Going Pro

By Tim Suddard
Jan 27, 2009 | Posted in Drivetrain | From the Nov. 2006 issue | Never miss an article

The recently televised NFL Draft was filled with suspense. ESPN recounted emotional stories of how each football player had to overcome obstacles to become a first-round draft pick. One of the most memorable stories involved a player who overcame severe eye problems and childhood ridicule to win the Heisman Trophy.

What these football players had in common was that they followed the same basic path to the pros. They showed promise in Pop Warner football, matured into star athletes in high school and became gridiron gods in college. Their entire football career could be easily tracked, analyzed and rated by NFL scouts.

In football, hard work and tenacity pays off. The minimum annual starting salary in the NFL is $275,000, and many players have contracts that pay seven figures or more per year. Considering that there are 32 NFL teams with 53 players on each roster, this means that 1696 NFL football players will earn at least a quarter million dollars per year. The top players will make 10 times that amount.

It would be wonderful if road racing also had a single, clear path to the professional ranks. However, the harsh reality is that there is no one road to the top. More bad news: More Americans make a living playing football than racing sports cars.

Before you replace your Spec Miata and floor jack with shoulder pads and a cup, there are still ways to earn a living with sports cars. While there is no single route to the pro ranks, there are various ways to make the transition from amateur to professional.

Some paths will work for you, some will not. Pick the one that best suits your personality, lifestyle, finances, job skills and educational background. Once you have formulated a plan to suit your particular situation, execute your plan with ambition and tenacity.

Going Pro: How Is It Done and What Is Expected?

While oversized novelty checks and trophy girls make for great photos, don’t expect the income to outweigh the costs of becoming a pro at first.

While oversized novelty checks and trophy girls make for great photos, don’t expect the income to outweigh the costs of becoming a pro at first.

Once a college football player turns pro, he can never go back and play college ball. Road racers, on the other hand, are generally allowed to move between the amateur and pro ranks without consequence. In fact, this is what most amateur road racers do when they break into the pro ranks. They wade into the water to see if they can swim with the sharks.

In anticipation of turning pro, some amateurs put money aside to rent a seat in a professional endurance race. Many beginning drivers would like to rent a seat in a GT car for the Sebring or Daytona endurance races, which is a commendable idea until prices are discussed: A seat in a competitive GT-class car at Daytona rents for about $50,000. You may want to set your sights a tad lower. (On the plus side, here’s a place where sports car racing does have an advantage over pro ball: You can buy your way into the world’s most prestigious events.)

Grand-Am Cup is probably the most affordable professional endurance series today. Street Tuner class seats rent for about $7500 (plus insurance) per weekend and there are generally two drivers per car. While this may sound pricey by amateur club racing standards, it is not when you consider what a good pro team has to pay for the pit crew, pneumatic power tools, tow rigs, tires, spares, etc. Fields of 60 to 100 race cars make Grand-Am Cup a very competitive class. An experienced team can help you make it to the podium. If you win enough, you are bound to be noticed by the other teams. Some of these teams may have the budget to pay you to drive.

What also makes the Grand-Am Cup attractive as an entry-level pro series is that Grand American was founded by the France family of NASCAR fame. Relative to other organizations, they do a pretty good job of promoting the series. You get some television coverage, and the Rolex Sports Car Series  shares venues with the Grand-Am Cup cars. Hence, this is the perfect place to be if you are an aspiring pro driver.

So, does an SCCA or NASA champion always pay for his early pro rides, or does he ever get the seat for free—or even better, might he even be paid to drive a race car? Well, there are no hard and fast rules.

First, the amateur will probably test with the team and much will depend on his performance. If he is moderately quick, he will probably pay for the seat on most teams. If he is very quick and very consistent, he may well get to drive for free. If he is remarkably quick, very consistent and can outrun the fastest team driver, he may have his lodging and travel expenses paid, plus get a share of the purse if his car wins. Different teams make different deals depending upon his assessed value to the team. (Even though this is billed as “pro” racing and there are payouts, not everyone out there is making a living at this level.)

However, testing is only the amateur driver’s first trial. During practice and the race, he will also be evaluated on his traffic skills, consistency, ability to conserve the race car, communication skills and compatibility with the team. These latter criteria should not be discounted. Crew chiefs can often make or break a driver who is gunning for the pro ranks.

Jobs for the Aspiring Pro Racer

A good career choice for the aspiring racer is to become a professional driving instructor.

A good career choice for the aspiring racer is to become a professional driving instructor.

Since few race drivers move directly from amateur road racing to the professional ranks, it is good to have a day job that is compatible with your racing goals. Here are some examples of these jobs, beginning with those that have proved most successful in road racing. If these careers will not work for you, for whatever reason, we have some other vocations that may be worth a look.

First, a disclaimer: The earnings estimates and numbers employed in each category that follows are based upon a sampling of pro drivers and team owners we interviewed. Since most contracts have nondisclosure agreements, we will not disclose a specific driver’s earnings.

