operates, but they’ll also have a chance to go for a championship. It’s a bit like apprenticing. Finally, the young driver will then become one of our ‘closing’ drivers, demonstrating that they’re capable of fulfilling the role a pro has.”

While the team races Honda Civics almost exclusively, the levels of prep, entry fees and travel costs differ greatly amongst the series. You’ll need $70,000 for a full season in Canadian Touring Car, which consists of 14 races spread over seven weekends across Ontario and Quebec. Moving up to IMSA costs significantly more: $150,000 for a single seat over 12 weekends, while hiring a pro driver to share the car more than doubles the price to $350,000. Running a competitive SCCA Pirelli World Challenge campaign – up to 14 races over 7 events – is about $140,000.
Keep in mind that C360R is a top-notch championship-winning team that provides all the tools needed to make you a better racer. There are less expensive options with other teams, but don’t expect anywhere near the same level of car prep, test days and feedback.

Climbing the Ladder: Open-Wheel

Raising a Race Car Driver Mark Atkinson

It’s a similar story for open-wheel – or formula car – racing. Brian Graham is the owner of his eponymous race team, and Brian Graham Racing (www.briangrahamracing.com) is a serious outfit designed to race and win in various open-wheel disciplines. Graham suggests starting in the Ontario Formula 1600 Championship (www.formula1600.com), which averages over 20 entries per race for its 12-race, six-event series. “Our specialty is working with young drivers as they make the change to cars from karts,” he explains.

Signing up for an OFFC season with BGR costs $55,000 and includes nearly everything – including new Honda engines and importing/running California-built Piper chassis for ’14 – which simplifies things for drivers or families. “Some teams leave things like entry fees or logistical costs up to the driver/families. The only thing not covered [at BGR] is damage,” Graham says. “What we offer is a package that is capable of winning every time we go to the track. The car is dedicated to the driver for the season and starts with a fresh motor and gearbox, as well as the whole car being prepped for them…with a custom seat. Our cars come with on-board cameras, data systems and we have a former Forsythe Champ Car transporter with an engineering room to work with our engineers and driver coaching. We have a large flat-screen TV to watch the onboard video as well.”

Moving up to the US-based Cooper Tires F2000 Championship (www.f2000.com), which features similar cars but with larger, more powerful engines and front and rear wings, is significantly more expensive at $150,000 per season. There is also a new Ontario-based F2000 series that will run four events in its inaugural season beginning in June; Graham estimated costs between $60,000-$75,000.

Sponsorship Required
Raising a Race Car Driver Mark AtkinsonIf the dollar figures thrown around already make your head spin, here are more to imprint how expensive racing can be. A season-long run in Pro Mazda– an open-wheel series not far above USF2000 – is about $500,000, a full NASCAR Camping World Truck series ride starts at $600,000, and a shot at racing in the big-leagues with in the Verizon IndyCar Series starts at $20 million.

Finding sponsors to offset those costs is difficult and time consuming, and in challenging economic times, even A-list, proven race car drivers are watching the action from their couches. Once you’ve broken into professional racing, maybe five per cent of the field is getting paid to do it. The rest are either paying for a seat themselves, or have generous sponsors (or “daddy-bucks”) to pay the bills. Unfortunately, finding and nurturing sponsorship is a black art at best, and with encyclopaedias already written in its pursuit, we’ll leave it for now.

Act Professionally
Bond’s final advice? Hire a professional PR specialist and publicist. With publicity comes interest, which brings fans, which brings sponsors. But, he says to “be smart about what photos you put up on Facebook or Twitter. Google yourself and see what kinds of stories come up.” Take down anything that might prove embarrassing to anyone perusing your page while considering your sponsorship proposal.

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