How to go from also-ran to national champion | 10 tips from pro racer and driving coach Todd Lamb

By Guest Writer
Dec 10, 2022 | SCCA, NASA, Todd Lamb | Posted in News and Notes | From the Aug. 2014 issue | Never miss an article

Photography Credit: Wes Duenkel

Story by Todd Lamb

Whether you’re pondering a pro ride or just want to climb the competition ladder, winning a national championship is often part of the dream. Before entering the pro ranks with both the Pirelli World Challenge series and IMSA, Todd Lamb made that dream come true: He captured two Spec Miata national titles with NASA and finished fourth at the SCCA Runoffs. He also has an SCCA Playboy Mazda MX-5 Cup title to his credit. 

Looking for a shortcut to the next level? Feel free to crib from his notes.

1. Do Your Driving Homework

Take care of your car and it’ll take care of you, says multi-time champ Todd Lamb. Do all your maintenance and use tried-and-true parts. Now is not the time for untested secret weapons. Photography Credit: Chris Clark

First, you must bring your A game. Everything must be in sync for this one event. You have to be mentally focused, completely prepared and physically equipped for all circumstances. You can’t control the circumstances, but you can be ready with a predetermined course of action for the majority of situations that may arise.

Read the supps, detailed event info, event- and venue-specific rules, race format information and schedules. Verify any critical info–such as schedule changes–when you arrive at the event. Know when and where the drivers meetings are going to be. 

Don’t spend too much time worrying about what your competitors are doing. If you focus on doing the best you can do, the rest will fall into place. There are a lot of competitors who play mind games, feed you misinformation, and otherwise try to get you mentally off your game. Don’t pay too much attention to that. Better yet, find a way to use it to your advantage. 

Don’t get sucked into making unnecessary changes, and don’t forget the basics. At the Runoffs, there is so much time to overthink the setup. At NASA, the schedule is pretty busy each day, so it is easy to overlook routine tasks. 

Try to play out various racing scenarios in your head. You can’t predict everything, but it helps to be somewhat prepared. Think about passing zones and places where you can defend–not block–a pass. If you get a bad start, will you charge through the field and take big risks or stay calm and work your way to the front? Will you work with another driver, possibly drafting together? What if you get separated from your teammate? What if cars from other classes get mixed in with your class? When will you catch lapped traffic? What will you do if it rains midrace? Having at least a basic plan for these scenarios will lessen your need to make a hasty, often-incorrect decision on the fly. 

2. Choose the Right Class

You could pick a small, lightly contested class to go for a national championship, but it is more meaningful to win against a bigger group. I am particularly fond of spec classes because those usually come down to driver and setup, which translates well for pro racing skills.

3. Care for Your Car

Be sure your engine is tuned, fresh and properly maintained. Don’t forget tuning to the specific track altitude and likely weather conditions. The car also should be in top condition heading into the race weekend. All the maintenance should be done well ahead of time and all the wear items replaced. Don’t forget the simple things, like a new air filter and wiper blades.

Since you’ve been keeping exceptional notes all season, you know your car and its sweet spot for setup. If you find yourself deviating too far from what has made you successful throughout the season, it’s time to go back to the baseline setup.

For the setup, you need to be precise: If you have the time, recheck the setup after every session. At a minimum, you should be checking the car setup on the scales at the end of each day to make sure nothing has been knocked out of alignment. Every millimeter counts at a championship event. Nut and bolt the car, and do a visual check on wear items.

Don’t decide to rebuild the entire car the week before the big race–you’ll want at least one shakedown weekend to make sure everything is ready. Heading out of Turn 1 during qualifying is not the time to find out that you installed the clutch incorrectly or that the new transmission is missing fourth gear. 

Don’t go to the big race with test or untried parts–testing was for the rest of the season. Installing the newest, unproven trick part for a championship race is the best way to ensure that part’s failure at the worst possible time. Stick with dependable parts when it is all on the line for a championship.

Make sure you have all the typical spares available. It helps to have manufacturers or vendors who bring a support trailer to the track, but you can’t count on them having exactly what you’ll need.

Be sure to fill out all the contingency paperwork, and make sure the proper decals are on your car. You’ll want to take advantage of all the contingency money and products available.

4. Read the Rules

Make sure your car meets the rules before you show up–and know the rules yourself. Photography Credit: Alan Cesar

Be sure you know the rules for your class and series. There are times when a protest may be necessary, as people tend to push the limits a bit more when it comes to big races. This could be a protest from or against you, so be prepared to take action as well as defend yourself.

Make sure you bring a compliant car, too. If you finish on the podium at the big show, you are very likely to spend plenty of time tearing your car apart for inspection. It would not be fun to lose a race in the tech shed.

5. Keep in Touch

Have someone on the radio to call lap counts and green flags. Photography Credit: Alan Cesar

Having someone on the radio to call the green, give time spreads, call lap counts and otherwise give encouragement can be very helpful for the big show. You’d be amazed at how quickly you can throw it all away when you’re leading a race and your mind starts to wander to victory lane before you cross the finish line.

Having a friendly voice on the radio giving useful information is a great way to stay focused and avoid panic.

6. Test Your Track Knowledge

It is very helpful to be familiar with the track. Run a race–or several–at the track before the championship event to get the setup dialed in and get an understanding of the tires and other equipment that can vary. Maybe older tires, scuffs or stickers are best at that particular track. You don’t want to spend a qualifying session or qualifying race trying to figure it out.

If there are test days, run them. You don’t have to run every session of every day, but repetition and building muscle memory is very conducive to feeling like driving the track is a natural undertaking. That will allow you to focus on setup, track conditions, passing and other factors that require your attention. It also can be helpful to enter your car in another class if it is eligible, which will allow you to use the additional sessions for testing and practice time.

Be prepared for the local weather: rain or shine, heat or cold. Both the NASA Championships and SCCA Runoffs historically have had their share of mixed weather.

7. Trust Your Crew

You’ll want to use the same people who got you to the big show. I was fortunate to work with OPM Autosports, East Street Automotive, SafeRacer, Traqmate and Cobalt Friction Technologies for three seasons. The crew’s familiarity with my car and its nuances was very helpful in making setup changes and quickly diagnosing mechanical issues.

8. Keep Tabs on Your Tires

Create a tire plan that leaves you with the best set of tires for the championship race. Think backward from there, and your tire plan should fall into place.

Order your tires well in advance and plan for an extra set. Heat-cycle them ahead of time, if needed for performance. Be sure to account for replacing a damaged tire, and make sure you have a set of rain tires–or preferably two sets, in case a drying track in qualifying chews one up.

9. Win It: NASA National Championships

Up until the championship race, the focus is on consistency, as qualifying determines starting positions, and qualifying-race finishing positions determine the grid for the championship race. 

One bad qualifying race and you’ll only be lined up midpack for the main event instead of in the back. So if you DNF, you aren’t completely out of the hunt. You can take a little more risk up until the championship race, but then winner takes all, so a clean drive and perfect setup will get you to the podium

10. Win It: SCCA Runoffs

The focus here is on the one or two ideal qualifying sessions–usually early in the morning, when the air is cool–and getting in one fast lap. Then the mission becomes winning one race, and any little slip-up, contact or mechanical issue throws away all that hard work. It is a long race, and being patient, avoiding others’ mistakes and eliminating risk are the keys to success.

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