If you are a very successful road racer who is dissatisfied with your current job and you are willing to relocate, one of the following jobs might be ideal for you. The upside to these vocations is that you work with fellow race drivers and you get loads of seat time.

Two of the downsides are that the starting pay is low and much of the seat time you get is from the passenger seat. The biggest drawback is that you often instruct students who are: a) totally clueless; b) totally unable to hear (or so it seems); or c) totally convinced that they can break the course record—even though they haven’t a clue how to do it.

High Performance Driving Instructor: Being a good race driver is not enough. To be a good high performance driving instructor, you must also know how to convey racing techniques in a clear and concise manner. If you are a graduate of one of the big schools, then you have an edge, since you have already seen what it takes to be a professional driving instructor.

It is strongly suggested that you volunteer as an instructor for the SCCA or NASA before you apply for work at a race driving school. First, it looks good on your résumé. Second, you may not like instructing as much as you thought you would, and this is a good way to find out. Finally, in the interest of self-preservation, learn how to control a car from the passenger seat, using only the steering wheel, shift lever (if in an automatic car) and E-brake. You will be doing this a lot.

Some driving schools pay by the hour and some pay by the day. One of the driving schools that pays hourly starts its novice instructors at $11 to $15 per hour, based on experience. Advanced instructors receive $20 to $25 per hour. At this particular school, instructors are full-time employees who also receive medical, dental and vacation benefits.

Other schools traditionally pay on a per-day basis, and most instructors are not considered full-time employees. Hence, there are no benefits. Beginning rates range from $175 to $350 per day, depending on the race driver’s teaching and racing experience. At the very top of the food chain, one driving school pays up to $1000 per day; however this rate is reserved for professional drivers with extensive race driving and teaching credentials. We estimate there are 400 to 500 real professional driving instructors in the U.S.

Ride and Drive Events: There are two types of ride and drive events, “consumer” and “dealer.” As a novice going into this field, you would be smart to begin with consumer events, because there are far more positions available for these programs. We estimate that 800 to 1000 drivers are on event marketing company lists of approved precision drivers.

As a contract driver on these programs, you will be required to travel extensively. However, your travel, lodging and rental car expenses will be covered by the event marketing company that hired you. They, in turn, are the prime contractor for the program, which could be for any one of the auto makers.

Besides riding in the right seat and making sure participants are safe and in control, you will also be required to provide product information, dispense driving tips and set up tents and autocross courses. Ride and drive events range from mild to wild, depending on what the program requires. At some off-road programs, SUVs travel at speeds below 25 mph, while at some on-track programs, such as the annual Viper Invitational, vehicle speeds may exceed 130 mph—and you’re in the right seat.

The pay for ride and drive events ranges from $225 to $500 per day, depending on your experience and skill level. The events can run from 10 to 70 days per year, so it is advisable to keep your day job. There is no easy way to find which events are upcoming, so it is best to go on the manufacturers’ Web sites to monitor them. Also, once you’re in the loop, so to speak, it’s easier to find out about upcoming events.

Personal Coaching: Generally speaking, personal driving coaches are current or former instructors or professional drivers. Thus, technically, this is not an entry-level position for an amateur road racer. However, if you are a three-time SCCA Divisional points champion or NASA Divisional champion (or better), then you may find a niche as a driving coach in smaller markets where few professional drivers reside.

However, there is much more to driver coaching than driving ability. As mentioned previously, you must be able to convey what you know in a clear and concise manner. You must also be able to diagnose a car’s handling problems and correct a student’s driving weaknesses. If you can do this, you may be able to earn between $500 and $1000 per day as a driving coach. Since most driving coaches are either pro drivers or driving instructors who are moonlighting, we have no estimated numbers for the number of coaches out there.

Let Renters Fund Your Ride

If your talents tend toward the mechanical and you can muster the needed capital, you might be able to start your own team, allowing you to rent rides to others for income.

If your talents tend toward the mechanical and you can muster the needed capital, you might be able to start your own team, allowing you to rent rides to others for income.

If you are a great mechanic or fabricator, this may be your best way to break into the pro ranks. Tom Gloy, PD Cunningham and the Nonnamakers, all of whom are excellent drivers, decided that owning race cars and renting/leasing out the seats worked for them. Why? Everyone wants to race cars, but few people want to maintain them.

No matter which end of this deal you are on, renter or owner, you are probably going to come out the better for the experience. As a renter, you get a seat in a well-prepared race car, plus you get expert advice from a professional race driver. As an owner/driver, you screen your clients and rent seats to the most qualified drivers. The owner/driver helps his clients get faster; he can also race and share the purse. 

While the $50k rental price for a GT seat at an endurance race may sound attractive to a potential team owner/driver, the initial cost for this race car and its maintenance expenses are staggering. It is suggested that you start small as a race car owner/driver with a more affordable car, such as a Grand-Am Cup or Speed World Challenge series race car. While your seat rental revenue is less, so is your capital investment and downside risk.

Find a Personal Sponsor

Automotive companies hold ride and drive events, and they need qualified hands to run the show and demonstrate driving talent.

Automotive companies hold ride and drive events, and they need qualified hands to run the show and demonstrate driving talent.

More amateurs have started racing professionally with funding from friends and family than through any other route. If you have a wealthy friend or relative who has always wanted to own or drive a race car, this is your best avenue into pro racing. Since you are an experienced driver, you can walk your friend through the licensing process. After his check has cleared, you can rent a seat or buy a race car and tow rig.

For the sake of your friendship, make no outrageous promises. Plant no visions of lucrative race purses. This is road racing, not NASCAR. The purses range from small to smaller. Your race team should be founded on two things: “This could be a good advertising write-off for you” (depending on your friend’s business and how the race team is legally structured) and “We are going to have a hell of a good time racing!” Period. That’s probably about all you should promise.

Most beginning pro drivers buy a one- or two-year-old race car with lots of spares. Again, starting small with something like a Grand-Am Cup Street Tuner car makes sense. Only about a third of your race budget should be for the race car; the rest should be for maintenance, repairs, tires, spares, sublet labor, entry fees, travel and lodging. Pad the budget by at least 25 percent to cover unexpected expenses, and do not overextend yourself.

At the track, spend as much time as possible making your friend a faster, more consistent driver, assuming he wants to get involved. If you make him better, you both have a shot at getting onto the podium.

The pro race drivers we interviewed said they believe that more than half of all pro endurance race teams have at least one “rich guy driver.” In other words, this means that half of the Grand-Am and World Challenge seats are personally funded by someone’s friend, business associate or relative.

Expected Salaries

After you establish yourself as a winning pro driver, you can legitimately ask for compensation for your driving services. In entry-level classes like Grand-Am Cup Street Tuner or World Challenge Touring, you can earn $5000 to $7500 per race. This is provided that you can find a rich guy who needs a fast pro to help get him on the podium.

You should also network with race teams who have perennial sponsors and want only the best drivers in their race cars. One of their drivers may be either too slow or have outgrown the class. Each year, some drivers will move up to a higher class where the exposure and compensation are better.

It is estimated that about one-fourth of the Grand-Am Cup and Speed World Challenge Touring Car teams replace their drivers each year. This means that there are a possible 30 to 40 seats each year that will be open for the right pro driver. 

Yes, there are a few full-factory rides in Grand-Am Cup Street Tuner and World Challenge Touring Car. While these works drivers receive salaries of an estimated $50,000 to $75,000 per year, they also have rides elsewhere. These positions are very scarce.

Moving up in class to the Speed World Challenge GT or the Grand American Rolex Series, you may find some seats available if you have sufficient credentials. These pricey race cars are only entrusted to proven winners. Top works GT class drivers like Johnny O’Connell, Ron Fellows, Kelley Collins and Andy Pilgrim have confidential driving contracts. However, our sources estimate that annual contracts like theirs are in the $125,000 to $175,000 range.

Many GT drivers are paid on a per-race basis and make between $5000 and $7500 per race plus expenses. A few drivers may make as much as $10,000 per race. In addition, a new pro driver might run one race gratis, just to illustrate his race driving talent.

Compensation for the Prototype drivers in the Grand American Rolex Series and the ALMS basically begins where the GT class cars leave off. Talented drivers entering Prototypes will probably earn $10,000 per race, whereas pro drivers with extensive winning credentials such as Pruett, Leitzinger, Wallace and Angelelli will have estimated annual contracts ranging from $125,000 to $200,000. It is hard to get a handle on what the newer, yet highly talented, drivers earn.

As to which drivers in the GT cars or Prototypes are paying for their seats or bringing in sponsorship money, that is a guarded secret. If you’d like to get some idea of the truth, however, time the different drivers in the same car. The driver who is 2 seconds a lap quicker is the one who is getting paid to race.

While these fully paid rides are what many of us are striving for, unfortunately there are few such positions available in the U.S. There’s a couple of dozen, maybe, but not hundreds. And while making $200,000 a year driving a Prototype racer seems like a dream job, it’s still nothing next to the salaries in NASCAR. Carl Edwards finished dead-last at this year’s Daytona 500 and still claimed $269,882 in prize money for that one race.

Other Employment Opportunities

Not everyone has the luxury of quitting their day job, becoming a driving instructor or going straight into pro racing. The best alternative is to get a day job that is compatible with racing: technician, automotive engineer, computer programmer, journalist, photographer, public relations, CDL truck driver, graphics design, Web site design, private pilot or aftermarket performance parts sales rep.

And if you still want to be a pro driver, formulate a plan, set goals and get started. Don’t forget that all of the guys you see on TV started in the amateur ranks.

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